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Mattis’ ‘period of silence’ ends with a strong, utterly classy criticism of Trump

“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try,” wrote Gen. James Mattis. “Instead he tries to divide us.”

Instead of allowing Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, right, to serve until the end of February, President Donald Trump moved his departure up to Jan. 1 and said he had “essentially fired” Mattis.
Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, right, and President Donald Trump.
Has Donald Trump ever been wrong about anything? That’s an easy one, for me at least.

But has he ever admitted being wrong about anything? That’s a tougher one. I don’t claim to know the answer, but I do know Trump often switches from “the moon’s a balloon” to “the moon’s a big lemon pie” without acknowledging that he formerly, publicly, and repeatedly not only took the position that the moon was a balloon, but claimed to be the first one to realize it was, and then to be even smarter, to realize it was a pie. (Not to mention, since the moon is neither a pie nor a balloon, he would have been wrong both times and, according to my theory, he would have acknowledged neither error.)

That’s just how he rolls. Brag. Lie. Brag about how he’s the most modest person in history. Then, if he gets in trouble for saying so, lie about whether he ever said it. Rinse. Repeat.

Trump’s first defense secretary, Marine Corps General James (“Mad Dog”) Mattis, was, rather obviously, the opposite kind of guy. Duty, honor country. Often described as the most revered living Marine. Doesn’t go off half-cocked. After a 44-year military career, with service in three wars and a turn as supreme commander of the NATO alliance, Trump was thrilled to get Mattis into the Cabinet.

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They weren’t a good match. Mattis is the opposite of a blowhard. But he didn’t publicly criticize Trump while serving under him. When Trump insisted one too many military decisions with which Mattis disagreed, Mattis resigned (in December 2018) and stayed mostly quiet, but (it’s now clear) became more and more troubled by Trump’s actions. Even then, when he wrote a book, he made no harsh public criticism of Trump, although he did include the text of his letter of resignation which, in the classiest possible way, hinted at some of his differences with Trump, especially about some of the ways he felt Trump had disrespected America’s NATO allies. It went like this:

My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.

Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”

Pretty classy, according to me. Jeffrey Goldberg — who wrote a piece on Mattis for Wednesday’s The Atlantic, and who had known Mattis for years — tried occasionally to get Mattis to be more explicit about his disagreements. Mattis told him, referring to his experiences under Trump: ““There is a period in which I owe my silence. It’s not eternal. It’s not going to be forever.”

Goldberg stayed in touch. That “period” of silence that Mattis’ sense of honor required him to observe has ended. Mattis wrote a statement more directly critical of Trump, but still in a high tone of utter class. The Atlantic has now published Mattis’ full statement, which will give readers a clearer picture of what it is about Trump that offended and troubled Mattis.

It was an awkward read.

Although The Atlantic published Mattis’ written statement in its entirety, Goldberg wrote a bunch more about how it came to be, and that was placed on top of what Mattis wrote. I encourage you not to spend too much time on what Goldberg narrates at the top and cut to the direct written statement by Mattis, which seems to be coming from a high-minded statesman of a previous century. Here’s maybe the bluntest bit:

Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children.

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Enough of me.

Again, here’s the link to the full read from The Atlantic, with a reminder that you have to scroll down a ways to get to the four paragraphs of text that is direct from Mattis.