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The Daily 202: Mattis resignation and shutdown saber-rattling signal an even more chaotic Trump presidency in 2019

President Trump abruptly announced Dec. 23 he was removing Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in January, two months before his planned departure. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

with Joanie Greve

With Joanie Greve

THE BIG IDEA: In the Marines, Jim Mattis’s call sign was Chaos. His troops gave him the nickname when he was a regimental commander, but its true meaning always clashed with the image it conjures. Chaos was an acronym: Colonel Has An Outstanding Solution.

On Thursday, the secretary of defense saw only one solution left to his distress with President Trump’s approach to national security: He resigned in protest. “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,” Mattis wrote in an open letter to the president. “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.”

From his perch at the Pentagon, Mattis has been the antidote to lower-case-C chaos. A pillar of stability who reassured allies and the Republican establishment, he’s been like the mythical little Dutch boy who kept his finger in the dike to save his town from flooding.

-- His surprise exit feels like a harbinger of yet more chaos in 2019, and there’s something close to consensus in the capital that things are about to go from bad to worse. Mattis’s announcement, after Trump disregarded his plea in the Oval Office not to cut and run from Syria, comes against the backdrop of border-wall brinkmanship that could cause a partial government shutdown at midnight.

-- The president threatened this morning that a shutdown “will last for a very long time” if Democrats don’t give him $5 billion for his border wall. He tweeted: “Shutdown today if Democrats do not vote for Border Security!”

President Trump on Dec. 20 spoke about his rejection of a funding bill to avoid a government shutdown, saying that the measure needs to enhance border security. (Video: The Washington Post)

-- The markets are spooked. All the major indexes nosedived again on Thursday, a day after the Federal Reserve raising interest rates and lowering its growth forecast for 2019 caused another sell-off. “The Dow and the S&P 500-stock index are on pace for their worst quarter since 2011 and their worst year since 2008,” Thomas Heath reports.The Dow has fallen 10 percent from its September peak, wiping out all gains for the year. … The tech-heavy Nasdaq composite was off 1.6 percent [Thursday] — and has dropped into bear market territory — or more than 20 percent below its high.”

-- In addition to this artificial crisis of his own making and a sputtering economy, Trump faces a sky full of other storm clouds, from significant turnover at the White House to a special counsel who appears to be closing in (on what exactly remains unclear). There’s also the looming Democratic takeover of the House — which will bring subpoenas and scrutiny of his business empire, his family and his Cabinet.

-- “There’s going to be an intervention,” a former senior administration official speculated last night. “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.”

This is one of 27 current and former White House officials, Republican lawmakers and outside advisers to the president whom Philip Rucker, Robert Costa and Josh Dawsey interviewed for a story on the president’s bunker mentality. “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,” my three colleagues report. “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.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) weighed in on the tumult within President Trump's administration on Oct. 4. (Video: C-SPAN)

-- Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said last October that three men “help separate our country from chaos”: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and Mattis. All three will now be gone. So too will Corker. The retiring senator went to the White House on Wednesday for a scheduled goodbye visit with Trump, but the president canceled on him after he arrived because he’d criticized his decision to retreat from Syria before heading over from the Capitol. “He has always put country above self and represents the very best of America,” Corker said of Mattis last night. “Our nation will miss his stellar service.”

-- Trump proudly surrounded himself with a bevy of generals when he took power last year. He’d avoided Vietnam by claiming bone spurs, and he’s the first president in American history with no prior governing or military experience. Their departures are partly because Trump has consistently bristled at attempts to impose a semblance of military-style discipline and decision-making processes on his freewheeling administration. This turned out not to be a good fit for an improvisational reality television showman who relishes cliffhangers and has embraced “the madman theory” of foreign policy. The president has reportedly said he sees each day in the White House like an episode in a TV show that can be won or lost. That leads to the kind of short-term, nonstrategic thinking that the officer corps is trained to abhor.

-- Mattis’s departure could test the pro-Trump resolve of the Republican establishment. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has carefully avoided criticizing the president, said he was “particularly distressed” by Mattis’s resignation. “It is regrettable that the President must now choose a new Secretary of Defense,” the Kentucky Republican said in a statement.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) raised the specter of “a second 9/11” if Trump follows through on his plans to pull out of Syria and scale back in Afghanistan. “If we continue on our present course we are setting in motion the loss of all our gains and paving the way toward a second 9/11,” he tweeted.

