WASHINGTON • A Republican senator has broken with her party to describe a former Pentagon chief’s searing rebuke of US President Donald Trump as “necessary and overdue”, and said she was struggling with whether to support the American leader’s re-election.
Ms Lisa Murkowski’s comments on Thursday marked a major break with Mr Trump within the Republican camp, which has held together through various crises including his impeachment process and the president’s current threat to use military force against protesters.
For days, demonstrators have flooded streets in cities across the United States demanding racial justice – in protests both peaceful and violent – since videos of the killing of a black man by Minneapolis police went viral.
Ms Murkowski was referring to the extraordinary statement on Wednesday by Mr Trump’s former defence secretary Jim Mattis, who accused the president of trying to “divide” Americans and failing to provide “mature leadership” as the country reels from days of protests.
Mr Mattis, who resigned in 2018 over Mr Trump’s ordering of a troop withdrawal from Syria, slammed the use of force to clear peaceful protesters from near the White House on Monday so that Mr Trump could pose for photographs at a nearby church, calling it an “abuse of executive authority”.
“I thought General Mattis’ words were true and honest and necessary and overdue,” Ms Murkowski told reporters at the US Capitol.
“I felt like perhaps we are getting to a 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.”
Asked if she would support Mr Trump in November’s election, the Alaska Republican responded: “I am struggling with it. I have struggled with it for a long time.”
Mr Trump responded swiftly, saying he would travel to Alaska to campaign against Ms Murkowski, now in her third full Senate term, in 2022 if she runs for re-election then. “Get any candidate ready, good or bad, I don’t care,” Mr Trump tweeted. “I’m endorsing. If you have a pulse, I’m with you!”
Senator Mitt Romney, one of the more consistent vocal Trump critics within the GOP, and the only Republican to vote to convict Mr Trump in his February impeachment trial, has reportedly described Mr Mattis’ statement as “very powerful”.
But he and Ms Murkowski appear to be Republican outliers, as the party has largely declined to embrace Mr Mattis’ view that Mr Trump is a threat to the US Constitution. “That’s not the way I would describe what is a very difficult time in our country,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio said, according to Politico. “But I have great respect for General Mattis.”
Several Republicans have, over the years, praised Mr Mattis for his leadership, even describing him as a steadying force in a turbulent Trump administration.
Secretary of Defence Mark Esper’s rebuff of Mr Trump over deploying troops to quell protests have left Mr Trump’s relations with the US military dangerously frayed.
Meanwhile, Mr Esper’s announcement on Wednesday that he opposed deploying active military to quell nationwide protests over police brutality was an extraordinary pushback to the official armed forces commander-in-chief. “I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act,” Mr Esper said, referring to the 1807 law Mr Trump wants to use to activate armed military personnel for policing riot-hit cities.
Mr Mattis served as Mr Trump’s defence secretary for two years before resigning on bad terms.
Two former top defence chiefs – whose ex-subordinates now populate the top echelons of the Pentagon – also weighed in.
“America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy,” said retired General Martin Dempsey, the Pentagon’s top general from 2011 to 2015.
“I am deeply worried that as they execute their orders, the members of our military will be co-opted for political purposes,” wrote Mr Dempsey’s predecessor, retired admiral Mike Mullen.
The blatant opposition to the president by normally non-political figures has raised the spectre of a breakdown of civil-military relations. It could also mean Mr Esper’s job is on the line – White House spokesman Kayleigh McEnany has declined to say whether he still had Mr Trump’s full confidence.
And it effectively shattered Mr Trump’s claim to a solid alliance with the men and women in uniform, which he parades in political ads as a sign of his own toughness.