What happened? In one day everything fell apart, because four things happened. After the president ignored the advice of everyone in the government and in the military, he announced the United States was pulling its troops out of Syria – ceding that part of the world to Russia, and Iran, and Turkey – and after our allies wondered what the hell was going on, and after the Kurds who fight with us over there realized they had been betrayed and abandoned and would soon be slaughtered by the Turks rushing in – and after Vladimir Putin told the world that “Donald” had finally done the right thing – using President Trump’s first name as if Trump were a little kid – Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned. He couldn’t be a part of this. He was the last of Trump’s generals. Trump had to fire Michael Flynn, and H. R. McMaster came to realize his job, as National Security Advisor after Flynn, was pointless. Trump ignored him. Trump ignores expertise. He left. General John Kelly tried to bring order to the White House as Trump’s chief of staff. Trump doesn’t like order. Kelly is gone. Trump named an acting chief of staff – his Director of the Office and Management and Budget – to hold down the fort until they can find someone, anyone, who wants the job. No one does. And now Mattis is gone, the last of anyone with expertise, and principle. That was the first thing that happened.
The second thing was Trump changing his mind. There will be a government shutdown, and the government will stay shut down until he gets full funding for his giant border wall. There had been an agreement. The Senate had passed a continuing resolution – keep current funding for current operations in place for a month and work things out after the holidays. Trump was fine with that – he didn’t want to shut down the government at Christmas – he was no Scrooge – and the matter would move to the House where they’d agree. And then Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter and the House Freedom Caucus ripped into Trump. In a few weeks the House would be controlled by the Democrats and Trump would have no leverage at all – there’d be no wall, ever. He had given up. He had betrayed them all. He was a coward and a sham – and he couldn’t have that – so he’d sign nothing unless it contained full funding for his wall. The House will come up with something, but most of the Senate had left town so there was no way for them to vote on what the House came up with, and even if they did vote it wouldn’t pass anyway. Trump knows that. Everyone knows that. But he has to make a statement to his base. He is NOT a quitter or a coward. And the shutdown might last quite a while. This will be painful.
That led to the third thing. The stock market fell off the cliff. The Dow was down almost five hundred points again, for the sixth or seventh trading day in a row – ending the worst year of losses since the 2008 crash and the worst December since 1931 – not a good time in America. Trump has called himself Mister Tariff and the trade war with China, and trade war with our allies too, will kill the economy, and now large parts of the government are shutting down, indefinitely. This does not help investor confidence, and of course all investment (and trading) is a bet on the future – a bet on where things will be the next day or the next month or next year. Investors seem to expect continuing chaos and then a recession. Hold cash.
That’s the safe bet now – and of course the fourth thing was the mess at the Department of Justice. The acting attorney general has decided to sneer at the ethics rules and defend the president no matter what, no matter what Mueller or anyone else can prove. He will not recuse himself. His replacement, the nominee for the real job, has said the same thing. The president cannot be charged with anything. The president can do no wrong. He may not be confirmed. The current Republican Senate might dare wonder about this president. Maybe this one isn’t all that wonderful.
That’s what happened. The rest is detail:
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned Thursday after clashing with President Trump over the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan, saying in a parting letter that the president deserves someone atop the Pentagon “better aligned” with his views.
The retired Marine general’s surprise resignation came a day after Trump shocked American allies and overruled his advisers, including Mattis, upon announcing a withdrawal from Syria. In the process, Trump declared victory over the Islamic State, even though the Pentagon and State Department for months have been saying the fight against the group in Syria isn’t over.
Trump also ordered the Pentagon, against Mattis’ recommendation, to come up with a plan to withdraw approximately half of the American troops deployed to Afghanistan, a move that military officials have warned could plunge the nation into chaos.
That withdrawal has actually begun, so Mattis was no longer necessary:
Long seen as a bulwark against Trump’s isolationist impulses and more extreme proposals, Mattis served as a calm “reassurer-in-chief” as the president sent out startling and provocative tweets. His departure prompted a chorus of concern about the president’s temperament and decision-making processes and injected new uncertainty into the administration’s approach to global threats.
