News Brief: Jim Mattis, Government Shutdown Looms, Mike Pompeo

Dec 21, 2018
Originally published on December 21, 2018 10:30 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

At the start of President Trump's administration, a handful of retired generals filled key national security posts. They were seen as steadying figures. But one by one, they left. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was the last.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Mattis said yesterday he is resigning at the end of February. He is a retired four-star Marine general who has been a respected member of the Trump administration. Here's Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer responding to news of the resignation.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: Secretary Mattis was one of the few symbols, the few items of strength and stability in this administration.

INSKEEP: And Trump was enthusiastic about him for quite some time. His resignation came one day after the president announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria. Hours later, we learned more about administration plans. A U.S. official tells our colleague Tom Bowman that the president has ordered 7,000 U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, about half the U.S. force there.

KING: And Tom Bowman is here with us now. Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.

KING: So do we know what drove Secretary Mattis' decision to leave right now?

BOWMAN: You know, we don't know for sure. But it seems like the troop cuts in Afghanistan, a cut of some 50 percent, was the final straw. Add to that the president's decision this week to remove all U.S. troops from Syria. Now, as far as Syria, Mattis talked recently in Canada with coalition countries involved in defeating ISIS in Syria and - saying the fight is not over. Let's listen.

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SEC OF DEFENSE JAMES MATTIS: There's more work to be done. That hardened core means a tough fight in there plus the potential for it to try to become more influential worldwide, influential meaning inspiring attacks by surrogates, by those who've pledged allegiance to them.

BOWMAN: Now, I know Mattis talked to folks saying he was opposed to bringing all the troops out of Syria. But there was no indication he would leave over that, Noel. So it seems Afghanistan and those cuts were just too much for him to bear.

But this relationship with Trump was steadily going downhill over the last year, really. And I'm told communication between the White House and the Pentagon all but ended. And what I'm picking up is it all started with the missile strikes earlier this year against chemical weapon sites in Syria, you'll remember.

KING: Yeah.

BOWMAN: Trump wanted much stronger strikes, and Mattis didn't want to go too far and risk maybe killing Russian advisers to the Syrian government. But, you know, beyond that, there were multiple differences over policy almost since he first came in. You know, Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement. Mattis was in favor of staying in.

Mattis wanted more troops for Afghanistan. And Trump agreed but said it was his instinct to leave. And finally, Trump wanted to toss out transgender troops, and Mattis was wary of that - that idea. He takes very seriously, I'm told, those who volunteer to serve.

KING: A lot of big disagreements along the way. And also, now, a very big question, Tom, which is what happens to Syria?

BOWMAN: Well, with Syria, people say there could be a bloodbath. There could be ethnic cleansing now that the U.S. troops are pulling out. You could have more Iranian influence in the country threatening Israel. Turkey is now saying they may come in and further destabilize that country, pushing away the Kurdish rebels who were fighting with the U.S. So it's really going to be very troubling, people in the Pentagon I talk with say.

KING: I wonder, Tom, are there any obvious replacements for Secretary Mattis, anybody sort of at the top of the list that you're aware of?

BOWMAN: A few I'm hearing are Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is one. Also Senator Tim Cotton of Arkansas is still another one. And maybe Congressman Mac Thornberry of Texas, who chairs the Armed Services Committee. Those are three of the names I've been hearing.

INSKEEP: Tom, what do you make - briefly - of this letter by Secretary Mattis? People do resign from time to time. They may resign in principle from time to time. But here we have a resignation letter in which Mattis stresses the importance of U.S. alliances and confronting Russia and China, suggesting those are differences that he has with the president.

BOWMAN: Well, Steve, I think it's a thinly veiled criticism of President Trump. In his letter, he talks about maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies - clearly, a hit at President Trump over his comments about NATO. It's an extraordinary letter.

And you rarely see people resign over principle. Frankly, the last one I can remember in - I'm a history major, of course, Steve, was Cyrus Vance resigning when he - as secretary of state when he worked for Jimmy Carter over Carter's decision to go in and try to get the Iranian hostages.

KING: NPR's Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks so much for joining us.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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KING: All right, parts of the U.S. government may shut down at midnight tonight.

INSKEEP: They may because President Trump has threatened to veto a spending bill unless it contains $5 billion for a border wall.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I've made my position very clear. Any measure that funds the government must include border security, has to - not for political purposes but for - for our country, for the safety of our community.

INSKEEP: Now, the president had appeared to back down from an ultimatum over the wall earlier this week, when he tweeted that the military would build the wall, meaning he didn't need money from Congress, he thought.

But House Republicans, after the president was threatening to veto this bill, passed a bill that included $5.7 billion for border security, including the wall. Its prospects are considered doubtful in the Senate. So we don't know if that would get to the president.

KING: NPR's Kelsey Snell is with us now. She covers Congress. Good morning, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: I mean, look. A few days ago, it seemed like we were absolutely going to avoid a shutdown. What happened yesterday?

