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Shields and Brooks on Russia investigation questions, Trump’s joint address

March 3, 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 revelations about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ meeting with the Russian ambassador and the core question of the Trump administration’s connections to Russia, plus takeaways from President Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: From a joint address to Congress to the recusal of the attorney general, it’s been a big week.

To help make sense of it all, the analysis of Shields And brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

So, I thought we were going to be talking tonight, first of all, about the president’s address.

But, David, Russia, Russia, Russia, it just doesn’t go away. We now have the attorney general of the United States having to recuse himself from any investigation into what happened with the Trump campaign.

What do you make of all this?

DAVID BROOKS: This is like Napoleon and the Russian winter.

It’s just coming in droves for the past few months, just Russian issues. Now, I would draw a distinction between Sessions and a lot of the other stuff. So far, we don’t know if Sessions had any substantive contacts on the campaign stuff or anything that might be really incriminating.

And it’s worth remembering he was asked specifically did he talk to Russians about campaign stuff. And so there are a lot of pointless meetings in Washington. And he could have just had pointless meeting to see the ambassador. If he had something nefarious, would they really have done it in the Senate office?

So, I’m not sure the Sessions stuff will rise to scandal level. I think he was right to recuse himself.

On the other hand, on the general Trump world, there is contact after contact with the Russians, and some of them which are fishy. And the two questions that I’m wondering about — and I’m not sure we will ever know the answer — the first is the obvious one. Did they have contact with Russians on their campaign meddling?

But the second and the more troubling one is, who’s been investing in Donald Trump’s companies for all these years? Does he owe somebody something? Should we know about that? And why didn’t he release his taxes? Is Russia at the heart of that as well?

And so until we get to an answer of — and this is why taxes get released, so you can know if somebody is really in debt to some other foreign power. And we don’t know the answer to that because of his secrecy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mark, those are questions that we’re unlikely to get the answers to any time soon.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, under the status quo, I think that is true. And I think the questions David asks are salient and important.

As far as Senator Sessions is concerned, Judy, it follows the pattern that these come out after there’s a press report. It happened with General Flynn. And unlike General Flynn, where there really is strong, more than suspicion, that he discussed policy and actions with the Russian ambassador, I don’t think anybody who knows Jeff Sessions thinks that’s the case.

But there is one question that just demands an answer. And that is, he testifies before Al Franken. Yes, it’s a rambling question. But then Pat Leahy, the senior senator, pro tem of the Senate, writes it out in longhand, any contacts from campaign post-election?

Now, you leave that hearing, you give that answer, you go back to your office, staff people are with you, your scheduler is with you, your press person is with you. Why not just come out and say, hey, look, this was — I did have these meetings with the ambassador?

And the question, why? Why does it have to come out this way? And it does. It does fit a pattern. There’s no two ways about it. And I think it’s a disturbing pattern. It’s a distressing pattern.

And whether it’s Roger Stone or Carter Page or — I mean, these are not attractive, appealing people, whether it’s Paul Manafort and his Russian contacts.

It’s not a question simply of dealing with Russia. It’s a question that we have now 17 intelligence agencies in the United States of America unanimously agreeing that Russia meddled in this — and tried to discredit our democratic process.

So, I mean, you know, that’s whom they were dealing with. It wasn’t a question of just making a quick buck.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, David, all sorts of questions come out of this. Is it enough for the attorney general to recuse himself? Do we need to think about something bigger?

There is a lot of conversation now about whether there should be an outside, independent investigation. I mean, what needs to happen right now?

DAVID BROOKS: I think the recusal is right. The calls for resignation strike me as completely over the top.

I think we need to know, why Russia? There are 200-odd countries in the world. Why has so much of this administration focused on Russia? Now, is it because Donald Trump is very sensitive to the charge that he was handed the election by Russia and he is sort of Russia-focused?

But the Russian obsession predates that, which is why I think, after he declared bankruptcy, a lot of Americans actually wanted to invest in Donald Trump. So who was doing all the investing? He has got all these luxury properties around the world. Who was buying?

And, so to me, it’s, why the Russia focus? Is it some ideological thing he has for Russia? Is it some man crush on Vladimir Putin? I don’t know. But, somehow, that’s the part that needs to be investigated.

I don’t — I’m not — I’m generally not for special prosecutors and things, because they tend to run out of control. But getting to the core of that issue, I don’t know how you do it, but that is how you — I think we need to do it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that’s the only way you could get to some of this.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, Judy, first of all, I think David raises the questions that do demand an answer, and how are we going to get that answer?

The recusal, he had no choice but to recuse himself. The red Republican wall was breaking. When Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House leader, calls for his recusal, when Jason Chaffetz, one of the last defenders of Donald Trump, having said, after the “Hollywood Access” tape that he couldn’t face his 14-year-old daughter and then still support Donald Trump, then two weeks later endorsed again Donald Trump for president, he said he had to recuse — Jeff Sessions had to.

And so did Rob Portman, the senator from Ohio. So, I think this was what he had to do.

And the problem with the House Intelligence Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee is that the White House felt comfortable enough to call them and ask them to be their character witness with the press, Richard Burr, the senator from North Carolina, and Devin Nunes, the congressman from California.

