ROBERT COSTA: A breach in the Cabinet and Congress on the brink. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Every nation has not only the right, but the absolute duty to protect its borders and its citizens. Without borders we have the reign of chaos, crime, cartels.
MR. COSTA: President Trump digs in on his request for billions for a border wall, rattling Capitol Hill and the markets. And he announces U.S. troops will leave Syria.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) We’ve been fighting for a long time in Syria. I’ve been president for almost two years and we’ve really stepped it up, and we have won against ISIS.
MR. COSTA: But leading Republicans push back.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): (From video.) To say they’re defeated is an overstatement and is fake news.
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): (From video.) The decision to withdraw an American presence in Syria is a colossal, in my mind, mistake, a grave error that’s going to have significant repercussions in the years and months to come.
MR. COSTA: And Defense Secretary James Mattis resigns. Next on Washington Week.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. You join us live on Friday night as Capitol Hill is buzzing just days before Christmas. Our reporters have been closely tracking the showdown over President Trump’s ultimatum over funding for a border wall. Here is what you need to know. The president, he wants 5 billion (dollars) for the wall to be included in the latest government funding bill. But so far the Republican-controlled Congress on the eve of divided government has struggled to find the votes, to say the least, and the president’s demand has sparked a frenzy tonight at the Capitol as lawmakers negotiate, exchange barbs, and try to avert a partial government shutdown at midnight tonight.
SENATE MINORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) President Trump, you will not get your wall. Abandon your shutdown strategy. You’re not getting the wall today, next week, or on January 3rd when Democrats take control of the House.
MR. COSTA: Now, there is a plan B out there. The Senate on Wednesday passed what reporters call a clean bill; in other words, it doesn’t include the 5 billion (dollars) the president wants for his wall, but it would simply fund the government through early February. The clock, though, it’s ticking.
And joining us tonight, Molly Ball, national political correspondent for TIME Magazine; Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Kimberly Atkins, chief Washington reporter for The Boston Herald; and Jake Sherman, senior writer and co-editor of POLITICO’s Playbook.
Jake, you’re live on Capitol Hill tonight. Thanks so much for joining us on this busy evening. We appreciate it. Where do things stand, Jake, in terms of the negotiation? There’s a lot of talk among top aides that maybe there’s a compromise in the works to not give the president 5 billion (dollars) for his wall, but 1.6 billion (dollars).
JAKE SHERMAN: That’s right. I mean, the government – just to be clear, the government is almost certainly, almost without a doubt, shutting down here in about four hours. But it was a fascinating scene today. Basically, Republicans and Democrats in the Senate decided to proceed to a bill – basically to debate a bill to buy time so they can come up with a global agreement so they could pass all seven lingering appropriations bills in the coming days here. So there’s seven bills that need to be passed that deal with a big slice of government, and they’re going to try to work over the next couple days to get it done. Now, there are a lot of pressure points, as you noted, Bob. Like, $1.6 billion is about as much as Democrats will allow for border security – not the president’s wall, but border security. And I just talked to Jim Jordan, the conservative Republican from Ohio, who said 1.6 billion (dollars) is not going to do it for me, and I think that’s the reaction you’re going to get from conservatives across the Capitol. So the question is, what does Donald Trump do? Does he come out and embrace a lower total, 1.6 billion (dollars), instead of 5 billion (dollars), to avoid a prolonged shutdown into next year? It’s not clear to any of us at this point. But Vice President Mike Pence is just around the corner from here in the Capitol with Jared Kushner and Mick Mulvaney, trying to get a deal, doing shuttle diplomacy – literally going between the House and the Senate, trying to negotiate a deal.
MR. COSTA: And some moderate senators, retiring Republicans like Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, they seem to be playing critical roles tonight. Are they trying to get a compromise through the Senate as well?
MR. SHERMAN: They are. Bob Corker voted to proceed on to the bill for a procedural motion that he seemed at least hesitant to take. Jeff Flake switched his vote, voted no and then voted yes when he had assurances that negotiations would happen. It’s definitely a last gasp from Bob Corker, who told us literally yesterday that he was going home and not coming back, and thanked us for all of our work in covering him over the years. So I guess he decided that he was going to have one more deal-making session over the next couple days. But listen, this isn’t a complicated deal. This deal has been cooked in the Senate for a long time. The question is, will Donald Trump accept this $1.6 billion? And we don’t have an answer for that at this point.
