Week In Politics: Possible Government Shutdown, General Mattis' Exit and Syria
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
It is definitely one of those where-do-you-even-begin weeks. For our Friday week in politics chat, a colleague here in the newsroom pointed out that if had you happened to glance at the TV at one point last night, you would have seen the news crawl defense secretary quits as government shutdown looms and financial markets tank. Well, here's the president's assessment of how things are going. This was him speaking today at the White House.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We've had a very busy two or three days. It's been very positive. Things are happening that haven't happened in our government for a long time.
KELLY: OK, well, with me now are E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and Reihan Salam of the National Review. Welcome to you both.
E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Great to be here.
REIHAN SALAM: Thanks for having us.
KELLY: All right.
DIONNE: And congratulations on your new baby, Reihan.
SALAM: Thank you, E.J. That's very kind of you.
KELLY: New baby, all right, congratulations. Well, that's a very happy...
DIONNE: We have to have good news today.
KELLY: ...Place to start. We start with good news. But Reihan, I'll give you the first question, and I want to talk about Jim Mattis' resignation as defense secretary. E.J.'s paper described this today - and I quote - as "the exit of the man U.S. allies see as the last guardrail against the president's erratic behavior" - the last guardrail. What do you think, Reihan?
SALAM: Well, Defense Secretary Mattis was a pretty unorthodox choice for the job in the first place. It's pretty unusual to hire someone as defense secretary who only recently retired from active duty military service. He left active duty service after clashing with the Obama administration over the Iran deal and a variety of other areas where it was felt that he was bristling under civilian authority.
Now, similarly, he absolutely is a figure who is much admired both in the military and outside of the military certainly by U.S. allies around the world. However, on some pretty fundamental, core issues relating to the U.S. presence in Syria and the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, he simply disagreed with the commander in chief. It was very hard to see that disagreement being reconciled.
The president wasn't going to persuade Defense Secretary Mattis, and the defense secretary had not successfully persuaded the president. And so one way or another, you need the president to have a defense secretary who is going to be more in line with his own foreign policy priorities, and that's pretty much the origin of this mess.
KELLY: But to this point that Mattis in some people's eyes was serving as a curb against the more erratic impulses of President Trump - E.J., what do you think?
DIONNE: I think many, many people, including people who didn't necessarily agree with Mattis on everything, felt that he was a stable figure. And when you looked at the reasons he gave for his resignation, one of them was the importance of alliance, of living up to our alliances and how American strength was increased if we could work with our allies. So that's a position taken not only by the neoconservative critics of Donald Trump but also by many liberals.
And so I think the - you know, early on, the generals were going to save us - General Kelly, General McMaster, General Mattis. I think of the three, Mattis was the one who had the most success in curbing Trump, for example, when he was threatening to quit NATO at that NATO meeting. And he clearly played a big role along with others in pushing Trump back. So I think there's a lot of alarm around the world and in Washington, including from a lot of Republicans that miss - that a lot will be missing when Mattis goes.
KELLY: Whether we think this was a mismatch with the president in the first place or not, his resignation leaves the Pentagon in flux, leaves the national security team in flux and notably comes as the White House chief of staff is in flux and the attorney general and the U.N. ambassador and the interior secretary. Reihan, is this a whole lot of chaos at the moment even by the standards of 2018?
SALAM: Well, truthfully, I would argue that when you're looking at the Pentagon in particular, there already was a lot of roiling turmoil partly because Defense Secretary Mattis - he was not someone who was especially deferential to the civilian authorities in the department. He tended to listen to folks he had served with in the military. He tended to be somewhat closer to them. And so already some of those traditional lines of authority within the Pentagon didn't look like they do under other presidential administrations.
And this is something we see elsewhere in the administration, too, partly because President Trump - his inconstancy, his inattention to detail means that you oftentimes have turf battles within the administration. And, you know, hopefully the president will find a defense secretary who is more aligned with his policy priorities, but it really is hard to see that happening anytime soon because there are many folks who would be eligible for this kind of role, who have the experience - the bureaucratic experience and what have you - who might be reluctant to serve in such a chaotic administration. So that's going to be a big challenge.
KELLY: Let me turn you both to the looming midnight deadline on government shutdown. Why do we keep doing this? Why do we keep getting to this point, and do the fault lines - the political fault lines look different to either of you this week as Democrats prepare to take over the House and we all prepare for a divided Washington, E.J.?
DIONNE: Well, this is particularly crazy. I want to shout out Jeb Bush who said - predicted that Donald Trump would be the chaos president. I think he had that right all the way back in 2016. And one of the problems here is Trump was for a shutdown before he was against a shutdown before he was for a shutdown. Schumer - Chuck Schumer on the floor, the Senate Democratic leader, referenced that meeting with Nancy Pelosi where he said he'd be proud to shut the government down. Then Mitch...
KELLY: Although, he's now saying Democrats own this shutdown; it's on them.
DIONNE: Well, but - right, but then he went to Mitch McConnell and basically gave his blessing to passing a bill that would have kept the government open on February 8. So that was the against-the-shutdown point. And then under pressure from talk show hosts - Senator Bob Corker said today, we're being governed by talk show hosts. He said, whoops, I can't do that. So then he took a hard line again. Now he wants to turn around and blame the Democrats.
I think there are discussions going on, by the way, to try to see if there is a way to avert this. There are $1.6 billion in the - one of the Senate bills. I think what they're negotiating about now is, is there a way to use that to give Trump a fig leaf if they can sort of label the money in a way that can get enough Democratic votes in the House, which could not be for the wall but for Trump to say, all right, that's enough for now?
KELLY: Reihan, why do you think we keep marching up to this threat to shut down the government?
SALAM: Well, one of the ironies here is that President Trump had an opportunity to claim a pretty significant victory this week. The Mexican government has agreed to shelter Central American migrants who are asylum-seekers so that they can remain in Mexico while their cases are being adjudicated in the United States. He could have said, well, Mexico is cooperating with us; we are going to bring under control this large wave of asylum-seekers. In effect, Mexico's cooperation is ensuring that the migration crises, the periodic crises we've had in the past will be placed under control.
Instead of doing that, he is spoiling for a fight, and he's spoiling for a fight - E.J. is right - partly because he is being ridiculed by many of his staunchest restrictionist supporters. And while he has no problem with the ire of his enemies, he has a real problem with ridicule from his supporters. So I think that that's a big part of what's going on now.
KELLY: E.J. - one sentence, last word.
DIONNE: And if we had had time and he hadn't done this, we could talk about criminal justice reform, which was actually a good deed by Donald Trump, and it...
KELLY: And a rare example...
DIONNE: ...Totally got lost.
KELLY: Yeah, bipartisan, overwhelming support on Capitol Hill, something we never see - E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and Reihan Salam of the National Review - his new book is "Melting Pot Or Civil War?" Thanks to you both for taking the time on this, the shortest day of the year edition of week in politics. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.