No one knows what Trump will do next, which Trump seems to love, so this was a mismatched from the start:
Mattis pointed to some of his differences with Trump in a parting letter he submitted to the White House on Thursday, which marked the first resignation of a Cabinet official in the Trump administration over a matter of principle that exploded into public view.
The retired general emphasized that the United States derives its strength from its relationships with allies and should treat them with respect. He said the country must also be “clear-eyed” about threats, including from groups such as the Islamic State.
“We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances,” Mattis wrote. He did not offer any praise of Trump in the letter.
Mattis ended by saying Trump deserved a secretary of defense who shared Trump’s values, implicitly a yes-man and a fool – but that was only implicit, and obvious – and that wasn’t Mattis:
The defense secretary resigned during what one senior administration official described as a disagreement in the Oval Office on Thursday afternoon, in which Mattis sought to persuade the president to stand down on the Syria withdrawal but was rejected.
Trump was later given a copy of the resignation letter and noted to aides that it was not positive toward him. By then, the president had shocked the Pentagon by filming a video on the White House lawn in which he claimed the Islamic State had been defeated and said U.S. troops who had died in combat would be proud to see their fellow service members return home.
That might have been the final straw. Fallen American warriors, Trump said, pointing at the sky, were “looking down” in approval – the ghost of every dead America soldier, ever, loves Donald Trump now. Mattis had had enough, and there was this:
The Pentagon released the resignation letter moments after Trump announced on Twitter that Mattis would be leaving, saying the already retired Marine would “retire.” Trump made no mention of his differences in opinion with Mattis.
Mattis set the record straight, and no one was happy:
Lawmakers, ambassadors and policymakers for two years have looked to Mattis as a source of stability in a chaotic administration. His sudden resignation on Thursday sent jitters through a Washington establishment already coping with a meltdown in the financial markets and a possible government shutdown.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she was “shaken” by the resignation and described it as “very serious for our country.”
Republicans were also dismayed by the decision.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said it was “a sad day for America because Secretary Mattis was giving advice the president needs to hear.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the United States must maintain its carefully built alliances and a clear understanding of its friends and foes, recognizing that nations such as Russia are among the latter.
“I was sorry to learn that Secretary Mattis, who shares those clear principles, will soon depart the administration,” McConnell said in a statement. “But I am particularly distressed that he is resigning due to sharp differences with the president on these and other key aspects of America’s global leadership.”
Mitch McConnell can now expect withering sarcastic sneering deadly Tweets of Wrath from Trump for a few days, but this was never going to work:
Known as the “Warrior Monk” from his days in uniform, Mattis developed a reputation as a cerebral thinker in the Marine Corps who liked to deliberate, read and study all possibilities before making important decisions.
That style clashed with the most freewheeling presidential administration in the postwar era, most notably this week, when Trump decided to withdraw from Syria without first running an in-depth policy process that would consider the options and ramifications.
And Mattis missed McMaster:
Mattis’ frustrations grew with the arrival of national security adviser John Bolton, who curbed decision-making meetings and interagency policy discussions that the defense secretary valued, according to people familiar with the matter.
But there was more:
The president announced the creation of a Space Force as a separate branch of the military, even though Mattis had opposed the idea. Trump forced his defense secretary to scramble after announcing by tweet a ban on transgender service members from serving in the military. Trump also foisted other initiatives on Mattis that the defense secretary didn’t see as particularly important, from a deployment to the U.S. border with Mexico to a military parade that failed to materialize.
According to people in the White House, Trump didn’t consider Mattis to be fully on board with some of his key initiatives. Mattis expressed skepticism over the prospects of nuclear disarmament negotiations with North Korea and bristled at the president’s decision to suspend certain military exercises with South Korea as a goodwill gesture.
This was never going to work:
From the start, Trump and Mattis displayed starkly different attitudes toward long-standing American alliances. Trump threw Starburst candies on the table in front of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and berated British Prime Minister Theresa May; Mattis flew around the world thanking such allies for their contributions to American security.
That’s the basic reporting from the Washington Post, and the Post’s Greg Jaffe and Karoun Demirjian add this:
From the day Jim Mattis took over the Pentagon, he was seen by Washington and the world as a safeguard against a president addicted to chaos and animated by a different moral code.