So, the question is, the only time you move to an independent, if you had an ideal Baker-Hamilton, 9/11-type group, is, quite honestly, when there is a lack of faith and a lack of faith and confidence in the existing process.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, this is why institutions matter so much.

In Watergate, you had — sure, it was partisan, but you still could go to a congressional hearing and there would be some sense there would a Howard Baker, who would be an honest broker, or Hamilton, Lee Hamilton.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s exactly right.

DAVID BROOKS: Or you had people like that.

And maybe there are people like that floating around in Washington who you could appoint, like a 9/11 Commission. But the official institutions of Congress, not a lot of credibility there right now, and not a lot of expectation they would act in any way, other than as partisan bodies.

And so this is what we see when we get the breakdown of institutions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, meanwhile …

MARK SHIELDS: Angus King — Angus King from Maine and John McCain from Arizona.

JUDY WOODRUFF: An independent and a Republican.

MARK SHIELDS: An independent. Both established independents and respected, you’re going to go that direction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But I was just going to say, the way the president is responding today is by tweeting pictures of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer meeting with the Russian ambassador a few years ago.

Let’s talk about the speech Tuesday night. It feels longer ago than that, Mark. Do we know now more about what Donald Trump’s, President Trump’s priorities are after that speech?

MARK SHIELDS: Not really.

I mean, we have absolutely — we know general objectives, but we have no idea how we’re going to get from here to there. And he got an enormous amount of praise, and which basically lasted until the stories about Russia and Attorney General Sessions came out.

But there is a low bar, Judy. This is somebody who has called other politicians, other Republicans, dopey, hypocrite, stupid, lying, weak, loser, choker.

I mean, and so he comes in, and he doesn’t do this, and, all of a sudden, my goodness gracious, you know, it is. It’s the Gettysburg Address. It’s the — FDR’s Four Freedom speech. What he did was, he was controlled for an hour. There was no invective. There was no vitriol, or very little.

But, as far as specifics, we know health care is going to be bigger, and better, and cheaper, and more access. And now you can’t even get ahold of the plan. It’s like the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. They keep it in a locked room.

Maybe David has seen it, but I don’t know anybody else who has.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: It’s in my dry cleaner.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: I thought the speech was Shakespearian, Lincolnesque.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: I would say I think we do have a — I got a better sense of him — or I got a lesser sense of him, because, usually, it’s all about him. And it’s about the clown behavior or the things Mark is talking about.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: But, here, you have got a little idea of the project.

And, frankly, I got a little sense of why the guy got elected, because we were all having debates about big government vs. small government, our normal debates. And Republicans were standing for certain sort of things, eliminate the national debt, be global policemen, restore the right to life.

He ignores all that. He’s just not doing any of that stuff. He’s saying, you, Americans, you feel endangered, and I’m going to protect you.

And so the line I had was that he’s privatized compassion and nationalized intimidation. And what I meant by that — probably too proud of that line.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: What I meant by that …

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re allowed to repeat your good lines on the program any time.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: What I meant, that all the compassionate parts of government, giving people a hand up or a safety net, he wants to cut all that. And that’s just not part of the emotional repertoire.

But being tough on our enemies, whether foreign or domestic, that, he’s doing in magnitudes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, if that is what he is doing, if we know a little more, Mark…

MARK SHIELDS: Privatize profit and socialize loss.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: That was the Republican economic mandate for a long time.

DAVID BROOKS: Updating it.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is he in any better shape, Mark, in terms of getting his programs through? I realize we don’t know a lot of detail right now. But is…

MARK SHIELDS: Well, they have made a calculation, a political calculation. It’s hard to argue with it.

It’s a Republican Congress. He’s playing very much to his base. He’s not expanding his base. He’s not reaching across the divide, except by not insulting. But he is catering to and holding and speaking to and speaking for his base, those who supported him.

So, he’s 85 or 87 to nine among Republicans. As long as he’s there, OK, as long as his numbers are that high, Republicans are going to fall in line. They’re going to support him, or they’re going to at least think two or three times before breaking with him.

But, Judy, there is no sense of how he’s going to pay for any of this. And there’s no sense of the specifics. We have no more specific idea on what he wants to do on tax cuts and tax reform than we had before the speech.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

If they can find the health care plan under the magic sofa cushion in the Capitol, wherever it’s hiding, they’re going to find a lot of opposition on the right. And this is actually going to be a trope of the Trump administration.

If they ever actually come up with an agenda, there is going to be a lot of people on his right who are Republicans who are going to be very unhappy with the levels of spending or even the levels of tax cuts — or tax credits in the health care plan.

So, I think, on substantive matters on a lot of these issues, they’re going to have a big issue, big problem. And, secondly, a lot of these programs, like the health care, it shifts risk down to the individuals.

MARK SHIELDS: It does.

DAVID BROOKS: And I happen to think it could create good markets and reduce costs. But you’re definitely shifting risk.

And a lot of Americans are like, I have got enough risk in life. No thank you.

And I think that is going to come back.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we’re eight going to be looking at the sofa on the Hill or at David’s dry cleaner.

MARK SHIELDS: David’s dry cleaner.

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

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