JUDY WOODRUFF: Now back to the swirl of news surrounding the White House, the FBI’s Russia probe, and more, with the analysis of Shields and brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Welcome, gentlemen. So much to talk about. What a week. I don’t even know where to begin.
I will mention that CNN has just been reporting in the last few minutes that they have from several sources that White House lawyers are beginning to at least research the mechanism of impeachment. They don’t have reason to believe, the story says, that anything like that is going to happen soon, but they are looking into it.
But, David, this week, again, there is so much to talk about, but let’s talk about the appointment of a special counsel, Robert Mueller, the former FBI director, in the midst of this, all this speculation about the Russia connection. What does this do to the cloud hanging over the White House?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s interesting that after a year spent campaigning against the insiders, the swamp, the Beltway establishment, that when you get a big crisis, everyone wants somebody with some experience and some credibility.
And so this appointment has been greeted I think by Republicans in Congress, by Democrats, by most of the country as a sign of, OK, fine we’re going to get some straight answers.
And it strikes me as absolutely necessary. I mean, today’s story from my newspaper that he told the Russians that he got rid of Comey to relieve pressure, we used to have a better class of criminal, where if you obstructed justice, you tried to hide it.
And he’s going around bragging on national TV and then bragging to our adversaries that he is obstructing justice. So, whether or not he’s obstructed justice, he certainly seems to be acting like he did. And that certainly justifies a special counsel.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you make of the special counsel pick?
MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s a lifesaver for Republicans. I really do.
I think — and it’s a call for congressional inquiries. We went through the Iran-Contra hearings. And Ollie North, who was one of the central figures, he was convicted of three felonies. And, in fact, that was overturned because of immunity had been given to witnesses and that that testimony had compromised his own defense, Ollie North’s own defense.
So, ever since then, there has been an apprehension, a leeriness about in any way affecting or shaping a criminal investigation, national security investigation, the kind that Robert Mueller, very respected former FBI director, 13 years, is about to launch.
So I think there will be — we won’t see Paul Manafort, we won’t see Roger Stone, we won’t see Carter Page in the public, I doubt very much. I think the hearings will go forward, but not…
JUDY WOODRUFF: In the Senate?
MARK SHIELDS: In the Senate and the House, but not with the same kind of intensity, perhaps, just passion that we have had.
And, for Republicans, it takes it off the front page, and it guarantees that there’s going to be an investigation. But there’s no timetable.
And let’s be very frank. I mean, Bob Mueller is a consensus all-American choice here. He really is. I think it’s hard to criticize him.
DAVID BROOKS: I disagree with one thing.
MARK SHIELDS: OK.
DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think it’s going to go off the front page.
MARK SHIELDS: Well, not if we continue to have the president telling the Russians something that, 16 hours earlier, his people had told the American people they did it because of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, and Comey…
JUDY WOODRUFF: With the Comey firing.
MARK SHIELDS: With the Comey firing, and then, 16 hours later, he privately tells the Russians where there’s no American press around.
DAVID BROOKS: I think what’s — a couple of things happened this week.
One is the special counsel, coupled with the Russian thing. There’s an investigation of a person of interest. But to me, the most interesting thing is that the White House staff and the people under Donald Trump, at least some portion of them, some large portion of them, seem to have turned against Donald Trump.
I have not talked to our reporters who broke this story, but if I read it correctly, some senior administration official with top-secret clearance read the readout to a reporter. That’s breaking the law.
And that is doing it in a way because you think you need to be Deep Throat, you need to undermine this guy, you need to tell — get the truth out about this guy.
And in the Nixon administration, there were a couple Deep Throats. There was a guy off in the FBI who was willing to leak. But in this administration, they seem to be in every closet and behind every desk. I’m exaggerating a little. But there are squads of Deep Throats.
And so that means this story’s not only a legal investigation. It is a dissolution of an administration.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mark, talking about — not only talking about what the president had to say about Comey, but also sharing the fact that the president shared intelligence with the Russians.
MARK SHIELDS: Shared intelligence with the Russians.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Which is a remarkable story, in and of itself.
MARK SHIELDS: I could not agree with you more, Judy.
And what looked like a generous offer by Vladimir Putin, that I will make available to you the minutes of the meeting, turns out really to be a veiled threat, because the revelation of the minutes of that meeting are devastating. They’re devastating to the administration.
Picking up on what David said, I don’t think there is any question that this is a body blow to this administration. I won’t say it’s dead man walking, but you cannot pass a legislative program on Capitol Hill, especially when it’s controversial, with a president who has absolutely no attention span, no clout, no credibility.
And his is diminished, to the point where there is just nothing believable that’s coming out of this White House.
DAVID BROOKS: Substantively, that’s sort of what’s happened.
We have had administrations that have had big scandals before, but the Nixon administration, by the time their scandal hit, they had a very qualified White House staff and all these agencies. Same with Clinton. Same with Reagan.
With this administration, they have imploded before they have had time to staff up. And, therefore, they do not have people in the jobs to do the normal work of administration. And at this point, who’s going to want to go into those jobs? No one is going to want to go into those jobs.
So, whatever happens to the investigation, we are looking at an administration that will be poorly staffed or un-staffed trying to run the country.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mark, you mentioned, how do you get anything done?
