A senior Republican senator said she was “struggling” with whether to support Donald Trump, as the US president faces growing disapproval from some members of his own party and former military officers for his response to largely peaceful protests.
Lisa Murkowski, a US senator from Alaska, on Thursday said she welcomed the intervention of Jim Mattis, a retired general who was defence secretary under Mr Trump, who on Wednesday penned a blistering critique calling his former boss an immature president who made “a mockery” of the constitution.
Ms Murkowski described his words as “true and honest, and necessary and overdue”.
Asked if she could continue to support the president following his handling of the protests over the police killing of George Floyd, Ms Murkowski responded: “I am struggling with it. I have struggled with it for a long time.”
In his stinging rebuke of the president, Mr Mattis accused Mr Trump of trying to divide the nation for political purposes. “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try,” he wrote.
Mr Trump shot back by claiming that he had fired Mr Mattis in 2018, even though the retired general submitted his resignation in a scathing letter. On Thursday John Kelly, a retired Marine general who previously served as Mr Trump’s chief of staff and is a longtime friend of Mr Mattis, said the president’s recollection of the event was wrong.
“The president did not fire him. He did not ask for his resignation,” Mr Kelly told The Washington Post. “The president has clearly forgotten how it actually happened or is confused. The president tweeted a very positive tweet about Jim until he started to see on Fox News their interpretation of his letter. Then he got nasty.”
Former military officers have made rare interventions in politics to rebuke Mr Trump over his threat to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act, which would allow him to send active-duty soldiers on to the streets of American cities.
Mike Mullen, a widely respected former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, this week said he was “sickened” that security forces had been ordered to “forcibly and violently clear a path” to allow Mr Trump to take a widely panned photo holding a Bible outside a historic church near the White House.
Mr Mullen added that Mr Trump had emboldened US adversaries and “risked further politicising the men and women of our armed forces”.
While many Republicans are privately critical about Mr Trump, few have been willing to challenge him in public because of his ability to influence their primary races and make it easier for them to lose positions in Congress.
Ms Murkowski said she thought that Mr Mattis’s statement in The Atlantic would encourage other Republicans to speak more honestly and signalled that people would “have the courage of [their] own convictions to speak up”.
Earlier this week Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican senator, criticised the scene at St John’s Church, saying he was “against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo-op that treats the word of God as a political prop”. Tim Scott, the only Republican African-American in the Senate who is normally a close ally of Mr Trump, also spoke out.
“Should you use tear gas to clear a path so the president can go have a photo-op? The answer is no,” Mr Scott said.
A rift also opened on Wednesday between Mr Trump and his current secretary of defence, Mark Esper, who broke with the president and said he opposed any effort to invoke the Insurrection Act.
Mr Trump has painted the protests across the US as the work of anarchists and criminals, and threatened to send in the military unless governors of US states take tougher action to quell unrest. But Mr Esper said he did not believe the situation on the streets in America warranted using the military that way.
The White House has refused to say if Mr Trump has confidence in Mr Esper, leading to speculation that the West Point graduate and former soldier would become the latest departure from the turbulent Trump administration.
The criticism comes as Washington continues to see big protests, although there has been little unrest since Monday. William Barr, the US attorney-general, said authorities would collapse the perimeter around the White House and remove some checkpoints to create “more of a low-profile footprint” after a relatively quiet night on Wednesday.