-- Programming note: The Daily 202 is taking a two-week hiatus for the holidays. We will return on Monday, Jan. 7. Thank you for reading.

House Republicans passed legislation on Dec. 20 to fund the government until February and allocate $5.7 billion for building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. (Video: U.S. House of Representatives)


-- The House passed a bill last night that includes border-wall funding but will have no chance of survival in the Senate. That means a government shutdown at midnight tonight is increasingly likely. Erica Werner, Damian Paletta and Mike DeBonis report: “House Republican leaders hurried to appease the president, pulling together a bill that would keep the government funded through Feb. 8 while also allocating $5.7 billion for the border wall. The House bill also included nearly $8 billion for disaster relief for hurricanes and wildfires. The legislation passed the House on a near-party-line vote of 217 to 185 Thursday night, over strident objections from Democrats who criticized the wall as immoral and ineffective and declared the legislation dead on arrival in the Senate. No Democrats voted for the House measure, and eight Republicans voted against it. ... The House vote only hardened Washington’s budget impasse: Democrats have the Senate votes to block any bill that includes funding for Trump’s wall, and Trump says he’ll veto any bill that doesn’t.”

-- Dozens of federal agencies are preparing to halt operations at midnight. Lisa Rein, Damian Paletta and Brady Dennis report: “A partial shutdown seemed increasingly likely, with hopes dwindling of an agreement to fund the departments of State, Agriculture, Interior, Treasury, Justice, Commerce, Homeland Security, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as dozens of smaller independent agencies. … While the Office of Management and Budget held a conference call with agency leaders last week to notify them to begin shutdown preparations, it is leaving it up to each agency to execute its plans.”

What would be closed? “Many national parks would be accessible to the public … as they were during a brief shutdown last January, but their visitor centers and restrooms would be closed and there would be no trash collection or park rangers on duty. Historical homes and areas of parks where roads cannot be plowed would be closed. Roads and trails and open-air memorials would stay open. Most employees who are likely to be sent home without pay were not expected to be notified until Friday, when many of them will be on vacation, leaving managers rushing to come up with plans to notify them.”

-- Trump continued to be defiant in a tweetstorm Friday morning:

-- He's doing this because of blowback from conservative media. Rucker, Costa and Dawsey report: “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. And he pecked out a series of defensive tweets blaming congressional leaders for not funding the wall. …  At an Oval Office meeting Thursday with Ryan and McCarthy … Trump spent six to seven minutes in the meeting with Ryan and McCarthy talking about ‘steel slats’ and saying that the term was preferable to calling the proposed construction a ‘wall,’ as the president has done for more than three years.”

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi on Dec. 20 decried a “meltdown” by House Republicans over a government funding bill and funding for a southern border wall. (Video: Reuters)

-- Irony alert: A shutdown could force Border Patrol agents to work without pay over the holiday. From the New York Times’s Catie Edmondson and Emily Cochrane: “With ninety percent of their personnel considered essential, the Department of Homeland Security will be hit the hardest. Nearly 54,000 Customs and Border Protection agents and 42,000 Coast Guard employees are projected to work without pay, and as travelers flood the nation’s airports and train stations, 53,000 T.S.A. agents will keep working, as will air traffic controllers and aviation and railroad safety inspectors. Law enforcement officers at the Justice Department will also be expected to continue working over the holidays without pay, including nearly 17,000 correctional officers, 14,000 F.B.I. agents, and 4,000 Drug Enforcement Administration agents. And after a long year battling ferocious wildfires, about 5,000 firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service will also remain on duty.”

-- House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows had a message for government employees who might not get paid: You signed up for this. “It’s actually part of what you do when you sign up for any public service position,” Meadows (R-N.C.) told reporters on Capitol Hill. “And it’s not lost on me in terms of, you know, the potential hardship. At the same time, they know they would be required to work and even in preparation for a potential shutdown those groups within the agencies have been instructed to show up.” Meadows has more than 6,000 federal employees living in his district. (Colby Itkowitz and Mike DeBonis)

-- “House Republicans are ending their eight-year run in the majority exactly the way it began — grabbing a hostage and seeking ransom,” Paul Kane writes. “This week’s standoff, like so many others this decade, pits an alienated House GOP caucus against its more reality-driven brethren in the Senate. The House Republicans are, again, refusing to accept their fate and continuing to insist that Washington give in to their demands even as they have struggled to muster an actual majority from their own ranks. … This is exactly how the House GOP came to power in January 2011, bolstered by a fiery conservative freshman class with more than 80 members who rode into office on tea party energy.”

