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Mattis's Trump broadside underscores military tensions

Former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisRejoining the Iran nuclear deal would save lives of US troops, diplomats The soft but unmatched power of US foreign exchange programs The GOP senators likely to vote for Trump's conviction MORE’s stunning public criticism of President TrumpDonald TrumpHouse passes voting rights and elections reform bill DEA places agent seen outside Capitol during riot on leave Georgia Gov. Kemp says he'd 'absolutely' back Trump as 2024 nominee MORE is underscoring growing fears in the military that the president is compromising the integrity of the U.S. Armed Forces by threatening to use them against protesters.

Trump has urged governors to deploy National Guard troops to “dominate the streets” and stop violent demonstrations, saying he would dispatch U.S. military forces to states and cities that do not meet his demands. 

On Monday, streets near the White House were forcibly cleared of peaceful protesters by federal law enforcement officers. That night, a National Guard Lakota helicopter flew low over protesters in the city in a show of force previously unthinkable in a U.S. city.

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“When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” Mattis wrote Wednesday in The Atlantic. “Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens — much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”

Mattis’s criticism of Trump was striking because he avoided critiquing a president he clearly disagreed with on policy during a recent book tour. Mattis is also a highly respected figure in the military, which made his criticism all the more striking to observers.

David Hansell, an Air Force veteran and former director of transportation security policy in former President Obama’s National Security Council, said the criticism reflects worries among military leaders that a president is calling on the armed forces to be used against not a foreign enemy, but U.S. citizens.

He said the concerns are particularly acute because military leaders know what that would mean.

“People who have commanded men and women in combat realize the implications of what is being asked and it is frightening them,” he said.

Some of the criticism of Trump this week has come from predictable voices, such as retired Gen. John Allen, who led U.S. forces in Afghanistan, served as former President Obama’s envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition and campaigned with Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHere's who Biden is now considering for budget chief Clinton praises Dolly Parton's cold shoulder top from vaccination: 'Shall we make this a trend?' Trump was unhinged and unchanged at CPAC MORE in 2016.

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Others had previously been more subdued, including former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, who wrote an op-ed Tuesday saying Trump has “laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country.”

It was Mattis’s scorching rebuke, though, that got the attention of some GOP lawmakers, too. Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiDemocrats cut deals to bolster support for relief bill White House not ready to name Tanden replacement The Hill's 12:30 Report: Washington on high alert as QAnon theory marks March 4 MORE (R-Alaska) expressed support for his comments Thursday and offered an extraordinary admission that she was “struggling” with whether to vote for Trump in 2020.

Trump lambasted Mattis as the “world’s most overrated general” in a series of tweets, criticizing the retired four-star Marine general’s leadership style and celebrating the fact he had left the Cabinet post. 

In an interview with Fox News, White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley described Mattis as out of touch and unaware of “massive” rioting taking place across the country. 

“It’s obvious that the general doesn’t have a clue what’s going on in the American cities out there, or he’s actually, worse, turned a blind eye to it,” Gidley said. “The president is solely focused on uniting this country and actually bringing back safety and security in our American cities.”

Those critiques may be enough for Trump’s true faithful to turn away from the Mattis criticism, but experts on the military said it would be unwise to underestimate the retired general’s respect in armed forces circles.

Risa Brooks, a political science professor at Marquette University who specializes in civil-military relations, said Mattis “is really respected, and if anyone can make an impression, it's probably him.”

Brooks, though, also expressed concern about the effect Mattis and other retired generals speaking out could have on the military’s apolitical image, saying “it's not a healthy dynamic” to “look to the military to solve our problems for us.”

A Morning Consult poll released Monday found that 49 percent of registered voters in military households would vote for Trump if the election were held today, compared to 41 percent who would vote for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenThe West needs a more collaborative approach to Taiwan Abbott's medical advisers were not all consulted before he lifted Texas mask mandate House approves George Floyd Justice in Policing Act MORE

The same poll also found that 58 percent of registered voters either strongly or somewhat support cities calling in the U.S. military to supplement city police forces, while 30 percent either strongly or somewhat oppose doing so.

Tensions between Pentagon leaders and Trump have been evident since protesters were cleared from Lafayette Square on Monday before Trump walked to St. John’s Episcopal Church to hold a Bible for a photo-op.

Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperCORRECTED: Overnight Defense: COVID-19 stymies effort to study sexual assault at military academies | Biden, Saudi king speak ahead of Khashoggi report Female generals' promotions held back over fears of Trump's response: report Overnight Defense: Army details new hair and grooming standards | DC National Guard chief says Pentagon restricted his authority before riot | Colorado calls on Biden not to move Space Command MORE, who succeeded Mattis, accompanied Trump on the walk to the church and has been widely criticized for it.

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On Wednesday, he said he did not realize the president was holding a photo op. More importantly, he publicly broke with Trump on the use of the Insurrection Act, saying he would oppose calling in active duty troops to control protests.

Esper has also ordered the withdrawal of some U.S. troops from the Washington, D.C., area.

Officials who break with Trump publicly are generally on thin ice, and the White House on Wednesday and Thursday dodged questions about whether the president retained confidence in his defense secretary.

Trump on Wednesday said he didn’t think he would ultimately have to send U.S. troops into cities but maintained he would do so to ensure “law and order.” The president has particularly focused on New York City, which has seen looting, vandalism and other disruption due to protests. State officials have resisted bringing in the National Guard. 

While Trump has faced criticism, some in the defense community say invoking the law could be appropriate if violent encounters persist. 

Lt. Gen. Tom Spoehr, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, argued that Trump’s decision to raise it could work to pressure governors and mayors to take a more aggressive approach to cracking down on violent protests. 

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“I think the levels of violence we saw and we were seeing on Monday and on the weekend, I do not think that it would be inappropriate,” said Spoehr.  “But you want to make sure that’s the last resort.” 

After Esper’s news conference on Wednesday, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff began releasing their own statements acknowledging racial injustices in both the nation at large and the military specifically.

The statements also reminded troops of their oath to uphold and defend the Constitution, including the right to freedom of speech and to peaceably assemble — a reminder many outside observers read as an implicit rebuke to Trump’s calls for a military response to the protests.

“We all committed our lives to the idea that is America,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley hand wrote in a memo to the force released Wednesday. “We will stay true to that oath and the American people.”