Joe Biden has spent part of June watching a parade of distinguished retired generals and admirals denounce President Trump’s desires to militarize his crackdown on protests against institutional racism. The criticisms have overjoyed some Biden allies, who see their strong rebuke working in the presumptive Democratic nominee’s favor.
Indeed, there’s a growing belief among some Democrats that the disillusioned military brass’s critique of the president will present yet another handy contrast with Biden. Some close to Biden believe that their criticisms amount to unstated endorsements in a two-candidate race, and argue the campaign would be wise to highlight them formally.
But that, according to several sources close to the generals, fundamentally misunderstands the uniformed objection to Trump and its discomfort with being used as a Democratic prop.
Just because the generals and admirals came out against Trump using the active-duty military to suppress anti-racism protesters doesn’t imply an endorsement of Biden. For one thing, people close to Jim Mattis, Trump’s former defense secretary and a highly influential retired Marine general, don’t expect Mattis to have any further involvement during the campaign season.
“It’s easier to get generals into politics than to get them out,” said Paul Yingling, a retired Army colonel who served in Iraq as a senior officer on the staff of ex-Trump national security adviser H.R. McMaster. “I guess we’re going to have to learn every single historical lesson the hard way.”
One source close to Biden implied that Mattis’ and retired Marine four-star Gen. John Kelly’s rebukes of Trump were so damaging that they effectively amounted to a tacit endorsement of the former VP—something neither Mattis nor Kelly ever said.
“I think the most important endorsements were the military ones,” the longtime Biden ally said. “And particularly the ones like Mattis and Kelly who worked with [Trump]. That’s going to give any reasonable person reason to question. They know him.”
Mattis wrote a scathing critique of the president in The Atlantic last Wednesday. Pronouncing himself “angry and appalled” by Trump’s “abuse of executive authority” against the protesters, Mattis denounced militarizing the response as a foundational threat to civil-military relations. “We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution,” he wrote.
Mattis hasn’t been alone. Trump’s encouragement of violence against the protesters, and in particular his June 1 threat to call in the active-duty military against them, prompted a wave of uniformed horror. Retired generals and admirals like Vincent Brooks, John Allen, Mike Mullen, Bill McRaven, Jim Stavridis, Richard Myers, Tony Thomas and others warned that attacking Americans exercising their constitutional right to protest would break faith with the public.
Mattis was also joined by Kelly, his former Trump administration colleague. An architect of Trump’s policy of separating migrant children from their families to “deter” them from coming into America, Kelly suggested to another ex-Trumper, Anthony Scaramucci, that he considers Trump’s character deficient. “I think we need to look harder at who we elect,” Kelly said, praising Mattis as “quite a man.”
Kelly and Mattis famously fell out with Trump. So did Trump’s second national security adviser, now-retired Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. But McMaster has remained silent about the protests and Trump’s response. That’s doubly conspicuous considering McMaster wrote a book called Dereliction of Duty that laid into the Vietnam-era officer corps for not standing against the disaster of the Vietnam War. The closest McMaster has come to speaking out has been a recent podcast where he said calls to “dominate” the protests, as from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK), reflected “an unfortunate choice of words.”
Attempts to reach McMaster for comment were unsuccessful. A former aide to McMaster speculated that he might have held his peace for the sake of a forthcoming memoir. “Regardless, I am disappointed” that McMaster kept quiet, said the ex-aide. “That moment in our history was an absolute disgrace.”
“I would rather generals shut up about politics and decline political appointments. If they must speak, they should apologize for their role in allowing President Trump to use the United States military as a political prop,” said Yingling. “To his credit, General [Mark] Milley has done so. To his detriment, General McMaster has not.”
Both Mattis and Kelly saw the president up close as part of the administration—too close for some, given Mattis’ applause when Trump signed the Muslim ban and Kelly’s attacks on a congreswoman and family friend of a fallen black soldier. Still, their rare insight into Trump should be shared widely with voters by Biden’s campaign, some Democrats argued.
“It’s a TV ad,” the longtime Biden confidant added, throwing out a hypothetical idea for the campaign to broadast the generals’ anti-Trump sentimment to the masses. “It cuts into this idea that Trump is beloved by the military. That’s in his mind.”
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, meanwhile, explicitly threw his weight behind Biden, saying in an appearance on CNN on Sunday that he’s “very close” to him on political issues. “I’ve worked with him for 35-40 years,” Powell said. “And he is now the candidate, and I will be voting for him.” Powell added that Trump has “drifted away” from the Constitution.
So far, Team Biden has offered little insight into what role, if any, they might want the retired generals to have on Biden’s behalf-if they were willing. A Biden campaign aide told The Daily Beast that “the campaign has not been in touch with either General Mattis or General Kelly” and did not reveal whether they would be open to the idea of incorporating them into a campaign effort. Instead, the official pointed to the broader upside of the generals’ rebuke of Trump.
“The fact that numerous current, and retired, military leaders have come forward to condemn President Trump's shameful actions and his willingness to deploy federal troops against peaceful protestors on our nation's streets speaks volumes to how Trump has relentlessly worked to divide our country and inflame racial tensions instead of bringing Americans together in common purpose,” the Biden campaign aide said.
