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Mattis: I'm Out

Donald Trump's hastily-announced plan to withdraw from Syria was an obvious poke in the eye for Secretary of Defense James Mattis. He learned a few things in his forty-plus years as an active duty marine, and one of those is that nature abhors a vacuum. If the U.S. pulls out of that nation while ISIS and Al-Qaeda still live (and they do), then the militant groups will expand to fill the void. Trump either thinks he knows better, or else just doesn't care. With that realization, the Secretary reached his breaking point. And so, late Thursday morning, he quit.

There is no question that the resignation was prompted by the Syria situation, with aides reporting that the general was livid about Trump's handling of the matter. Just in case, Mattis made sure things were clear in his resignation letter, which includes this passage:

I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. It is 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 decisions - to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America and our allies. That is why we must use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense.

My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. 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.

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...

Mattis said he will remain for a couple more months to help with the transition to the new secretary, and that February 28, 2019 will be his last day.

Across Washington, folks were shocked and horrified by this turn of events. That includes Republicans:

And Democrats:

When Trump selected his cabinet, people in Washington (and elsewhere) consoled themselves with the notion that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, and Mattis would be the grown-ups in the room, and would rein in the President's worst impulses. That trio is now going (Mattis), going (Kelly), and gone (Tillerson), and the Donald has reverted to his instinctive tendency to surround himself with yes-men. Of course, when those yes-men are just giving advice about where to build new condos, they can't do all that much harm. On the other hand, when they are offering their not-too-considered opinions on national defense, thousands of lives (or more) could be in the balance.

Indeed, with the cat away (or, at very least, the cat announcing his resignation), the mice began to play. Mere hours after Mattis' demise was made public, Trump indicated that he wants to cut U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan by half (from 14,000 to 7,000). This is another move opposed by the military establishment and by security experts, for pretty much the exact same reasons they oppose pulling out of Syria. The President also formally ordered the creation of a U.S. Space Command, which should come in handy if the United States is ever attacked by the Klingons or Darth Vader. The Afghanistan withdrawal and the Space Command were, like the Syria withdrawal, bitterly opposed by Mattis.

Meanwhile, one of the things Trump will presumably spend his time doing while on his 16-day Mar-a-Lago Christmas vacation is thinking about a replacement for Mattis. There are a few directions he might go with this:

  • Another former military officer: Trump (supposedly) likes generals, particularly when they have to kowtow to him. So, he might go down this path again, with someone like Gen. Jack Keane (ret.), a hawk who frequently appears on Fox News (i.e., the Trump employment agency). That said, former generals do not like to be disrespected or ignored, and anyone who takes this job has to know that is eventually what is going to be in store for them.

  • Raid Congress: Trump could try to grab a Senator, like Tom Cotton (R-AR), who is young, loyal to the President, and a combat veteran. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) might also have been a possibility, but given their public spat over Syria this week, that's probably not going to happen now. One big problem here is that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would be furious, as he does not want to take the slightest chance of a repeat of the Roy Moore situation in Alabama. It's also unclear that either of these men would want to give up a safe Senate seat (a.k.a. lifetime tenure) for a slot in the Cabinet, given that Trump cabinet officers tend to last no more than 18 months or so. Also, both of these fellows, but Cotton in particular, have stepped on quite a few toes in their time (think Ted Cruz-lite). They may not find enough support among their colleagues to be confirmed.

    The President might have better luck raiding the House, where Republicans are about to give up power and can look forward to two years (or more) of twiddling their thumbs. Soon-to-be-former chair of the House Armed Services Committee Mac Thornberry (R-TX) might be interested, for example. Or, if Trump is serious about this Space Force idea, soon-to-be-former chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology Lamar Smith (R-TX) is a possibility.

  • Promote from within: This has been the most common source of replacements for Trump. He could elevate Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, or DNI Dan Coats, or NSA John Bolton. It's worth noting that Henry Kissinger (to take one example) served as Secretary of State and NSA simultaneously, so Trump could theoretically just add Defense to Coats' or Bolton's portfolio, and thus end up hiring nobody. Kind of like Mick Mulvaney, who is currently slated to serve as head of OMB and Chief of Staff at the same time. Of course, the Senate would have to approve that arrangement, and they may not be too happy to do so, particularly if it's the hot-headed, ultra-hawkish Bolton.

