Murkowski Endorses Mattis Criticism of Trump, Calling it ‘Necessary and Overdue’

Murkowski Endorses Mattis Criticism of Trump, Calling it ‘Necessary and Overdue’

The senator suggested the former defense secretary’s scathing remarks might be a tipping point, prodding other Republicans to go public with longstanding concerns about President Trump.

Credit...Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, said on Thursday that she endorsed scathing criticism of President Trump’s leadership by Jim Mattis, the former secretary of defense, and was grappling with whether to support the president in the coming election.

Ms. Murkowski said the critique by Mr. Mattis, in which he said that Mr. Trump had divided the nation and failed to lead amid growing protests across the country, was “necessary and overdue,” and might prod other Republicans to go public with their private concerns about the president.

“I was really thankful,” she told reporters on Capitol Hill. “I thought General Mattis’s words were true and honest and necessary and overdue.”

The comments by Ms. Murkowski, one of the few Republicans in Congress who have been willing to break with the president on occasion, suggested that Mr. Trump’s response to nationwide unrest over police brutality and racial discrimination had emboldened at least some members of his party to speak out against him. While many Republicans privately regard the president’s conduct with distaste and even alarm, few have been willing to publicly air those concerns.

In apparent response to Ms. Murkowski’s comments, Mr. Trump vowed Thursday evening to campaign against her in two years, when her term ends, pointing to her votes against legislation that would repeal the Affordable Care Act and the confirmation of Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. (While Ms. Murkowski said she did not support the confirmation, her vote was recorded as “present” as part of an agreement with a colleague who missed the vote.)

“Get any candidate ready, good or bad, I don’t care, I’m endorsing,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “If you have a pulse, I’m with you!”

In recent days, more Republicans have been willing to voice their differences, with a pandemic raging and protests exposing a sense of anguish about the treatment of black Americans.

Mr. Trump drew a rare bipartisan rebuke this week after he threatened to unleash the military to crack down on protests, just as the police were using chemical agents and flash bangs against demonstrators outside the White House to clear a path for him to pose outside a church. A handful of Republicans, including the party’s lone black senator, Tim Scott of South Carolina, denounced the episode.

Ms. Murkowski said she had been “encouraged” by a lengthy statement issued on Tuesday by President George W. Bush, who did not mention Mr. Trump but expressed solidarity with demonstrators and warned against trying to suppress the protests. When she saw Mr. Mattis’s comments, Ms. Murkowski added, “I felt like perhaps we’re getting to the point where we can be more honest with the concerns that we might hold internally, and have the courage of our own convictions to speak up.”

She said she was “working as one individual to form the right words.”

Asked whether she could still support Mr. Trump in the election in November, Ms. Murkowski said: “I am struggling with it. I have struggled with it for a long time.”

Ms. Murkowski, who was elected to her third full term in 2016, did not endorse Mr. Trump that year, and after a recording surfaced of him boasting about sexually assaulting women, she publicly repudiated his candidacy, saying that he had “forfeited the right to be our party’s nominee.”

Still, Ms. Murkowski has usually tempered her public criticism of the president, as have many other Republicans.

On Thursday, several Republican senators continued to do so, with some insisting they had not seen Mr. Mattis’s remarks or deflecting questions about them. Those who challenged Mr. Trump did so gently or obliquely.

Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, another frequent critic of the president, stopped short of commenting on the substance of Mr. Mattis’s critique, but praised him effusively.

“He’s an American patriot,” Mr. Romney said of the former defense secretary. “He’s an individual whose judgment I respect, and I think the world of him.”

“What a wonderful, wonderful man,” he added.

Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, who said he had not read Mr. Mattis’s rebuke, carefully suggested that Mr. Trump might have set the wrong tone for meeting the painful moment that the nation was facing.

“I happen to think the president has said the right things with regard to what happened in Minneapolis — he said it was a horrible situation,” Mr. Portman said. “The question is tone and words, and I think some of the tone and some of the words used should be focused more on healing.”

Still others rejected outright the criticisms of Mr. Trump. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and a close ally of the president, said that Mr. Mattis had been taken in by a “liberal media” that was bent on blaming Mr. Trump for everything.

“I’m not saying he’s blameless,” Mr. Graham said of the president during an interview on Fox News, “but I am saying that you’re buying into a narrative that I think is, quite frankly, unfair.”

Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, suggested that the former secretary might have been acting out of spite. He told reporters on Thursday that he considered Mr. Mattis to be “one of my favorite people,” but added, “once you’re fired, sometimes that affects your attitude.”

Later Thursday, Ms. Murkowski diverted momentarily from a speech about the anniversary of women securing the right vote to talk about the death of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, and the protests that his killing helped inspire.

“I have been chastised by some very close friends, who have said, ‘You’re silent, Lisa. Why are you silent?’” she said. “And I have struggled. I have struggled with the right words, as a white woman born and raised in Alaska with a family that was privileged.”

She did not mention Mr. Trump.


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