MR. COSTA: Bob Corker also told reporters to go have a scotch while everyone waits for these negotiations to finish. I promise you we’re just having – (laughter) – water and coffee here tonight at the table. But, Peter, Jake mentioned that the White House has Vice President Pence, Jared Kushner, Mick Mulvaney – the new chief of staff – on Capitol Hill. The president keeps – said a few days ago he’d be willing to have a shutdown over the 5 billion (dollars). Is the White House walking back that demand?
PETER BAKER: Well, that’s the problem, right? If you’re in the room negotiating with this president or with this president’s people, you don’t know what he’s going to do. One minute he says yes, the next minute he says no. Earlier this week it looked like he was ready to back down and accept, you know, a temporary solution till February. Then he got his backup once the conservative media, Rush Limbaugh and so forth, began pummeling him for caving in, and he went the other direction. So it really makes it harder to negotiate if you don’t know that your negotiating partner is going to stick to a position for longer than, you know, a day, basically.
MR. COSTA: You’ve been covering the Democrats over the last few weeks. Likely Speaker Nancy Pelosi, she’s holding the line. Does she feel and her allies feel that the president’s boxed in here, that they have to accept that original Democratic offer of 1.6 billion (dollars) for the wall, Molly?
MOLLY BALL: They do, and I think that they’ve – they’re somewhat vindicated by the fact that the next offer that appears to be coming down the pike is basically their original position. They haven’t really budged, and Republicans are trying to give them what they want. The original Senate deal gave the Democrats what they wanted. To be clear, the president is never going to have more leverage than he does right now. He’s still got the House. He’s still got both houses of Congress. Now, he does need 60 Republican votes to get something through the Senate. There was unimaginable level of relief on Capitol Hill, particularly among Republicans, when earlier this week he not only signaled that he would support this deal, but tweeted in support of it. But then, as Peter said, he changed his mind. And so even with Mike Pence and Jared Kushner, nobody on Capitol Hill feels they can trust any of the people negotiating on Trump’s behalf or even negotiating directly with Trump, because he can turn around and change his mind. And so, you know, everybody there would just like to go home, and nobody is as invested in the border wall as the president is. The reason that the Senate unanimously passed this deal that didn’t include a border wall – it included a rather nominal amount of border security – is that they don’t care about the wall as much as Trump does, and the House doesn’t care about the wall as much as Trump does. And that’s why for two years they’ve been putting him off and not funding the wall, because they don’t – he’s the one who wants this. And he has realized he’s the one who’s going to have to insist on this for it to get done, and even then it may not.
MR. COSTA: If the talks continue tonight, Kim, the government will partially shut down. What does that mean for federal workers? What does that mean for the country?
KIMBERLY ATKINS: Yeah, so there are – that means about 25 percent of the government, their employees, will either be furloughed – meaning they won’t go to work, they won’t get paid – or they will have to go to work, if they’re essential, and not get paid, either way. And these aren’t just people here in Washington; these are people throughout the country, and they’re also working at some of the most – the key agencies that the president is talking about when it comes to border security, right? We’re talking about – we’re talking about Homeland Security, the DOJ, customs and border enforcement. The very folks that are the focus of these talks will be the ones showing up to work every day – because they are mostly essential – and not being paid while this fight plays out, which is something that I’m not sure the president has thought that part of it through, the optics of it. Plus, it’s right before Christmas. It’s just terrible optics, and there are folks that are – on the Republican side that are concerned about that.
MR. BAKER: Just what you want, unpaid TSA agents –
MS. ATKINS: Right, as going on a plane.
MR. BAKER: – as everybody’s getting on a plane to go home for the holidays.
MS. ATKINS: Exactly.
MR. COSTA: So that’s part of maybe the pressure points here. But, Jake, what about the markets tumbling today? Has that forced lawmakers to try to get a deal done?
MR. SHERMAN: You know, I was just talking to somebody about this. I can’t remember the last time I heard any member of Congress talk about the stock market, which is shocking to think about. But it does play into the backdrop of the political climate at the moment. The president, obviously, is exceedingly focused on the stock market and the economic indicators across the economy, basically. But I will say they feel comfortable in this shutdown, which is ironic because Saturday and Sunday are weekends and a lot of the government’s not open on weekends, and Monday and Tuesday are federal holidays. The president just declared Christmas Eve – the government’s closed on Christmas Eve. So they feel like they could actually keep the government closed a couple days. They have some cushion. If I had to guess, though, there will be some agreement here in the next 24 to 36 hours. That’s just the sense that I get from being in the hallways and talking to people. There were some people that thought there might even be an agreement tonight. They have to give their members 24 hours to get back to Washington. Many people went home. Carlos Curbelo from Florida was a flight to Miami tonight. So people need time to get back here, and I think we’ll see that in the next couple days.
