This isn’t just to say Trump’s intimation of a pardon for his criminal crony itself confirmed Mattis to be right. It’s how Trump did this that’s so remarkable, when juxtaposed with the blistering new criticisms from Mattis, who resigned as defense secretary in 2018.
With no apparent self-awareness or shame of any kind, Trump erupted on Twitter with the words “LAW AND ORDER!” literally minutes after tweeting out his message to Stone:
Whatever ends up happening, Trump is clearly suggesting Stone will never serve jail time, and that he can rest easy. That’s a strong hint at a pardon.
Which shows that “LAW & ORDER!” has nothing to do with fealty to the rule of law or any of the ideals we associate with it, such as equality before the law or the notion that no one is above it.
Instead, “law and order,” as a justification for what Trump is actually doing, is a combination of racially coded political messaging and, when taken along with Trump’s hint at a corruptly conceived pardon, a stark betrayal of any such ideals.
It’s precisely because Trump is so unabashedly contemptuous of the rule of law that voters will, one hopes, understand it as such.
Mattis’s denunciation of Trump
At the center of Mattis’s denunciation of Trump is the violent removal of peaceful protesters to clear the way for Trump’s authoritarian set-piece: his striding through a militarily pacified zone, against a backdrop of civil strife, to hold aloft a Bible. His advisers viewed this as a triumph, positioning him as the righteous conqueror of that disorder.
Mattis pointed out that the vast majority of protesters are simply demanding that we “live up to our values as people and our values as a nation,” which include “equal justice before the law.” He ripped into the clearing out of protesters as an “abuse of executive authority.”
Mattis also placed his criticism of that abuse in the larger context of Trump’s effort to “militarize our response to protests.” Mattis noted that this “erodes the moral ground that ensures a trusted bond between men and women in uniform and the society they are sworn to protect.”
Importantly, this casts Trump’s militarization of the response as itself constituting a serious threat to “public order,” as Mattis put it, because it amounts to ordering troops “to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens.”
This appears to be a widespread worry inside the Pentagon. Whether driven by mere appearances or something more noble, there is “extraordinary tension” among Pentagon officials since Trump threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 to send troops into U.S. cities to quell unrest.
Those officials are worried that this threat will aggravate civilian-military tensions, and they are on edge over Trump’s broader politicization of the military, such as when he sent troops as political props to the border in 2018.
Meanwhile, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mark A. Milley released a remarkable message reminding everyone in the military to remain “committed to our national values and principles embedded in the Constitution,” which include “the right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.”
What’s important about this message is its subtext — that Trump has created an imperative that members of the military be reminded to remain faithful to our higher ideals:
There are reasonable grounds for cynicism about all this. The U.S. military obviously does not have an unblemished history of respecting civilians’ constitutional rights. Both Esper and Milley participated in that photo op, suggesting they are retroactively cleaning up their galling performance.
But nonetheless, having such prominent figures — particularly Mattis — affirming support for these ideals sends an important message to the country, that something is deeply wrong, that these values are under profound threat and must be defended vigilantly.
Trump confirms Mattis to be right
After Mattis’s statement broke, Trump raged that he had pushed Mattis to resign (he quit in protest), deriding him as the “world’s most overrated general” and a grandstander whose career Trump supposedly rescued.
Note that Trump’s only key in response to the accusation that he is betraying our ideals is belittlement and manufactured illusions of domination. Trump does not know how to defend himself against the substance of the accusation, by arguing over what our higher ideals actually are or should be, or by defending his own actions as serving higher ideals, because he doesn’t have any.
That’s precisely why he’s willing to use the military as he has threatened to, and why he is incapable of asking himself whether there might be any downsides for the country in making this threat, let alone in acting on it.
And it’s precisely why Trump is willing to make an utter mockery of the rule of law by dangling a pardon before Stone, only minutes after posing as a defender of law and order. Trump’s commitment to the rule of law is as empty as is the commitment to religious principles on display in his cheap stunt hoisting the Bible.
All of which is precisely why these warnings have become necessary in the first place. In his reaction to Mattis’s criticism and in his corrupt two-step on Stone, Trump confirmed Mattis to be right as forcefully as anyone could have asked for.