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Shields and Gerson on Mattis’ resignation, congressional stalemate

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson join Judy Woodruff to analyze the week’s political news, including the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the congressional scramble to fund the government and avoid a partial shutdown.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The White House and Congress may have clinched that new criminal justice law this week, but, this evening, they are on the brink of a partial government shutdown, even as they continue to process the resignation of the secretary of defense.

    Here to analyze this week of upheaval are Shields and Gerson. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. David Brooks is away.

    Hello to both of you.

  • Mark Shields:

    Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, I don't think, Mark, you could call it an orderly week in Washington. Yes, there was this agreement the president signed, the criminal justice reform bill today, but here we are, just hours away from yet another government shutdown.

    What does it say about the way things are working right now in our government?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, not well, Judy.

    I mean, we went from a week ago, if you recall, in the White House, which seems eons ago, when Senator Schumer and Democratic House leader and speaker-to-be Pelosi met with the president, and the president manfully stepped up and said, I will take the shutdown, and I will be happy to do it on my — put it to me.

    Then to an agreement with the Senate it would stay — they would fund it through the year, and then come back and revisit it, and then immediately a reaction, a revulsion, if you would, from the president's longest and strongest supporters, TV commentators on the right such as Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and said that this was a sellout on the wall, Ann Coulter going so far as to say his presidency was a joke, and that he had scammed the American people.

    So now we have to have funding for the wall, or else. And so that's really where it is. I mean, it's loggerheads, wherever loggerheads are found. I think they're somewhere outside of Bozeman, Montana.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    But, no, that's where it is.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michael, so the president is pointing a finger at the Democrats. The Democrats are saying, wait a minute, you're the one who said a few days ago you would be proud to own this shutdown.

    So where does the fault lie?

  • Michael Gerson:

    Well, big picture, this shows how easy the president of the United States is to manipulate.

    He had agreed to a deal. Then some of his toughest supporters, Limbaugh and Coulter and some of the team in the FOX News morning programs, came out against it, and he changed his view like a puppet on a string. It was really extraordinary, a sign of weak leadership.

    And I can bet you that Russia and China and North Korea look at something like that, about how easy this president is to manipulate. So, that's the context for this.

    You know, so I don't think that he can make a particularly good case, having agreed already to something rather reasonable, you know, that he changed his view with good reason. He can't make that case.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we heard Senator Rubio saying they were told at the White House a few days ago by the vice president that they had agreed, that they were…

  • Mark Shields:

    At the luncheon, at the luncheon of the senators.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's right.

  • Mark Shields:

    That's right. Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Mark, where is this — is there any good outcome from this? I mean, they're still negotiating. We don't know — at this hour.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    They're still negotiating, Judy. And I don't know.

    I think there may be some political necessity right now for it to be shut down for a while. The president — I don't know. But it's tough. I mean, the people are leaving town, have left town.

    And, you know, the week was — the trauma of the week was Secretary Mattis, and there's no question about it. That was the monumental event.

    And I would say that there was alarm after the president's appearance at Helsinki with Mr. Putin. I think there was alarm after the firing of FBI Director Comey.

    But there was panic, bipartisan, nonpartisan panic, in this city, and I think in the country and in the world, when Jim Mattis, General Jim Mattis, left as secretary of defense.

    I mean, he was seen, and I think rightfully so, as the thoughtful, well-read, well-prepared, country-before-self leader who believed in reciprocal burdens and benefits to the United States with other countries, and was fighting that cause, and had some influence on Donald Trump, but left on his own terms.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we talked about this earlier in the program with some of our other guests, Leon Panetta, Richard Haass, Senator Rubio, Michael.

    But what does this say about this president, that, at this stage, two years in, he and James Mattis are separating?

  • Michael Gerson:

    I talked with a non-histrionic member of — Republican member of the Senate today, who said twice in the course of our conversation: "We are in peril. We are in peril."

    Now, some of the reason is because all of our allies did rely on him to provide the intel, is the president serious about his latest attacks on us or not?

    And he was — he assured our allies. But he played another role among Republicans in the Senate, was to provide some level of assurance that the most basic purposes of government were being fulfilled. They could say, I don't like his tweets, and his policy is absurd, and he changes his mind on this, and I'm critical of all this, but at least he has Mattis in that place.

    And now they have lost "but at least." And that, I think, is the big change. You know, you look at his resignation letter, which coldly and rationally said to the president, you do not understand our friends, and you do not understand our enemies.

    And that's about it, right?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Michael Gerson:

    I mean, there's no one else to understand. It was a comprehensive critique of the president by the secretary of defense, you know, not an angry one, but a very serious one.

