WASHINGTON — In a major break with President Donald Trump, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowksi said Thursday that she is struggling over her support for her fellow Republican and praised former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis for a statement in which he accused Trump of trying to deliberately divide Americans.
"I thought General Mattis's words were true and honest and necessary and overdue," Murkowski told reporters at the Capitol, adding that she had been "struggling" to find the right words to express her feelings about Trump's presidency.
Her comments stood out among Republicans, who for most part either remained silent in the wake of Mattis's criticism, accused the media of trying to stir controversy or offered supportive words for Trump. The president on Wednesday attacked Mattis on Twitter after the Atlantic published the former secretary's extraordinary statement earlier in the day.
In addition to saying that Trump "is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people," Mattis took exception to Trump's threats of military force on American streets and praised those demanding justice following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.
Trump also faced criticism Wednesday from John Allen, a retired four-star Marine general who in a Foreign Policy op-ed lambasted the president for his threats to use the military on protesters and his controversial church photo op on Monday, writing that his actions "may well signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment."
"When I saw General Mattis's comments yesterday, 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," Murkowski said. "And so I'm working as one individual to form the right words, knowing that these words really matter. So I appreciate General Mattis's comments."
Asked if she can still support Trump, Murkowski said: "I am struggling with it. I have struggled with it for a long time."
"He is duly elected our president," she said. "I will continue to work with him. I will continue to work with this administration."
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the only Republican member of the Senate to vote to convict Trump in his impeachment trial, also vouched for Mattis's character, calling his statement "stunning and powerful."
"He's an American patriot," Romney told reporters. "He's an individual whose judgment I respect, and I think the world of him. If I ever had to choose somebody to be in a foxhole with — it would be with a General Mattis. What a wonderful, wonderful man."
Other Republicans sought to distance themselves from Mattis's sentiments while still praising the service of the retired Marine general.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham accused Mattis of "buying into a narrative" from the news media that everything wrong with the country is Trump's fault.
Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said during an appearance on Fox News that Mattis has earned "the right to express himself," but he suggested that some of the blame the retired Marine general was pinning on Trump should be attached to mayors of the cities where violence is occurring.
“It is so fashionable to blame President Trump for every wrong in America, and he can be a handful — And can he do better? Yes — but the problems we have in America today were not caused by President Trump,” Graham said, adding, "This is just such easy, cheap politics.
"To General Mattis, I think you're missing something here, my friend," Graham said. "You're missing the fact that the liberal media has taken every event in the last 3½ years and laid it at the president's feet. I'm not saying he's blameless, but I am saying that you're buying into a narrative that I think is quite frankly unfair."
Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe told reporters that Mattis has "always been one of my favorite people" and blamed the media for exaggerating tensions between Mattis and Trump.
"You guys in the press love to develop these things that they all hate each and disagree and they're really not," said Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Inhofe also suggested the nature of Mattis's parting with Trump could color his views of the commander in chief.
Trump responded on Twitter on Wednesday night, criticizing Mattis in a pair of tweets that had at least two factual errors.
"Probably the only thing Barack Obama and I have in common is that we both had the honor of firing Jim Mattis, the world's most overrated General. I asked for his letter of resignation, & felt great about. His nickname was 'Chaos', which I didn't like, & changed it to 'Mad Dog'," Trump tweeted. "His primary strength was not military, but rather personal public relations. I gave him a new life, things to do, and battles to win, but he seldom 'brought home the bacon'. I didn't like his 'leadership' style or much else about him, and many others agree. Glad he is gone!"
In reality, Mattis tendered his resignation in 2018 as he disagreed with Trump's decision to pull U.S. forces out of Syria, numerous U.S. officials have said. Mattis's military call sign was "Chaos," and the nickname "Mad Dog," which Mattis dislikes, came along years before Trump became president.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said he has a great deal of respect for both Mattis and Allen and signaled no interest in talking about their criticism of Trump.
"Everything I'm focused on right now is things that are going to bring everybody together rather than divisiveness, and that's what I'm focused on," Barrasso said.
Reminded that Mattis was accusing Trump of that very thing, divisiveness, he said, "My focus is on talking about things that unite us."
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, agreed that Mattis is "a great general" who has the right to express an opinion.
While he hadn't read Mattis's entire statement, Roberts said, he disagrees with the notion that Trump is a divider.
"I don't share that view," Roberts said. "I think he's doing the best he can under very difficult circumstances."
Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley likewise said former military officials are "entitled to their opinion" but declined to weigh in on the criticism of Trump.
Discussing Mattis and other retired generals: "All I know about what they said is what I'm seeing on your television stations. I would want to read their whole statement before I commented," Grassley said.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), among the Republicans more willing to criticize Trump, also claimed too little knowledge to voice an opinion
“I haven’t read it yet, I do intend to read it today,” she said of Mattis’s statement, which she was carrying with her. “But I will say, I have great respect for former secretary Mattis and his previous military service. But I haven’t read The Atlantic piece.”