A question percolating in political circles: As the 2020 election draws nearer, as the hour grows late, should General James Mattis and General John Kelly speak out about Donald Trump’s unfitness for the presidency?
In thinking about this question, let’s start by noting that to phrase it in that way—calling Mattis and Kelly “generals”—is already a concession, a green light for them to remain in the comfortable quiet zone they have been in. They apparently want to avoid speaking out more than they already have about Trump while he remains in office.
The question of whether retired generals should criticize a sitting president is a complicated one. First, there are some legal matters—regulations forbidding “contemptuous words” about certain government officials. But of course, there is no need to speak contemptuously when offering candid criticism.
Second, beyond the law there are the norms of civil-military relations, which hold that active-duty members of the armed forces do not speak out to undermine the civilian commander in chief, and that even retired military officers ought to do so with caution. The unique popularity of the U.S. military is to no small extent the result of its members largely staying out of partisan politics. As important as this norm is, it has been regularly breached when much less was at stake. Retired senior officers regularly endorse candidates, and retired generals nowadays appear on cable TV criticizing sitting presidents—trends that should trouble us.
More to the point, that norm doesn’t apply to Mr. Mattis and Mr. Kelly. They both served as civilians in the Trump administration, Mattis as the secretary of defense, Kelly as the secretary of homeland security and then the White House chief of staff. In fact, in Mattis’s case, because the National Security Act of 1947 doesn’t allow members of the military or officers retired within the past seven years to serve as the secretary of defense, Congress had to pass a special bill—which President Obama signed into law—to allow Mattis to become the secretary. That is, Congress effectively declared him a civilian.
So the keep-your-lips-zipped norm for retired officers just isn’t relevant.
All that said, even if the norm did apply, Mattis and Kelly would still be obligated to speak out—according to themselves and to common sense.
In his June statement in the Atlantic, Mattis said that “We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution”—a statement that, in context, is a clear reference to the president. John Kelly, meanwhile, said in a 2019 interview nine months after he left the White House that he had feared that Trump would get himself impeached if he left—a prophetic statement. If you believe that a president is so reckless, unfit, and lawless that he will get himself impeached, and are proven right, that strongly suggests that you believe that president is likely a threat to the republic and should lose his job.
Even if the civil-military relations norms were strictly applied, why are Mattis and Kelly not doing more to stand up for the Constitution? The limited public remarks they have each given strongly imply that they believe Trump to be a threat to the Constitution that they swore oaths to “support and defend” against “all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
Besides, the norms relating to officers (both serving and retired) criticizing the sitting commander-in-chief, as important as they are, are still norms within the republic as a whole. What’s the point of saving a wall from fire at the cost of letting the entire house burn to the ground? Trump is threat to our constitutional system—his recent remarks about not conceding the election prove that—and norms that fundamentally exist to protect that system shouldn’t be contorted to protect those who intend to harm it.
Mattis and Kelly have shown physical courage on the battlefield. Will they now show their moral courage—as Miles Taylor, Elizabeth Neumann, Olivia Troye, and others have—to do what is right in defense of the republic?