  • Blast from the past: Trump could also go with someone who served in a past administration, as he just did with his new AG nominee (William Barr). For example, George W. Bush NSA Stephen Hadley was considered for Defense before Mattis was chosen. He's well respected on both sides of the aisle, and his area of expertise is the Middle East. He would probably gain the Senate's consent more easily than anyone else on this list. In fact, he might be able to get unanimous consent, given his reputation for reaching across the aisle (he's worked with Madeline Albright a lot) and for practical solutions. However, he's not likely to be a Trump yes man, which is presumably a problem.

Trump is so unpredictable that there's really no saying who it will be, or when they will be chosen. What we can say for sure is that Trump is just one person away from having turned over more than half his cabinet in less than two years, having lost 7 of 15 secretaries (46.6%). Or, if we include cabinet-level officials as well, it's 11 of 23 (47.8%). That is, of course, an unprecedented rate of turnover, and does not include possible short-timers Wilbur Ross, Kirstjen Nielsen, Steve Mnuchin, or Betsy DeVos, all of whom have been rumored to be on the hot seat in recent months. Not a good place to be when Trump has 16 days coming up where he'll be doing nothing much besides playing golf, watching Fox News, and tweeting. (Z)

Trump Changes Course, Won't Sign Short-term Funding Bill

If you are confused about where everything stands regarding the government shutdown, then join the club, because so is everybody else. To start, recall that in the absence of a new spending bill, 25% of the federal government will be unfunded as of 11:59 p.m tonight (give or take a minute). Most big things, like the military, have already been funded through October of next year, but some functions of the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Transportation, Interior, Agriculture, and State, among others, would be affected.

This deadline is not a secret, and has been on everyone's calendar for months. Here is a brief review of recent events on the budget front:

  • Last Tuesday (December 11): Donald Trump held a meeting with incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and a cardboard cutout of VP Mike Pence. The President insisted that the meeting be televised, and insisted that any funding bill include $5 billion to get started building his Mexican Wall. Pelosi and Schumer told him that was not going to happen, and that if he insisted, he would be responsible for shutting down the government. Trump looked straight into the camera and said he would be "proud" to take responsibility for a shutdown. Republicans and Democrats were both stunned that Trump would say something so foolish.

  • Last Friday (December 14): Apparently recognizing that he had been outmaneuvered during his meeting with Pelosi and Schumer, Trump signaled that he might be willing to sign a temporary spending bill, and then address the wall in January. Given that the Democrats will control the House by then, this would be an example of the negotiator-in-chief giving up leverage in exchange for nothing. Republicans and Democrats were both stunned that Trump would do something so foolish.

  • Monday: Republicans on The Hill made clear that they were waiting for a signal from Trump, so as to figure out what type of funding bill to discuss.

  • Tuesday: Trump conceded that he wasn't getting his wall in time for Christmas, and signaled he would sign a short-term funding bill that would kick the can into January.

  • Wednesday: Relieved to have an answer, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) quickly put together a short-term spending bill with no money for the wall. It passed the Senate on a voice vote (which is to say, it effectively passed unanimously). It was expected that within 24 hours, the House would give its blessing, Trump would sign off, and the politicians could get started on their winter vacations. In fact, most of the senators left town thereafter, or made arrangements to do so by Friday afternoon.

That brings us up to yesterday, when everything fell apart. Early in the morning, the President got on Twitter and posted this:

Not long thereafter, he officially confirmed that he was no longer willing to sign a funding bill unless it includes $5 billion in wall money. Naturally, the senators, particularly the Republicans, were furious. Not only does this throw a wrench into their schedules (and again, many of them have already left Washington), it also leaves them with egg on their faces, and makes the GOP look like a bunch of Keystone Kops.

So what happened, exactly? It would appear that there were two culprits responsible for changing Trump's mind. The first of these, of course, was Fox News. After he caved on the wall, the channel's pundits ripped him to shreds, with the worst of it coming just minutes before he sent the above tweet. It's possible that the timing was coincidental, but it's not terribly likely. We also have additional evidence that the President was angry at the derision being sent in his direction. After Ann Coulter went on Twitter and on several media outlets to declare Trump's wall-less presidency "a joke," he unfollowed her on Twitter.