SNELL: Yeah, just day before yesterday, things looked fine. But things went down extremely quickly. Even when the Senate was voting - before they started voting, there were signs of trouble. And it wasn't just confined to the group of conservatives who usually fight against these spending bills.

Over in the House, they were railing against it, but things started to spread when there was a lot of pressure for - from conservative media. And Republicans started getting really worried that they were going to be upsetting the president, violating a campaign pledge they shared with him and doing it all as they were leaving the majority.

So they started to get really, really worried. And by the time the leaders went to go meet with the White House and President Trump made clear he would veto a spending bill without border security, it was kind of a done deal. They had to do something different.

KING: How is Congress reacting to all of this?

SNELL: Honestly, it's total confusion. Nobody has a good answer for how this gets resolved because - we've talked about this many times before - the Senate cannot pass a spending bill with wall money. They need Democrats to pass bills in the Senate.

And their - unless they get 60 votes. And, you know what? Republicans don't have 60 votes. And Democrats are saying that their position hasn't changed. This is how Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, put it.

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NANCY PELOSI: The president is doing everything that he can to shut the government down. You have to ask the question, why? Does he not believe in governance? Does he not care about the American people?

KING: Kelsey, just really quickly, if there's a shutdown, who gets the blame?

SNELL: Well, President Trump has already claimed the blame. But there are plenty of Democrats out there who say that that is a good thing, even though Trump says that, you know, his base really wants this.

KING: NPR's Kelsey Snell. Thanks, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thank you.

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KING: All right, Steve, yesterday you interviewed Mike Pompeo at the State Department.

INSKEEP: Yeah, President Trump's secretary of state. He was CIA director before taking that position. So he's been with the administration a couple of years, is one of the remaining original members of the president's national security team since several others have left or are leaving.

We met during a quite extraordinary day. This is the day after President Trump ordered U.S. troops out of Syria. But it was before news broke of Defense Secretary Mattis' resignation. And it was after the president announced that he's ordering these troops to go.

KING: All right, so what did Pompeo tell you?

INSKEEP: OK, the president of course had said ISIS is defeated in Syria. But other members of the administration and U.S. allies have been trying for more nuanced statements. They're not directly contradicting the president. But they're emphasizing that a lot of ISIS territory has been taken away, but the fight goes on. When I asked Mike Pompeo if ISIS is defeated, he didn't say yes or no and emphasized the U.S. is still fighting. Let's listen.

Is ISIS defeated?

SEC OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: We've made the caliphate in Syria go away. We remember - you remember this, Steve. You remember cells with people in them being burned. The president made an enormous commitment to take down the caliphate, and that has been achieved.

INSKEEP: And that is true. The ISIS capital has been taken away from them. A lot of territory has been taken away from them. But we also know, from our colleague Tom Bowman, that the Pentagon continues dropping bombs in Syria. There are hundreds of targets that have been hit just in one week this month.

So the fight is going on. But the president, his own arguments have evolved in the last day or so. He said it's just not our job to be the world's policeman. It's somebody else's job to fight ISIS.

KING: An argument that has been made before by other - other presidents.

INSKEEP: Sure.

KING: And so I wonder, has the criticism taken this administration by surprise?

INSKEEP: Well, the president's decision certainly took a lot of the administration by surprise. His desire to get out of Syria was known. But U.S. officials had signed on to a different policy as recently as the day before. Jim Jeffrey, who's an ambassador for Syria, an envoy for Syria - so he works for Mike Pompeo - just the day before was talking about multiple U.S. goals, including pushing Iran out of Syria, things that they still wanted to get done. Instead, the president says it's time to get out.

And that raises a lot of questions, including a question about Kurdish allies of the United States, who've done a lot of the on-the-ground fighting and who will still be there after the United States leaves. I asked several questions to Secretary of State Pompeo about what commitment the U.S. has to those allies. And here's a little bit about what he said - a little bit of what he said.

POMPEO: We are clear-eyed about the risks to the United States from terrorism. And we will yield to no one in our efforts to defeat it.

INSKEEP: On terrorism - no commitment to U.S. allies left behind in Syria then.

POMPEO: We always have commitments to our - to our allies. We've done this relentlessly. You all report it differently, Steve. I get it. I get - I get the game. But you all report this differently, the - the American commitment to our allies - not just in this situation, but all across the world. You report that America is withdrawing from the world, when in fact just the opposite has taken place.

INSKEEP: Pompeo is insisting that they're actually trying to fix things that aren't working in the world rather than just back away.

KING: Fascinating to hear. And so where does Pompeo stand now, after Jim Mattis' resignation?

INSKEEP: Well, he is one of that declining number of original national security advisers to the president of the United States who still has his position. And he says he intends to keep it for six more years. He's hoping for a Trump re-election.

KING: A long-timer. Steve Inskeep, thanks so much.

INSKEEP: Glad to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE JOACHIM'S "KOOL IN THE SUMMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.