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Shields and Brooks on Trump’s GOP pushback, Russia probe grand jury

August 4, 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 strong new economic numbers, White House chief-of-staff John Kelly’s first week, congressional Republicans starting to push back on the president, special counsel Robert Mueller convening a new grand jury for the Russia probe and more.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Today marks the close of week one on the job for President Trump’s new chief of staff, a week that kicked off with the firing of a outspoken communications director and ends with word of a new grand jury in the Russia investigation.

It’s a perfect time for the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome to you both.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, some good numbers on the economy out today, jobs numbers impressive. President Trump is saying it’s all due to him.

Does he deserve this much credit?

MARK SHIELDS: Of course he does — but because we learned from candidate Trump that these numbers are totally bogus, that we live in this big ugly bubble, that unemployment is actually 42 percent at the time of President Obama.

No, Judy, I mean, the economic news is phenomenal. It isn’t just good, setting new records in the stock market to 22000. You have got the lowest unemployment rate in 16 years. You have got economic confidence.

Today, Mazda and Toyota announced they’re building a $1.3 billion plant in the United States, Amazon 50,000 jobs hiring. And if Donald Trump would get out of the way, if he was silent Cal Coolidge and just let the good news take over, they would say, wow, isn’t that something?

But motormouth Don just has to keep changing the subject, intruding, and making unhelpful news himself. So — but, at the same time, I mean, does the president — does a president get credit? David has a very strongly, well-developed thesis that presidents really don’t shape the economy, and except over longer periods than their administrations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that right?

DAVID BROOKS: I agree with Mark’s version of …

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

No, I do think that. They can have a very negative effect if they do something terrible, and maybe over the long run, the investments they make in one decade can lead to the gains next. But on a quarter-by-quarter basis, let alone month to month, no, no effect at all.

What puzzles me is, as Mark said, the economy is doing great. This is such a long recovery. And timing wise, we should be like dipping down again, and yet the public spirit is so bad. People have some faith in the economy. They do not think the country is headed in the right direction. You’re not getting any spillover in the rest oft way people view the country, the way they view politics.

And I do think the cynicism has just gotten self-perpetuating. And so, no matter what happens in the country, people still somehow are cynical and distrustful about the country.

And so my message to America is cheer up a little.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I don’t know how much of it — and we all need to remember that, right?

But I don’t know how much of this is due to anything going on in Washington. But, Mark, this does, as we said, end the first week on the job for the president’s new Cosby, General Kelly. Does anything feel different to you?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Judy, two weeks ago tonight, I sat here and announced that — what a breath of fresh air Anthony Scaramucci brought to the press briefing.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: So, my prophet’s credentials are severely tarnished.

I think that General Kelly had a very good first week, first by getting rid of the aforementioned Anthony Scaramucci. But the difference between a preschool center and the White House staff under Donald Trump has been that the preschool center has adult supervision.

And I think it’s fair to say that General Kelly has brought to it adult supervision. He is an adult. And he did something, I thought, very shrewd, and, at the same time, decent. He called Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, who had been cyber-bullied by the president rather openly and repeatedly, and assured him that his job was safe.

That sent a message, not simply to Jeff Sessions, but to everybody else in the White House, where anxiety and nervousness and looking over your shoulder had become endemic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Cyber-bullied and said it directly in a couple of interviews about — so, there is the new sheriff in town, David, but is it making any difference?

DAVID BROOKS: I think you would have to say it has.

There were a number of things he did that I thought were shrewd, one, getting control of schedules, so even family members have to go through him to get to the president. Two, I like the fact that he didn’t want to take the job and that he resisted for weeks and weeks and weeks.

And that shows some realism about what he’s walking into.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: Third, he’s just — firing Scaramucci.

There’s been a purging within the National Security Council, so H.R. McMaster clearly feels a little more empowered to get the people he wants in control, establishing chain of command. So, all of those things, maybe we will have a little less day-to-day melodrama than we have had over the last six months.

And, personally, I think that would be good for all of us. There are limitations. He’s — another shrewd thing is, he said I’m not going to try to control the president. I’m just going to try to control the staff. And that’s a realistic thing to understand.

But the president will be the president, center of chaos. And let’s face it. This staff is not exactly the 1929 Yankees.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: He is not dealing with a group of people who are highly competent at their jobs. There are a lot of people, not all, but a lot, who are highly promoted from where they should be.