The second culprit was the House Freedom Caucus. They know what everyone (except maybe Trump) knows: That if he doesn't get wall funding while the GOP still controls the House, he's never getting it (unless he makes major concessions to the Democrats, which might cause part of his base to desert him). Once Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) & Co. sensed that Trump was wavering, they launched a full court press, until he was once again insisting on $5 billion in wall money. Then, they quickly passed a funding bill with the $5 billion in it, to be spent as Trump sees fit anytime in the next five years. If there is a more fitting final chapter to Paul Ryan's (R-WI) career, we don't know what it is.

What this means is that with considerably less than 24 hours to go, we have a Senate bill that the House apparently won't pass, and that Trump apparently won't sign. We also have a House bill that he apparently would sign, but that will never get through the Senate. Even if the GOP could muster up 50 votes in the chamber, the Democrats would certainly filibuster. And even that might not be necessary, since some GOP senators hinted they are not interested in returning to town to play this game some more. For example, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), whose career is over anyhow, said, "Y'all have fun. I'm getting ready to fly to Chattanooga. [Leadership] has no guidance right now." The House has a similar problem, actually, with a sizable number of defeated GOP members who might not want to fly back to Washington to participate in this charade.

What it amounts to is this: In order to avoid a shutdown, either the Senate or the House is going to have to give ground (or maybe both will have to do so). And that solution is going to require Democratic cooperation, first because the blue team has the filibuster in their back pockets, and second because there might not be enough Republican representatives and senators left in Washington to form a quorum and/or a majority. The senators are on 24-hour recall, on McConnell's orders, but again, some of them may blow it off, particularly if they're leaving office anyhow. And if the Democrats must be assuaged, then that either means no border wall funding or else it means Trump accepting conditions (like citizenship for the dreamers) that the House Freedom Caucus and the Fox News pundits consider unacceptable.

With the caveat that anything can happen in this ongoing soap opera, it is very hard to see how a shutdown can be avoided at this point. And once that line has been crossed, particularly during the holiday season, it will be very easy for it to stretch on for days or weeks. Assuming that comes to pass, there will be a lot of finger pointing. Of course, there is only one person in Washington (or, as of this weekend, in Palm Beach, FL) who has recently gone on camera and accepted responsibility for a shutdown. There is also only one person who allowed a spending bill without wall funding to reach the 11th hour before deciding he didn't like it, after all. So, although Trump has a 10th-degree black belt in finger pointing, this particular round is not likely to go his way.

Meanwhile, the President's flip-flopping is having real-world consequences, beyond just the poor federal employees (more below) who are at risk of having their holiday season spoiled by uncertainty and/or a lack of money. The stock market reacted very badly to Thursday's developments, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average falling 464 points, or 2 percent, to hit a 14-month low. The S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite were also way down, sliding 1.8 percent and 1.6 percent, respectively. Normally, December is one of the best months of the year for the market, but right now it's down overall on the month. Unless there is a rebound today and/or next week, then the market will have its worst December since the Great Depression. Our guess is that Trump will not be bragging about that "historic" accomplishment on Twitter.

Incidentally, an enthusiastic Trump supporter named Brian Kolfage, frustrated with Congress' failure to sign off on the $5 billion, has started a GoFundMe campaign to raise the money himself. The site limits the maximum goal to $1 billion, so that is what Kolfage is starting with for now. After four days, he's up to almost $11 million, which is not bad, but is also just 1.1% of the way there. And since $5 billion is the actual goal, that really means that he's just 0.22% of the way there. Our guess is that he doesn't make it. On the other hand, this might also be Trump's single-best chance to get his wall built. Do they have GoFundMe in Mexico? (Z)

Meadows to Federal Employees Who May Not Get Paid: You Signed Up for This

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, doesn't have to worry about not getting paid if the government shuts down. Members of Congress always get paid, even during a shutdown. And he thinks the 6,200 federal employees in his district and the 800,000 nationwide shouldn't bellyache about not getting paid if the government shuts down. After all, he says, they knew that getting paid depended on the whims of the politicians when they took the job.

Actually, many of them didn't. They believed that if you got a job as a mail carrier, forest ranger, or nurse at Walter Reed hospital, you would get paid as long as you did your job properly. In fact, that's kind of the selling point of working for the federal government: It may not be glamorous, and it may not be especially lucrative, but at least the paychecks are reliable. Or so they thought. How foolish they were.

In past years, bills have been introduced into Congress to withhold lawmakers' salaries if they were unable to pass all 12 required appropriations bills on time. The bills have never come up for a vote and no one seems to know why. (V)

Trump Administration Will Lift Sanctions against Deripaska's Companies

Donald Trump is planning to drop the sanctions on some of the companies run by Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who is very close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Deripaska owns the world's second largest aluminum company, among other big concerns.

