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Shields and Brooks on Reince Priebus’ exit, GOP health bill’s defeat

July 28, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week's news, including President Trump’s firing of White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and what it means for relations with the Republican Party, the Senate’s rejection of a “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act and Anthony Scaramucci’s obscene tirade.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s been another head-turning week in Washington, from the Republican failure on health care, to the president’s surprising statement on transgender military members, and a flurry of profanity from the new White House communications director and then, to cap it off, today’s announcement from Mr. Trump that he is changing his chief of staff.

Here to help make sense of it all, Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

So, I thought we had a lot of things to talk about, David, before about an hour ago, when we learned that the president was changing his chief of staff.

Is this — I guess we knew that this might happen. Reince Priebus has been in trouble with this president, we think, for a while, but what do you think?

DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times: Well, he was never given the chance to do the job.

Every other chief of staff we have ever seen sort of controls the schedule. They control the tempo in the White House. They’re the alter ego of the president. They are given some clear sign of respect that they speak for the president.

And Priebus never had that. And so he was wounded and stabbed before Scaramucci came along. He was stabbed like a pinata. And so he was sort of a pathetic figure hanging out there. And so this doesn’t come as a total surprise, except for maybe the timing.

As for General Kelly taking the job, I sort of question his sanity there. He’s been a loyalist, but I really — with all due respect to the Marine Corps, I don’t see how someone who’s been trained in pretty orderly chain of command is going to survive this mess.

If he can control the schedule, it will be one thing. I just don’t think that’s going to happen, given all the independent power figures all around him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you make of it, Priebus out and Kelly in?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Judy, I am continually amazed that it’s not simply a matter of human decency or empathy when your boss is firing anybody to make sure that that person leaves and has a soft landing, that they can leave with their self-respect, that they can leave with someplace to go to, with a plausible explanation to their family and friends that they weren’t humiliated, abused and derided.

This president treats staff and others like a used sickness bag on a bad airplane flight. There’s just absolutely no sense of respect or decency shown, so you humiliate somebody.

And for those who are left, there is just a sense of, could I be next? It certainly doesn’t inspire loyalty.

As far as Kelly is concerned, General Kelly is a four-star general. But I think David put his finger on it. He had a very distinguished and honorable military career. But he grew up in a military structure. He thrived up in a military structure.

As a chief of staff at the White House, this is a freelancing operation. There’s no chain of command. There are all sorts of people who go in and see the president any time, who are not accountable to you or responsible.

And least of all, you have a president who will even — won’t abide by any sense of a chain of command or structure. And I don’t know that General Kelly has any particular political gifts or knowledge of the legislative process or dealings with the press.

So I’m not — I know that the president admires him and the job he’s done at Homeland Security and his career, but I don’t see the fit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we should say that Reince Priebus, just in the last few minutes, David, put out a statement saying it’s been one of the greatest honors of his life to serve this president.

I guess that’s what one expects, maybe.

DAVID BROOKS: Gracious. I’m not sure he would pass a lie-detector test.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: But one of the things that’s happening here is that the president is moving away from the Republican Party.

Priebus was a link to the Republican Party. The congressional Republicans were — had some sort of relationship. Jeff Sessions was a key to the link between congressional Republicans and Donald Trump, and he’s been under assault in the most humiliating way imaginable.

And so you’re beginning to see an administration — I don’t know what party they’re joining, maybe the Bannon party, but it’s not the Republican Party. And if you want to pass legislation, you probably need your allies on Capitol Hill. If you want to survive investigative committees, you probably want some friends in your party. And this administration seems to be moving the other direction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, you look at the White House, and Vice President Mike Pence, Mark, may be the only person prominent in the White House circle who has any kind of Washington experience.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, Judy.

And presidents thrive, ideally, when they’re both loved and feared politically. And Donald Trump is neither. Nobody loves him on Capitol Hill. And he shows loyalty is a one-way street. He’s not somebody who has personal relationships of any standing.

And the loyalty or disloyalty that he shows to his people, including Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, who was just humiliated, someone who was with him early and strong, at a time when no other senator stood up for him, and remained there through all the “Access Hollywood” and the how to molest and harass and sexually bar the women tapes and so forth.

So, there isn’t that, Judy. That doesn’t exist. And David’s absolutely right. When you get in trouble, you have got to have people who, A, like you, believe in you and are willing to go to some political cost for you.

And we saw that on the health care. I mean, Donald Trump had about as much influence on health care as I had on the National League pennant race.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, which leads us to another — I mean, David, you said they have had a struggle anything passed, getting legislation passed. This was a flame-out for them.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, this was a bigger thing than Donald Trump, though.

It was only one bill that lost. It was four bills that lost. And it wasn’t only a six-months effort. It was a seven-year effort.

MARK SHIELDS: I agree.

DAVID BROOKS: And you could say you could go back to Newt Gingrich.

Think of all the ways the Republicans have tried to trim entitlements like Medicaid or cut government. Name a signal victory. There’s not a victory. They haven’t been able to trim one agency, cut back one entitlement. They failed every single time.

And that suggests isn’t an electoral failure. It’s not a failure of whether Mitch McConnell had the right strategy or not, though that was lamentable. It’s a failure of trying to take things away from people.

People are under assault from technology. They’re under assault from a breakdown in social fabric, breakdown in families. They have got wage stagnations. They just don’t want a party to come in and say, we’re going to take more away from you.

