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Border wall dispute sets latest government shutdown apart

The partial government shutdown is nearing 2019, when President Trump may have to adjust to a more openly defiant House of Representatives as Democrats take the majority. New York Times national political correspondent Michael Tackett joins Alison Stewart to discuss the roots of the shutdown stalemate, as well as Trump’s relationships with Russia, China and his high-turnover staff.

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  • ALISON STEWART:

    Joining us now from Washington, D.C., is New York Times national political correspondent Michael Tackett. Michael, welcome.

  • MICHAEL TACKETT:

    Thanks for having me.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    All right, so next week the Democrats take control of the House of Representatives after gaining 40 seats. Given President Trump's governing style, how is he going to have to adjust?

  • MICHAEL TACKETT:

    Well, he's facing a dramatically different terrain as he goes into this week. He goes from having a House of Representatives that was acquiescent to one that's going to be openly defiant. So he's going to have to change his ways if he wants to get anything done. Whether or not he'll do that, of course, is always the open question.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    This weekend, Vladimir Putin wrote a letter to Donald Trump — a New Year's letter — that said that Moscow is ready to engage in a dialogue on, quote, "wide ranging agendas." What does that mean?

  • MICHAEL TACKETT:

    Well, I guess you have to be a Kremlinologist to know that for sure. I just don't think that's necessarily politically helpful for President Trump to have open communication with Vladimir Putin at a time that the Mueller investigation has yet to conclude.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    He also tweeted that, "Just had a very long and very good call with President Xi of China. Deal is moving along very well. If made, it will be very comprehensive, covering all subjects, areas and points of dispute. Big progress being made, exclamation point." What are the points of dispute President Trump is referring to?

  • MICHAEL TACKETT:

    I'm not really sure there. I mean. I think if you go back into his Twitter feed and you'll see something similar said several different times about China. So what I'll be looking for, what I think is the purest measure of whether or not there's real progress, will be what the financial markets say. If the financial markets respond very positively, then that will signal that they believe real progress is being made. If not, then that shows some skepticism.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    These talks are supposed to conclude on March 1, these talks with China. What happens if no deal is reached?

  • MICHAEL TACKETT:

    Well, if no deal is reached, then the president has said that he will impose, or at least reserve the right to impose, massive new sanctions on China. So that's the big incentive, I guess, for both sides to end this kind of trade war because nobody's winning.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    You mentioned the president's staff, about the turnover, there's been quite a bit, obviously, of very big positions — A.G., secretary of defense, chief of staff. In 2019, who are we likely to see in permanent positions?

  • MICHAEL TACKETT:

    Boy, that's a tough one. I don't think 'permanent' is a word I would use for some of these top posts. Part of that's a natural transition. Now, these are really grinding jobs, no matter who the president is. People often only stay for a year, two years, and then they go back to their lives. So, here, though we have a lot of people who have the title of 'Acting.' We have an acting attorney general, acting chief of staff. Now, we do have a nominee for attorney general, so that could change.

    And then of course, the next thing we will look for is will Mick Mulvaney take over as a permanent chief of staff, and we'll be looking for who's going to replace the defense secretary Jim Mattis.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Mentioning chiefs of staff, John Kelly gave a pretty wide-ranging interview to The Los Angeles Times, and there's one piece of this interview that keeps coming up in all the headlines. It's about the president's wall, the wall he has promised his base and his supporters. And John Kelly said of the wall, "to be honest, it's not a wall."

  • MICHAEL TACKETT:

    That was really sort of remarkable. You know, it's sort of like the old joke about Washington: a gaffe is when somebody tells the truth.

    And we're sort of in that position right now. I mean, I think what he's saying is, the president has said over and over again. At first it was a concrete wall, then it was a different kind of barrier. Now maybe it's some sort of steel slats, and really you can't call it a physical wall because most people who've looked at the border know that you can't actually literally put a physical wall all across the border. Nancy Pelosi, of course, sort of mocked this the other day when she said: well, perhaps he'll settle for a beaded curtain.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Well, of course, the wall is at the beginning of this government shutdown we're going through right now. You've covered many presidents. And you've covered many shutdowns. What's different about this one?

  • MICHAEL TACKETT:

    I guess what's different about this is there seems to be sort of a singular point of contention, and the wall is clearly becoming a very expensive symbol of dysfunction. Nobody actually wins a shutdown, although someone will be assigned blame for the shutdown. The president himself has said he would be, quote-unquote, "happy to own it." Well, here it is.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Michael Tackett from the New York Times, thanks so much for being with us.

  • MICHAEL TACKETT:

    Thank you.

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