The decision by Defense Secretary James Mattis to resign has triggered a predictable level of hand-wringing among Republicans.
Mattis, a former U.S. Marine Corps general, resigned on Thursday and became the 10th high-ranking member of the Trump administration to leave in the last two years. While his resignation letter was exceedingly polite and laudatory towards the President, it was also a thinly veiled criticism.
“One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships,” Mattis wrote. “While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect for those allies.”
In response, a chorus of Republicans voiced their alarm. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) tweeted that the resignation “makes it abundantly clear that we are headed towards a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation.” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) tweeted that it was a “sad day” and that “isolationism is a weak strategy that will harm Americans.” Even Sen.-elect Mitt Romney (R-UT) weighed in.
The foreign policy described by Gen. Mattis today has, for nearly 3/4 century, kept us from global war, empowered our economy, helped billions escape from poverty & opened freedom’s door around the world. His service, vision & character were a blessing. He will be greatly missed.
— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) December 21, 2018
Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), meanwhile, was more concerned with the continued threat posed by Afghanistan and Syria, war-torn countries where, as Trump abruptly announced this week, the U.S. plans to withdraw thousands of troops.
“General Mattis…has been in the fight against radical Islam for decades and provided sound ethical military advice,” Graham tweeted, while in a separate statement saying that U.S. withdrawals are “setting in motion the loss of all our gains and paving the way toward a second 9/11.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) also took the unusual step of issuing a statement criticizing Trump’s differences with Mattis. “I believe it’s essential that the United States maintain and strengthen the post-World War II alliances that have been carefully built by leaders in both parties,” he said. “I was sorry to learn that Secretary Mattis, who shares these clear principles, will soon depart this administration. But I am particularly distressed that he is resigning due to sharp differences with the president on these and other key aspects of America’s global leadership.”
It’s important to note that these are just the public statements. According to the New York Times, senior Republican leaders are alarmed about the potential instability triggered by the departure of a defense secretary who was generally seen as a calming presence in the administration.
But while the extent of the comments and veiled condemnation may be unusual, the reality is that Republicans are simply taking a page out of Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ) book — publicly complaining, while doing little to act as moderating influence for the administration.
Rubio, for instance, has voted with Trump 94 percent of the time, according to Five Thirty Eight. For Sasse, that number is 88 percent. For Graham and McConnell, it’s 90 percent and 95 percent, respectively. One of Rubio’s, McConnell’s, and Sasse’s latest hits is a recent “No” vote (in line with Trump) on ending U.S. military assistance to the Saudi coalition at war in Yemen which, in a stunning example of America’s global leadership, has led to the massive child starvation and repeated bombings of civilians.
In June 2017, Sasse, Rubio, and McConnell also voted to continue selling arms to Saudi Arabia. According to a 2018 report by the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force, Saudi Arabia has not sufficiently cracked down on terrorist financing within the Kingdom. It estimates that there have been upwards of 1,700 terrorism financing investigations since 2013 alone.
As GOP reactions to the Mattis resignation demonstrate, Republicans are happy to collectively tut on Twitter at the president’s less popular decisions. But when it comes to actually attempting to moderating him in Congress, which is their job, they’re missing in action.