Former defense secretary Jim Mattis appeared on “Meet the Press” on Sunday. He has come under fire for refusing to speak candidly about his time in the administration or even to denounce specifically the president’s recent order to retreat from Syria and betray the Kurds.

His conversation with NBC’s Chuck Todd was exceedingly odd:

CHUCK TODD: I’ll put up some headlines from some of them. You’ve seen them. “It’s time for these officials to come to the aid of their country." Trump is in freefall. We need insights on his fitness from Mattis, Kelly, and others. Now." "Those who work with Trump must now tell Congress what they know.” First of all, if Congress subpoenaed you, and -- for to try to find out what you knew about decision-making processes, when it came to Ukraine or other things, would you cooperate?
MATTIS: Well, I’d have to know, specifically, what it was about. I mean, I obey the law. ... So that’s not the issue. But again, remember that the Defense Department stays outside of politics for a reason. There’s a longstanding tradition, why you do not want the military to be engaged in politics. ...
TODD: You feel like it’s pretty -- do you feel like your resignation letter is pretty clear, what you think? Like, what more do you need to add, as you’re saying.
MATTIS: It’s a page and a half long. It talks about our, our security being tied, inextricably, to our alliances. I don’t know what more I could say about how I think we ought to treat allies and how we should treat those who are adversaries.

The interview continued in this vein. Mattis reiterated: “Well, Chuck, I have a lot of faith in the American people. They know how to vote. They don’t need military generals telling them that they think this political assessment is the one they should go with, or the other one is, that sort of thing, especially as corrosive as the political debate has grown in the country.”

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There are several serious problems with his moral reasoning — so obvious that a man known to be a warrior-scholar should have caught them.

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For starters, he is not a military man. Not now. He was in a civilian role in the administration. He is now a former official, a citizen. If the notion that military men in civilian roles are going to retain a military and not a civilian code of conduct, we should never again put an ex-military man in a high civilian post. (There was considerable question about the wisdom of doing so at the start of Trump’s administration that originally included former military men such as H.R. McMaster, John Kelly and Mattis.)

Second, no one is asking him how to vote. He has a unique perspective on the decision-making “process” at the White House and on Trump’s motives for abandoning the Kurds (which he tried doing previously and which precipitated Mattis’s resignation). At a time when the American people desperately need to hear all available facts from credible sources, it is not helpful to withhold that information.

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Third, if Mattis is willing to testify under oath, why is he not willing to speak candidly when not under oath? A witness to an ordinary crime who agrees to speak only under subpoena at trial but not to assist in the investigation of the crime is not a moral hero; he is enabling the criminal to escape.

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Fourth, Mattis also stated that “the Constitution, I think, is a very hearty document. I’ve got a love affair with the U.S. Constitution. I actually used to read it about once a year and always found something new in it.” That’s admirable, but the Constitution is not self-activating. Citizens must vote, coequal branches must check one another, and impeachment must be deployed when necessary as the ultimate check on an out-of-control executive. Impeachment is a convulsive experience, however, and every current or former official should do everything possible to avoid it (by, for example, hastening resignation) or, if unavoidable, to expedite it and educate the public about its necessity. Reading the Constitution is not the same as defending it.

Finally, Mattis is too cute by half in directing us to read his resignation letter. He argued that “my actions, I think, speak louder than words.” He explains, “It’s a page and a half long. It talks about our, our security being tied, inextricably, to our alliances. I don’t know what more I could say about how I think we ought to treat allies and how we should treat those who are adversaries.” What more he could say? He could explain specifically the damage done to our standing in the world and the opposition of the entire national security team to Trump’s impulsive decision to strand the Kurds. He could explain that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is untrustworthy and that the pullout will encourage the Islamic State not only in Syria but in other locations. What rule of silence says you can make vague criticism of unfit leaders but not be specific enough for average Americans to grasp fully?

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Mattis’s performance leaves one flummoxed and frustrated. Perhaps House chairs can relieve him of the self-imposed oath of silence by subpoenaing him to testify — in public. It is time we heard from him, from former national security advisers John Bolton and McMaster and from former secretary of state Rex Tillerson. Enough with the fizbin rules of citizenship. It’s time to lay it all out for the American people.

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