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How Republicans responded to Mattis’ criticism of Trump

Friday June 5, 2020

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis’ sharp and open criticism of President Donald Trump this week raised broad questions for Republican members of Congress about whether they feel the president is dividing the nation.

“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try,” Mattis wrote in the Atlantic, calling on the country to unify despite and without the president.

For Republicans who stopped to talk to reporters Thursday, the question of whether they supported Mattis’ view on the president revealed both concern about Trump’s leadership and support for his actions. Though, more than anything, the responses suggest Republican senators do not want to weigh in on whether Trump is dividing more than uniting.

Supportive of Mattis

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska:

“I was really thankful. I thought General Mattis’ words were true and honest and necessary and overdue and I have been struggling for the right words. And I was encouraged a couple of nights ago when I was able to read what President Bush had written [praising protesters] and I found that to be empowering for me as one leader. But then when I saw General Mattis’ comments yesterday, I felt like perhaps we’re getting to the point where we can be more honest with the concerns that we might hold internally, and have the courage of our own convictions to speak up. And so, I’m working as one individual to form the right words, knowing that these words really matter, so I appreciate General Mattis’ comments.”

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah: 

“General Mattis’ letter was stunning and powerful. General Mattis is a man of extraordinary sacrifice. He’s an American patriot. He’s an individual whose judgment I respect, and I think the world of him. If I ever had to choose somebody to be in a foxhole with — it would be with a General Mattis. What a wonderful, wonderful man.” (Note: Romney praised the letter but did not specifically say he agrees with Mattis’ criticism of the president.) 

Disagrees with Mattis

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio: 

Portman: “I don’t agree with Mattis that it’s all divisive, because it’s not. If you listen to his actual words on the prepared remarks, including the speech that he gave two days ago. He was saying, in my view, the right things about bringing people together. But it’s more about tone.”

Reporter: “Do you wish the president would shift his tone?“

Portman: “Yeah, I do. And I think he’s probably getting that message from a lot of people.” 

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.: 

“I’m not really sure if Secretary Mattis could get inside and understand the president’s intention. I understand what he’s saying because we’re seeing some division right now. But to get inside his mind and say he’d know exactly why he’s doing it that’s just [a reporter spoke over this word, it is unintelligible].”

Unclear where they stand

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.: 

“You know I have a great deal of respect for [Mattis and Retired Marine General John Allen]. I’ve worked with them. Everything I‘m focused on right now is things that are going to bring everybody together rather than divisiveness and that’s what I’m focused on.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa:  

“[Mattis and retired generals critical of Trump] are entitled to their opinion. They’re expressing their opinion.”

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee: 

Inhofe: “General Mattis has always been one of my favorite people. He’s a hero.

Reporter: “Do his comments have merit?”

Inhofe: “In his mind. It was not the merits of his comments. It was the method of communication that I think he could have improved on. But again, there’s no disagreement. You guys in the press love to develop these things that they all hate each [other] and disagree and they’re really not. It’s a last resort.”

Reporter: “But he made sharp comments about the president.”

Inhofe: “Once you’re fired, sometimes that affects your attitude.”

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee: 

Johnson: “[Mattis and other retired generals] have their right to express their opinions.”

Reporter: “You don’t don’t agree with their opinions?”

Johnson: “That’s their opinion, they have the right to express it.”

Reporter: “Okay but you don’t share it?”

Johnson: “That’s their opinion, they have the right to express it.”

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.: 

“I think it’s kind of obvious for some time that [Mattis] and the president are at different wavelengths and that happens when you’re facing a challenge like we face today and different points of view. I don’t know that timing was exactly the best when we’re all trying to pull together. I don’t think it’s any surprise that General Mattis had a different view with regards to our military posture, our foreign policy as well. I respect Mattis. He’s a great general. And one thing about this country is in the midst of what we’re into here everybody has the right to express their opinion and he did that.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.: 

“Those aren’t my words, they’re describing a very difficult time. So, but I have great respect for General Mattis and he’s certainly entitled, like every American — that is sort of warning them for Republicans, and the president and somebody of his stature and criticism. I don’t think it’s the first time General Mattis has expressed disagreements with the president suddenly, if you read his resignation.”

Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind.: 

“As a fellow Marine, I know that General Mattis and others will respect the fact that I’m not going to get in the middle of a row between the president of the United States and his former secretary of Defense, and instead focus on threats to our freedom like the Chinese threat to Hong Kong, like Iran’s threat to our close ally Israel, and all the other threats we’re currently dealing with.”


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