Quick Take: Mattis & the maybes, GOP response to Trump

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Big news, of course, that former Secretary of Defense Mattis comes out with a public statement basically calling Trump's rule, his actions, unconstitutional and unfit for office, more divisive than any president he's ever seen.


I mean, you know, on the one hand, stuff that a lot of people have been saying about Trump, some of which I've been saying about Trump for some time. But from his former secretary defense, the adult in the room, Mad Dog Mattis, four-star general respected by everyone, lends a veneer, a sheen of both credibility and respectability to the Trump cabinet in the early years. Of course, then he leaves, but does not say anything negative about the president and refuses to go on the media tour that so many other former cabinet officials have done and was under massive pressure for doing so. So many people calling on him, "why are you not making any statements?" Now, of course, the GOP not making any statements either, but still, Mattis is someone who was seen to be above the fray and particularly well respected in the middle of a national security crisis with so many protesters on the streets, a fair amount of violence, the police brutality and the country so incredibly divided.

The timing, I think, especially after President Bush made his statement, something that President Bush really did not want to do and I thought, a very effective statement, a very unifying statement. I think the amount of personal pressure that Mattis would have been under in the last 24-48 hours would have been extraordinary and so he decided finally he needed to say something. I will tell you, I personally don't think this is going to have much of an effect on Trump's reelection possibilities. I don't see Mattis as someone who is going to become a leading voice on CNN or MSNBC. I think it will make news over the course of this weekend and by next week it'll be gone. But I do think it's important for people to understand that the national security complex in the United States, including those people that report to the commander-in-chief, are not automatons and they will not simply do his bidding.

And I think that perhaps the more important piece of news in the last 24 hours was not the Mattis letter, but was actually the letter from the chief, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, who was seen in, you know, fatigues and camos out on Lafayette Square and walking around the White House, quite unusual, but then sent a memo to all of his direct reports saying that their duty is to uphold the Constitution, making it very clear where their loyalties are. And, of course, highly unusual. Why would you need to send out a letter that is, on the one hand, so obvious? What's the reason for it? What's the timing? Well, precisely because there is this open question of the constitutionality of dispersing a peaceful protest on public land with no advance notification. And the head of the Joint Chiefs making very clear that they do not serve the president, they serve the Constitution. That's where their loyalty is. Now, he didn't mention President Trump in that memo, but the point was very clear, which is that the United States is not an authoritarian country, is not in danger of becoming an authoritarian country. And that as divided as the country is and as unequal and unrepresentative as America's institutions are, it is not a dictatorship.

And I think the consistent thing that we can say about Trump's lead not only is, you know, his level of incompetence or his unfitness to rule, but also how constrained he continues to be. This is not about Trump able to wield power no matter what. It's actually Trump continually needing to bolster himself up precisely because he's constrained. He has to go to the bunker. Why does he go to the bunker? Because there's a national security threat against him. He didn't want to go to the bunker. He had to go to bunker. It gets reported. It gets out. So, then he has to say, "oh, I was inspecting the bunker. I didn't need, it wasn't because I was scared." No. Any president of the United States, no matter how brave you were, is going to be in the bunker at that point. That's it. That's the way it works. That's what happens when you are the president of a democracy with rule of law. But Trump can handle it. So, he makes it seem like he's stronger than he actually is.

And I think it's important for those that dislike him to understand that we're not on the path to dictatorship. We're not on the path of implosion. We are an incredibly divisive and increasingly dysfunctional country that doesn't know exactly what we stand for and therefore has a hard time leading internationally as well. Both capability and desire.

I will say that a bigger part of the problem is what I saw from Senator Republican Senator Murkowski, who came out just in the last few hours and said, "I completely support everything Mattis just said. It was overdue and it was true. It was correct." In other words, yes, the president is unfit. Yes, unconstitutional. Yes, he shouldn't serve. And she also said, "and therefore, I am struggling mightily with the question of whether or not to support him in November." Now, I mean, you can imagine that's big news, right? A Republican senator saying, "I'm struggling with whether or not to support Trump," but that's actually not the news. Actually, the news is that with the exception of Mitt Romney, who usually votes with Trump, but voted against him in the impeachment, the sole Republican vote, and who is personally very wealthy, very secure and has a lot of personal history and enmity towards President Trump. Aside from him, there has been no one on the Republican side that has gone out and said, "Trump, that's it, I'm breaking from you." And the reason for that is because they are focused on their jobs and the GOP above everything else.

And by the way, the Democrats do this, too. It's just the Democrats don't happen to have a president who is massively unfit. If they did, I suspect they would behave the same way. But they don't. The Republicans do. And that is a serious problem because it means that despite all the unfitness, President Trump could still win. He still has 42 percent approval ratings right now, which is where he was when the unemployment rate was at record lows, and when the economy was doing really well. And now we've got pandemic and 105,000 to 110,000 Americans dead, and continuing to grow. We've got 25% unemployment. And just today, another couple, well over a million new unemployment receipts, higher than the markets expected persisting. Six to eight percent contraction of the U.S. economy this year. And yet Trump is still at 42%. And among Republicans, he's done exceptionally well. He's easily polling consistently high 80s, low 90s with Republican voters in the United States. And that is what drives Senator Murkowski and many others to say, "yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, but..." And the but is the driver of action. Important to recognize that. Some insight into just how divided America presently is.

I hope everyone's doing well. Please avoid people. If you can't avoid people, socially distance, wear your masks. My goodness, I completely understand. I'm deeply sympathetic and supportive of all of the protesters that have been out there over the last few days. But please, please, please, not mass gatherings where you can't socially distance. You're putting yourself in danger. And I worry about that. I really hope we don't have a secondary outbreak that leads us to have to shut things down again. So many more people will suffer as a consequence of that. And we know who's going to suffer the worst, it will be the people that can least afford it, including a lot of the people out there that are protesting. So, that's a little bit of inequality and injustice in the world order as we see it right now.

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Listen: Stanford historian Niall Ferguson joins Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast to talk about the geopolitics of disaster. Throughout human history we seem to be unable to adequately prepare for catastrophes (natural or human-caused) before they strike. Why is that? And as we emerge from the greatest calamity of our lifetimes in the COVID-19 pandemic and look to the plethora of crises that climate change has and will cause, what can we do to lessen the blow?

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

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