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Week In Politics: Fight Over Border Security Continues, President Trump's Iraq Visit


The border is where we will begin our conversation about the week in politics. Our guests today are Jason Johnson, politics editor at The Root. Thanks for being here in the studio.

JASON JOHNSON: Glad to be here.

SHAPIRO: And joining us from NPR West in Culver City is Susan Shelley, columnist at the Orange County Register. Welcome to you.

SUSAN SHELLEY: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: So two big events related to the border this week - first there was the death of a second child in U.S. custody, as we just heard about from Joel. And then the fight over border funding has kept parts of the federal government closed for a full week now. Susan, why do you think President Trump and the Democrats in Congress haven't been able to strike a deal?

SHELLEY: Well, certainly there are political uses for the issue that they have both exploited in campaigns, and we've seen that. We've seen it work for them in polling, in fundraising. And sometimes you just have to wonder if they really want to solve it or if they prefer to have the fight.

SHAPIRO: I mean, it doesn't even look like they're negotiating at the moment.

SHELLEY: Right now they're not, but the president is ratcheting up his demands and ratcheting up the pressure. And of course there was this arrest today in Bakersfield of a suspect in the murder of a police officer who was working overtime on Christmas. The suspect had been arrested twice before for DUI. He was stopped for DUI, and the sheriff of Stanislaus County today an hour ago gave a press conference and flatly blamed the sanctuary law. So this is a concern in security in - at many levels.

SHAPIRO: Jason, politicians listen to their constituents, to their bases. Do you think that Americans, voters care enough about this situation to compel the people in power to strike a deal?

JOHNSON: They do, and they gave their answer in the midterm elections, in the big blue wave. I mean, the president spent and large numbers of Republicans spent six or seven weeks saying there's this terrible caravan coming; we've got to make sure that we have this wall. And they lost seats in border states. They lost seats in the West.

So the Democrats who are coming into office seem to believe that, OK, standing up against this wall will work for us. Republicans think - seem to think that this is a last-minute deal that they have to do to show that they can still fulfill some campaign promises before Democrats come in. I don't see this ending anytime soon. The president of the United States has absolutely no leverage. But what's likely to happen is there's going to be a clean CR that Nancy Pelosi passes.

SHAPIRO: Continuing resolution - a funding bill.

JOHNSON: Yes, Nancy's going to pass a continuing resolution. Mitch McConnell will somehow explain it to the president that this is just a short-term loss and part of a long-term victory. And I think we'll hopefully have the government back up and running by the end of January. But there is no way in which any funding for this wall is going to come about. The Democrats wont let it happen.

SHAPIRO: Despite the shutdown, despite the holidays or perhaps because of the holidays, the president also made a surprise visit this week to Iraq, his first time visiting a war zone since he took office almost two years ago. And it stood out in a couple of ways. Let's listen to some of what he said there.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You know, when you think about it, you're fighting for borders in other countries. And they don't want to fight - the Democrats - for the border of our country - doesn't make a lot of sense.

SHAPIRO: The political partisan tone of his remarks have gotten a lot of attention. Jason, you're kind of chuckling. What did you make of this?

JOHNSON: I can say this from a personal level before political. I have family over there. I have family who have been over there. That is the last thing that they want to hear from the president. They want to hear the president say, I am proud of you; I'll take care of you when you come back home; we're looking after your families; we appreciate you.

The president using this trip as an opportunity to argue about an obscure domestic policy that is not of concern to the soldiers there is reprehensible. But it demonstrates the fact that this is a president who is primarily focused with exerting strength at the domestic level and sees American sort of foreign power as something that's just an occasional idea that he has to deal with, but he's primarily concerned with things at home. But that didn't resonate well with soldiers. I can tell you (laughter) the people who were there - that's not what they want to hear.

SHAPIRO: Reprehensible is a strong word. Susan, what did you make of this trip and these remarks?

SHELLEY: Well, of course President Trump does not use the script that other presidents used. He doesn't do it the way other presidents do it. He defeated a lot of politicians who do it the conventional way. And there's a reason for that. He's very direct, and he fires on all cylinders all the time. And when he's talking about border security, he is talking about national security.

SHAPIRO: It's interesting to me that you refer to the campaign, and I wonder if this perpetual campaign mode even in office, even when visiting troops serving overseas in some way doesn't serve him as well as during an actual campaign.

SHELLEY: Well, it's hard to say. He does accomplish a lot. He did accomplish tax reform. He did accomplish a criminal justice reform. These are big things that other people have given up on. And his methods are unconventional. His communications are unconventional. But I think we have to judge him by results.

SHAPIRO: Jason, you look like you want to jump in here.

JOHNSON: Yeah, no, so first off, he failed to do anything about the Affordable Care Act, which is primarily what he ran on. He failed to do anything about building a wall, which is something that he said he was going to run on. He managed to pass a tax cut bill that no one seems to like, that Republicans couldn't even run on six or seven months after he got into office. If the president's job is to be in perpetual campaign mode, at some point, your campaign has to be about something, and this campaign so far has failed. It's been about bluster. It's been about rhetoric, but it hasn't been about policy accomplishments.

And again, I cannot stress enough that when you have dedicated your life to putting your life on the line for this country and you're serving abroad, the last thing you want to be used for is a campaign commercial. You want to be thanked. You want to be appreciated. You want to be told that the government will be back up to take care of your health care when you come back home, not as an opportunity for the president to brag about what he can't accomplish and his enemies at home while you're fighting enemies abroad.

SHAPIRO: I want to give you a sentence or two to respond, Susan, before we move to our last thought.

SHELLEY: Well, on the Affordable Care Act, they did remove the the penalty payment, and now a court has thrown out the law, so we'll see how that plays out when it gets to the Supreme Court. And he is trying to build the wall, but there are people who are trying to stop him.

SHAPIRO: All right, just in our last minute, because this is our last week in politics conversation for the year, what are each of you watching for in 2019.

SHELLEY: I'm watching for the last chapter in the great mystery of our time, who did what to whom during the 2016 presidential election?

SHAPIRO: You're talking about the Mueller investigation.

SHELLEY: The Mueller investigation and the Michael Horowitz inspector general investigation and all of the investigations in the Congress about whether the national security apparatus was abused in a way that violated the rights of American citizens with spying or surveillance for national security purposes, then turned into the criminal justice system. We have a lot that is going to be developing this year, and there's really no way to know how this chapter ends.

SHAPIRO: And Jason, what's the big political story you're keeping an eye on?

JOHNSON: I am looking forward to the absolute chaos that will be the silent primary for the Democratic Party, the sort of weaponized journalism that has already come out about Bernie Sanders, about Beto O'Rourke. It's going to eventually hit Kamala Harris. It's going to hit Joe Biden. This is going to be vicious. I think it's great for democracy. I think it's great for the Democratic Party. And I think we're going to learn a lot about most of these candidates before they even announce sometime probably in the spring.

SHAPIRO: Jason Johnson of The Root and Susan Shelley of the Orange County Register, happy New Year to you both, and thanks so much for joining us today.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

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