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Shields and Brooks on Trump’s first week, the future of ‘alternative facts’

January 27, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
From Mexico to Russia, pipelines to refugees, President Trump had a busy first week of work. Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including an assessment of the president’s executive actions and willingness to pick fights, the White House opposition against the media and whether the GOP will assert independence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: From executive actions to early morning tweets, the first week of the Trump administration has been marked by a flurry of twists and turns.

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.

And welcome to both of you.

And I guess you could say, Mark, from Mexico to Russia, from oil pipelines to health care, it has not been a quiet first week. How’s it gone?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, if you’re a Trump supporter, it’s gone terrific.

He’s done what he said he was going to do. He was — honored his campaign commitments on the wall, on keeping the borders secure, or safe, or limited, and stopping immigration as much as possible, and building the pipeline and going ahead. I mean, so, in that sense, he didn’t lose any support among his supporters.

Among his critics, I think whose doubts were very much, in large part not simply ideological, but about the temperament of Donald Trump, it’s reinforced those doubts, his performance, especially the smallness of his preoccupation about the size of the crowd, which he keeps returning to in a rather bizarre fashion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see this first week, David?

DAVID BROOKS: We were here a week ago together, and it feels like a century.

And I wonder, over the course of his presidency, can he keep up this pace of news and busyness and conflict without just exhausting everybody?

And I will say, among businesspeople I have spoken to, among political class and among the Republicans on the Hill, just a great sense of being unnerved, unnerved at the instability.

Partly, he’s done what he said, as Mark said. He’s undermined the post-war international order pretty quickly. Tearing down TPP was a bill that I think economists say would have produced hundreds of millions — billions of dollars of earnings every year for Americans.

Picking a fight with our second biggest export market, very unnerving. I don’t see the — but then I think the two other things I would say is, the general sense of chaos and incompetence on how you do it.

OK, you want to pick a fight with Mexico. Do you have to do it by tweet? Do you have put forward a proposal that would have Americans paying for the wall, and then sort of withdraw it, and then sort of not withdraw it, do in a way maximally designed to polarize Mexican opinion against the United States?

And then the final thing is, I wonder, I’m left wondering, how much of this is real? OK, he signs a series of papers that Steve Bannon and others wrote for him, but who is going to implement it? Does it make any sense? We saw that with the Syrian ban in the discussion earlier in the program.


DAVID BROOKS: How much of it is the government just going to let him sign papers and then it just goes along their merry way?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to ask you both about that.

But I think, Mark, coming back to something you — well, both of you have referred to this. Should everyone who voted for him and who watched him for months have really expected what we have seen this week? He’s — it’s the full Donald Trump coming forward, isn’t it?

MARK SHIELDS: No question.

I mean, you know, we have talked about the disenchantment, the alienation of American voters because voters — Republicans — how long have Republicans promised a balance budget? How long have Republicans pretended they care deeply about budget deficits, or Democrats on their issues about the poor, about really doing something about those in poverty and income inequality?

And then they get elected, and, no, you can’t do it, you can’t do it.

I mean, whatever else, I mean, he has certainly been against the grain on that. But I don’t think the temperamental — the divide on this week, Judy, I think, is those who look at Donald Trump and see somebody who goes to the CIA and…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last Saturday.

MARK SHIELDS: … and lashes out at the press and complains about the coverage of the size.

Here he is, going to the Wall of Heroes, sends out his press secretary for his debut looking like a hostage tape complaining about the — about press coverage of this, insisting it’s the biggest crowd ever.

Nobody has ever measured crowds, except Barack Obama, because it was a historic turnout. But the biggest crowd before that was Lyndon Johnson. Nobody knows that. Donald Trump all of a sudden is preoccupied by it.

And there’s one thing that happened this week, I think, that, if I were in the White House, I would be deeply concerned about. And that was the Dallas Stars hockey team, the National Hockey League team, plays in the American Airlines Center in Dallas that has a capacity crowd of 18,562.

