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Former Military Leaders Criticize Trump's Actions With Protesters

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When General Jim Mattis resigned from the Trump administration, he argued it would be inappropriate to criticize a sitting president. Well, that has now changed. The former secretary of defense writes that the president is a threat to the Constitution and says we are, quote, "witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership." Mattis criticized the president's threat to use the military against protesters and said the president has spent years trying to divide us. His words were published in The Atlantic.

And several other former military leaders publicly rejected the president's actions as well. Even current Secretary of Defense Mark Esper seemed to disagree with the president during a press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

MARK ESPER: 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.

GREENE: I want to bring in NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman now. Hi there, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: So former military leaders lining up to criticize the commander in chief. This is pretty unusual, right?

BOWMAN: You know, it's very unusual for this many to weigh in in such harsh language. And these kind of attacks almost are unheard of. Once in a while, you get maybe a former retired officer or official criticizing policy. This is basically about character and fitness for office and comparisons many of them had to authoritarian regimes around the world. Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, as we've heard, said Trump is the first president in his life who's trying to divide, not unite, the nation. And retired Navy Admiral Jim Stavridis wrote in stark terms, he said, we cannot afford to have a future Lafayette Square end up looking like Tiananmen Square.

And, David, there was also criticism from retired officers of Defense Secretary Mark Esper for using the term battlespace in a contentious call with the nation's governors, and also for letting himself be part of what was largely a White House photo-op that involved the aggressive dispersal of peaceful protesters at Lafayette Square. Esper, in his defense, said he regrets using the term battlespace and also said he was unaware he would be involved in a photo-op and thought they were just going out to thank the National Guard troops.

GREENE: Well, I mean, I mentioned former military folks criticize the president. This is the current defense secretary dealing with criticism of himself, but also seeming to disagree with the president, right? What else did he have to say?

BOWMAN: Right. He said it was not a good idea to use active-duty forces in a clear split with the White House. Also didn't want to invoke the Insurrection Act, which would allow a president to send in active-duty troops, you know, to D.C. or to the states. And, you know, clearly, he is just very uncomfortable with this whole situation.

GREENE: Tom, you have covered the Pentagon for many years. How are you seeing all this unfold, broadly?

BOWMAN: Well, again, it's really unusual for all these folks to come out and criticize a sitting president, as Mattis said, and for so many to come out at a time like this. But Admiral Mike Mullen - retired Admiral Mike Mullen is former chair of the Joint Chiefs - said this is an inflection point. Well, the question is, well, is it? At no point is - are we seeing any military officers offering to resign or any senior official offering to resign. I think that's something you keep an eye on, if anyone actually says - you know what? - I can't work for this White House anymore. So that's something I would keep an eye on.

GREENE: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.

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