MR. COSTA: I want to come back to something, Peter, you brought up, the right-wing rebellion. It was only Wednesday I was at the Capitol and it seemed like a deal was imminent, that they would have some kind of short-term clean resolution, or maybe with 1.6 billion (dollars) attached. Then you heard about Fox News and Rush Limbaugh saying the president was caving on his signature promise. Senators were saying there’s almost a tyranny – that’s the Corker line today – tyranny of the right wing driving this president. Is that what the view is inside of the White House, that he’s listening to these conservative voices more than voices who maybe work for him on the White House staff or are associated with him in Congress?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, I mean, you know, Ann Coulter seemed to have more of an impact than Mitch McConnell, right? Mitch McConnell has done an awful lot for this president and gotten through his Supreme Court nominees and a lot of other judges, gotten through what he could do on legislation. And yet, when Ann Coulter writes a pretty tough column saying this is a president who has failed on his most signature campaign promise – and that is the issue here; it is his most signature campaign promise – he gets all worked up about it. He unfollows her on Twitter, but basically then is following her in terms of his policy priorities at the moment. He gets very sensitive to this. And in fact, you hear former aides of his and current aides of his talk about how the way to shape his thinking is to make sure you get your people out on Fox News to describe what is going on, and they didn’t do that. They didn’t get their side out on Fox News for him to hear.
MR. COSTA: But I wonder, Kim, is that the whole story with President Trump? At one level he’s constantly listening to the right wing. But you also look at what happened this week: they passed a bipartisan farm bill, they passed criminal justice reform with bipartisan support. What’s the real story with where this administration is going in divided government?
MS. ATKINS: Yeah, those are two things you think he would be doing victory laps over. But what else is happening this week? We have the increased pressure from the Mueller investigation, things going wrong, and when that happens you tend to see the president want to fight. He feels sort of in his – in his element when he is fighting a fight and he has an opponent. And he went right back to the wall, which is just a part of his identity at this point. He loves fighting that battle over the wall. It was driven in part by the conservative media commentators. But it brings him back to his base. We saw a similar thing happen when the larger immigration reform attempt kind of fizzled out. There was a deal that was ready to be done and at the last minute the White House torpedoed it because he was reminded your base does not want amnesty, they want the wall, and he walked away.
MR. COSTA: Is that what this really all comes down to, then, Molly? The whole fight, this whole showdown on a Friday night, is it about the president signaling to that core voter we may have to have a deal here at the end of the day, but at least I fought to the eleventh hour?
MS. BALL: The theme of the Trump presidency for the last two years has been that he is president for this base of Trump lovers, Trump supporters and not for the rest of America. He’s not particularly interested in the fact that he’s got an approval rating in the high 30s and just experienced an epic political repudiation in the midterms. That doesn’t bother him, but it does bother him.
And what I don’t really understand is, what would happen if he were to try to lead them on this issue rather than being led by them? Because on all sorts of issues, he has led the Republican base into uncharted territory, whether it’s being friendly to Vladimir Putin, whether it’s being against federal law enforcement and the DOJ, against Jeff Sessions, previously revered by the Republican base, on all kinds of issues he has been the one leading the base and they have followed him. The famous 5th Avenue quote, right? He could basically do anything and they would follow him there.
And yet on immigration, he continues to feel that this is the issue that he has to follow not just the base, but, I mean, because even majorities of Republican voters, even majorities of Trump supporters don’t necessarily support a super hard line on immigration or the wall itself. And yet, the Ann Coulters of the world, who represent a small splice of that Republican base, he absolutely feels that he cannot earn their displeasure.
MR. COSTA: Jake, final point on this. If they do come up with a spending agreement, based on what Molly just said, if the right is still up in arms about any kind of deal, does that mean an agreement, should one be made, will likely have to pass through the House and through the Senate with mostly Democratic votes?
