Jim Mattis vs. Tom Cotton: No Contest

Jim Mattis vs. Tom Cotton: No Contest

The former defense secretary’s scathing attack on Trump’s shredding the Constitution showed how wrong The New York Times was to publish Cotton.


As the revolt against The New York Times’ decision to publish GOP Senator Tom Cotton’s op-ed calling on President Donald Trump to “send in the troops” spread across social media Wednesday night, encouraged by brave Times writers who publicly challenged the move, it was clear that Times leadership—in this case James Bennet, who edits the opinion section—had made another boneheaded choice. It looked especially bad when, later the same day, The Atlantic published a searing, eloquent broadside against all of Donald Trump’s fascist posturing from Trump’s former defense secretary James Mattis.

The contrast between the writing and the moral stature of the two men was unmistakable. For one thing, Cotton’s argument was a clown car of clichés, exaggeration, and intellectual dishonesty (more on that later), while Mattis’s argument was textured, impassioned, convincing. That simple contrast laid bare the Times’ mistake: Cotton’s piece didn’t meet the paper’s own standards. The Cotton piece should have been rejected, not “suppressed” or “censored,” mainly because it wasn’t very good.

At its best, the Times op-ed pages publish articles that are brilliantly argued and superbly written, as well as ones that explore new, marginalized, even controversial ways of thinking with which its readership needs to engage. This was neither. This was boilerplate sloganeering, intellectually dishonest, denouncing “bands of miscreants” and supposed “elites” who encouraged them (for that he linked to a Fox News report distorting a commentary from CNN’s Chris Cuomo the other night, which in no way defended violence). A favorite line: “The riots were carnivals for the thrill-seeking rich as well as other criminal elements.” Excuse me?

Cotton blamed much of the violence on “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa infiltrating protest marches to exploit Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes,” though the Times’ own news pages have debunked those claims. (To his credit, the Times’ Marc Tracy covered the internal conflict fairly, here.)

The moral heart of Cotton’s argument, if it can be said to have one, comes in his citing the presidents, from Republican Dwight Eisenhower through Democrats John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who sent in federal forces to protect school integration—in Eisenhower’s case, in Cotton’s home state of Arkansas. But that argument is disingenuous on its face. Tom Cotton is no crusader for racial justice: He’s the senator who blocked Barack Obama’s appointment of black Arkansas NAACP lawyer Cassandra Butts as an ambassador; she died of cancer before that opposition could be overcome.

Cotton is also not advancing a particularly novel or sidelined point of view: It’s shared by Trump and Attorney General William Barr, apparently along with the entire GOP Senate majority, since not one of them has spoken out, and it needs to be fought by everyone who cares about the Constitution.

Enter Jim Mattis. I’ve criticized the former secretary of defense for not speaking up earlier about his concerns with Trump’s fitness for office, most recently this week. I hope this isn’t too little, too late. Well, I can’t say it’s too little: It’s a devastating indictment of the president’s non-leadership, calling Trump “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people…. Instead, he tries to divide us,” and asking Americans to “reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”

He continues: “When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside. We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square.” Read the whole thing here.

Reading Cotton and Matthis side by side is especially painful because the GOP senator is widely believed to be angling to become secretary of defense—and especially since the current one, Mark Esper, has publicly expressed reservations about Trump’s use of the 1807 Insurrection Act to send in federal troops. Also yesterday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley released a letter to troops reminding them that they swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, which “gives Americans the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.” Milley, like Esper, joined Trump for the ugly Lafayette Square photo-op Monday night. Finally, a few military leaders seem to be leading—to defend the Constitution.

I’ve seen a few white people on social media question the black staffers at the Times and elsewhere who have said Cotton’s op-ed endangers them personally. The hopeless Andrew Sullivan is calling what these Times writers are doing an attempted “coup”; he should worry more about the attempted coup by Trump and Barr. Going back to my piece earlier in the week: When black people tell you something endangers them personally, or endangers their family, try believing them.

This is just another sad episode in “bad decision-making at the country’s paper of record in the age of Trump.” I can imagine a time when Matthis would have sent his statement to the Times. Kudos to The Atlantic for bringing us this truly needed voice in a time of crisis.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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