Former Pentagon Chief denounces Donald Trump for 'dividing' America

4 June 2020, 11:26

James Mattis has criticised Donald Trump for "dividing" the USA
James Mattis has criticised Donald Trump for "dividing" the USA. Picture: PA

By Kate Buck

Former Pentagon chief James Mattis has accused Donald Trump of "abusing his power" after protesters were tear gassed so the President could take a photo outside a church.

Cities across the US have seen hundreds of thousands of activists take to the streets in protest against the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis after a white police officer knelt on his neck.

While a large proportion of protests have remained peaceful, some cities have broken out into violent riots.

But Mr Mattis said these "small number of lawbreakers" should not mean police and the US army are told to use force against citizens who are lawfully demonstrating.

He added: "When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution.

"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."

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Protesters were tear gassed so Donald Trump could hold a photo opportunity
Protesters were tear gassed so Donald Trump could hold a photo opportunity. Picture: PA

His comments came after peaceful protesters were targeted with rubber bullets and tear gas outside the White House, so Trump could hold a photo op at the nearby St John's Church.

He faced a barrage of criticism for the stunt, not least from the church's bishop and a number of politicians from the Republican party.

Mattis' sharpest form of criticism came when he compared past conflicts to the present situation in America.

"Instructions given by the military departments to our troops before the Normandy invasion reminded soldiers that 'The Nazi slogan for destroying us…was 'Divide and Conquer," he said.

"Our American answer is 'In Union there is Strength.' We must summon that unity to surmount this crisis -confident that we are better than our politics."

He then added: "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."

Defence Secretary has refused to deploy US troops on the streets
Defence Secretary has refused to deploy US troops on the streets. Picture: PA
Esper (far left) said he had no idea where he was going when Trump took him for the photo opportunity
Esper (far left) said he had no idea where he was going when Trump took him for the photo opportunity. Picture: PA

Donald Trump responded to the letter on Twitter, calling Mattis "The world's most overrated General", and added: "Probably the only thing Barack Obama & I have in common is that we both had the honor of firing Jim Mattis".

Mr Mattis had resigned from his position in December 2018 after disagreeing with Trump's decision to pull US forces out of Syria.

Trump has repeatedly been accused of fanning the flames of racial tensions and doing little to quell the unrest, and at one point threatened "when the looting starts the shooting starts" on Twitter, in a tweet the social media platform later censored for "glorifying violence".

In a speech on Monday, Trump also ordered State Governers to use the National Guard and the US military to quell unrest in cities where protests have erupted.

Defence Secretary Mark Esper was with Trump during the controversial picture opportunity, but has since said he had "no idea" where he was going or that force had been used on protesters.

Esper has since defied Trump's order for troops on US streets, putting his job on the line.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday he said: “I say this not only as secretary of defence, but also as a former soldier, and a former member of the national guard, the option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations.

“We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.