MR. SHERMAN: Well, it’ll pass the Senate with, like, 90 votes because both parties are in agreement on the broad spectrum of issues here. But the real danger for the president and, furthermore, Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan, who’s halfway out the door at this point, is that a majority of Republicans in the House do not support the deal. And that’s really, really scary for this president because he has communicated privately to people, the White House has communicated privately that they really need a majority of Republicans on this bill.
One more point here. Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy have been promising this border wall fight now for almost two years. They kept telling him not advantageous to do it now, let’s push it off, let’s push it off, and the president’s finally saying, where is this fight? Now you’ve told me for two years we’re going to have this fight, we haven’t had it and now it’s at the end of Republican Washington, we need to have this fight. And that’s what I think – why I think the president’s fighting so hard here because he’s put it off for so long and he thinks it’s time to really have this showdown.
MR. COSTA: Let’s turn to another big topic this week. President Trump suddenly announced this week that he is pulling U.S. forces out of Syria, rocking officials at the Pentagon, who were not expecting the announcement. President Trump has advocated for pulling troops back from Syria for a long time, but the decision to exit without careful coordination surprised U.S. allies and Defense Secretary James Mattis. Mattis widely is seen as one of the steadiest hands in the Cabinet; he resigned soon after this decision was made. And in his resignation letter, he wrote, “Because you have the right to have a secretary of defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”
Peter, a monumental breach in the Cabinet. This was not a retirement, as President Trump tweeted. This was a resignation, a rebuke.
MR. BAKER: That’s right, a resignation in protest, which is not a common thing in Washington. I mean, a lot of times, people might quit government, but they don’t say so as they leave the door that it’s because they’re unhappy with the president, usually not advantageous to them. Jim Mattis makes very clear in his letter what his problems are. He says that we ought to be standing up to the Chinese and the Russians and we ought to be standing with the Germans and French and British and our other allies and we’re not doing either of those things; and therefore, it’s time for me to leave.
This is, oddly enough as we’re talking about the president’s following the lead of conservatives, the opposite of that. This is where he’s taking on the dominant conservative thinking within his party, which tends to be more hawkish, which tends to be pro leaving troops in Syria and Afghanistan, definitely pro Jim Mattis. You heard Lindsey Graham, who’s been one of President Trump’s biggest allies in recent months, being caustic in his response, saying this is an Obama-like mistake.
So suddenly, you’ve got this odd dichotomy where he’s with the right on the border wall and he’s against the right on pulling home. And in his view, this is all of a piece, it’s all about the same thing, America first, right? He sees a connection to these things that is ideologically coherent. But within the Republican Party, it exposes a lot of fissures.
MR. COSTA: When you think about this idea that Secretary Mattis was the “adult in the room,” that’s widely talked about throughout Washington, who now plays a countering role to what Peter was talking about, that America first instinct, Molly? Is it Secretary Pompeo? Is it John Bolton, the national security adviser?
MS. BALL: I think nobody knows and that’s why so many people are so frightened. You heard a really – a real sense of panic from some of the most sober-minded and sort of patrician minds in Washington, members of the national security establishment, who even up to now have been relatively sanguine, feeling like they could trust people like – people like Mattis and also John Kelly, the generals, those experienced hands who were there with Trump, who would literally swat his finger away from the button if it got to that point. And those people aren’t there anymore, none of them are there. Tillerson maybe might have been counted as one of this group in the past.
And so there is less and less feeling that there is any check on Trump. And so this is why you’re seeing the markets swoon. This is why you’re seeing a real sense of fear and trepidation in Washington is the concern that maybe he really has cast off all these restraints.
You know, for the first two years of his presidency, I think of the signal promises of Trumpism that countervened the sort of bipartisan consensus as being trade, foreign policy and immigration. So there was a bipartisan really consensus in the Democratic and Republican establishment against tariffs and trade wars, against isolationism, pulling troops out of all of our places that we are abroad, and against building a wall. And he has figured out that if he just gets rid of these people who have been holding him back, he can do all that stuff and that is deeply disruptive, just as he promised.
MR. COSTA: So beyond being disruptive on policy and personnel, he’s disruptive with these wars. What does it mean in Afghanistan and in Syria, Kim?
MS. ATKINS: Yeah, I mean, I think it remains to be seen. A lot of people are worried, yes, there are about 2,200 troops in Syria, in northern Syria, not a huge amount, but it brings back memories of Iraq and when we had a drawdown there and it left a vacuum in which ISIS was able to thrive. And that if the real focus, as President Trump said so forcefully during his campaign, is fighting these terrorist groups because they pose such a danger to the United States, that this could very well be a premature declaration of victory.
