JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, another look at the major news of this week, both foreign and domestic, from today’s pivotal meeting between two presidents, to new developments with the Senate GOP’s health care plan.
Here to provide analysis of all that and more is Brooks and Marcus. That’s New York Times columnist David Brooks and Ruth Marcus, deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Post. Mark Shields is away this week.
Welcome to you on both.
So, the lead story today, of course, President Trump meets President Putin.
David, all eyes on this meeting, the body language, what did they say. And then we have these conflicting reports coming out afterwards. What do we make of it?
DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times: Well, it was sort of normal for a Trump administration event. He did raise the meddling issue, which is a good thing.
And so it seemed a little like, from the talking points, they hit Syria, they hit all the prints a U.S. president would talk to with a Russian president. It seemed a bit like a normal meeting, which is a good thing.
The abnormal part to me is how small it was, that there are only four people and then the two translators in the room, no H.R. McMaster, no national security adviser, which is an oddity. And that gives them maximum flexibility to say whatever they want in the room and not have it reported out of the room.
And that’s what makes the point about what they were saying about the meddling or anything else totally mysterious. Apparently, there were no note-takers in the room. And so it leaves a big void in what they actually said and whether Trump really accepted the fact that Putin claims he didn’t meddle.
And so it’s just a big void that wouldn’t exist if you had the normal complement of people in the room and the normal note-takers in the room, and you had some actual look into what sort of what was happening in there.
JUDY WOODRUFF: A long meeting, Ruth, but a lot of questions.
RUTH MARCUS, The Washington Post: Long meeting, a lot of questions.
And normal is not the way I would describe it. And I think I should start by the way President Trump started with Vladimir Putin, which is, it’s an honor to be here with both of you. That is a true honor.
I thought for President Trump to say — and I understand we have diplomatic niceties — it wasn’t an honor to be with someone who has attacked and jailed dissidents and killed dissidents in his country, who has invaded other countries, and who has tried to interfere in an American election.
And I think that simply to accept that, oh, it’s great, at least he raised the question of Russian interference, but we don’t know — and never will probably — precisely what he said, is really defining the presidency down.
That should have been a given that he was going to raise that. And that it wasn’t a given, they left but on tenterhooks, and that the day before, he was still saying, well, nobody really knows for sure what happened, and seemed more eager to blame President Obama for not doing enough, to question whether the intelligence community gets it right, to tweet today about John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, and say, why didn’t he turn over the server, just really underscores to me the abnormality of the situation.
DAVID BROOKS: I have successfully defined deviancy so far down …
RUTH MARCUS: Well, that’s the point of normalizing, right?
DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, that’s fair.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But, David, was using the term honor going too far?
DAVID BROOKS: I think no normal person would say that.
DAVID BROOKS: But, on the other hand, I’m willing to give diplomatic latitude to that. There are a lot of people in a lot of diplomatic circumstances.
And I’m sure, if we went back and looked at how other presidents speak, you’re trying to establish a relationship with a bad guy. Now, and you say things. And so I give latitude toward that.
The question is whether Donald Trump recognizes that Vladimir Putin is a bad guy. That’s the larger question here than whether he used the word honor. And I guess there’s no indication that he regards Putin as in any way a bad guy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Does it matter, Ruth, whether the president accepted Putin’s denials? Or are we just — we’re going to be left wondering about this forever.
RUTH MARCUS: Well, Secretary of State Tillerson said that they basically agreed it didn’t make sense to relitigate this, actually one of my favorite words. And maybe that’s true.
The important point is that, since before the election, Donald Trump has been denying that this happened. He has seemed entirely unconcerned with figuring out whether it happened and with expressing the outrage that any American president should be expressing that it did happen.
And now I think we’re supposed to be satisfied that there is this joint working group on cyber-security. So, I have a modest proposal.
RUTH MARCUS: If we’re going to have a joint working group on cyber-security, let’s combine that with the election fraud commission, and we can really get to the bottom of everything.
DAVID BROOKS: Say we had a normal president. It’s actually an interesting political problem. What do you do with Russia?
Do you say, you interfered with our elections, you’re interfering with all these elections across Europe, we’re not dealing with you until you behave by some standards of normalcy? And that’s a morally satisfying position that, as a columnist, would be fun.
But there are actually a lot of issues you have got to deal with Russia on. And so this is perpetually the problem with rogue regimes. You have got to — you deal with them and then you don’t deal with them. And even if we had a normal administration, it would be tough to know how to treat Vladimir Putin.
RUTH MARCUS: And this is my time to now say that David has a fair point.
And so, sure, whenever you’re dealing with somebody who is an adversary — and Russia is an adversary — you are going to have to calibrate, because there are things that we need their help on. We need their help on Syria. We need their help on North Korea.
And so you don’t want to let one little attack on your democracy and your election system blow everything up.
RUTH MARCUS: But you do need to assert yourself in a way that we haven’t seen him do publicly and that we’re going to still have questions about whether he did privately.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, speaking of our democracy, yesterday, in Poland, David, the president made a speech to the Polish people.
And he talked about Western civilization and how it’s under siege, and how it’s going to matter right now whether we have the will to survive the siege that we are under.
Does this ring true? Does it feel like Western civilization is under siege right now?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think — I 80 percent liked the speech.
There was this famous clash of civilization thesis from Samuel Huntington, a political theorist. And the idea was that Western civilization is at war with Islam and maybe some of the other civilizations around the world.
