Former Defense Secretary James Mattis Slams Trump on COVID; Praises Biden

Trump and Mattis
Trump Defense Secretary James Mattis (right): No love lost for former boss. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis offered a scathing rebuke Monday of President Donald Trump's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, comparing his former boss unfavorably to how several predecessors, including Barack Obama, handled major international crises.

Mattis, a retired Marine general who ran the Pentagon from 2017 to 2019 under Trump, also praised President Joe Biden's performance last week in soothing the frayed nerves of America's allies during his trip to Europe. Coming off a Trump tenure marked by frequently provocative remarks about longstanding U.S. allies and questions about the value of U.S. participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Mattis said, "We've got some making up to do."

Mattis' remarks came as he accepted an award for public service named for the late Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a Michigan Republican and one-time isolationist who became a staunch advocate of international engagement following World War II. The honor came from the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan, a non-partisan international affairs think tank based in Grand Rapids.

The former secretary, who served in various military leadership posts under Republican and Democratic presidents before joining the Trump administration, pointed to several global successes by Trump's predecessors. They included President George H.W. Bush's ability to assemble a 100-nation coalition to liberate Kuwait from Iraq in 1991 and President George W. Bush's success in 2001 persuading 50 other countries to send troops to Afghanistan to punish the Taliban for the September 11 terror attack.

He also credited the younger Bush with fighting AIDS in Africa and working with the G-7 to "prevent the global financial crisis from plunging the world into a depression." And Obama, he said, had done critical work to stop the Ebola outbreak from becoming a pandemic.

"And then along comes COVID, and the Americans don't lead internationally," said Mattis, 70. "We're going to have to get back to thinking strategically. We're going to have to speak, and we're going to have to lead."

On that score, Mattis praised Biden for his tone during his visit to Europe last week as living up to the credo of Vandenberg, whose award Mattis was accepting.

"If you looked at our president's time in Cornwall, Brussels and Geneva, you see Senator Vandenberg's themes resonating right down to the various words that the president used to represent us there," he said. "If we would remind ourselves, we can solve many issues if we work together. And, by the way, we're always stronger together."

This isn't the first time Mattis has slammed Trump since he resigned from his position as defense secretary two years into the administration over a dispute regarding the former president's policy regarding the Syrian civil war. Last June, Mattis expressed shock over Trump's use of the military to clear Lafayette Square in Washington D.C. so he could take a photo op in front of a church near the White House. In an essay for The Atlantic, Mattis wrote: "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. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership."

At the time, Trump responded by bashing Mattis on Twitter as "the world's most overrated General."

Mattis was interviewed during the webcast by Republican Representative Peter Meijer of Michigan, himself an outspoken Trump critic and one of 10 Republicans to vote to impeach the Republican president over his connections to the pro-Trump January 6 Capitol mob raid. That, Mattis told Meijer, was "probably the most disheartening day of my life."