At home, he was the seasoned battlefield commander who was willing to check Trump’s often-impulsive instincts when it came to deploying force. As long as Mattis was at the helm of the Pentagon, Republicans and Democrats trusted there was someone who would fight to ensure military actions weren’t taken on a whim.
Overseas, Mattis was perhaps the only Trump administration official who had the unconditional trust of America’s closest allies.
And now that’s gone and trouble will follow:
Mattis referred to a “resolute and unambiguous” leadership style that he had sought to embody, particularly when dealing with threats posed by countries such as Russia and China. Unstated, but implied, was that Trump’s erratic and impetuous approach to foreign policy isn’t up to the threats America faces…
Mattis’ disagreements ran much deeper than policy in Syria or Afghanistan. His resignation letter, which the Pentagon released publicly after Trump tweeted about the former general’s impending departure, suggested that the two men were at odds over how America should handle great powers such as Russia and China.
“It’s clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model – gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic and security interests,” Mattis wrote. He advocated an approach to the world that envisioned the United States employing its military power, its economic strength and its network of global alliances to thwart Russia’s and China’s global ambitions.
That could not be sustained:
For much of the past two years, senior White House officials insisted that Trump backed this approach, even if the president never seemed to state it publicly.
“This just blows that out of the water,” said Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “He’s not committed to countering or challenging Russia and China. We now have that in writing from the secretary of defense.”
The charade is over, as David Frum notes here:
So long as Mattis stayed on the job, Republicans in Congress could indulge the hope that responsible people remained in charge of the nation’s security. That hope has now been repudiated by the very person in whom the hope was placed. It’s James Mattis himself who is telling you that the president does not treat allies with respect, does not have a clear-eyed view of malign actors and strategic competitors.
And to be specific:
In Syria, the United States is abandoning Kurdish comrades-in-arms who trusted America’s word. The U.S. is now preparing to abandon Afghanistan to the Taliban. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Brussels on December 4 to insult the European Union on its home ground. Trump has egged on Brexit, dangling a (completely false) hope of a speedy U.S.-U.K. free-trade treaty to encourage hardline Brexiteers to crash out of the EU in March without a transitional treaty. Meanwhile, sanctions are being lifted on the enterprises of Paul Manafort’s former patron Oleg Deripaska, even as the U.S. continues to wage trade war not only upon China, but against Canada, the U.K., and the European Union as well.
So it’s time to face the truth:
From the beginning of the administration, its more normal members have sought to present Donald Trump’s instincts as somehow consistent with American policy since 1945, somehow a version of normal U.S. leadership. “America First doesn’t mean America alone,” wrote Gary Cohn and H. R. McMaster in a joint op-ed in May 2017. “It is a commitment to protecting and advancing our vital interests while also fostering cooperation and strengthening relationships with our allies and partners.”
But it turns out that none of that is true. Donald Trump is not even a little bit concerned about cooperation and relationships. He holds his own word notoriously worthless, and he sees no problem in doing the same to the nation’s word. His “America First” may not mean “America alone” – but only because his America is now disturbingly and mysteriously beholden to cash-rich counterparts: Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia.
And that’s that:
Mattis saw it up close. He bore it as long as he could, in hopes of mitigating the damage. But when Trump broke America’s promise to the Syrian Kurds, he stained Mattis’ honor, too. That, apparently, Mattis could not accept. He leaves and takes his honor with him. And now the question for Congress is clear. The Klaxon is sounding. The system is failing. What will you do?
Who knows? And that’s just one of the four big events of the day, but they all fit together. Philip Rucker and Robert Costa and Josh Dawsey explain that:
President Trump began Thursday under siege, listening to howls of indignation from conservatives over his border wall and thrusting the government toward a shutdown. He ended it by announcing the exit of the man U.S. allies see as the last guardrail against the president’s erratic behavior: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, whose resignation letter was a scathing rebuke of Trump’s worldview.
At perhaps the most fragile moment of his presidency – and vulnerable to convulsions on the political right – Trump single-handedly propelled the U.S. government into crisis and sent markets tumbling with his gambits this week to salvage signature campaign promises.