And I don’t agree with that. But I do think there is such a thing as Western civilization. I think it starts with the Greeks and the Romans. Then it goes through the Enlightenment — or the Reformation, the Enlightenment. It goes through the scientific age.
And it somewhat defines some of the cultures and mores of Europe and North America and some other countries. And it’s obviously absorbed a lot of immigrants and it’s absorbed a lot of ideas and had exchange with Asia and other civilizations. But it’s a thing.
And I like the fact that he appealed to that, especially when he’s trying to, I hope, reunify the Western alliance, which has been a powerful force for good in the world over the last 70 years. And, to his credit, he appealed to some of the things that are finest about Western civilization, artistic creativity, rights of minorities, equality for woman.
He ran down the list. Whether the guy actually lives by those standards is another matter, but at least he appealed to them. And I think it’s a big mistake any time anybody makes an appeal to the West or to America, to patriotism to think, oh, he’s excluding.
It’s an identity formation. And we need our identity formations. And I think he did it, in the speech at least, reasonably well.
JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you read that?
RUTH MARCUS: Well, I’m not at 80 percent. Surprise.
But there are things to like about the speech. One thing to like about the speech is that, unlike the last time he was in Europe, he was — and cut the words out of the speech, we learned later, he was able to at least read from the teleprompter that he supports Article 5, the fundamental provision of NATO for common self-defense.
On the other hand, last time, when he was in Saudi Arabia, he was able to not say the words radical Islamic terrorism. I will give you Article 5, but I need my radical Islamic terrorism.
I think it was very nice to hear the summoning of the importance of a free press and all those things. A little hard to take from somebody who had just tweeted out that CNN beat-up wrestling video.
And so that brings me to my fundamental concern, which is, which are we paying attention to, teleprompter Trump or off-the-cuff tweeter Trump? Both matter, right, his willingness to say things. I was a little more put off by the Western part of the invocation of common values and democratic values that we should all live by.
But teleprompter Trump is one thing. But I think, when we see the real Trump, it’s a lot more nervous-making, to say the least.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Do we know which one is the real Trump?
DAVID BROOKS: No.
I take Ruth’s point. But you remember Angela Merkel had given this — made this comment about Europe has to go it alone, because we don’t about this guy. And so this appeal to a Western cohesion to me was a valuable thing.
The second thing is — and this is something Trump does better than a lot of his critics — he understands sense of belonging. And a lot of people think globalization, any time you make any particularity, you’re sort of offending some other group.
And a lot of people in this country think they belong to America anymore, and he at least appeals to some sense of belonging. I like the idea that we belong to Western traditions, so I’m glad he appeals to that sort of thing.
JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. We’re going to — we could talk about this for a long time.
But I do want to bring us back to something that we heard Lisa Desjardins reporting on, Ruth, and that is the health care, Republican health care plan. She — by her reporting, it sounds like that Republicans are having a tougher time than ever now getting the votes they need to get something through.
RUTH MARCUS: Well, Senate Majority Mitch McConnell has been talking about this as a Rubik’s Cube. But with the Rubik’s Cube, you know there’s a solution.
RUTH MARCUS: With this one, not so clear.
And what I loved this week was that McConnell, who is I think absolutely dedicated to trying to find the votes, and — which wasn’t totally clear. Maybe he just wanted to get this put aside, so we can move on to tax cuts, which they really care about.
And no one discounts his ability. If anybody could do it, he can. But he brought out the big guns this week, threatening the ultimate sanction, bipartisanship.
RUTH MARCUS: If you guys don’t go along, I’m going to have to work with Democrats, and then you will see how unhappy you will be with the result.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes. What’s the opposite of a nuclear option?
RUTH MARCUS: It’s the talking option.
DAVID BROOKS: Like, we will do something good, right? We will do something good.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Oh, my God, we may have to work together.
What does it look like?
DAVID BROOKS: I agree with Ruth on this. It looks dead.
It just like — not only have you begun to see the burbling concerns, and then out in some of the few town halls that have been out there, you have seen those concerns. But you’re beginning to see all these members come freelancing off in different elections.
Ted Cruz is freelancing from that direction. Mike Lee is staking out a position that will be completely unacceptable to a lot of people. And then the moderates are staking out their position. So, not only is it hard to piece together this together. They’re all going further apart.
And so they’re all defending themselves. And it’s just — the party is not cohesive enough, so I think there’s no solution. It’s super hard to take away a benefit that is pretty deeply embedded now, no matter what your ideology is.
And to me — and it’s a genuine question — what do we do? McConnell made the correct point that you can’t just do nothing, because the markets, the insurance markets are struggling. And so something has to be done, some normal repair at least has to be done. How do we do that?
Can we really imagine a bipartisan solution? Frankly, I cannot.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And the conservatives can’t imagine it would go along with shoring up the current system.
RUTH MARCUS: Well, it’s going to take a long time to get to a bipartisan solution.
And I want to kind of lay out the possibility that there are ways in which you could cobble this together. You say, OK, some of these tax cuts for the rich don’t have to go. There’s all sorts of other things. But that’s going to have to fail.
There are people working, Lamar Alexander, Susan Collins. Democrats are working with them on this that — and there are ways to shore up the markets. We have had a learning curve on the Affordable Care Act, which kind of suggests two things. People like it, and it needs some tinkering that are most — that’s mostly around the edges.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we want to leave this on a positive note, so we’re going to stop right there. And by next Friday, we will know more.
Ruth Marcus, David Brooks, thank you both.
RUTH MARCUS: Thanks.
DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.