John Kelly defends James Mattis: 'The president did not fire him'

John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE, President TrumpDonald TrumpStowaway found in landing gear of plane after flight from Guatemala to Miami Kushner looking to Middle East for investors in new firm: report GOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips MORE’s former chief of staff, is defending former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman Mattis The US can't go back to business as usual with Pakistan The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate nears surprise deal on short-term debt ceiling hike Overnight Defense & National Security — Pentagon chiefs to Congress: Don't default MORE after the president said that he had the "honor" of firing "world’s most overrated general."

On Wednesday night, Trump denounced Mattis in a pair of tweets after the former Pentagon chief released a scorching statement criticizing the president's leadership amid nationwide protests against police brutality.

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“The president did not fire him. He did not ask for his resignation,” Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, told The Washington Post on Thursday.

Mattis, who served as Trump’s secretary of Defense in 2017 and 2018, on Wednesday ripped the president as a divisive leader who threatens to erode the U.S. military’s tradition of staying out of politics.

“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,” Mattis wrote in a 650-word statement published in The Atlantic, his most direct Trump criticism since he left the administration.

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A handful of GOP lawmakers have come out saying they agree with Mattis, himself a decorated former Marine general, with Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiGraham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks Man charged with threatening Alaska senators pleads not guilty Two women could lead a powerful Senate spending panel for first time in history MORE (R-Alaska) admitting that she is "struggling" with her decision on whether to vote for Trump's reelection.

When Mattis resigned in 2018, he alluded to his disagreement with Trump’s decision to pull U.S. forces out of Syria, which several Republican lawmakers also disagreed with. 

"Because you have a 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," Mattis wrote at the time.

Kelly said that the president must have “clearly forgotten how it actually happened or is confused.” Kelly has also been critical of the president since leaving his post as chief of staff in 2018. 

“The president tweeted a very positive tweet about Jim until he started to see on Fox News their interpretation of his [resignation] letter. Then he got nasty. Jim Mattis is an honorable man,” Kelly told the Post.