It was all one big thing, not four, and not good at all:
The president’s decisions and conduct have led to a fracturing of Trump’s coalition. Hawks condemned his sudden decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. Conservatives called him a “gutless president” and questioned whether he would ever build a wall. Political friends began privately questioning whether Trump needed to be reined in.
But perhaps this had to happen:
Trump has been isolated in bunker mode in recent weeks as political and personal crises mount, according to interviews with 27 current and former White House officials, Republican lawmakers, and outside advisers to the president, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer candid assessments.
“There’s going to be an intervention,” one former senior administration official said speculatively. “Jim Mattis just sent a shot across the bow. He’s the most credible member of the administration by five grades of magnitude. He’s the steady, safe set of hands. And this letter is brutal. He quit because of the madness.”
But there will be no intervention given the forces at play here:
On Thursday, as criticism over his capitulation on the wall grew louder by the hour, Trump complained to friends and aides that he felt politically shackled. He had no plan but was spoiling for a fight. By midday, the president picked one.
“I’ve made my position very clear: Any measure that funds the government must include border security. Has to,” Trump said Thursday. He added that he had “no choice” but to act.
Trump’s advisers acknowledged that the funding may not be secured in the end but boasted that the spectacle would be remembered favorably by his base voters as proof of his mettle.
It seems that the spectacle is everything, but there were those who tried to calm the man:
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), habitually careful in his approach to Trump, avoided strong-arming the president in their recent exchanges, knowing that urging him to stand down on the wall funding probably would only embolden him, according to two people familiar with the discussions. At every turn, McConnell confided to Trump that congressional efforts this month – from the passage of the farm bill to bipartisan criminal justice reform – were a string of victories for him, the people said.
Thanks to McConnell’s soothing, there was cautious optimism that the president would eventually sign a funding bill. “McConnell has a lot to do with it, of course. They talk a lot,” Rep. Harold D. Rogers (R-Ky.) said. “It’s smart to save the fight for another day.”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) – busy this week bidding farewell to Congress after two decades in office – followed McConnell’s playbook, pointing out how Trump would be able to battle for wall funding in the new year, a person close to Ryan said.
But there were other voices:
Rush Limbaugh dismissed the compromise bill on his radio program as “Trump gets nothing and the Democrats get everything.” Another firebrand, Ann Coulter, published a column titled “Gutless President in Wall-less Country.” Trump even found resistance on the couch of his favorite show, “Fox & Friends,” where reliable Trump-boosting host Brian Kilmeade chided him on the air Thursday.
The president was paying attention. He promptly unfollowed Coulter on Twitter.
That would put her in her place, but this was a bad day:
Inside the Oval Office on Thursday, Trump was in what one Republican close to the White House described as “a tailspin,” acting “totally irrationally” and “flipping out” over criticisms in the media.
Even as aides argued to him that protesting over wall funding could deprive government workers of paychecks over Christmas, Trump warned in private conversations with Republican lawmakers that they all would get “crushed” if they did not get the wall built.
He knows better, given the real threat:
President Trump has kept an almost obsessive watch on the stock market as it has lurched lower in recent weeks, tuning in to Fox Business and checking in with Lou Dobbs, a host on the network.
The president has complained to aides about how unfair it is that he is blamed for the market’s slide and for growing unease about an economic slowdown in the months to come, say current and former officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly.
And he has needled Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome H. Powell about the pace at which the central bank has raised short-term interest rates.
The lower the market drops, the more the president worries that he is losing his most potent argument for reelection, several of the officials said…
Ever since the 2016 election, Trump has pointed to market gains as proof that his economic policies are working and that the country is thriving under his leadership. Now a favored talking point is crumbling.
And that’s his fault:
The big sell-off this month was triggered when investors realized that the president had oversold his trade truce with China. Trump’s claims that China had agreed to reduce its tariffs on cars to zero and cut the U.S.-China trade deficit were never substantiated.
And just as the market seemed to stabilize, Trump and top Democratic leaders engaged in an Oval Office dust-up over border security that was broadcast live, raising fears of a government shutdown and of stalemate in Washington over the next two years.
“I am proud to shut down the government for border security,” Trump said as the Dow gave up a gain of more than 350 points and fell into the red.
It was that kind of day. What happened? Four things happened, or one big thing happened. Everything fell apart.