Three roads, at least, could lead to the downfall of President Trump — a smoking-gun outcome to the Russia investigation, a deep economic recession or a revolt of Senate Republicans that would open the way to impeachment.
By alienating his Defense secretary, James Mattis, Trump put that third outcome — still unlikely — on the table.
For two years, most Senate Republicans have studiously avoided any criticism of Trump. But Mattis was their reassurance against the reckless side of Trump, which they fear. Their reactions to his resignation showed how deeply shaken they were.
GEN. MATTIS GOES, GENERAL CONCERN REIGNS
Senior U.S. Cabinet officials almost never quit over publicly expressed policy disagreements.
To find a case similar to Mattis’ departure requires going back almost 40 years, to the resignation in April 1980 of Cyrus Vance, who quit as Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State when Carter decided to launch a military mission to rescue hostages in Iran. (Vance quit before the launch of the mission, which turned into a disaster that helped sink Carter’s presidency.)
And Vance’s resignation letter was mild compared with Mattis’, who, as David Cloud reported, rebuked the core elements of Trump’s national security policy.
In his resignation letter, Mattis said he believed “we cannot protect our interests … effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies” and that Trump needed a Pentagon chief “whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects.”
Mattis quit after a final visit to the White House in which he asked Trump to reconsider his decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. The number of troops in Syria is small, but Pentagon officials fear that once they go, U.S. allies in the region, especially Kurdish militias, will be attacked by their enemies, including Turkey.
As Cloud and Noah Bierman wrote, the Syria pullout, which Trump announced in a tweet, came the same day he tweeted that the military would build his long-promised border wall. Together, the two tweets summed up Trump’s view of a fortress-American foreign policy.
Trump’s isolationist view has considerable appeal to some voters on both the left and the right who are tired of nearly two decades of war in the Middle East and surrounding regions. To an extent that neither man probably would want to admit, his approach to Syria resembles that of President Obama.
And that’s exactly why his position is anathema to the Republican foreign policy establishment, whose members deeply believe that U.S. national security depends on projecting force overseas to prevent hostile actors, whether terrorist groups or other nations, from gaining strength.
From the start of the administration, Republican senators would shake their heads when asked about Trump and then compliment the national security team that he had assembled — Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. In a few weeks, all three of them will be out of office.
Thursday night, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who almost never voices public disapproval of Trump, released a statement that, for him, amounted to a cry of dismay:
“I am particularly distressed that he is resigning due to sharp differences with the president” on “key aspects of America’s global leadership,” McConnell said, referring to Mattis’s departure.
Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and the newly elected Mitt Romney of Utah were among those voicing similar concerns.
None of this suddenly makes those Republicans likely votes to remove Trump from office were the House to vote to impeach him. But for the first time, it now seems possible they could end up there.
EIGHT YEARS OF A REPUBLICAN MAJORITY ENDS IN CHAOS
The scene in the House on Thursday, as Jennifer Haberkorn and Sarah Wire reported, was not a pretty sight.
For much of the day, Republican lawmakers argued among themselves over how to fund government agencies that are due to shut down at midnight tonight. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi could barely conceal her glee at the disarray on the other side of the aisle.
The Senate passed a stopgap spending measure Wednesday, believing that Trump would sign it even though it did not include money for his much-promised border wall. Republican leaders had told Trump that if he wanted a political fight over the wall, he’d be better off fighting in the new year, when Democrats controlled the House, rather than now, when Republicans would take all the blame for a shutdown.
But overnight, Trump faced a barrage of criticism from Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and other conservative commentators, as well as some House Republicans, who said that signing the Senate bill would amount to caving in on his central campaign promise. So the president balked, and so did House conservatives.
Trump’s hard line marked a victory for his domestic policy advisor , Stephen Miller, who had publicly argued for a shutdown on Sunday.
Thursday night, the House passed a measure that included the $5 billion Trump wants for the wall. Later today, the Senate is expected to reject that.
The sequence recapitulated a pattern that has grown familiar over the past eight years — conservatives holding one or another “must pass” bill hostage to try to accomplish one of their goals, whether ending the Affordable Care Act, cutting off money to Planned Parenthood or shrinking the federal deficit.
That strategy has failed repeatedly: Obamacare remains the law, Planned Parenthood still has its money, and the deficit has ballooned. But with Trump’s backing, the GOP right wing is running the same play again.
Unless one side blinks, a shutdown will ensue, and once it starts, the odds are it will continue at least into January when the new Congress starts.