They had a capacity crowd last Saturday night right after Spicer, right after the CIA. And they put up on their JumboTron, on the big screen, attendance, 1.5 million.


MARK SHIELDS: And the whole place erupted in laughter.

And that’s — when you become a punchline 30 hours into your presidency in Dallas among hockey fans, that portends a problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does he run a real danger, David, of that happening? Or are people saying, OK, let’s give him — it’s only the first week, let’s see what happens?

DAVID BROOKS: No. No. People are in more panic mode than before.


DAVID BROOKS: He’s just picked fight after fight. This was an example.

And there are sort of two theories of he tells things that are false all the time. Is it because he’s sort of an Orwellian figure, an authoritarian figure who is twisting words in an Orwellian manner, “1984,” to exercise power and control people’s minds, or is he a 5-year-old who has an ego that needs to be fed, and the universe has to warp around his ego needs so he can feel good about himself, and everybody has to produce photos to make the monarch feel like he’s made of gold?

MARK SHIELDS: Which do you vote on?

DAVID BROOKS: I vote on the 5-year-old kid.


DAVID BROOKS: The madness of King George III.

And so I think, when we see that distortion, it’s because he just needs the ego fed all the time.

And I don’t if anybody saw the — after the CIA, he gave an ABC interview where he talked about the standing ovation …

JUDY WOODRUFF: I watched it.

DAVID BROOKS: … at the CIA, the longest ever …

MARK SHIELDS: Peyton Manning.

DAVID BROOKS: … since Peyton Manning.

Well, first of all, the employees couldn’t sit down because he didn’t tell them to sit down. So, they’re standing. Of course it’s a standing ovation. They can’t sit down.

But then the way he went on and on, that was a home run, and, I mean, it’s — it’s weird.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which leads, Mark, back to, I think again, what both of you were talking about, and that’s this question of facts or whether they call them alternate facts.

Are we going to continue to debate this kind of thing for the duration of the first year or the rest of his presidency?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, we are, Judy.

I will tell you why, because Steve Bannon, the president’s senior counselor, chief strategist, said something this week that was absolutely true. He said that there is no opposition party.

The Democrats lost 958 legislative seats during Barack Obama’s eight years. The Democrats went into the election of 2016 holding control of seven states where they have got the governorship and both houses of the legislature.

Today, as we sit here, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Oregon, California, and Hawaii are the five states that have Democratic governors and Democratic legislatures. It’s 2,500 miles from Hartford to Sacramento, and there’s not a single Democratic-controlled state in between that.

So, the opposition really is — Marty Baron, the editor of The Washington Post, is the leader of the opposition, or David’s paper, or mainstream media, because they’re the ones that have to call them account. There are 214 committees and subcommittees on the Hill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, he called — Steve Bannon called the press the opposition party, but he meant it, I think, as a …


MARK SHIELDS: Well, he meant it, but I think he — whether he meant it or not, he spoke the truth, because accountability and facts are going to be maintained and insisted upon. It’s only going to come that way.

The Democrats are — on the Hill are powerless. They couldn’t pass salt if they asked for it. They couldn’t. I’m sorry. They couldn’t pass the sugar. That’s how weak they are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it that bad?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I do think there is another opposition more effective right now, or more important, which is people who work in government, some of the civil servants.

They have to — if we’re going to impose a visa on European countries, they have got to process it. And, believe me, civil servants have many ways to not do something. And it’s easier for them not to do it.

The second is Congress, and not only the Democrats, but — that’s important, but also the Republicans in Congress. The Republicans in Congress, A, they believe in Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party, not Donald Trump Republican Party or Steve Bannon’s Republican Party.

Second, they have made this Faustian bargain with the guy. They think, we’re going to tolerate him, and — but just as long as he signs our legislation. And if we can get some health care that we like or a tax reform that we like, all that chaos is worth it.