Although I will say, I heard Paul Ryan talk — give a talk last night. And he said, this is all what he called white noise. He said, we’re going to focus on the business of the country. We’re going to work on getting health care done and we’re going to do tax reform done later this year.
MARK SHIELDS: And tax reform bill is? OK. And, oh, I guess it’s with the infrastructure bill.
And we are approaching Memorial Day, Judy. And if there isn’t a health care bill out of the Senate, that’s on life support, perhaps even beyond. So, then you’re a Republican and you’re running. And Paul Ryan, and he’s a lovely man, but you are running in 2018.
And now it’s going to be nothing a referendum on Donald Trump. You won’t even have a legislative program to be able to go back and talk about.
I cannot overstate how unbelievable, literally, this administration has become. I mean, it was said that George Washington was the president who could never tell a lie, and Richard Nixon was the president who could never tell the truth. Donald Trump is truly the president who can’t tell the difference.
I mean, he changes his story, as he did last week on the Russian meeting and on the firing of Jim Comey, depending upon whom he’s talking to, whether it’s NBC or whether it’s his own staff.
And picking up on David’s point about the staff, Judy, the morale is just absolutely at low ebb. You are now facing legal fees. I remember Maggie Williams, who was Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff, facing over $300,000 in legal fees.
Everybody is lawyering up. You’re sitting in a meeting now. Is David talking to somebody else? It’s just distrust. It’s an awful situation.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, to add a little fuel to the fire, I’m being told right now by our executive producer, Sara Just, that there is a report that the Senate Intelligence Committee chair and vice chair, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Mark Warner of Virginia, are announcing that Jim Comey, the fired FBI director, has agreed to testify in open session.
I think I’m hearing that correctly. I don’t have who it’s coming from. I gather it’s coming from the Senate.
So that will be something everybody will be listening to.
DAVID BROOKS: That will be — well, we just heard Ben Wittes earlier in the program with his interpretation of what Comey thinks. To hear it directly from Comey would be a cinematic Cecil B. DeMille moment.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The Wittes comments about how he — about how Comey felt about the president pulling him over, pulling into a hug.
MARK SHIELDS: Yes, and the contemporaneous notes that he obviously kept from those experiences and interactions with the president.
And remember this, Judy. Jim Comey, as FBI director, there are whole subject areas he couldn’t discuss before the Intelligence Committee. Now Donald Trump has opened up. Donald Trump has made it possible. He is no longer the FBI director.
And all he’s doing is responding to charges, unsubstantiated, according to Jim Comey, that Donald Trump has made about him. So, this is a — if in fact the Senate Intelligence Committee hearings are open and Jim Comey is there, it will be a ratings bonanza.
DAVID BROOKS: Could it be a coincidence that Donald Trump, we learned, called him a nutjob a few hours ago, and now this comes out?
JUDY WOODRUFF: But, David, this is just — as we said, the president has just taken off on this big nine-day first trip overseas. He’s going to the Middle East. He’s meeting with the leaders of so many European countries.
Does life go on in some way, respects in this country, in this city, while all this is happening?
DAVID BROOKS: In my contacts with the Trump people, compartmentalization is high. And guys are good at it. I don’t know. Maybe — but they would like to pretend this is not happening.
But, as Mark said, they can’t, in their heart of hearts, be sanguine about it, because they’re — a lot of them are leaking. A lot of them don’t know who’s going to write the memoir against each another. A lot of them are going to be under investigation. Some of them, there’s a target of interest in the White House right now, according to The Washington Post, in the Russia inquiry.
And so they can’t ignore all that. But they are trying to pretend that all is normal. And I think that’s the pretense that they are trying to pull off.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, you have been in this city for a long time, almost as long as I have.
MARK SHIELDS: Well, no, Judy.
MARK SHIELDS: But I do — I remember Hamilton, yes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: How does this city deal with a situation and how does the country deal with a situation like this?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, we have never had one like this.
There is — first of all, there’s no reservoir of shared experiences with this president. We have shared values. They have been through — there is no accomplishment you can point to and say, well, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt. So that’s missing.
But, as far as the White House staff — and I have great sympathy for people who work in the White House. They work long hours. They miss birthday parties. They miss children’s recitals.
And what you get really is a sense that, I’m involved in something larger. There’s a sense of a psychic income. But now you have got a boss who has absolutely no loyalty, who is disparaging his staff, who is abusing his staff, according to reports in major papers.
So, this is just — this, again, saps all morale and leads to, I don’t care if I go to the meeting. In fact, I would rather not be in the meeting, instead of, please let me in the meeting.
So, I don’t see how it continues. I really don’t. Everybody who has been associated with this man has been diminished, has had his own reputation, whether it’s Rosenstein or General McMaster. Whoever it is, they are a smaller person for their association and identification with Donald Trump.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But just quickly, David, we started this conversation talking about how the appointment of Bob Mueller, Robert Mueller, as the special counsel has somewhat calmed the waters.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, but I don’t think too much.
I think this is — now there’s a reality TV show. And the people — everybody in this town, they just want — they’re going to want to write the book, going to want to leak the memo, going to want to get their own self-preservation out there. And so the reality TV show involves a public unwinding, not a private investigation.
JUDY WOODRUFF: David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you both.
MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.