-- White House and administration aides raised concerns that the deputy chief of staff, Zach Fuentes, has been maneuvering behind the scenes to use the year-end spending bill to personally benefit himself. The Times’s Maggie Haberman and Nicholas Fandos report: “Mr. Fuentes told colleagues that after his mentor, John F. Kelly, left his job as chief of staff at the end of the year, he would ‘hide out’ at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House, for six months, remaining on the payroll in a nebulous role. Then, in July, when he had completed 19 years of service in the Coast Guard, Mr. Fuentes — an active-duty officer — would take advantage of an early retirement program. The program, referred to as temporary early retirement authority, had lapsed for Coast Guard officials at the end of the 2018 fiscal year, and, according to people briefed on the discussions, Department of Homeland Security officials began pressing Congress in November to reinstate it. Administration officials said they had been told that Mr. Fuentes discussed the program with officials at the Department of Homeland Security, and after reporters raised questions with lawmakers of both parties, a provision to reinstate it was abruptly pulled from a House bill on Wednesday.”

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  1. A federal appeals court halted discovery in the emoluments lawsuit against Trump’s D.C. hotel. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered D.C. and Maryland to cease efforts to obtain information about the finances of Trump and his family business. But the court indicated plans to hear arguments in the case in March. (Politico)

  2. A former Senate Intelligence Committee staffer was sentenced to two years in prison for lying to the FBI. The committee’s GOP chairman and two top Democratic members requested leniency for James Wolfe, who pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about his communications with reporters during a federal leak probe. (Spencer S. Hsu and Rachel Weiner)

  3. A judge rejected a request from Harvey Weinstein’s defense team to have the charges against him dismissed, allowing a criminal trial to move forward. Weinstein’s attorneys had argued that alleged improper behavior on the part of prosecutors and police officers should get the case tossed out. (Steven Zeitchik)

  4. Pope Francis vowed that the Catholic Church would “never again” cover up sexual abuse. Francis used his annual Christmas speech to demand that all priests who have sexually abused children come forward. (AP)

  5. Planned Parenthood has been accused of discriminating against pregnant employees. Women employed by the organization described managers weighing pregnancy in their hiring decisions and denying pregnant employees rest breaks recommended by doctors. (New York Times)

  6. Two Scandinavian tourists were killed in Morocco in what the Danish prime minister called an “act of terror.” Louisa Vesterager Jespersen of Denmark and Maren Ueland of Norway were found near Mount Toubkal, a popular tourist destination in the North African country. One report said that at least one of the women had been decapitated. (Siobhán O'Grady)

  7. One of the Canadian citizens being detained in China is being kept in a cell with the lights on 24/7. Former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, who was arrested earlier this month in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a top Huawei executive, has also been denied access to a lawyer. (Anna Fifield)

  8. Journalists at Slate voted last week to authorize a strike against their owner. The Slate vote is the latest sign of union organizing sweeping through digital newsrooms over the past three years. (Paul Farhi)

  9. London’s Gatwick Airport resumed flights a day after the presence of industrial-grade drones forced it to shut down. The halt in air traffic left tens of thousands of holiday travelers stranded or delayed, a pattern the airport warned could continue as officials deal with fallout from the past day’s cancellations. (AP)

  10. The travel insurance company ranked LaGuardia as the worst airport for flight cancellations. Nearly 5 percent of flights at the New York airport were canceled this year. Washington’s Reagan National Airport ranked eighth, with nearly 4 percent of its flights getting canceled in 2018. (Fredrick Kunkle)

  11. Millennials are the only U.S. age group who prefer to say “happy holidays” rather than “merry Christmas,” according to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. Fifty-three percent of adults under 30 prefer to wish one another “happy holidays” — compared with 29 percent of those between the ages of 30 and 59 and 19 percent of those over 60. (NPR)

Over a series of 2017 interviews, acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker expressed skepticism about the Russia probe. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)


-- A senior Justice Department ethics official said Matt Whitaker should probably recuse himself from overseeing Mueller’s investigation, but the acting attorney general is refusing to do so. Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky report: “Late Thursday, the Justice Department formally notified Congress of Whitaker’s decision not to recuse, writing in a letter that while an ethics official felt he should do so to avoid the appearance of a conflict, that official could not identify a precedent for such a recusal. Sen. Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Whitaker’s refusal to recuse 'is an attack on the rule of law and the American justice system, but it is undoubtedly consistent with what President Trump wanted — an unethical yes-man who will do his bidding rather than do what’s right.'

