Mad Dog's day is done
Trump is shaking free of one of the strongest restraints against his impulses to walk back from America's national security priorities and retreat from leadership on the world stage.
The president announced Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will be leaving his job in February. He called it a retirement, but Mattis — deeply respected by Republicans and Democrats at home and by leaders abroad — said in his resignation letter that Trump would have a Pentagon chief "whose views are better aligned with yours."
The breaking point came, according to The New York Times, when Trump on Wednesday overruled advisers and shocked allies by announcing the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria and declaring the Islamic State group as defeated. Mattis' letter repeatedly emphasizes his own belief in the importance of "treating allies with respect" and remaining “clear-eyed” about threats from "malign actors and strategic competitors," including Russia, China and terror groups such as Islamic State.
Mattis was once one of Trump's favorites. The president enjoyed saying Mattis' "Mad Dog" nickname — earned for his conduct in battle — though the retired Marine general didn't care for it. But Trump's stated belief that he knows more than the generals on such topics as fighting terrorists eventually included Mattis.
Several weeks back, Trump described Mattis as “sort of a Democrat” and began referring to him as "moderate dog." Those weren't compliments. Trump critics noted Mattis' goodbye letter offered no praise to the president.
Trump was already under bipartisan fire for the Syria pullout, his downgrading of the ISIS threat from a global one to a "local" one in the region, and for claiming that "Russia, Iran, Syria & many others are not happy about the U.S. leaving." (Russia's Vladimir Putin hailed Trump's move.) Trump also plans to withdraw half of the U.S. troops from Afghanistan in coming months, a move Mattis had resisted, The Wall Street Journal reported.
"Just read Gen. Mattis resignation letter," tweeted Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). "It makes it abundantly clear that we are headed toward a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation, damage our alliances & empower our adversaries." Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) tweeted: "This is scary. Secretary Mattis has been an island of stability amidst the chaos of the Trump administration."
They were once 'my generals'
With Mattis leaving, four retired generals who Trump hailed as "my generals" are also gone or about to be.
Michael Flynn was felled by the Russia scandal. His successor as national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, clashed with Trump on key foreign policy issues. John Kelly is winding up his days as a chief of staff who tried to impose discipline on a dysfunctional White House and impetuous president.
For more on reaction to the Syria decision, see Newsday's story by Laura Figueroa Hernandez.
Wall of mirrors
Senate Republicans thought they had the White House's assurances Wednesday night when they passed a short-term funding bill to avert a partial government shutdown that Trump would sign it. Trump even had a seeming answer on Twitter Thursday morning to fans who wanted him to hold out for funding for a border wall.
"People are losing sight of the great job being done on our Southern Border by Border Patrol, ICE and our great Military. Remember the Caravans? Well, they didn’t get through and none are forming or on their way. Border is tight."
But the pro-wall chorus on the right didn't think so. He got roasted by some hard-line GOP conservatives in the House and, perhaps more painfully to him, by such right-wing media figures as Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. By afternoon, the president said he would refuse to sign the Senate's wall-less bill. Coulter tweeted after Trump's about-face: "BREAKING: Doctors announce world’s first successful spine transplant."
The House on Thursday night passed a bill with the wall spending and sent it to the Senate, where Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) vowed: "A Trump shutdown will not convince a single Democrat to support bilking the American taxpayer for an ineffective, unnecessary and exorbitantly expensive wall that Mexico would pay for."
For more, see Newsday's story by Tom Brune and Figueroa.
Trump is trying out some rebranding for his wall. He's calling it a "steel slat" barrier, or "artistically designed steel slats."
Janison: His party cries if they want to
Trump's moves in the past week have shaken several usually supportive Republican constituencies, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.
Those who thought he was being tougher in the war on terror were stunned his announcement to pull U.S. troops out of Syria and declare ISIS beaten. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called it "an Obama-like mistake."
His vacillation on whether to stare down a government shutdown enraged immigration hard-liners. Others on the right decided the bipartisan criminal justice "reform" bill he plans to sign is too soft on criminals.
Over Mueller's shoulder
A Justice Department ethics official urged acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker to recuse himself from overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, in large part because of his past statements critical of the probe, The Washington Post reported. But a group of Whitaker advisers said they saw no problem, so he hasn't backed away.
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-Manhattan), who will take over as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in January, said it was "unacceptable" that Whitaker didn't inform members of Congress about his decision not to recuse himself and vowed to question him before the committee.
It also emerged Thursday that Trump's nominee for attorney general, William Barr, sent an unsolicited memo to the Justice Department this year attacking as "fatally misconceived" a key element of Mueller's investigation — the idea that the president could have obstructed justice.
Schumer said the memo shows Barr is "fatally conflicted." Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who supervised Mueller until Whitaker came along, played down its significance. "Obviously, our decisions are informed by our knowledge of the actual facts of the case, which Mr. Barr didn't have," he said.
What else is happening:
- Democrats have set their TV debate schedule for 2020 presidential candidates, with the first of at least a dozen to be held in June 2019. The number of potential candidates could make them seem more like open mic nights, but the party may spread the early encounters over several rounds.
- Trump tweeted about passage of a farm bill with a video of himself from the 2005 Emmy Awards dressed as a farmer and singing the theme song from the 1960s sitcom "Green Acres." His partner in the duet, actress Megan Mullally, was mortified. "If you guys need me, i’ll be in a hole in the ground," she tweeted.
- The Trump administration lost an effort to include stricter work requirements for food-stamp recipients in the farm bill, so Trump said the Agriculture Department will adopt new rules to accomplish the same goal.
- Justin McConney, the social media director for the Trump Organization from 2011 to 2017, told Politico about when Trump learned to send his own tweets. "The moment I found out Trump could tweet himself was comparable to the moment in 'Jurassic Park' when Dr. Grant realized that velociraptors could open doors," recalled McConney.
- Mar-a-No-Go? Policy adviser Stephen Miller said on CNN that if there's a government shutdown, "my understanding is that" Trump will postpone his planned holiday trip to his Florida resort.
- A Manhattan federal judge, saying Trump has used his "position and platform" in unprecedented fashion to affect court cases, temporarily agreed Thursday to protect the identities of four plaintiffs suing him on grounds they lost money in a marketing company Trump endorsed in speeches and on "The Celebrity Apprentice."
- Jared Kushner's family company is buying another property in a New Jersey beach town, Long Branch, where developers can get big tax breaks thanks to a new federal program pushed by Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, The Associated Press reported.