Deripaska is not just any old oligarch, though. Not only is he very close to Putin, but he is also very close to Paul Manafort, who is in turn very close to a different president. Manafort and Deripaska have had various deals in the past. In 2017, for example, the AP reported that Manafort had gotten himself a $10 million contract from Deripaska to promote Russian business interests. Deripaska later denied this.

A failed telecomm deal he worked on for Deripaska left Manafort with about $19 million in debt to Deripaska. And now, inquiring minds may be wondering a bit about this. Suppose Manafort failed to cooperate with the feds to please Donald Trump. Trump might actually be grateful for once (because the one thing he does value is loyalty) and might have asked Manafort if he needed any favors (besides a pardon). Manafort, kind man that he is, could have asked for an end to the sanctions on Deripaska, who might be so moved that he could forget that $19 million. After all, what is $19 million to an oligarch? Who knows? What we do know is the sanctions on Deripaska's companies are being lifted for some reason or other. (V)

Ethics Officials Told Whitaker to Recuse Himself, but He Refused

The Washington Post is reporting that a senior Justice Department ethics official told Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker to recuse himself for overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller. Whitaker has refused to do that. The problem is that Whitaker has a history of attacking Mueller, and Justice Dept. officials overseeing an ongoing investigation are not supposed to have already decided what the conclusion should be, as Whitaker apparently has.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) has called for the ethics opinion to be turned over to Congress. So far the DoJ has not done that. However, on Jan. 3, 2019, Schiff will become chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and will undoubtedly subpoena the ethics opinion. If the Justice Dept. drags its feet on that until William Barr is confirmed by the Senate as AG, the issue will be moot. Don't be surprised if that is the administration's strategy. (V)

Perez Axes the Kiddie Table in 2020

The 2016 Republican primaries had so many contenders that the debates were done in two parts: The leading contenders at the grown-ups' table (evening debate) and the rest at the kiddies' table (afternoon, when most people are still at work). Seating was determined by poll numbers, with a tenth of a percent sometimes determining who was a grown-up and who was a kiddie.

The Democrats could end up with 20 or 25 candidates in 2020, and DNC Chairman Tom Perez doesn't want a repeat performance. Specifically, what he wants to avoid at all costs is that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party feels he is putting his thumb on the scale for one or more establishment candidates. The chairwoman in 2016, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) was accused by the left of not holding enough debates, thus denying Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) a platform to become better known. Some of Sanders' supporters were so miffed by her decision that they refused to vote for Hillary Clinton, preferring Jill Stein or not voting at all. This could easily have cost the Democrats the White House.

Perez has learned that lesson. He has scheduled six debates in 2019 and another six in 2020. If some candidate hasn't caught fire by then, progressives won't be able to say Perez didn't schedule enough debates. Nevertheless, Perez simply has to discriminate. If he allows everyone who claims that he or she is running for president to appear on stage, that means the newly elected village council member from East Cupcake who would like some PR just has to announce he or she is running, and bingo, a national audience. Perez said that it is important that every serious candidate gets a fair shot. If there are too many candidates to fit on the stage, he would consider having debates on consecutive days, with candidates chosen at random as to which day they appear on. As to who makes the cut and who doesn't, he hasn't decided on the algorithm yet, but it could be a combination of polling, the amount of money raised in small-dollar donations, and other signs of grassroots energy.

But finding a algorithm that everyone is happy with is impossible. Consider polling for example. Will he look at national polling or early state polling? National polls will strongly favor candidates who are already well known. Early-state polls could favor people well known in Iowa (e.g., Sen, Amy Klobuchar, DFL-MN) or in South Carolina (all the black candidates). You can please all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot please all of the people all of the time. Did somebody already say that? If not, we claim it. (V)

Should the Democrats Use Ranked-Choice Voting in 2020 Primaries?

Now that ranked-choice voting has had its first run (and, it would seem, its first success) in Maine, a letter writer to the Washington Post suggests the blue team should consider using the approach for their primaries in 2020.

It's certainly an interesting idea. Now, caucuses (like Iowa) are already a form of ranked-preference voting. So, we'd be talking about primary states (which is most of them). And by the rules of the Democratic Party, ballots are already awarded proportionally in every primary state. So, it is already the case that lesser candidates are not shut out because they happened to get 1% fewer votes than the winner.