Whitaker never asked Justice Department ethics officials for a formal recommendation, nor did he receive one ... However, after Whitaker met repeatedly with Justice Department ethics officials to discuss the facts and the issues under consideration, a senior ethics official told the group of advisers on Tuesday that it was a ‘close call’ but that Whitaker should recuse himself to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.”

-- Schumer said the Mueller memo penned earlier this year by William Barr, Trump's pick to replace Whitaker, should disqualify him. The Wall Street Jounal’s Sadie Gurman and Rebecca Ballhaus report: “Noting that Mr. Trump hasn’t yet formally nominated Mr. Barr, who also served as attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration, Mr. Schumer said the president ‘must immediately reconsider and find another nominee who is free of conflicts and will carry out the duties of the office impartially.’ White House officials gave no indication they were reconsidering the nomination, however. Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, said he had been aware that Mr. Barr had written a memo about the Mueller investigation and was familiar with its arguments before The Wall Street Journal reported on it Wednesday.” Barr criticized the legal basis of Mueller’s obstruction-of-justice inquiry. 

-- Mueller may submit a report on his findings to the attorney general as early as mid-February, NBC News’s Pete Williams and Ken Dilanian report: “‘They clearly are tying up loose ends,’ said a lawyer who has been in contact with the Mueller team. The sources either did not know or would not say whether Mueller has answered the fundamental question he was hired to investigate: Whether Trump or anyone around him conspired with the Russian intelligence operations to help his campaign.”

-- The House Intelligence Committee voted unanimously to give Mueller a transcript of Roger Stone’s testimony to the panel. Carol D. Leonnig, Rosalind S. Helderman and Manuel Roig-Franzia report: “The vote took place behind closed doors but was confirmed by a person with knowledge of the action. Last Friday, Mueller requested an official transcript of Stone’s 2017 testimony — the first time the special counsel had asked the committee to turn over material it has gathered during its investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. Mueller has had access to an unofficial copy of Stone’s testimony for weeks, but legal experts said he would need a certified copy provided by the committee if he wished to use the document to seek an indictment.”

-- House Democrats plan to use an obscure federal law from 1924 to try to obtain Trump’s tax returns. NBC News’s Ken Dilanian reports: “Soon after the Democrats take control of the House next year, Rep. Richard Neal, who will be the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, expects to send a letter to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin requesting copies of [Trump's] returns. He doesn't expect to get them. At least, not right away. A 1924 federal law — 26 U.S. Code § 6103 — mandates that the Treasury secretary ‘shall furnish’ the tax returns of any individual for private review by the chairmen of the House and Senate tax committees. Committee sources could find no evidence that it had ever been used to obtain somebody's tax return. But they say the law, which was passed to monitor conflicts of interest in the executive branch, is clear.”

-- Russian agents used a back channel with the Treasury Department during the 2016 campaign to try to obtain information on some of Hillary Clinton’s influential supporters and Kremlin enemies. BuzzFeed News’s Anthony Cormier and Jason Leopold report: “Russian agents ostensibly trying to track ISIS instead pressed their American counterparts for private financial documents on at least two dozen dissidents, academics, private investigators, and American citizens. Most startlingly, Russia requested sensitive documents on Dirk, Edward, and Daniel Ziff, billionaire investors who had run afoul of the Kremlin. That request was made weeks before a Russian lawyer showed up at Trump Tower offering top campaign aides ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton — including her supposed connection to the Ziff brothers. … In an astonishing departure from protocol, documents show that at the same time the requests were being made, Treasury officials were using their government email accounts to send messages back and forth with a network of private Hotmail and Gmail accounts set up by the Russians, rather than communicating through the secure network usually used to exchange information with other countries.”


-- Echoing his proposal to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, Trump is pushing to reduce by roughly half the number of U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan. Dan Lamothe, Josh Dawsey, Missy Ryan and Paul Sonne report: “The Afghanistan directive also comes as the United States attempts to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban, potentially undercutting leverage that American diplomats have … The president pressed White House national security adviser John Bolton to make the moves, and Bolton is resisting ...

