Donald Trump has vowed to oust a Republican senator who endorsed a rebuke of his response to the death of George Floyd, as the president comes under pressure from some in his party and former military officials ahead of November’s election.
Mr Trump took aim at Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska senator, after she described an attack on the president by former defence secretary Jim Mattis as “true and honest, and necessary and overdue”.
“Few people know where they’ll be in two years from now, but I do, in the great state of Alaska . . . campaigning against Senator Lisa Murkowski,” the president said about the senator who faces re-election in 2022.
“Get any candidate ready, good or bad, I don’t care, I’m endorsing. If you have a pulse, I’m with you!” Mr Trump said in a bid to encourage other Republicans to run against her in the GOP primary in 2020.
Mr Trump has faced sporadic public criticism from his party since taking office, but Ms Murkowski’s comments were the strongest public expression of concerns that many Republicans stress in private.
The mounting criticism from lawmakers comes after several retired senior military officers slammed the president for his handling of the protests following Floyd’s killing, and actions that risk dragging the US military into politics.
Mr Mattis on Wednesday wrote in The Atlantic magazine that Mr Trump was an immature leader who was making “a mockery” of the constitution, and deliberating trying to divide the American people for political again.
The former defence secretary accused Mr Trump of being “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people”. He slammed the president’s response to the protests over the death of Floyd, a black man killed when a white police officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes.
Asked if she could if she could back Mr Trump, Ms Murkowski replied: “I am struggling with it. I have struggled with it for a long time.”
The latest rebuke of Mr Trump came as authorities braced for the 10th night of protests since Floyd was killed. In Minneapolis, mourners held a memorial service for the 46-year-old African-American father of two.
Delivering a eulogy, Reverend Al Sharpton, a civil-rights activist, said the killing of Floyd was a reminder of how all African-Americans had lived an experience where there was always a knee on their necks.
“It’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say: get your knee off our necks,” Mr Sharpton told the crowd.
Critics have levelled a series of charges against Mr Trump. They have rebuked him for threatening to sent active-duty soldiers on to the streets to deal with the overwhelmingly peaceful protests.
They have also blasted him for a stunt that saw him hold up a Bible for a photo opportunity shortly after law enforcement officers used chemical agents and rubber bullets to disperse a peaceful crowd to allow the president to walk from the White House to a nearby church.
Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican senator, this week said he was “against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo-op that treats the word of God as a political prop”.
Tim Scott, the only black Republican senator who is normally a close ally of Mr Trump, also spoke out. “Should you use tear gas to clear a path so the president can go have a photo-op? The answer is no,” the South Carolinian said.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration over the use of the chemical agents on Monday.
Earlier, Mr Trump shot back at Mr Mattis by claiming that he had fired him, even though the retired general submitted his resignation in a scathing letter. On Thursday John Kelly, a retired marine general who previously served as Mr Trump’s chief of staff and is a longtime friend of Mr Mattis, said the president’s recollection of the event was wrong.
“The president did not fire him. He did not ask for his resignation,” Mr Kelly told The Washington Post.
Later on Thursday Mr Trump insisted that he had fired Mr Mattis, saying the problem with asking for a letter of resignation was that it allowed the fired official to claim that they were not ousted from their role.
Mr Mattis was just one of several former military officers who made rare interventions in politics this week to rebuke Mr Trump over his threat to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act, which would allow him to send active-duty soldiers on to the streets of American cities.
Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said he was “sickened” that security forces had been ordered to “forcibly and violently clear a path” to allow Mr Trump to take the widely panned photo of him holding a Bible.
Mr Mullen added that Mr Trump had emboldened US adversaries and “risked further politicising the men and women of our armed forces”.
Ms Murkowski said she hoped Mr Mattis’s comments would spur other Republicans to “have the courage of [their] own convictions to speak up”.
A rift also opened on Wednesday between Mr Trump and his current secretary of defence, Mark Esper, who broke with the president and said he opposed any effort to invoke the Insurrection Act.
Mr Trump has painted the protests as the work of anarchists and criminals, and threatened to send in the military unless governors take tougher action to quell unrest. But Mr Esper said he did not believe the situation on the streets warranted using the military that way.
Washington continues to see big protests, but the city did not impose a curfew on Thursday after demonstrations were ahead peacefully on Wednesday night with little unrest.
William Barr, US attorney-general, said authorities would collapse the perimeter around the White House and remove checkpoints to create “more of a low-profile footprint” after a quiet night on Wednesday.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi