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Sen. Tim Kaine On Why Mattis' Resignation Is Cause For Concern

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he is distressed, Nebraska Republican Ben Sasse calls it a sad day for America and Chris Murphy, Connecticut Democrat, describes it as a national security crisis - all senators, all talking about the resignation of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. I am joined now by another senator, Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia. Kaine sits on the Armed Services Committee, which will have to confirm whoever is nominated to succeed Mattis. Senator Kaine, welcome.

TIM KAINE: Good to be on the show. Thanks so much.

KELLY: I gather you are not happy about Secretary Mattis' impending departure either.

KAINE: No. Look; I've been in public life for 25 years. I'm an armed services member from a state that's connected to the military. I have a son in the Marine Corps. Secretary Mattis is one of the best public servants I've worked with in my career. And his resignation and especially the asserted reasons for the resignation should cause every American to be really, really worried.

KELLY: Although was this inevitable? Mattis himself - in the resignation letter that I assume you're referring there, he said the president deserves a defense secretary who shares his vision of the world.

KAINE: I think that's very diplomatically put. But if you look at the letter, basically what Secretary Mattis says is this, that the two pillars of American security that are constant - and this is a guy who spent more than four decades providing security as a Marine - is, one, building strong alliances among democracies and, second, standing up to authoritarian adversaries. And he basically said, Mr. President, on these two values you and I disagree.

And we've certainly seen it, a president who undercuts allies at many opportunities - using national security waivers to punish Canada and Europe, for example - and then cozies up to authoritarians such as Russia and Kim Jong Un in North Korea. And that reason asserted by Secretary Mattis is very, very troubling.

KELLY: Have you talked to him? Have you talked to Jim Mattis?

KAINE: I have not talked to him since the announcement. The announcement set off a firestorm not only of news but ambassadors of European and other allies reaching out to senators saying sort of, what's going on?

KELLY: Sure.

KAINE: The announcements this week about Syria and Afghanistan obviously causing huge concerns among allies who are side by side with us in those theaters.

KELLY: I mentioned it's your committee, armed services, that will have to vote on whoever is named to succeed him. Who would you like to see?

KAINE: You know, it's too early to say that there's a person that I'd like to see. But I want somebody who will be willing to stand up and speak truth to power. One of the challenges in this administration is those who do. General McMaster, the national security adviser, and Secretary Mattis - they get pushed aside. But we need people who are experienced, who will look the president in the eye in and speak truth. And if the president can't handle it, he can't handle it. But I don't want an enabler. There's been too many enablers around this president in the first two years like bobbleheads saying yes to everything, and that's not what this country needs right now.

KELLY: Changing gears, we are speaking to you from Capitol Hill. Are you all making any progress on avoiding a government shutdown at the stroke of midnight?

KAINE: Well, we had a bipartisan deal just two days ago that passed the Senate unanimously with the blessing of the White House. But the president yesterday decided to do a 180 and say he now - if he can't get 5 billion, he'll shut down government and punish 800,000-plus federal employees who would not get pay as long as there's a shutdown. But there is some...

KELLY: Yeah, I heard you on CNN earlier calling him the grinch about to steal Christmas, which - I will give you credit.

KAINE: Yeah, he seems to...

KELLY: It's a good line.

KAINE: (Laughter) He seems to have a gleam in his eye.

KELLY: But somebody's got to budge here - right, Senator? - or else we're talking about tens of thousands of people who are going to have to work without being paid over the holidays.

KAINE: You're absolutely right. And that was what we did when we gave them a bipartisan deal less than 48 hours ago that he agreed to. And we passed the Senate.

KELLY: I know, but here we are Friday afternoon. So what happens?

KAINE: Well, what's going on right now is the vice president, Jared Kushner and Mick Mulvaney, the new chief of staff, were up talking to Senator Schumer. And we're seeing reports out of that meeting that there may be an announcement soon about a path forward, possibly a deal. I understand those administration officials went over to talk to Speaker Ryan. So this is very much kind of a work in progress right now. No reason to shut the government down - absolutely none.

KELLY: Just a few seconds left, but we're also hearing from Schumer's office, and they're saying that this deal would involve funding for border security but not the wall. Would you vote for that?

KAINE: Well, I voted for it many, many times. Comprehensive immigration reform in 2013 had border security money. We offered the president a deal in February with border security money. He turned it down. Border security is something that we all support.

KELLY: All right, thank you so much, Senator.

KAINE: All right, thanks much.

KELLY: That's Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine. And we are talking with other Republicans. Elsewhere on the show, I interview Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.