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Brooks and Marcus on Trump’s threats for North Korea, thanks for Putin

August 11, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including President Trump's tough words for North Korea over its nuclear threat, as well as his thanking Russian President Vladimir Putin for expelling hundreds of U.S. diplomats, plus his attacking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Brooks and Marcus. That’s New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post deputy editorial page editor Ruth Marcus. Mark Shields is away.

And we welcome both of you.

So, you just heard two very different views from our earlier expert guests on North Korea.

You heard the president again commenting, David, and now Senator Risch. How do you assess the president’s management of this North Korea situation?

DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times: Unusual, I guess.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: It will come after the war in Venezuela, apparently, we just learned. I don’t know what that was all about.

Listen, there’s been a consensus of how to deal with this extremely knotty problem. And that is, at least on the rhetorical level, the North Korean regime is extremely fiery, extremely insecure, sometimes hysterical.

And when you’re around somebody who’s screaming and unstable, the last thing you want to do is add to the instability with your own unstable, hysterical rhetoric.

And so most administrations, Republican and Democrats, when the North Koreans say they’re going to Seoul into a lake of fire, whatever their rhetoric is, have just ignored it and relied on some underlying sense that the North Koreans don’t want to commit national suicide.

Donald Trump has gone the other way. Now, I think that is still — that sense that neither party wants to go into a war is still there. But the psychological probabilities that you’re going to enter into some August 1914 miscalculation certainly go up when both people are screaming at the top of their lungs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Ruth, you Justice Department heard Senator Risch, who says he talks to the White House. And he said: I have talked to the president, and we think being very clear with North Korea is the best way to go.

RUTH MARCUS, The Washington Post: Yes.

Well, David used the term unusual. I think it’s just absolutely scary. And I didn’t feel calmed down listening to Senator Risch, I have to say.

But there’s a couple of positive things to say about President Trump here, just to surprise people for a second. One is that this situation with North Korea is not his fault. In other words, we were going to get to this. Some president was going to end up in the terrible situation we have with the progress that North Korea has made with nuclear weapons. He just happens to be the president.

Number two, they were doing a very good job, until this latest eruptions of kind of bullying testosterone this week, in terms of pursuing what needs to be done, which is the diplomatic sanctions. Senator Risch is right about the achievement in the Security Council.

But, all of a sudden, we saw this week these statements, and you would have thought Tuesday that maybe it was an eruption and they’d tamp it down. And, instead, day after day after day, he’s coming out saying more scary and dangerous things.

And I do not understand how that is anything but destabilizing, and with a very already unstable ally.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean, David, people are — we have heard from world leaders, the Russians, the Chinese. We heard from Angela Merkel today. We hear from U.S. politicians.

Not all Republicans, but some Republicans, are joining the Democrats in saying, tone this down. But the president, no sign that he’s going to do that.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

Well, it could be that he thinks the North Koreans are undeterrable, and that this is not a usual regime, maybe because they have this new leader, and that you actually do have to take action. He could be — he believes that.

It could be he just likes to blunder. It’s always dangerous to overinterpret what Donald Trump says at any one moment. And it could be he thinks the madman theory is right theory here. And the madman…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Remind everybody what the madman — because it sounds scary.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: The madman theory is that you can be a successful deterrer if you — if they think you could be crazy.

And so I think it can be very effective, so long as you’re not actually crazy. And so we have a North Korean, we’re not really sure. We have a president who has his moments.

And so the madman theory, when both people could actually be crazy, is actually a very dangerous situation.

RUTH MARCUS: Right.

There’s two problems with the madman theory. Richard Nixon was a proponent of it, but that was kind of strategic and thought out. Donald Trump is no Richard Nixon. And is he going to really out-crazy — who’s going to out-crazy who here? That’s a scary thing.

There’s one other potential argument for what Trump is doing. And, as I say, I do not think this is the right way to go. The right way to go is quiet, determined diplomacy.

But he may not be trying to rattle the North Koreans and send a message to the North Koreans, as much as he’s trying to send a message to the Chinese, like, hey, I’m serious, you guys better get your act together here, or things are going to really escalate.

But this is way too high-stakes to be performing this way.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, the only thing I would say to that is, we have all been — and interviewed or been around people who have been in combat. They never actually raise their voice.

If they have a message to send to the Chinese of that sort, they do it in a calm, serious way: I have been through this. I know what it is. You know who I am.

The people who raise their voices and say lock and load and say fire and fury, those are the people who have never actually been in combat. And he just reminds you so much of one of those people.

RUTH MARCUS: And speaking of combat, we really need to be clear, as you asked the senator. The military option is catastrophic. It’s just a question of how catastrophic.

That’s why no president has done it previously. Others have considered it and even come close. So, there are two options, pursue — two sensible options — pursue diplomacy or learn to live with the situation. We should be pursuing diplomacy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which is what all the — quote, unquote — “experts” are saying, just calm the rhetoric down and start thinking about how we have this dialogue that’s already been started. It’s still there.