    And to leave that as a document of our time is, you know, unprecedented, extraordinary.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I think back, Mark, to the anonymous person who wrote that letter to The New York Times that: I'm inside this administration. I'm fighting for the things that matter to this country.

    But where is the check? I put this question to Senator Rubio and the others. Where is the check on the president, for those who think that things have just — are going to run amok now?

  • Mark Shields:

    Not to be partisan, but I think it's Republicans, the kind of people that Michael was talking to today, that I have talked to, who basically have been mute, who stand paralyzed by the Mark Sanford experience, namely, the former governor and then congressman from South Carolina, who President Trump — who alienated President Trump and who President Trump opposed and defeated in his primary.

    And I think they live in — have lived in mortal fear. It's time for them to man up, step up. And I just — I think, Judy, the Mattis thing is so big, that, picking up on what Michael said, most responses in this town to anything that happens are in silos politically. They're politically predictable.

    And, on this one, you had almost the same statement from Seneca, South Carolina's, favorite son and Donald Trump's new best friend, Lindsey Graham, Lindsey Graham, a hawk on defense, and Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader from the Bay Area of San Francisco, a card-carrying liberal.

    And they both said the same thing, that the loss of Jim Mattis was a tragedy for the country and a loss that's incalculable. And so that's what I say about the sense of panic.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you had the comment, unusual comment from the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, Michael, saying that he was concerned about the reason, just what you were citing, the reasons that Secretary Mattis gave in his letter.

    But my question remains, where is the check? If there should be a check, where is it going to come from?

  • Michael Gerson:

    Well, unfortunately, Senator Rubio is right. On foreign policy issues, the president has a lot of leeway. They can't force him to stay in Syria.

    And part of this concerns not just personnel. It's actually policy. Getting out of Syria is a terrible idea, from many different perspectives. We are in the process of pursuing a buildup to a major operations against ISIS in the Euphrates Valley that now is off the table.

    You know, this — it gives the Turks free hand with the Kurds. Those things are also bothering members of Congress. And, you know, they will register their dissent in the debates. There will be debates on the new secretary of defense. There will have to be congressional debates on that.

    And you — we will see how they react to the broader Mueller report. That will be very, very important. But, you know, there are limits to what you can do on foreign policy, I'm afraid.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what about on domestic policy, Mark?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, Judy, I think that what we have seen, quite honestly, first of all, you have got a Democratic House that's coming in. And that has struck fear.

    But I think what the president did and the way he did it this week, as far as Syria was concerned, and now Afghanistan — and I think that we have lacked a public debate in this country. There hasn't been a thoughtful, serious debate. The Congress has abdicated its responsibility.

    And successive administrations, in my judgment, have failed to make the public case, or to have entertained public criticism and debate on this issue. But the way it was done, the decision was arrived at, for the president to justify it solely on the basis of, it was a campaign promise he was keeping some two years later, it suggests to me that there is panic within the White House and right within the White House residence.

    I mean, we have seen the spotlight — or the flashlight, then the spotlight focused on Trump University. And what it saw, it closed down. We have seen it on the Trump Foundation, the charitable foundation. And what they saw, they closed down.

    And now it's on the inaugural. And then it's on the campaign. And now it's the administration. I think what we see in a president, Judy, is a president who is concerned and so alarmed that what the Mueller report is going to reveal is, he's going to have to hold onto that 35 or 40 percent base, and he will do anything he can.

    I think it's that serious. I think it's that grave. I don't think anybody really gauges how peril — in peril this presidency is, except a few Republicans I have talked to really believe that the end is probably in sight.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But the end what?

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    The end of this administration.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In what way, impeachment or resignation?

  • Mark Shields:

    That the Trump — that the Mueller report will be so serious, that the Democrats, who really don't seek impeachment or the fight, that it's almost going to be inevitable that the Congress, House will be forced to vote on it.

  • Michael Gerson:

    Yes, I have heard one Republican today that I talked to say — call this the beginning to have the end. They felt that.

    That is going to be the only question, when the Mueller report comes out, and the strength of the report will determine that. I think there are at least some Republicans that are talking now that the president needs a challenge in the primaries, and that he needs to lose reelection.

    And these are — but, right now, these are not loud voices in the Republican Party, because the base has not turned. But you do hear that sort of talk among responsible Republicans.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sober note at the end of a week, I think, like no other.

  • Mark Shields:

    Like no other week.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Like no other week that I remember in Washington, and I have been here for 40 years.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michael Gerson, Mark Shields.

  • Mark Shields:

    You came in the third grade?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you both.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you, Judy.

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