WASHINGTON • Former secretary of state and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Colin Powell yesterday endorsed former vice-president and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, becoming the first major Republican to publicly back US President Donald Trump’s rival ahead of the November election.
Mr Powell, who led the US military during the 1991 Gulf War in Iraq under Republican president George H.W. Bush and later helmed the Department of State under president George W. Bush, said Mr Trump has “drifted away” from the US Constitution and posed a danger to the country and its democracy.
“I cannot in any way support President Trump this year,” Mr Powell, who did not vote for the Republican President in 2016, told CNN.
When asked if he would vote for Mr Biden, he said: “I will be voting for him.”
Mr Powell, who is black, was one of the few prominent Republicans to denounce Mr Trump during his 2016 presidential run and publicly endorse Democrat Hillary Clinton.
It was one thing in 2016 for top Republicans to take a stand against Mr Trump for president: He wasn’t likely to win anyway, the thinking went, and there was no ongoing conservative governing agenda that would be endangered.
The 2020 campaign is different: Opposing the sitting president of your own party means putting policy priorities at risk – in this case appointing conservative judges, sustaining business-friendly regulations and cutting taxes – as well as incurring Mr Trump’s volcanic wrath.
But growing numbers of prominent Republicans are debating how far to go in revealing that they will not back his re-election – or might even vote for Mr Biden.
They are feeling a fresh urgency due to Mr Trump’s incendiary response to the protests against police brutality, on top of his mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic, said sources who spoke on anonymity.
Mr George W. Bush will not support the re-election of Mr Trump and his younger brother Jeb is not sure how he will vote, said people familiar with their thinking.
Senator Mitt Romney of Utah will not back Mr Trump and is deliberating whether to cast another ballot this November. And Senator John McCain’s widow Cindy is almost certain to support Mr Biden but is unsure how public to be about it because one of her sons is eyeing a run for office. None of them voted for Mr Trump in 2016.
Some Republicans who are already disinclined to support Mr Trump are weighing whether to go beyond backing a third-party contender to openly endorse Mr Biden.
Mr Biden himself, while eager to win support across party lines, intends to roll out his “Republicans for Biden” coalition later in his campaign, according to Democrats familiar with the campaign’s planning.
The public expressions of opposition to Mr Trump from parts of the Republican and military establishments have accelerated in recent days over his repeated calls for protesters to be physically constrained, and his administration’s order to forcefully clear the streets outside the White House so that he could walk out for a photo opportunity.
His conduct has convinced some leaders that they can no longer remain silent.
Former defence secretary James Mattis’ blistering criticism of Mr Trump and the admission last week by Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska that she is “struggling” with whether to vote for him has intensified the soul-searching taking place, forcing a number of officials to reckon with an act that they have long avoided – stating out loud that Mr Trump is unfit for office.
Mr Trump won the election in 2016, of course, despite a parade of Republicans and retired military officers who refused to support him.
Far more current Republican elected officials are publicly backing Mr Trump now than there were four years ago. And polls today indicate that rank-and-file Republicans are squarely behind the President.