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What Happens When The Government Shuts Down? Ex-Chief Of Staff Has Answers

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Oh, my gosh, it's a busy holiday season. To review, we have six more shopping days until Christmas. Congress and the White House have about three more negotiating days until a deadline to avoid a partial government shutdown. President Trump has two weeks, give or take, until a new chief of staff takes over at the White House. And lately it seems like every week, including this week, we learn a little more about Russian involvement in the president's election in 2016. Denis McDonough has a background in just about all of this. He was President Obama's chief of staff during a government shutdown and during the 2016 election. And he's in our studios.

Mr. McDonough, thanks for coming by - really appreciate it.

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Thank you for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: So how bad will it be if this deadline is missed on Friday to keep parts of the government open?

MCDONOUGH: Oh, it'd be a big missed opportunity. Obviously it's pretty clear that the president doesn't have the votes for his position of building the $5 billion wall, which does not appear to have votes either among the Republicans or the Democrats.

INSKEEP: There are Republicans who don't want to spend the money. There are Democrats who don't like the idea.

MCDONOUGH: Correct. And there's no evidence, by the way, that it would have any discernible impact on increased border security. But the bigger challenge, I think, Steve, is the fact that shutdowns end up costing the taxpayers more money than anybody would anticipate. That is because it costs a lot of money to prepare for a shutdown. It costs a lot of money to stand back up parts of the government that close during a shutdown. So not only is it a huge missed opportunity, it's more costly. And then I just want to say one other thing, Steve, which is there a lot of people - a lot of families who, going into the holidays, all of a sudden will not be getting their paycheck. And I think that's a huge mistake. That's true not just here in Washington but across the country.

INSKEEP: I'm remembering one feature of the 2013 shutdown that you experienced. And that was the deadline was missed. It seemed for a minute - OK, they miss a deadline by a few hours or whatever. But it turned out that once the deadline was missed, it was going to take 17 days to get back, which is what it actually took. Why would it take considerable time if this deadline is missed by even a little bit?

MCDONOUGH: Well, because what happens is people harden into their positions - and actually you're seeing that happen with the president even before the shutdown, which gives you an indication that he appears to be motivated to do this for some other reason - some other political reason - rather than just the budgeting reason. So I think that was clear over the weekend from the people he had out on the Sunday shows. But look. I hope cooler heads prevail and that he comes around to the position that says, let's go with the position that has the votes.

INSKEEP: Mercedes Schlapp, who is the White House strategic communications director, has been talking about this and laying out the president's position on demanding funding for a border wall. Let's listen to just a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERCEDES SCHLAPP: We're going to find ways to get to that $5 billion and make sure that we increase funding - not only for the physical barrier, but also for technology and for personnel.

INSKEEP: Not only the physical barrier, but also technology and personnel - isn't there actually room for a compromise there because there are people on both sides of the aisle who might like to spend more money on sensor technology or other kinds of ways to secure the border?

MCDONOUGH: Well, look, Steve. I think there are people who have supported increasing technology and increasing personnel deployed to the border. And that's been going on for several decades now. And in fact, this is a major thing that we spent a lot of time in the second term of the Bush - of the Obama administration. But the question isn't whether there is willingness to compromise. In fact, the position that the two Democratic leaders laid out at the White House last week was a compromise. So there is indications that there's compromise on Capitol Hill. I hope there's compromise in the White House.

Secondly, I think we have to learn a lesson of the last, say, six or eight months, Steve, that there's not just a question - there's not just a set of policies around deterring people from leaving their homes in Central America. There's got to be a set of policies around confronting the violence that's forcing them out of their homes. So that means increasing investment and development in Central America to make sure that people have access to kinds of opportunities and that they don't have to worry about their kids being pressed into gangs or their family members being threatened.

INSKEEP: What do you make of Mick Mulvaney, the guy who - I guess, unless they rearranged the White House - will be moving into the office you once held?

MCDONOUGH: Well, I don't know much about him. But I do know that the assignment that he's taken on here is a very difficult one, given the president that he works for - over and above the fact that the job itself is quite a challenging one.

INSKEEP: One other thing that I want to ask about, Denis McDonough - as you know very well, in the last day or so, we've learned about Senate-commissioned reports that give greater detail about Russian social media participation, let us say, in the 2016 election, including participation targeting black voters, trying to discourage them from voting at all in many cases or going for a third-party choice. You were in the White House with access to classified information during the election. How much of this did you know at the time?

MCDONOUGH: You'll recall that going into the late summer and early fall of 2016, the Director of National Intelligence under the Secretary of Homeland Security issued an...

INSKEEP: Oh, sure.

MCDONOUGH: ...Unprecedented statement about our concern that there was Russian involvement in our election.

INSKEEP: But did you understand the full extent that seems clear now?

MCDONOUGH: Well, I want to just make one other point here, Steve, which is that what you've just said and what's been laid out in this report does not appear to be a set of classified information. It appears to be publicly available social media information.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

MCDONOUGH: The extent of this reporting that I've seen over the course of the last couple of days, I was not aware of. We did - and we were aware of and did make public our concern about Russia's intents around the elections. And that was obviously a matter of great concern during the course of that summer, which led the president to take a series of steps - raising it with the congressional leadership and then directly confronting President Putin about it.

INSKEEP: This is something that, to many Republican voters, still doesn't matter. Even if they think it happened, even if they think the president lied about it, some tell pollsters they still support the president. What's your case that it did matter?

MCDONOUGH: Well, it doesn't really matter what my case is, Steve. I think we've got to let the facts be laid out here. I think the facts, as gathered by these analyses that you've just suggested for the Senate Intelligence Committee, are one set of the facts. And then obviously the special counsel and former FBI Director Mueller is pulling together what appears to be a very comprehensive case. And we'll see what those facts add up to.

INSKEEP: OK, we'll have to stop it there. Denis McDonough, thanks for coming by - really appreciate it.

MCDONOUGH: Thanks so much, Steve.

INSKEEP: He was chief of staff for several years to President Obama, is now the senior principal at the Markle Foundation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.