WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s inability to unify the nation at a time of grave unrest is testing his uneasy alliance with mainstream Republicans, some emboldened by Gen. James Mattis’ plea for a leader who lives up to the U.S. ideals of a more perfect union.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Thursday called the rebuke by Trump’s first Pentagon chief “necessary and overdue.”
“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,” Murkowski said.
Murkowski’s remarks reflected the choice Republicans are forced to make about whether, and for how long, to support Trump when his words and actions so often conflict with their values and goals. Trump has responded to violence accompanying some protests following George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis by calling for more “law and order” to “dominate” even peaceful demonstrations. He has been slower and less forceful in addressing racial injustice and questions of police brutality that lie at the heart of the unrest.
Asked whether she can still support Trump, Murkowski replied: “I am struggling with it. I have struggled with it for a long time.”
The nation is on edge, and Election Day looms, with the presidency and control of the House and Senate at stake. Trump has made clear that consequences for what he considers disloyalty can be steep.
Indeed, he promised Thursday to campaign against Murkowski when she is up for reelection in 2022. “Get any candidate ready, good or bad, I don’t care, I’m endorsing,” Trump tweeted.
Most in the GOP aren’t breaking with him. Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana said Mattis’ missive was not discussed Thursday at the GOP’s lunch.
Asked for this thoughts on Mattis and Murkowski, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered no response.
Democratic senators, meanwhile, gathered at the Capitol’s Emancipation Hall to bow — some kneeling — in a 8-minute, 46-second moment of silence for Floyd. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent Trump a letter seeking an accounting of the “increased militarization” toward protesters “that may increase chaos.”
For Republicans, the challenge peaked this week when federal forces abruptly cleared peaceful protesters from Lafayette Park near the White House so Trump could stage a photo op in front of St. John’s, the “church of presidents,” holding up a Bible.
Mattis, Trump’s defense secretary until December 2018, watched the developments “angry and appalled” and let rip his disapproval Wednesday night in a denunciation that rippled through Republican ranks.
“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,” Mattis wrote in The Atlantic, adding that the upheaval is the result of “three years without mature leadership.”
“We can unite without him,” Mattis wrote.
In some respects, the statement read like a suggestion to Republicans as much as to the nation as a whole.
Right up until Mattis released it, saying little or nothing against the loyalty-loving president remained a popular choice for Republican members of Congress.
Earlier in the week, for example, Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio was one of a procession of Republicans who muttered or dodged when asked if Trump’s use of the military to suppress protesters was the right thing to do.
“I’m late for lunch,” Portman replied Tuesday.
But after Mattis’ rebuke, Portman was more willing to discuss Trump’s handling of the protests.
He pointed out that Trump in prepared remarks did condemn Floyd’s killing and applauded peaceful demonstrations. But “his tone and words kind of in between those more formal presentations have not unified people,” Portman said. “It’s more about tone. I think he’s probably getting that message from a lot of people.”
Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, a member of the GOP leadership, did not denounce Mattis, saying Thursday he’d prefer to speak of issues that unify people.
Murkowski, who has her own complicated relationship with Trump, suggested those in the president’s mostly white party are looking for the right words and tone. Statements by former President George W. Bush and now Mattis, she said, help point the way.
“I think right now … questions about who I’m going to vote for, who I’m not going to vote for, I think, are distracting to the moment,” said Murkowski, who said she’d continue to try to work with the Trump administration. “I know people might think that’s a dodge,” she added, “but I think there are important conversations that we need to have as an American people amongst ourselves about where we are right now.”
For his part, Trump dismissed Mattis, who served nearly a half-century in the military, as “the world’s most overrated General.”
Murkowski and Portman retracted their endorsements of Trump during the 2016 election when he could be heard on the “Access Hollywood” tape bragging about assaulting women. They also voted to acquit him of House abuse and obstruction charges earlier this year after Trump’s impeachment trial.
Other Republicans this week needed no help finding the words.
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., a frequent Trump critic who is up for reelection, said, “I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the word of God as a political prop.”
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of the most vulnerable Senate Republicans seeking reelection, said it was “painful to watch peaceful protesters to be subjected to tear gas in order for the president to go across the street to a church that I believe he’s attended only once.”
“President Trump’s walk to St. John’s was confrontational, at the wrong time of day, and it distracted from his important message in the Rose Garden about our national grief, racism, peaceful protests, and lawful assembly,” added Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., who is not on the ballot this year. “The President’s important message was drowned out by an awkward photo op.”
The president noticed, and name-checked the trio.
“You got it wrong! If the protesters were so peaceful, why did they light the Church on fire the night before? People liked my walk to this historic place of worship!” he tweeted Wednesday, suggesting that “Sen. Susan Collins, Sen. James Lankford, Sen. Ben Sasse” read a specific article.
He took no such aim at Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., the only black Republican in the Senate.
“If your question is, should you use tear gas to clear a path so the president can go have a photo op, the answer is no,” Scott told Politico.