“Neither Trump nor his party can claim the national security or foreign policy mantle. Far from it,” said Ned Price, a retired CIA official and former spokesperson for the National Security Council under President Barack Obama. In contrast, Biden’s foreign policy experience has, in Price’s view, helped to set up the dynamic that’s unfolding now.
“When it comes to the retired generals, their support will be an important element of a broader effort to showcase this broad and deep support,” Price said about Biden.
Through a representative, Mattis declined comment for this piece. But two Mattis confidants indicated, on condition of anonymity, that the Biden campaign shouldn’t hold its breath. Both considered it highly unlikely that Mattis, who resigned after serving as Trump’s defense secretary, would take an active role in any campaign activity.
But one confidant allowed, “with Mattis, you never know.” The other, a source who has worked for Mattis, said, “he won’t be John Allen screaming from the stage”—a reference to Mattis’ fellow Marine general who gave a speech for Hillary Clinton at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
To the former vice president who puts a premium on close personal relationships, Mattis and Biden have a fraught history.
In his memoir, Call Sign Chaos, Mattis, a four-star Marine general, criticized the former vice president as an “admirable and amiable man” whose advocacy of withdrawing from Iraq as vice president was misguided. “He exuded the confidence of a man whose mind was made up, perhaps even indifferent to considering the consequences were he judging the situation incorrectly,” Mattis wrote. He expressed some regret for laying into Biden once he realized Biden was running for president, but in doing so only emphasized his disagreements. “I assure you I would not have probably been that forthcoming,” he later said.
Yet the source who worked for Mattis noted that while the retired general won’t campaign, he would be open to serving in a Biden administration. Biden’s coterie includes people Mattis esteems, like Rudy DeLeon of the Center for American Progress, former Clinton adviser Jake Sullivan and particularly Michele Flournoy, whom Mattis had wanted to serve as his Pentagon deputy.
“If Biden wants to have a team of rivals, he can put him in there,” the source said. “There’s some criticism of Mattis that he enabled Trump for longer than he should have. I think he would like another [chance]. Like, ‘Put me in, coach.’”
Clint Watts, a research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Mattis’ and Kelly’s power in this moment comes from their neutrality.
“I do not think they should try to bring in Mattis and Kelly,” Watts said about the Biden campaign. “I believe part of the reason this is so damaging to Trump at the moment is because it’s done by two individuals that are part of the old Trump team that are not part of the campaign. It feels natural and just, authentic, and if they were to try and co-opt those two, it would seem like part of a plan, it would weaken the message.”
The Biden campaign has not indicated preferences about who they would consider in certain cabinet posts, often shooing away reporting that floats specific names. But he is known to surround himself with people widely regarded as subject matter experts in their policy areas, and he hardly ever lets those people go. Throughout the primary, Biden’s team actively promoted his foreign policy credentials and tight-knit braintrust, and now, is talking up an increasingly strong showing of support from those in the national security world.
On Saturday, 55 retired military officials wrote an open letter expressing their support for “votes for change in November,” writing that they have been “heartened” to hear some of their “most esteemed former colleagues who have served multiple administrations” speak out against Trump. Biden’s campaign pointed to the letter as a recent step to address the country’s growing tumult following the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer.
“We know that their sense of alarm is reflective of how so many who have served their country feel at this precise moment. It is how we feel as we have listened to this president threaten to turn America’s military against our fellow citizens, politicize institutions that must remain above the partisan fray, and erode public trust in our Armed Services,” the letter reads. “President Trump has diminished the power of our example. Those of us who have served believe the greatness of our military—and the greatness of our nation—depends upon the calls for change in the streets today becoming votes for change in November.”
Another longtime Democrat informally advising a pro-Biden group noted that military officials are experts at organization, and that any effort to work with the campaign directly would likely come after careful strategizing. “If you’re a flag officer you know how to organize,” the source said about how an effort to merge former generals with Biden’s campaign might work. “Trump doesn’t even understand what they do. He doesn’t understand their culture. They can handle that part of it.”
In a similar vein to Democrats across the party’s ideological spectrum who are privately hoping former President George W. Bush will endorse Biden, Mattis’ words, to some, are another implied show of force for Biden less than five months from Election Day.
Richard Ojeda, a retired Army major and progressive Democrat, applauded the former general’s outspokenness and said Biden would be wise to be in contact with him and others as soon as possible. “I hope he is reuniting with the past generals who are now speaking out against Trump. Absolutely. Mattis is one of the most respected generals ever! Colin Powell is another,” Ojeda said.
Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ), a former NSC official under Obama and an adviser to Generals John Allen and David Petraeus in Afghanistan, suggested he was pleasantly surprised by the outward display of criticism for the president from some of the officials he used to work so closely with.
“What we saw last week with the outpouring of statements from different four star generals—that’s unprecedented,” Kim told The Daily Beast. “I have never seen anything like that, nor did I expect to see anything like that.”
But Kim said that the generals’ statements would be most powerful if left to speak for themselves. “These generals, in their lifetime of service to the country, demand a great respect. They will say what they need to say and the American people will keep hearing it,” he said.
“I know they are coming to this from an angle not of partisanship but patriotism—I’m grateful for their wisdom and I hope the American people are listening.”