"A senior administration official ... said that other U.S. officials are still trying to change Trump’s mind ... The news … is certain to worry senior officials in Afghanistan, who already are battling deteriorating security in the country despite the existing U.S. military presence there. And it will be greeted wearily by many senior U.S. military officers, who have launched more airstrikes in Afghanistan this year than in any during the 17-year-old war, the longest in American history.”

-- The back-to-back news about Syria and Afghanistan could define a Trump Doctrine on foreign policy, Karen DeYoung reports. “Over the past two years, as promised, Trump has canceled international climate and arms-control agreements and shattered trade accords. He has insulted traditional friends and fawned over adversaries. But despite threatening to withdraw U.S. military forces from virtually every long-term deployment in the world ... Trump has been repeatedly constrained by the counsel of his own revolving-door national security team. Until now. If there is a Trump Doctrine, the Syria withdrawal has brought it to full flower. As Trump himself tweeted Thursday morning, it should have been ‘no surprise. I’ve been campaigning on it for years.’”

-- Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria has caused a sense of betrayal among the country’s Kurds and other U.S. allies in the region. Liz Sly reports: “In the Syrian town of Kobane, where the United States’ alliance with Syria’s Kurds began in 2014, thousands of Kurds marched in anger and dismay toward a U.S. military base, many clutching photographs of their children killed fighting the Islamic State alongside U.S. forces. They urged Trump to reverse his decision. … This latest betrayal has ramifications far beyond the aspirations of Kurds, said Hoshyar Zebari, the Kurdish former foreign minister of Iraq. ‘This sudden change in policy is worrying not only to Syrian Kurds but to all the U.S. allies in the region,’ he said. ‘The message it sends is that there really is a question of trust. This will cause many governments to rethink their alliances with a superpower that … can just abandon them and leave them in the lurch and throw them under the bus.’”

-- Turkey will delay a planned offensive against Kurdish forces in Syria's northeast, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday, citing talks with Trump. Erin Cunningham reports from Istanbul: “Erdogan said that he welcomed Trump's decision … Turkey sees Kurdish forces both at home and in Syria as a threat to its national security and warned of an impending offensive to rout them from the Turkish border. ‘We decided last week to launch a military incursion into the east of the Euphrates River and shared that information with the public,’ Erdogan said at a meeting of the Turkish Exporters Assembly in Istanbul. ‘Our phone call with President Trump, along with contacts between our diplomats and security officials and statements by the United States, have led us to wait a little longer,’ he said. Still, he said, Turkey's military is planning to launch the offensive in several months, with the aim of ‘eliminating’ both the Kurdish YPG, or People's Protection Units, and Islamic State remnants.”


-- “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,” per Paul Sonne, Josh Dawsey and Missy Ryan. “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. …

A staunch Russia hawk, Mattis bristled at the president’s conciliatory gestures toward Russian President Vladimir Putin and comments that undermined NATO, according to people close to him. Russia and China ‘want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model,’ Mattis underscored in his resignation letter. Moscow and Beijing are looking for ‘veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic and security decisions,’ he said, warning the president that the United States must ‘use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense.’

Mattis’s 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. Mattis told one confidante last month that he wasn’t going to leave because he had too many changes to make at the Defense Department, particularly on personnel.  But the defense secretary lost the most crucial battle on that front this month when the president disregarded his recommendation to make Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and instead chose Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley. The person close to Mattis said that choice was particularly offensive to the defense secretary. …

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.”

-- Mattis’s departure has sent shock waves abroad: From Griff Witte in Berlin and Isaac Stanley-Becker in Florence: “‘A morning of alarm in Europe’ was how Carl Bildt, co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations and formerly prime minister of Sweden, described the reaction. … In Asia, news of the Pentagon chief’s departure raised questions about Washington’s approach to China’s rise. The uncertainty was felt particularly in India, where bolstering ties with the United States has been one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s central foreign policy aims.”

