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Tamara Keith and Amy Walter on Mattis departure, government shutdown

Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report and Tamara Keith of NPR join Nick Schifrin to discuss the accelerated departure of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, why the ongoing government shutdown grants President Trump the fight he desires and how the Republican Party has been redefined in his image.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    It might be Christmas Eve, but that doesn't mean politics in Washington has any plans of slowing down.

    From the departure of Secretary Mattis, to the government shutdown, our dynamic Politics Monday duo is here to break it all down. That is Tamara Keith of NPR and Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report.

    All right, Tamara Keith, we have just been talking about the policy of Afghanistan, of Syria, of this moment with Secretary Mattis' departure.

    What are the politics of this moment? Does it matter that Secretary Mattis wanted to stay until February, but will be leaving next week?

  • Tamara Keith:

    So, he resigned in protest. That matters.

    And talking to Sarah Sanders at the White House, she said the president didn't want a long, drawn-out transition with someone who he clearly disagrees with, who wrote a resignation letter that was pretty damning of the president and his policies.

    And then you also have the possibility that Mattis would be on like a goodbye tour, receiving love and support, with the president watching, and potentially even being called to testify before Congress.

    So, President Trump, according to Sanders, said, hey, I like this guy who is the deputy, let's make him the acting defense secretary.

    It is not — just to be clear it, is not normal for there to be an acting defense secretary. Typically, defense secretaries wait until their replacement is confirmed. This is a very big, important position in the federal government.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes. We're, what, on our fifth Cabinet-level position now that will have an acting secretary, so that's obviously not particularly normal either.

    You know, it seemed this week as if we hit this new place with Republicans, with Republicans in the Senate particularly, many of whom came out over the weekend expressing dismay about Mattis' departure, expressing dismay about potentially new Syria policy.

    And it seems like this is the place that many people have thought we were going to see earlier in the president's tenure, with the party splitting from the president, openly and actively, as he goes against traditional Republican orthodoxy.

    They have complained about tariffs. Not really done anything. They have complained about his behavior. Not really done anything.

    When it comes to foreign policy, though, we are going to see if this is the breaking point, or whether it is just another example — or we will see just another example of Republicans hand-wringing, but, woe is us, there is nothing we can do.

    Does the Senate want to prove that it's a co-equal part of government or fall in line?

  • Tamara Keith:

    But when it comes do military decisions, it is difficult for the Senate to prove that it wants to be a co-equal branch of government.

  • Amy Walter:

    It is.

  • Tamara Keith:

    They haven't been able to pass an authorization of use to use military force since, what, like 2002, 2003?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A new one, as many senators have wanted to do, right.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Tamara Keith:

    Right. They talk about it.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amy Walter:

    But they also can decide whether there is going to be money spent on certain decisions.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the obvious rejoinder here is that, yes, some in Congress have objected to this, some senators or representatives have hand-wrung when it comes to the president, but the bottom line is, they have not really pushed back on the president, and they especially have not pushed back on foreign policy, just because of the difficulty of that.

  • Amy Walter:

    That's right, on foreign policy. There is the difficulty on that.

    And the president's overall broader argument about the — Americans' involvement in these seemingly never-ending quagmires is one in which there is a broad agreement, but…

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The military calls them wars.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes. There is some agreement there.

    But I will be fascinated to see what the confirmation process is going to look like for this new secretary of defense and once again…

  • Nick Schifrin:

    If there is one, because…

  • Amy Walter:

    If there is one. Or can we continue to exist with…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We can have an acting secretary of defense for quite a long time, actually.

  • Amy Walter:

    That's right. That's right.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    All right, let's switch over to the shutdown.

    And let's listen to Mick Mulvaney, who, as you guys know, is the director of the OMB, the Office of Management and Budget, and the acting chief of staff, speaking this weekend.

  • Mick Mulvaney:

    He is proud to have this fight.

    As to where we are in the back and forth, again, the ball right now is in their corner. We have made them an offer yesterday afternoon. So the Senate Democrats have the ability right now to open the government and agree to the deal.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, Tamara Keith, he is proud to be in this place, and it is all on the Senate Democrats, that is the message we are hearing from the White House, right?

  • Tamara Keith:

    Right.

    And the Democrats in the House and Senate will say it is a Trump shutdown. And they have a great surrogate for them. That would be the president himself, not two weeks ago in the Oval Office, saying he is proud of it.

    They put out a statement today essentially saying, we don't even know who to talk to because we get a different answer from every person we talk to in the White House.

    That is not the sign of a shutdown coming to an end. That is a sign of an impasse. And how do they get out of it? Well, one way is — the most likely way is that maybe Democrats come up in the dollar amount, the White House comes down in the dollar amount. That seems like an outline of where they are going.

    The problem, though, then is, Democrats say whatever the dollar amount, it can't be spent on the wall, and the president says whatever the dollar amount, it must be spent on the wall. So then you are still stuck.

  • Amy Walter:

    Right.

    And I thought it was so appropriate that Mulvaney used the term fight. That's what the president is interested in here. This isn't about having a prolonged debate over border policy or immigration. This is about, I want to have an actual opponent. When I have an opponent and the focus isn't on me, it is on how bad the other side is. Then I look better and I thrive in that kind of environment.

    That really has been on display, obviously, for the entirety of his presidency. But the fact that he sees that this is a winning strategy has not lived up to his billing. We just had an election not that long ago where it was a referendum on that exact strategy, on that, the way that he has run the presidency, and Democrats had a very big night.

    They won the House popular vote by almost nine points. They picked up 40 seats. Even in places that Republicans traditionally do well, Republicans lost. So, if this is the message going forward, I am just going to do more of what I did for the first two years, because the American public likes what they are seeing, well, they certainly didn't say that in November.

  • Tamara Keith:

    And — and, in the midterms, in these rallies leading up to the voting, he talked about a wall a lot. He made it all about immigration. Remember the caravan? It was all about the caravan and the wall and the immigration fight.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Amy, I want to go back to something that you said about the Republican Party and the infighting.

    I want to show the last edition of "The Weekly Standard," which is publishing today. This was a primary voice of conservative Washington for so many years, obviously problems of subscription, of revenue, but dominant organ of neoconservative thinking a few years ago, very critical of Trump.

    Isn't this a sign that the Trumpian side is winning this debate?

  • Amy Walter:

    Right.

    Well, again, let's look at what they actually have won. The president now has an 89 percent approval rating the among Republicans. It is remarkable, given that, three years ago, he wasn't really running as a Republican to be president of the United States, right? He was running as outside of this.

    He goes against so much of the orthodoxy, traditional orthodoxy of the Republican Party. And, at the same time, we have seen the parties splitting apart, at least among the traditional coalition, when you look at the 2018 results.

    The fact that Orange County, California, like "The Weekly Standard," once the…

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Not far from where I grew up, yes.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amy Walter:

    … bastion of traditional conservative everything, has now flipped to Democrats, there is not one Republican who represents Orange County in Congress.

    So, the party has been redefined and reoriented in Trump's image. The question really that is fascinating — and I think a lot of Republicans are thinking forward to this — what happens when there is no Trump to define Trumpianism? Is it going to go back to those "Weekly Standard" days, or is it going to stay in the Trump direction?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    All right, we will have to leave it there.

    Amy Walter, Tamara Keith, thanks to you both.

  • Amy Walter:

    You're welcome.

  • Tamara Keith:

    You're welcome.

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