And beyond that, I mean, it is, when it comes to Mattis’ resignation, it is about these two different views of how to approach this, but it’s also a worldview that is so different. His letter was so extraordinary. I think he wrote it for the history books to lay out very clearly the world – for the world really that the United States should be standing with its allies, the United States should be cleareyed about its adversaries and work toward those interests, and the president doesn’t believe that, so I can’t work there. It’s a stunning rebuke.
MR. COSTA: Jake, the view on Capitol Hill, are they stunned as well about Secretary Mattis’ departure? Or is President Trump still in full grip of his own party?
MR. SHERMAN: I think we have to keep in mind that on Capitol Hill people like Mattis and Pompeo and John Kelly are the people that actually interact the most with members of Congress. They get briefed. I mean, Mattis is up here all the time. Pompeo, I saw him this week walking out of future Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. So they have a rapport with these people and they deal with them a lot, so I think that there’s a lot of shock.
You saw Mitch McConnell last night issue a very strong-worded statement about Mattis’ departure, which was stunning for him, stunning for a congressional leader. You saw a similar one – Paul Ryan issued one when John Kelly announced his resignation.
Now, is he in full control of his party? I think he’s losing some control with some of these decisions. You are seeing people like Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham take very serious issue with their – with his military decisions. And the fact that he is not briefing people, I mean, listen, Republicans had a lot of disagreements with Obama about his military strategy, his foreign policy, but he briefed key players on Capitol Hill all the time, kept them in the know.
MR. COSTA: Jake, who’s the frontrunner to replace Secretary Mattis? Is it Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas or somebody else?
MR. SHERMAN: I think Tom Cotton would have a tough time because I think Tom Cotton disagrees with a lot of things the president has done. I think that it would be helpful if it was somebody from the Senate because they would have an easier time getting through, getting through confirmation, but I think it’s a little too early to say.
MR. COSTA: Peter, you mentioned how this underscores President Trump’s instincts on foreign policy, a noninterventionist, not a George W. Bush hawk. Has he always been that? Is that where this Republican Party is going? Because there’s always the discussion about Mattis’ departure and him as a person. But really, where is this administration going on foreign policy?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, it’s a great question. And in fairness to, you know, to President Trump, nobody should be surprised by this or the border wall. These are things he talked about consistently, passionately, repeatedly as a candidate and obviously since becoming president. He has felt held back, held back by the Congress, held back by Jim Mattis, held back, as Molly was just saying, by all the people around him and he does seem to be sort of feeling more liberated now.
His view is not that different from President Obama’s, which is that it’s a waste of our resources and time to be enmeshed in these Middle East conflicts that we can’t really solve anyway. Now, the difference in President Obama and President Trump is in fact partly process, how you go about doing it. Right? Jake just mentioned briefings. Like, you don’t leave your defense secretary so upset about your process that he decides to resign. You don’t leave the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff out of the room without some consequence. You know, allies are flustered about what to make of this.
But he has always said he thinks America should be focused back at home, less interventionist, less on the ground in all these different places where people are killed and he sees it for no particular value.
MR. COSTA: You don’t see anyone almost in the GOP with that same view.
MR. BAKER: Well, this is the problem. I mean, if you talked about going to the Senate for a defense secretary, I don’t know who in that Senate would agree with him, at least on the largescale, of these things. And Jack Keane, I’ve seen his name mentioned, a general, used to be vice chair of the Joint Chiefs, he’s a very hawkish figure. I can’t imagine him –
MR. COSTA: The closest could be Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.
MS. BALL: That would certainly be an interesting turn of events if that were the case.
MR. COSTA: But right, he almost shares the views.
MS. BALL: Well, here is the thing, is that I think the difference between –
MR. COSTA: You’ve got 30 seconds left.
MS. BALL: – even about even a Rand Paul is that, you know, we can’t overlook the Russia angle in all this, the fact that President Trump did what was most advantageous for Russian President Putin. And the fact that he has so consistently gone against the interests of our allies in favor of our adversaries – and I don’t think that – and against international institutions like NATO.
MR. COSTA: What a night, we have to leave it there. Thank you, everyone.
And thank you for joining us tonight. Our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Podcast. You can find that on our website and also on your favorite podcast app.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us and enjoy the holidays.
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