By the end of the afternoon, a new class of lawmakers is taking control in Washington as Democrats assume majority power in the U.S. House. While the focus over the past two weeks has centered on the southern border wall and the partial government shutdown, Rep. Seth Moulton's urging the public and his colleagues to remember the consequential foreign policy decisions President Trump made last month. After Trump ordered the full withdrawal of American troops from Syria and a major reduction in forces in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned. Moulton, who served four tours in Iraq, says it's time for the Democratic majority to wrest back some of war powers from the executive branch and force President Trump to present a comprehensive military strategy in the Middle East.
WGBH's Morning Edition is on the road this week, reporting live from Washington D.C. Anchor Joe Mathieu is sitting down with multiple members of the state's Congressional Delegation to learn about their goals for what is shaping up to be a contentious final two years of an already unprecedented presidency. The following transcript was edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: This is WGBH's Morning Edition on the road this morning live from NPR studios in Washington D.C. I'm Joe Mathieu. Glad you joined us as we cover the start of the 116th Congress. Quite a way to start a legislative session in the midst of a government shutdown and with great confusion over our military policy in Syria and Afghanistan after President Trump ordered troop withdrawals from both of those countries prompting the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Joining us now in Washington is Congressman Seth Moulton, of course a Marine and combat veteran who served four tours in Iraq and a frequent critic of President Trump's foreign policy decisions. Congressman, good morning and welcome to WGBH's Morning Edition.
Rep. Seth Moulton: It's good to be back.
Mathieu: Great to see you here in the nation's capital. First congratulations on the start of the new Congress. You are now part of the majority.
Moulton: Thank you. It's a it's a good feeling for sure, but it's also a huge responsibility. We are no longer just a party of opposition. We've got to get things done for the American people, and as Democrats were fond of talking about all the ways in which we disagree with the president. And that's important, but it's also important to have a positive agenda to talk about how we're going to make Americans' lives better — what our vision of the future is. And I'm looking forward to getting to work on that this year.
Mathieu: You'll start doing that today I guess with a couple of pieces of legislation aimed at reopening the government. The Senate says they don't want any part of it. Mitch McConnell says that if the president's not on board he's not either.
Moulton: Well, this is the president's shutdown. I mean Trump has said himself that he owns this shutdown over his wall, and Trump's border wall is just not going to work. I spent a lot of time down on the border during a visit earlier in this year. During the campaign, I brought some of the service veterans I was supporting down to see the situation for ourselves. We spent time not just on the American side but on the Mexican side of the border as well. And everybody we talked to said the system is fundamentally broken from migrants to asylum seekers to the customs and border officials and the ICE officials. Everyone said the system is broken and not a single person said a wall would fix it. So we don't understand what the president is trying to do. You know, my first mission in Iraq when I worked for General Petraeus was actually to go and work on border security with Iran. Of course Iran is much more dangerous than Mexico. And let me tell you we weren't building a wall.
Mathieu: Does that imply, as we keep hearing, a 21st century solution?
Moulton: The point is that border security matters. But the wall isn't going to work. It's a tremendous waste of money, and that's why we're not going to support it. So if you talk to Democrats and Republicans down in the border states they'll tell you that this isn't going to work, and we're not just going to cave in to this political demand for the president when it's not the right thing to do for the national security of our country.
Mathieu: We're talking with Congressman Seth Moulton on WGBH's Morning Edition. You Served in Iraq when General Mattis was in charge there right.
Moulton: Well, in fact he was my division commander for a while.
Mathieu: How about that. So how worried should we be about leadership in the Pentagon?
Moulton: We should be concerned.
Mathieu: It's not every day you see a defense secretary resign over a policy decision like that.
Moulton: No, and it's not every day you see a defense secretary resign who is so broadly supported on both sides of the aisle. And I can't tell you how many not just fellow Democrats but Republicans. People across the aisle, Marines that I served with texting me saying this doesn't look good. And I'd love to tell everybody, 'Oh, no. It's fine. We'll be OK,' but the fact of the matter is I think this is cause for concern. A lot of people, myself included, have felt that Gen. Mattis — now Secretary Mattis — was one of the few people keeping the ship afloat. Keeping this ship from capsizing here and now we just have this terribly erratic captain in the commander in chief with nobody to keep him on course.
Mathieu: Well, it's hard to tell where we're going right now. We first had an almost immediate withdrawal from Syria on the table. Following the president's meeting with Sen. Lindsey Graham, it appears that will be slowed down to months as opposed to weeks. But when President Trump paid a visit to Iraq recently he framed Iraq as the new staging area essentially for fighting ISIS throughout the Middle East. You would know, is that realistic?
Moulton: Well, it's not a strategy. I mean the president just decided on a whim after talking with the Turkish president and getting the idea from him rather than his own defense team that we should just withdraw from Syria. I'm a veteran of the Middle East. There's no one who wants to get the troops home more than I do. But I'm also someone who was there when President George W. Bush falsely declared mission accomplished when we clearly hadn't won. And the result of that was a situation where we had to go back into Iraq with more troops. And it caused more American casualties. And Trump is falling right into that trap in Syria. He's going against the advice of all his military advisers — against the advice of what people are saying on the ground — and he's taking the troops out as a sort of cut and run strategy. And we may very well see ourselves having to put them back in if ISIS flourishes again, which is what all the military advisers expect. So what we need is a strategy. Trump has never had a strategy for the troops being in Syria. He doesn't have a strategy to get them out. What we need is a serious plan for peace that can bring the troops home for good.
Mathieu: Of course, if the aforementioned Iran did fill the power vacuum there or maybe a combination of Iran and Turkey going back into Syria, it would be a very different matter wouldn't it?
Moulton: It would be be far worse — far far worse.
Mathieu: That's a real war.
Moulton: And that's a real war. And that's why it's important that we have a strategy that makes sense. A strategy that actually brings peace to the region rather than chaos. What Trump is doing is more likely than anything to just bring chaos. Now that's not to say that it's not right to want to bring the troops home, but you can't just cut and run. That's not the way the military works. And we all know that Trump has never served [and] that he doesn't know much of anything about national security strategy. But Secretary Mattis and a few others were there to keep him on track. Now that he has ignored their advice, Mattis has resigned. I think we're in a much more dangerous place for the country.
Mathieu: In our remaining moments, Congressman Moulton, is there something that can be done in the legislature? Can the House tackle this in a new Democratic majority to try to impact military policy?
Moulton: Well, of course fundamentally in our Constitution, the Congress is supposed to decide when we send our young men and women to war.
Mathieu: It hasn't been that way for a long time.
Moulton: It has not. We're still operating under the authorization for the use of military force from Congress in 2001. 2001. The terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington in 2001. They don't have anything to do with ...
Mathieu: You were calling for a new authorization five years ago.
Moulton: I've been calling for this for a long time, and I'm going to keep calling for it. I'm going to keep doing that because it's the right thing.
Mathieu: Does the leadership support that?
Moulton: I think they will. But it remains to be seen because really on both sides of the aisle people have been unwilling to have this important debate. To have this debate, that the American people deserve and that our troops on the ground deserve to understand really what their mission is and what they need to accomplish so that they can finally come home.
Mathieu: Congressman Seth Moulton, thank you for being with us this morning here in Washington D.C. on WGBH's Morning Edition. And congratulations on your next term.