Headlines: December 21, 2018
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Washington DC was shaken on Thursday with the news that Defense Secretary James Mattis had announced his resignation. Mattis will be leaving at the end of next February over differences with the President on foreign policy. An unnamed official told Associated Press that, “Mattis went to the White House with his resignation letter in hand to meet with the president and spoke to Trump for about 45 minutes…There was no confrontation between the two men, the official said, and there was no one issue that caused the resignation. However, the official said, Syria likely was the last straw for Mattis.” The President earlier this week announced that the US would withdraw all troops from Syria.
Mattis’ resignation letter was made public and in it he said, “we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.” He singled out some nations saying, “It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model.” And finally explained to Trump, “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.”
The reactions from members of both parties to Mattis’s resignation has been one of alarm and dismay. Republican Senator Marco Rubio tweeted, “Just read Gen. Mattis resignation letter. It makes it abundantly clear that we are headed towards a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation, damage our alliances & empower our adversaries.” Ohio Governor John Kasich tweeted, “This chaos, both foreign and domestic, is putting America in danger and must stop immediately.” Former CIA Director Leon Panetta responded on CNN saying, “The last damn thing we need is more chaos and crisis…This is a President who operates somehow by his gut instinct and how he reads the politics of the moment…He enjoys chaos…but a steady diet of chaos creates hell for the American people.” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders spoke to reporters late on Thursday about Mattis’ resignation.
Meanwhile Trump also directed a major military withdrawal from Afghanistan, ordering the Pentagon to bring home nearly half of all troops serving there. His position in that nation, where the US is fighting its longest official war, is an about-face from his posture last year where he increased troop numbers. Under Trump the US has escalated the war in Afghanistan, dropping more bombs and killing more civilians than at any time since the early years of the war. The US is currently in negotiations with the Afghan Taliban and some military analysts fear that a withdrawal would undermine the efforts of diplomats. However, US representatives have been in talks with Taliban leaders many times over the years with little success.
In other news, Trump appears to be blowing up the world of domestic policy as well with his newly invigorated demand for border wall funding, soon after indicating that he was softening his position. Now, just hours away from a deadline to fund major parts of the federal government, Trump is daring the Senate to pass a bill with $5 billion of funding for his border wall with Mexico. The Republican-dominated House, as one of its last acts of the year before relinquishing majority control to Democrats, passed a bill 217-185 on Thursday with $5 billion appropriated for the wall. In the Senate, a super-majority is required for appropriations and Democrats appear to be standing firm against handing Trump the requisite votes. On Friday morning Trump tweeted, “If enough Dems don’t vote, it will be a Democrat Shutdown!” which is also an about-face from last week when he took responsibility for a shutdown, saying during a meeting with Democratic leaders, “I am proud to shut down the government for border security.” Also on Friday he tweeted, “Mitch, use the Nuclear Option and get it done! Our Country is counting on you!,” urging the Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell to push through the spending bill with only a simple majority.
The Justice Department on Thursday charged two Chinese nationals with serious crimes related to a global hacking effort aimed at stealing proprietary technological information as well as the personal data of thousands of members of the US Navy. According to NBC, “Zhu Hua and Zhang Shilong are charged with conspiracy to commit computer intrusions and wire fraud, as well as aggravated identity theft, as part of years-long campaigns to steal from numerous foreign governments and dozens of companies. They remain at large.” More seriously, Justice department officials accused the two men of working in conjunction with the Chinese government. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said, “China will find it difficult to pretend that it is not responsible for this action.” FBI Director Christopher Wray said, “China’s goal, simply put, is to replace the U.S. as the world’s largest global superpower.”
Meanwhile acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker has received advice from a senior ethics advisor at the Justice Department that he should recuse himself from any role in the Special Counsel’s investigation into election wrong doing. Mr. Whitaker, who has been vocally partisan before being appointed by Trump to replace Jeff Sessions, refused the advice. Whitaker may be asked about his refusal to recuse himself by the Senate while carrying out his duties as acting Attorney General. Trump has named William Barr to head the Justice Department and Barr will face Senate confirmation.
The US Interior Department on Thursday announced a new step toward drilling in the pristine Arctic Natural Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).A year after the Republican dominated Congress voted for oil development in the area as part of a provision in the tax reform bill, Trump’s Interior Department released an environment impact statement as one of out-going secretary Ryan Zinke’s last acts in office. The Bureau of Land Management intends to hold an oil and gas lease sale next year offering up hundreds of thousands of acres of land to fossil fuel companies to explore. Indigenous and conservation groups have strongly opposed drilling in the ANWR region.
The President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has been caught buying a fourth property in New Jersey in a so-called ‘Opportunity Zone.’ The tax-breaks offered for buying in such zones were also part of last year’s tax reform bill and were part of a program that Kushner and his wife Ivanka Trump lobbied hard for. According to Associated Press, “The program has been praised as a smart way to attract money into high-poverty areas long neglected by private investors. But critics say it includes too many gentrifying neighborhoods already attracting investment and is a giveaway to wealthy developers.” Additionally, “Kushner owns stakes in 13 Opportunity Zones properties, all in locations deemed by the Urban Institute in Washington to be showing indications of rapid change or full-out gentrification.”