“There will be a shutdown that will last for a very long time,” Trump said in a tweet Friday morning.
What’s the impact likely to be? Wire offers this FAQ on how the shutdown will affect average Americans. Spoiler alert: National parks likely will close, and don’t expect to get a passport renewed anytime soon. If the shutdown goes on for a while, your tax refund likely will be delayed.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE: A BRIEF DETOUR TO BIPARTISANSHIP
For one, brief moment this week, Congress showed what bipartisan compromise could look like, as lawmakers approved a measure that would take a few steps toward reversing some of the harshest legacies of the criminal-justice crackdown of the 1980s and 1990s.
Passage of the bill marked a rare victory for Trump’s advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as Haberkorn and Bierman wrote. He relentlessly lobbied Trump and McConnell to get behind the law and overcame resistance from some Republican conservatives.
The bill isn’t the “sweeping reform” that some headlines touted. Not for nothing is its title the “First Step Act.” But it does mark a notable turning point for the Republicans away from the tough-on-crime position the party has hewed to since at least Richard Nixon’s “law and order” campaign a half century ago.
A NEW EFFORT TO RESTRICT ASYLUM
For weeks, rumors have circulated that the administration and Mexico would announce a plan requiring people seeking asylum in the U.S. to remain in Mexico while their petitions worked their way through the courts.
Thursday, the rumors became reality, as Molly O’Toole reported. A lot of details of how the new plan will work remain unspecified, but it amounts to a fundamental shift in how the U.S. handles people fleeing persecution.
Under the new plan, people who have what the law terms a “credible fear” of persecution in their home countries will still be allowed to present themselves to U.S. border authorities and ask for asylum. But once they do, they’ll be told to wait in Mexico until their cases are processed — a wait that could last for a year or two, perhaps longer.
Immigrant advocates vow a legal challenge.
Earlier this week, those advocacy groups won a challenge to another administration effort to cut back on asylum cases. As O’Toole wrote, federal judge Emmet G. Sullivan ruled that former Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions had acted illegally when he tried to change the rules governing thousands of asylum petitions brought by people — mostly women and children — fleeing rapes, beatings and other acts of domestic violence, as well as violence by gangs.
JUDGE EXCORIATES FLYNN
It’s been a busy week for Sullivan. In addition to the asylum case, he also presided over the sentencing of Trump’s first National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn.
Many of Trump’s followers had convinced themselves that Sullivan, who is notoriously hard on any signs of misconduct by prosecutors, would use the sentencing hearing to expose what they’ve convinced themselves was a plot by the Deep State to unfairly target Flynn.
Didn’t work out that way.
As David Willman reported, the judge confronted Flynn and his lawyers with their equivocal statements in which they had said Flynn was guilty of lying to the FBI, but had hinted that they thought he had been treated unfairly. He demanded that they come down clearly on one side or the other.
Flynn admitted that he was truly guilty. Then the judge unloaded on him, saying that “Arguably, you sold your country out!”. At the request of Flynn’s lawyer, he then postponed the sentencing.
The Flynn hearing was one of several events in the Russia case this week. The Senate Intelligence Committee released two reports showing that Russians focused intensely on African Americans in their efforts to sway the 2016 election in Trump’s direction.
And, as Chris Megerian and Eli Stokols wrote, on several fronts, Trump’s lies have started to catch up with him.
Meantime, as Del Wilber reported, Acting Atty. Gen. Mark Whitaker will not recuse himself from overseeing the Russia probe, despite ethics advice that he should.
THE REST OF THE WEEK’S NEWS
As David Savage reported, Trump administration lawyers have been repeatedly trying to rush cases to the Supreme Court, short-circuiting the federal appeals courts. They blame blue-state federal judges who have ruled against them.
The auto industry has launched a determined campaign to undermine California’s authority over driverless cars, Evan Halper reported.
The Democrats’ House takeover could mean big changes for California water policy, Wire reported.
After a delay of more than a year, the administration has banned bump stocks, as Trump had promised, but its school safety report went light on other measures that advocates had called for, Bierman reported.
Wilber reported on a major new cyber-attack case in which the Justice Department charges that Chinese hackers stole data from thousands of Navy personnel, JPL and U.S. companies.
Finally, if you haven’t already read it, set time aside for Wilber’s fascinating inside story on how police and the FBI found one of the country’s worst serial killers.
That wraps up this week. We’re off until Jan. 4. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, on our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.
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