The president’s going to hold a news conference, David, they just announced, on Monday. But he’s already been talking to the press. Yesterday, he made some statements that I guess are still being dissected, one of them about President Putin of Russia, thanking him for kicking out over 700 U.S. diplomats and saying, this is going to save the United States taxpayers money.

This is something — what Putin did has been criticized by everybody else we have heard of, including Republicans. How do we read this?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

And, of course, the White House press office said it was sarcasm. Whenever Trump says something unusual, it’s always a joke.

RUTH MARCUS: And the president kind of repeated that in his last — his latest press conference.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He did.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He did.

DAVID BROOKS: And the — I think the significant thing here is that Russians monkeyed with our election.

And a lot of people in Congress, even Republicans, are upset by this. A lot of people around the country are upset by this have done — the Russians have done a lot of things to threaten the world order. And at every step along the way, including this little comment, Donald Trump always wants to walk that back, always wants to ratchet it back.

He’s willing to tweet angrily about members of his own party, about members of his own government, about anybody around the world, except for one person. And we can all either…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that’s Putin.

DAVID BROOKS: And that’s Putin — and psychoanalyze or maybe political analyze. But it’s a consistent pattern with this guy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s — it’s — what’s the word?

(LAUGHTER)

RUTH MARCUS: Well, continuing my effort to find some theory here, you could argue that perhaps President Trump was trying to show that Putin, uniquely among people, was not getting under his skin, that his little sanctions weren’t bothering him.

So, if we didn’t have — if it was just this one episode, I don’t think it would have had the kind of global response of, oh, my lord, what’s going on here that it did. It’s the broader setting of all the ways in which Trump has consistently failed to stand up to Putin, or to stand up to Russian meddling, or to even actually assert that he acknowledges that it existed in the election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, someone who has gotten under his skin is the Senate majority leader, as we just mentioned.

I just asked Senator Risch about it, David. The president has gone out of his way three or four times in a row now to go after the majority leader, the Republican leader in the Senate, for failing to get health care reform passed.

Does he — he’s venting. He’s clearly unhappy and frustrated. But does he run the risk of jeopardizing some of the other things he wants to get done this year?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, clearly, politics is a team sport. Trump is not so much of a team player.

Politically, I think it helps him. Republicans really do not like Republican leaders in Congress. So I understand, politically, why he’s doing it. But if he wants a legislative agenda, it’s crazy.

To me, the interesting question is …

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wait a minute. I want to go back.

You said Republicans do not like Republican leaders, meaning Republican voters?

DAVID BROOKS: If you talk to Trump voters around the country, they’re not…

(CROSSTALK)

RUTH MARCUS: Right. Right. Certainly his base.

DAVID BROOKS: His base, yes.

RUTH MARCUS: Right. Right.

DAVID BROOKS: But the question for me is, how is McConnell going to respond? You don’t want to get in a Twitter war with this guy, clearly.

I think what you want to do is ratchet up some of the cost. Like, some of the other bad leaders around the world, Trump responds to pressure. And can McConnell say, hey, I’m not going to get in a war with you, but if you do this, we will hold up your nominees, if you do this, we will start an investigation into this or that

I think that you have got — McConnell has to defend his institution. He has to defend the Republicans in the Senate, who are extremely annoyed at Donald Trump. He’s got to defend his own standing. And he can’t let the leader of his own party walk all over him without some kind of actual response.

RUTH MARCUS: And it was clear from Senator Risch, if you ask Republican senators, who are increasingly concerned about — and I’m understanding it — President Trump, what they’re going to be — they’re on team McConnell, not team Trump, from Senator Risch to Senator Collins and everybody in between, if they had to choose sides.

This is not smart, OK? The president needs to have — first of all, he’s not taking any responsibility for the failure of his health care plan. Yes, he’s right that they voted umpty ump times to pass it, and then, when their bluff was called, they were unwilling to do it.

But Senator McConnell is working with a very slim majority. It’s not surprising that he was unable to get it across the line. He worked really hard at it.

Now he needs Senator McConnell’s help on other things. He should be sending Senator McConnell a thank you note, because he’s the one who gave him his one big legislative win, which is the Supreme Court justice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Supreme Court, right, the justice.

RUTH MARCUS: So, I don’t understand picking this fight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, David, you hear from Republicans that the White House wasn’t engaged in this health care — we talked about it on this program — in the health care…

DAVID BROOKS: Look at how Obama worked to pass Obamacare, what, 28 national speeches, touring around the country.

Look at 1986 tax reform, which was also a major legislative accomplishment. The Reagan White House was involved in that for two years, closely aligned.

You have got — this really is a team sport. You really have to work the whole system to get somewhere down the road. And from what I heard when the senators were going to the White House, they would meet with Vice President Pence, and they would be having a normal conversation. Trump would walk in the room and set them back hours, just because of — his interventions were so irrelevant or unhelpful.

So, casting aspersions to others is probably not good history of him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fifteen seconds.

RUTH MARCUS: Senators don’t think, even of the same party, that they work for the president.

And even though Trump’s base might enjoy this fight, I don’t think others are. They want to see something get done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: OK.

On that note, David Brooks, Ruth Marcus, thank you both.

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