But the chaos may turn out to be too high a price to pay. And so now we get in a big fight with Mexico, and some members of Congress are very upset that we have upset this, needlessly started a trade war, which could go totally out of control.

And some of them would love to go down to Mexico and say, hey, he doesn’t speak for us. And they are not going to do it now because they’re pausing to see what happens, but six, eight months, a year, they could decide, this is too much for our country, we have to go down, and we would go to Mexico or whoever the next 18 fights he picks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David makes a point, Mark. You both talk about how much of what Donald Trump is saying is going to become reality. His own party is going to have a lot to say about how much of it becomes reality.


And David is a very cheerful optimist on the subject of Republican backbone.


MARK SHIELDS: I have seen — this man has taken over the Republican Party. He’s transformed the Republican Party.

It is not — Donald Trump is an independent presidential candidate who ran on the Republican label. He really did. He took it over. He transformed it into his image, in his likeness.

He will toss a deferential nod once in a while. But it’s Trump’s agenda. It isn’t Paul Ryan’s agenda. It isn’t Mitch McConnell’s. They can stop him. I mean, as they have already stood up, McConnell has, on sanctions to Russia.


MARK SHIELDS: Thank God for Jim Mattis. I don’t mean to sound like a broken record.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On torture.

MARK SHIELDS: The now secretary of defense on torture, Trump has at least deferred to him, while expressing for the first time ever an American president’s support, the full-throated support of torture, endorsement of torture.

At least Cheney, Dick Cheney, the vice president, used the euphemism of enhanced interrogation for torture, which has been outlawed, which is illegal, which is immoral, which is diplomatically disastrous and militarily counterproductive and hurtful.

So, I’m still waiting. Thank God for John McCain, quite frankly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, David, what makes you think that Republicans are going to have, as Mark said, the backbone to stand up to him?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, A, because I hear rumblings of it. I hope rumblings lead to backbone.

But, second, if present is prologue, then Trump is this whirling dervish of chaos. He picked a fight with Mexico. Germany is not far behind. He will pick a fight with them. He will pick a fight with China, which would be truly cataclysmic.

Vietnam has been severely hurt by what he did this week on TPP. So just a series of big fights just in the international arena. And, as I mentioned a couple weeks ago, the president makes a lot of decisions about use of armed force.

And some of those are going to go — for him to make decisions on questionable information is going to happen. He’s going to have to make those decisions. And it will just feel like the whole American project, I believe, is weirdly under threat.

Now, it could be that he just does this in the realm of media, and he lives up there, and Steve Bannon runs policy down here. And that would just have a Berlusconi destabilizing effect on our culture, and have no practical effect.

But I do think he is a fundamentally unstabilizing force and that the people who swore to uphold the Constitution are going to have to take some measures at some point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Mark, in just the minute left, he still has the support — the polls support he still has the support of the people who voted for him; 80 percent of the Republicans say he’s doing a great job.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Judy, this is the honeymoon.

The troubles that he’s inflicted this week and counting were totally unforced errors upon himself. So, this really is a time. Americans want the country to do well. They want the president to do well.

We just had — broke the 20,000-point barrier, and he stepped all over the story. I mean, if you were counseling the president and you’re there when the Dow Jones breaks 20,000, you go to, gee, I had nothing to do with it, but I’m loving that the American people express confidence and optimism in our future.

Instead, he’s doing something with David Muir complaining about the coverage and telling everybody to watch FOX News. So, it’s all — he’s as high now with no problems. They haven’t had a crisis yet.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, this is the happiest week for the presidency.

If Mr. Rogers is having a week, this should be his Mr. Rogers week, and it wasn’t exactly Mr. Rogers.

Had to get that PBS reference in.


MARK SHIELDS: I liked the PBS reference.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I like both of you.

David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you both.

DAVID BROOKS: It’s Barney.


DAVID BROOKS: Next week, an exclusive conversation coming up. I sit down with Vice President Mike Pence at the White House.

That is on Tuesday, January 31, right here on the PBS NewsHour.