And so Republicans have to wrap their minds around the fact that the American people basically decided that health care is a right, and they figure, we should get health care. And our fellow countrymen should get health care.

It doesn’t mean you have to do it the way the Democrats want to do it with single-payer or whatever. You can do it with market mechanisms. But you have basically got to wrap your mind around universal coverage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see what happened here, Mark? And where do you see it going on health care?

MARK SHIELDS: Judy, the yapping dog, which was the Republican Party, after chasing the bus for seven years, caught it and had no idea what to do with the bus.

All you needed is that final vote that Lisa described so well, and that is the final argument, after seven years, after winning three national elections where that is your organizing issue, we’re going to repeal Obamacare, came down to a single promise and pledge to your fellow Republicans from the leadership, and that is, what you are voting for, we promise will not become law.

I mean, if you can imagine anything, I mean, that just said it all. I mean, it was a terrible performance. The House voted on something without even a congressional budget scoring of it. The Senate voted on something. They didn’t even have a bill when they brought it to the floor. There was no legislation.

So, I mean, it was horrendous. It was disappointing. There were no ideas. There was no will. There was no imagination. And there was certainly no courage.

I don’t blame Donald Trump, but what was Donald Trump saying? Donald Trump was saying he’s disappointed in the attorney general because he wasn’t loyal to him. That was his contribution to the debate on health care as it came to a vote in the Senate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think the prospects are, David, that they are going to be able to work with the Democrats, or is that just something people are saying that’s never really Going to happen?

DAVID BROOKS: I think that there is a potential there.

If the Republicans get to the point we’re going to expand coverage, let’s talk about how do it, I think you could do some pretty market-friendly reforms. President Bush did it with the prescription drug bill a number of years ago. But they’re a long way from that right now.

MARK SHIELDS: John McCain does deserve, in my judgment, a shout-out.

John McCain’s vote, flying back, kept it alive, kept the debate alive, allowing the motion to proceed. And John McCain applied the — he gave the speech once he had the whole audience there of senators, and he told them what they had done wrong, that they all stood accused, that their cheap partisanship had replaced any kind of sense of legislating.

And I really do think that his vote — we found out that the testosterone level among Republicans was limited essentially to two members whose names were Lisa and Susan.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: And John McCain joined that want trio and showed, I thought, real — distinct political courage, and for the right reasons.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And some of the Republican men in the House of Representatives went after those women, as a matter of fact.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, Blake Farenthold, a courageous Aaron Burr would-be.

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Aaron Burr.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: It does raise the question. People are watching this, David, and they have to be asking, is anything going to get done in our nation’s capital, with the White House in some measure of chaos? Yes, there have been some changes, but where’s the — you know, what are people to look forward to now?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I don’t think much is going to get done.

I don’t think they’re going to do tax reform. Tax reform is super hard. It’s potentially as hard or harder than health care reform. And it seems very unlikely that that is going to get done.

And what hasn’t happened is, you don’t have people waking up thinking, how creatively can I come up with some piece of legislation that will do somebody some good?

When I started covering Congress in the 1980s, there were a bunch of entrepreneurs. Jack Kemp was there. Bill Bradley would have something on the gold standard. There was a guy named Jim Courter who always had defense reform ideas.

And so you had start-ups in the back rows of the House. And then they would finagle their way through the committees. Now you have very few entrepreneurs. You have few people thinking creatively. I rarely get e-mail. I rarely calls. There’s a guy named Ro Khanna from San Francisco or from Palo Alto who is a Democrat who thinks this way.

But there is not as much as entrepreneurship. And the main cause is because the leadership of the body has taken control and destroyed creativity throughout the ranks. And that’s a fault of both Nancy Pelosi probably and Mitch McConnell, who just centralized everything.

And so the committee system is broken and the start-ups are broken.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the White House is having its own share of problems.

We have alluded to this, Mark, a lot of attention this week about this profanity-laced phone conversation that the new White House communications director — he hasn’t actually taken the job yet, but he’s been named by the president — had with a New Yorker reporter.

It seems that everywhere we look, there is conflict, there is screaming, there is discord. You know, where do we see hope and something positive?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, obviously not in Shields and Brooks.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m giving you a chance.

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: “Mass For Shut-Ins” is on, on Sunday at 9:00, if people want to hear a good sermon.

No, I would say this, Judy, that Anthony Scaramucci is Donald Trump. Every White House staff to some degree inevitably becomes a mirror reflection of the candidate, the president. He is it.

And what he did, Donald Trump approved of, the abusing of the chief of staff, the abusing, the denigration of other leading members of the White House staff.

I mean, and did Donald Trump disapprove? If you had a 14-year-old daughter volunteering on the Hill or a 14-year-old boy, I don’t care, and this is the kind of language you get? This is blood-curdling. It’s offensive and it’s obscene.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You get to defend him, David.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, it is offensable.

I’m from New York City. Mark’s from Boston. And on behalf of eight million New Yorkers, I want to apologize for our language. Scaramucci and Trump, I just want to say that, even though they’re from Queens and Long Island, I’m pretty sure they’re Yankee fans. They’re not Mets fans.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: We don’t talk that way.

MARK SHIELDS: No, Mets fans.

DAVID BROOKS: No, it’s — I agree. Blood-curdling would be the word.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I gave you both a chance to say something positive. You didn’t do it.

MARK SHIELDS: You’re wonderful, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Maybe we will let you come back and try again next week.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you both.

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