  • “Mattis was the last man standing for what had been U.S. foreign policy since World War II,” said Norbert Röttgen, chair of the foreign affairs committee in the German parliament and a close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel. “With him gone, this really marks a juncture in the Trump presidency. Now we have an unrestrained Trump, which is a dangerous signal for the year ahead.”
  • “Our concern is who comes next,” said Yue Gang, a retired People’s Liberation Army colonel and military commentator in Beijing. “If Trump chooses a lackey who isn’t willing to serve as a balance to his instincts, the worry is that the world becomes even more unstable.”

--Mattis’s acrimonious departure will not only make it difficult for Trump to find a new secretary of defense but also potentially dissuade others from serving in the administration,” Greg Jaffe and Karoun Demirjian report. “In an administration mired in investigations, Mattis oversaw a Pentagon notably free of scandal. One of his most memorable moments came early in the administration at a Cabinet meeting when Mattis was the only secretary or senior official who declined to lavish Trump with praise. Instead, he spoke of his pride in leading America’s military.”

-- One name we keep hearing when we ask around about potential replacements is Jack Keane, a former Army vice chief of staff who frequently appears on Fox News. Politico also floats Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, former senator Jim Talent (R-Mo.) and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.

Congress overwhelmingly passed the First Step Act, a sweeping overhaul of the criminal justice system, on Dec. 20, representing a major pivot by the GOP. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)


-- The Trump administration is advancing plans to allow drilling inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Steven Mufson reports: “[The administration issued] a draft environmental impact statement outlining four development alternatives, one of which would set some modest limits to protect caribou that use the area as a critical summer calving ground. Environmental groups roundly criticized the report, which they said had been rushed in an effort to get exploration started during [Trump’s] first term. The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management said on Thursday that it still intends to hold an oil and gas lease sale in 2019 that would open up exploration of the refuge’s coastal plain, or approximately 1.6 million acres of the 19.3 million acre ANWR.”

-- Trump will sign a criminal justice bill today aimed at reducing mandatory minimum prison sentences. John Wagner and Philip Rucker report: “The Republican-led House approved the First Step Act on a 358-to-36 vote, reflecting a major pivot by the GOP from the punitive, law-and-order stance of the 1980s to policies that emphasize rehabilitation and aim to save money. White House officials have been planning for a signing ceremony Friday before Trump departs for Florida for the holidays. Plans call for him to invite Democrats as well as Republicans, hoping for a rare bipartisan celebration of a new law, aides said.”

-- The DOJ is investigating Southwest Key Programs, the largest U.S. operator of migrant children shelters. The New York Times’s Rebecca R. Ruiz, Nicholas Kulish and Kim Barker report: “The inquiry could upend shelter care for thousands of children, escalating government scrutiny of the nonprofit even as it remains central to the Trump administration’s immigration agenda. The charity operates 24 shelters to house children who were separated from their parents at the border or arrived on their own. The United States attorney’s office for the Western District of Texas is examining the finances of Southwest Key, based in Austin, and whether it misappropriated government money, according to [two sources].

-- House Democratic leadership quashed a proposal from Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) to establish a select committee on a Green New Deal. HuffPost’s Alexander C. Kaufman reports: “Democratic leaders on Thursday tapped Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) to head a revived U.S. House panel on climate change … Castor’s appointment came as a surprise to proponents of a Green New Deal. The move also kicked off a controversy as the six-term congresswoman dismissed calls to bar members who accept money from fossil fuel companies from serving on the committee, arguing it would violate free speech rights. … It’s a stunning upset, essentially returning Democrats to the original plan leaders laid out before the protests began in November."

2020 WATCH:

-- Democratic presidential candidates will meet for at least a dozen primary debates starting in June. Michael Scherer reports: “Entry to the early debate stages will be determined by a combination of polling, grass-roots financial support and other factors, in an effort to include candidates who are not registering nationally in public opinion surveys. If the number of candidates is too large to host at a single event, the party plans to hold two events in the same location on consecutive nights, after randomly dividing the candidates in a public selection process. That would increase the number of actual debates beyond a dozen. … The first two debates will be held in June and July. After an August break, they will continue on a monthly basis through the rest of the year. The last debate in 2020 is now scheduled for April.”

-- An influential backer of Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is creating a new super PAC and intends to raise $10 million to support his presidential ambitions. The New York Times’s Shane Goldmacher and Kenneth P. Vogel report: “Steve Phillips, an influential San Francisco-based Democratic donor and activist, said he would formally file paperwork on Thursday to create the pro-Booker super PAC, Dream United. … A first well-funded super PAC of 2020 could aid Mr. Booker in amplifying his message in what is expected to be a historically crowded field, and it speaks to the depth of his support from potential financiers. But such support could also backfire as the grass-roots base of the party is increasingly calling to curtail the political influence of the wealthy. Mr. Phillips said he had already collected $4 million in commitments. And he suggested he would continue collecting money regardless of whether Mr. Booker wanted his support.”

-- Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said he would weigh the possibility of retiring in 2020 over the holidays. Politico’s James Arkin and Daniel Strauss report: “He said he was not certain if he would make a final decision before the new Congress convenes in January, but Roberts said he expects to make an announcement ‘early in the year.’ ‘I think it's incumbent on people, if they're going to not run, to certainly indicate that [early] because it's a very competitive situation,’ Roberts said. Roberts, 82, survived a serious primary challenge in his last reelection fight in 2014 and had to stave off questions about his residency in Kansas. … Kansas has not sent a Democrat to the Senate since the 1930s, but Democratic Gov.-elect Laura Kelly did win the state's top office in November, defeating Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach.”

-- Pro-Trump groups have collected contributions from 136 wealthy donors totaling nearly $55 million since he took office. Michelle Ye Hee Lee reports: “The report, released Thursday, detailed major donors to three pro-Trump super PACs, Vice President Pence’s leadership committee, and two committees that raise money in partnership with the Republican Party and Trump’s 2020 campaign, and found that the top business sectors associated with the donors were casino, finance, real estate and energy. Many of the donors work for or own companies that conduct business with the federal government, according to the analysis."

-- Trump has grown more fearful that the stock market will make it harder to win reelection. “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,” Heather Long, Josh Dawsey and Heath report. “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 current and former officials said.”


Many Republican lawmakers expressed grave alarm over Mattis's resignation:

And Democrats sounded even more anxious about a Trump White House without Mattis:

A Daily Beast reporter shared some insight on why Mattis might be leaving now:

From a conservative CNN host:

A CNN reporter analyzed Trump's tweet crediting the "tremendous progress" made during Mattis's tenure:

A Politico reporter provided a tally of Trump's turnover:

From a Vanity Fair reporter:

Trump bragged after the House passed a funding bill with border-wall spending that will be dead on arrival in the Senate:

(The tweet was a bit reminiscent of Trump's celebration in the Rose Garden after House Republicans passed a health-care bill that ultimately died in the Senate.)

Pelosi responded by once again placing the onus of a potential shutdown on the president:

A House Republican mocked Mark Meadows's tough-love take on government employees who might be furloughed — or work unpaid — over the holidays:

A Democratic senator reminded her Twitter followers of the government employees who could be affected by a shutdown:

A Democratic congresswoman-elect criticized the priorities of the House bill:

But immigration hawks urged Trump to force a shutdown, even if he's going to be blamed:

The shutdown chaos gave one Democratic senator just 17 minutes with his family in Hawaii:

From a HuffPost reporter:

From an  editor at the Atlantic:

A Post reporter raised this conflict-of-interest concern:

Two potential 2020 candidates ran into each other in Iowa, per a Wall Street Journal reporter:

"West Wing" star Bradley Whitford, who played Josh Lyman, criticized Zach Fuentes: 

And a presidential historian noted another president's visit to Mar-a-Lago as Trump prepares to leave for two weeks at the "Winter White House":

But, depending on what happens today, Trump may be stuck in Washington:

A CBS News reporter noted that Friday is the winter solstice:

Michelle Obama’s thigh-high Balenciaga boots stole the show at her Brooklyn stop on her book tour. She's greeted on stage by fashion icon Sarah Jessica Parker. (Video: Jennifer Laws via Storyful)


-- “The end of Lean In: How Sheryl Sandberg’s message of empowerment fully unraveled,” by Caitlin Gibson: “The Lean In movement launched by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg is officially over. Done. Fin. Sandberg’s brand of self-empowerment feminism has endured waves of criticism ever since her 2013 best-selling book, ‘Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead’ became a cultural phenomenon. But in the waning weeks of 2018 — a year in which Facebook was besieged by high-profile scandals, and the #MeToo movement continued to train attention on the barriers facing working women — the potency of Sandberg’s individualistic, motivational mantra has fully eroded.”

