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A Chaotic Week In Washington

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to spend a good part of this hour walking through some of the major news stories of the week. The federal government is now partially shut down because of an impasse over funding for that wall that President Trump promised he would build along the U.S.-Mexico border. Earlier in the week, the president announced an abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria and reportedly made plans to draw down troops from Afghanistan, which has prompted two high-profile resignations from his administration.

So by now, you probably know what happened. But we're trying to understand what the consequences may be and, if possible, why all this and why now. So once again, we have called upon Robert Costa, national political reporter at The Washington Post and host of "Washington Week."

Welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

ROBERT COSTA: Great to be with you.

MARTIN: So let's start with this latest, this partial government shutdown. And I promise that, in a few minutes, we're going to talk about the employees and the activities of government that are affected. But we're trying to figure out how we got to this point. And remember that a week and a half ago, the president said he'd be proud to shut down the government over the border wall. Now he's blaming it on the Democrats. So what's your sense of this? Did he really want to shut the government down? Like, what's the calculation here?

COSTA: In your introduction there, you framed it as a promise, a campaign promise by President Trump, this border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. In talking to White House officials today, people close to the president, they say they know they're going to pay a political cost for shutting down the government, the inability to govern. They no federal employees will be up in arms about their own employer not being able to function. But they also really think they would pay a political cost with the conservative base if they don't even appear to be fighting for this border wall. Privately, they say they're probably not going to get what President Trump wants - 5 billion. But they need to show some force, some activity to show the base they want to get that.

MARTIN: OK. But the president and congressional leaders had a deal that had passed the Senate. And they had expected the president to sign it. So what happened to throw everything off the rails?

COSTA: There was a right-wing rebellion. On Wednesday, I was at the Capitol with other reporters, and it looked like a deal was in the works to fund the government through early February. But by Wednesday night, the Freedom Caucus - Mark Meadows of North Carolina, Jim Jordan of Ohio, they were on the phone with President Trump. On Thursday morning, Fox News was taking the president to task, an ally of many people on Fox News, saying he was caving, not getting the border wall funding. And then you saw the president say - forget about that deal. I'm going to fight. There's going to be a shutdown.

MARTIN: So now the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, says that they are adjourned until Thursday, which seems as if the shutdown will last at least that long - you know, over Christmas, which many people celebrate. What are you hearing about that and, you know, what the prospects seem to be to try to bring this to an end?

COSTA: What's that T. S. Eliot line - this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper? This is not going to end with 5 billion. Talking to congressional aides today, they say this is going to end with probably 1.6 billion or 1.3 billion, not for a concrete brick for the border wall but for border security, for some kind of spending deal that Democrats and Republicans can rally around. And it will be a spending agreement that eventually makes it through next week.

MARTIN: So before the budget deal fell apart, we were talking about the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. We've read a lot of concerned tweets from Republicans about this. Today Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to defeat ISIS, quit as well. And we see that a number of congressional Republicans are not pleased. What does the White House have to say about this? Do they care what they think?

COSTA: They're not surprised. They've always known that President Trump is an outlier within his own party on foreign policy. The Republican Party has been a party of George W. Bush-style hawks, interventionists when it comes to foreign policy abroad. President Trump is really more of that Senator Rand Paul wing of the Republican Party, the Libertarian wing - not in style for sure but in policy and in trying to bring troops home from Syria or Afghanistan.

MARTIN: OK. But why - any thoughts about the timing? Why now? In part, we're hearing not just complaints about the what of it but the how of it - very little consultation evidently, the allies seem shocked.

COSTA: It's a reflection of the president's increasing isolation. You talk to people close to him, they say on the eve of divided government, he's not turning to generals; he's not turning to Cabinet members. He's watching television, processing the criticism against him, and he's lashing out, whether it's at the Mueller probe, at Congress or on foreign policy.

MARTIN: So again, here - we have about a minute left. And I apologize if I'm asking you to speculate, but I'm asking you to speculate according to your knowledge of the facts...

COSTA: Sure.

MARTIN: ...And the players. Are these things related in any way? I mean, a number of - obviously, these are critics of the president. But they've noted that this announcement, a lot of these moves have come after legal troubles mounted for those close to the president. I mean, a federal judge wondered out loud if his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had committed treason. The Trump Foundation shut down after the New York attorney general's office accused it of engaging in a shocking pattern of illegality. And there are those who wonder whether somehow all these are related in any way. What does your reporting tell you about this?

COSTA: My reporting is a mosaic of indignation inside of this White House. You have people like Steve Bannon talking to reporters - a former White House chief strategist - saying this president's boxed in. And so many other outside allies say the president doesn't have a plan for the shutdown, didn't have a plan other than to fight. He doesn't really have a plan to deal with the subpoenas that will surely fly when House Democrats take power. And he doesn't have a plan for foreign policy. This is someone who came to the presidency without ever being in elected office. And now he's facing the most difficult time of his entire presidency, and he doesn't have a plan again.

MARTIN: That's Robert Costa of The Washington Post, national political reporter.

Robert, thanks so much.

COSTA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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