Using ranked-choice voting would have two benefits for the Democrats, though, particularly in view of the large field that appears set to run in 2020. The first benefit, assuming that the system is set up to award a state's delegates to only the winner of the ranked choice vote, or maybe the top two or three, is that it would likely make it easier to thin out the field quickly. If, say, 10 candidates split California's delegates 10 ways, with none of them claiming more than 15% or 20%, then the various competitors could all remain viable and could end up duking it out until May or June, which is not great for the Party. If the California Democratic Party was persuaded to adopt ranked choice, on the other hand, then there would be just one or two or three big piles of delegates for the taking there. It would be much harder for non-viable candidates to keep going.

The other benefit, and the one really worth considering, is that ranked-choice voting would likely do a better job of identifying candidates who have broad support among the Democratic base. Consider a hypothetical example: If Kanye West were to run in 2020, he would likely be the favorite candidate of some portion of the base (maybe 10%), but would probably horrify the rest. Meanwhile, someone like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) might be the favorite choice of only 5% of the voters, but would make the top three of 40% of the voters. She is clearly the more electable candidate, and yet without ranked voting, she would finish behind Kanye.

This is largely just a thought exercise, since the DNC is in the dog house with enough young voters right now that any attempts to overhaul the system would be met with much suspicion. Still, it could be worth trying out in some future primary. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Dec20 Trump Wants to Pull Out of Syria Immediately
Dec20 Shutdown Averted--For Now
Dec20 Michigan Power-Grab Partially Fails
Dec20 Cummings Is Already Sending Out Letters Requesting Information
Dec20 Trump Signed a Letter of Intent on Moscow Project during the Campaign
Dec20 Paul Ryan Bids Farewell
Dec20 No Sanctions for Kavanaugh
Dec20 Kasich Doesn't Think He Could Beat Trump in a Primary
Dec20 South Carolina GOP May Skip 2020 Primary
Dec20 Thursday Q&A
Dec19 Trump's Wall Collapses
Dec19 Washington Decides to Do Something Different, Passes Bipartisan Crime Bill
Dec19 Trump Foundation to Dissolve
Dec19 Flynn Sentencing Postponed
Dec19 Trump Launches Reelection Machine
Dec19 Will Trump Cooperate with His Campaign?
Dec19 McSally Wins by Losing
Dec19 Republicans Want to Create an ActRed
Dec19 Could Kansas Be a Senate Battleground in 2020?
Dec18 Republicans Are Waiting for Guidance from Trump over the Shutdown
Dec18 Much Drama on the Michael Flynn Front
Dec18 Takeaways from the Report on Russian Interference
Dec18 Pennsylvania Could Be Trump's Waterloo
Dec18 The Gender Gap May Haunt the Republicans in 2020
Dec18 GOP Has a Looming Evangelical Problem, Too
Dec18 Klobuchar Moving Up in Iowa
Dec18 Lamar Alexander Won't Run for Reelection in 2020
Dec18 We Know Where the Tax Break Went
Dec17 Leaked Senate Report Shows Massive Scale of Russian Election Interference
Dec17 Giuliani: Trump Will Meet with Mueller over My Dead Body
Dec17 Collins Is OK with Mueller and a Challenger to Trump in 2020
Dec17 Iowa Democrats Want to Win
Dec17 The "Guess the VP" Game Has Begun
Dec17 Tom Perez Is at War with the State Democratic Parties
Dec17 Trump Is at War with Saturday Night Live (Again)
Dec17 Monday Q&A
Dec16 Interior Secretary Is Out
Dec16 Harris in Deep Trouble in NC-09
Dec16 7-Year-Old Dies in Custody
Dec16 The Koch Network Is Fading
Dec16 Weekly Standard Is No More
Dec16 Democratic Presidential Candidate of the Week: Amy Klobuchar
Dec15 Federal Judge Strikes Down ACA
Dec15 Trump Knew Hush-Money Payments Were Wrong
Dec15 Trump May Offer to Push the Border Wall Fight into January
Dec15 Trump's Inaugural Committee Is Under Investigation
Dec15 Christie to Trump: No Thanks
Dec15 Mulvaney Will Pinch Hit as Chief of Staff
Dec15 Kyl Is Retiring Again
Dec14 Trump: I Never Directed Michael Cohen to Break the Law