-- “Michelle Obama can wear whatever she wants now. What she wants is sparkly thigh-high boots,” by Robin Givhan: “The former first lady wore a full-length, draped, shimmery yellow shirt dress with a pair of gold, holographic thigh-high boots. It wasn’t just an eye-catching ensemble. It was fashion. … The role of first lady was a chapter in her life, not the entirety of it. On the road, she has stepped away from the signature sheaths and the lady-like dresses that dominated her wardrobe during her time in the White House. In this new phase, she has been wearing more trousers, more pantsuits and the kind of outre fashion that would have caused heart palpitations among the Washington establishment as well as much of the citizenry.”


“Former Ga. candidate for governor indicted,” from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “State Sen. Michael Williams, who waged a controversial campaign for governor this year, was charged this week with making a false report that computer servers were stolen from his campaign office shortly before his last-place finish in the May primary. The indictment, obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, accuses the Forysth County Republican of insurance fraud, making a false statement and false report of a crime. … Williams came in fifth place out of five candidates in the May Republican primary for governor. He based his campaign on loyalty to Donald Trump and a series of ill-fated publicity stunts, including a ‘deportation bus.’”



“Tucker Carlson's show has been hit by an advertiser boycott, and it's having a visible effect,” from CNN: “The advertiser boycott spearheaded by liberal organizations of Fox News host Tucker Carlson is starting to have a visible effect. Carlson's show, ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight,’ was down from the normal five commercial breaks to four on Wednesday night — a clear sign the pressure campaign spearheaded by liberal activists is having its intended result. In those four breaks, there were approximately 20 regular commercials, plus six advertisements for other Fox content. In the week before the boycott, Carlson's program averaged 36 advertisements per show, not including commercials for Fox content, according to The Hollywood Reporter.”



Trump will participate in signing ceremonies today for three bills, including the First Step Act.


“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.” — Trump’s first social media adviser, Justin McConney. (Politico)



-- Washingtonians who are traveling today should keep an eye out for possible late-day storms. The Capital Weather Gang forecasts: “A midday break in rain — and even the fog and clouds — is possible. We just have to get our morning round to exit properly. Any extra sunshine could increase the risk for heavier afternoon showers and even a storm. Check back before driving home from work to see if we have a severe storm and/or heavy rain risk. Don’t forget to avoid water-covered roadways as well, please. Near 60 to mid-60s look probable for high temperatures.”

-- The Nationals reached a deal with pitcher Anibal Sanchez. Jesse Dougherty reports: “Sanchez’s contract is for two years and $19 million with a club option for 2021, giving Washington another veteran arm in a rotation thinned after Tanner Roark was dealt to the Cincinnati Reds last week.”

-- D.C. Council member Jack Evans received stock in a digital sign company worth up to $100,000 just before he promoted legislation benefiting the company. Steve Thompson reports: “Evans (D-Ward 2) created his firm, NSE Consulting, in 2016, just as the sign company, Digi Outdoor Media, was trying to enter the D.C. market. Shares in Digi were issued to NSE Consulting on Oct. 28, 2016, according to the stock certificate, which was obtained by The Washington Post. A month later, Evans asked the council chairman to place emergency legislation on the next agenda that would have allowed Digi to install its signs [in the District]. Evans would later pull the bill when it became clear it did not have the votes to pass. Asked about the stock on Thursday, Evans sent a text message saying, ‘The stock certificate was returned to Digi as soon as it was received.’ He declined to answer additional questions by text or in person outside his office.”

-- Virginia plans to stop suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court fines. Justin Wm. Moyer reports: “A Washington Post analysis earlier this year found that more than 7 million people nationwide may have had their driver’s licenses suspended for failure to pay court or administrative debt, a practice that advocates say unfairly punishes the poor. A spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles said 626,537 drivers had their licenses suspended as of Dec. 1 for failure to pay such costs.”


Stephen Colbert suggested a replacement for Jim Mattis:

The Post's Beirut bureau chief shared this video of Raqqa as Trump moves to pull U.S. troops out of Syria:

One of Trump's senior advisers tried to yell over a CNN host during an interview about border-wall funding:

As he rejected a deal to avoid a shutdown, Trump posted an old video of himself pretending to be a farmer a la "Green Acres":

And gorillas at London Zoo enjoyed treats from a large advent calendar:

Keepers at London Zoo gave animals a large advent calendar, hay served in red stockings and a lion’s version of Christmas pudding. (Video: Reuters)