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

John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE, President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse panel approves 0.5B defense policy bill House panel votes against curtailing Insurrection Act powers after heated debate House panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops MORE’s former chief of staff, is defending former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisTrump insulted UK's May, called Germany's Merkel 'stupid' in calls: report Mattis urges people to wear masks in PSA about 'nasty little virus' Dozens of GOP ex-national security officials to form group to back Biden: report 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 MurkowskiSenators will have access to intelligence on Russian bounties on US troops Overnight Defense: Lawmakers demand answers on reported Russian bounties for US troops deaths in Afghanistan | Defense bill amendments target Germany withdrawal, Pentagon program giving weapons to police Senators push to limit transfer of military-grade equipment to police 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.