20 December 2018
10 January 2019

Photo: Jim Stevenson

This is supposed to be the season of “comfort and joy,” as the old Christmas carol goes.

Instead, political Washington finds itself in a state of chaos.

Usually, the final weeks of the year provide a holiday break — a much needed rest period when official D.C. is calm and the focus shifts to family, friends and faith.

But this year, the traditional Christmas message of “peace on earth… goodwill to all” rings hollow.

President Trump says he is pulling US troops out of Syria and drawing down in Afghanistan — a move that his military advisors and even many of his allies in Congress find dangerous and short-sighted.

At the same time, we are experiencing a partial government shutdown involving all the agencies whose budgets for the current fiscal year are still in dispute. Among them: the Departments of Justice, State, Interior and Homeland Security. Essential employees have been told they must still report to work but won’t be paid until the whole thing is settled. The rest have been furloughed, including almost everyone at NASA and tens of thousands of employees who keep our national parks open.

There was a deal to fund these agencies (approved unanimously by the Senate) and then there wasn’t. At the last minute, the President changed his mind because he felt the necessary legislation did not include enough money for a border wall.

It’s all political… unnecessary… and a huge embarrassment.

The bottom line is President Trump is bowing to his base. He promised during the campaign to bring American troops home and to build a wall along the border with Mexico. Realities on the ground (including the fact a majority of Americans polled don’t want the wall) have had no impact on Donald J. Trump.

We will get over the shutdown. In time, both the president and the Democrats in Congress will get a deal and each will declare victory. Some government employees will have a tense Christmas but no permanent damage will be done — except, perhaps, to the public perception that anyone in elected office in Washington really knows what he or she is doing.

To an extent, this is all about showmanship and symbols. The five billion dollars President Trump is demanding as a downpayment on a border barrier is a tiny fraction of the US budget. Democrats, however, see it as wasted money at a time when the nation has many higher priorities.

But while we will surely survive this partial government shutdown, the impact of the president’s decision to withdraw troops is likely to be long-lasting and deadly.

There was no consultation with the military or any of his top advisors — unless you want to count a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

And according to an AP report on the conversation, even Erdogan was taken aback by the hasty decision.

Trump was supposed to use the call to urge the Turkish leader to back off threats to attack Kurdish rebels in northeastern Syria, where American forces are based.

Instead, he ignored the script and sided with the Turkish leader, who reportedly said the only reason for US troops to be there in the first place was to combat the Islamic State and that fight was just about over.

Trump agreed and on the spot — with his stunned advisors looking on — said these troops would come home.

And as usual, he announced the decision to the American public by posting on Twitter. “Time to focus on our Country & bring our youth back home where they belong,” was the official presidential tweet.

Trump’s national security team tried to talk him out of it, warning of the possible consequences of both a sudden withdrawal from Syria and a possible drastic drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis made one last attempt to persuade the president to reconsider and when it failed he handed him a resignation letter. That letter, which quickly became public, contained a strong rebuke of Trump’s military judgement:

“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,” he wrote, adding,  “because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I feel it is right for me to step down from my position.”

Mattis said he would stay until the end of February to provide for a smooth transition. But Trump became so irate about the flattering media coverage of the resignation letter, that he announced he would be removing the Secretary of Defense as of January first.

In other words: “You can’t quit… I fired you.”

Allies are concerned… so are members of the US Congress — particularly in the Senate — who  have been known to stand by President Trump.

South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham said a withdrawal from Afghanistan was “paving the way for another 9/11.” Even Senator James Inhofe,  the Oklahoma Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee said it was “inappropriate” for Trump to act against the advice of his national security advisors.

How they follow through on that concern will be followed closely when Congress convenes a new session on January 3rd.

It is likely to be one of the most boisterous two-year legislative sessions ever, with Democrats assuming control of the House of Representatives and another presidential election looming in 2020. And there are fears that the holiday season chaos we are seeing now could be just the beginning.

The top advisors who many hoped would keep the president’s worst instincts in check are gone. Jim Mattis was seen by some as “the last adult in the room”  —  a man who put his devotion to the men and women of the armed forces first.

Trump, who bragged during his campaign for the White House that “I alone can fix” the nation’s problems stands increasingly isolated, dumping advisors at a rate seldom if ever seen in official Washington.

As Michael Steele, a long time Republican political operative told the New York Times:  “Given the staff turnover and the increasing feeling that the president is encircled or cornered by legal and political enemies, it’s entirely possible it gets worse, not better.”

In short: 2019 is likely to be a wild — at times frightening — ride.

So much for the season of “comfort and joy.”


Paula Wolfson

Paula Wolfson is a veteran Washington correspondent who has covered three presidents and six presidential campaigns. She was the White House bureau chief for the Voice of America before switching to commercial radio, where she reported on science and health care policy, Recently she returned to her first love and is writing once again on American politics and foreign policy for halimiz.com

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