And so there’s still going to be a lot of self-inflected wounds.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I would like to tell you I knew about the 1929 Yankees, but I’m glad you explained.

MARK SHIELDS: He means the ’27 Yankees.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Not quite as good as the …

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: Kelly will be in good shape until he’s widely given credit for righting the sinking ship and saving the presidency, at which point Donald Trump will become upset with him, and he will become expendable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the president is still — Mark and David, he is still going after — it’s interesting — this week members of Congress, Republicans in Congress.

He’s tweeted. He’s remarked several times Republicans let him down on health care. He seems angry that they passed this Russia sanctions legislation, which he wasn’t happy to sign. They seem to be standing up a little bit more to him. Do you see that?

MARK SHIELDS: Standing up, yes, Judy. I think he blamed the — Russian-American relations at an all-time low, he blamed it on the Congress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

MARK SHIELDS: Nothing that the Russians have done, or nothing that had happened, that 17 American intelligence agencies had found they’re interfering in the American political process and presidential election.

But I think that they’re — first of all, Jeff Flake, the senator from Arizona, really broke with the president, wrote his own book. David wrote a very good column about it. And it was almost a call to conscience for Republicans.

And I think — I compare this almost to Gene McCarthy in 1967 standing up to the Democrats, Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War. And one man did make a difference then. And people galvanized around him.

I think some Republicans obviously see it in their self-interest, their self-preservation. Donald Trump’s numbers are sinking badly. Republicans’ numbers in the Quinnipiac poll, Judy, are 80 to 14 negative on their handling of health care among American voters.

It’s just — they’re beyond the basement. So, I think there is some courage. But, at the same time, I think there’s a large dose of self-preservation involved.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, I talked to Jeff Flake this week. And he — it was interesting. He said at one point there are so many things to criticize about this president, we hardly know — we hardly know where to begin.

But it does look as if the president doesn’t have the clout or the — that Republicans on the Hill don’t seem quite as afraid of him, maybe, as they once were.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

Yes, I think Jeff Flake is still going to be relatively lonely in direct opposition. There are a few, Ben Sasse from Nebraska, Lindsey Graham, I think, Susan Collins, maybe Mike Lee, who are pretty much against Donald Trump. But the rest are just sort of going along.

But the going along used to be going along close, and now going along, let’s do it without this guy.

One, during the health care thing, they saw not only how — what a loser he was, but how destructive his presence was to try to get anything done. Second, nothing offends members of your — of the Senate Republicans, nothing would offend them more than being attacked by the president of their own party, because it does feel like an act of disloyalty.

And so incompetence and disloyalty, that suggests, let’s just go do our own thing, this guy is hopeless.

And I do think that mentality has begun to slip in to a lot of the Senate Republicans. But it doesn’t mean they are going to try to counter what I think of as cultural rock and the political rock and the institutional rock that is happening in the Trump administration. They are not going to be standing out to that degree.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, meantime, Mark, we were talking about Russia.

We learned yesterday that Bob Mueller, the special counsel, apparently, he was working with at least one grand jury already, but now there’s another one, a newer one that has been set up here in Washington, which spells, according to all the experts, a really serious investigation that isn’t going to end any time soon.

MARK SHIELDS: No, it suggests that we’re in for some duration, that don’t plan Thanksgiving or Christmas, that it’s going to be of long standing.

I would say this, that, Judy, first of all, a grand jury just is impaneled. Its purpose is to hear evidence, to make an indictment, but also to investigate. And I think it becomes quite serious.

I mean, you don’t have to be Henry Steele Commager to remember that President Bill Clinton got in trouble and faced impeachment because of lying before a grand jury about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. I mean, so, that’s what people all over town are facing right now. So, there’s a sense of gravity and really a seriousness about this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And yet the president, David, goes out on the trail, as he did last night in West Virginia, and talks — says it’s all a witch-hunt, this is the Democrats still mad about losing.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

I think he sort of believes that. It seems to be the obsessive thing on his mind, more than probably anything else in the country today. And he seems to believe he’s just the persecuted person.

I think the grand jury, as far as we have been told, that it means there is some actual evidence of a crime, that you can’t just launch a grand jury unless you have don’t some substantive evidence. Doesn’t mean there will be indictments, but there is evidence.

Secondly, you can take hostile witnesses and put them before the grand jury, in a way you can’t with some of the other procedures, apparently. So, it’s a ratcheting up.

I still — I confess I remain bearish on the idea of the collusion thing is the meat of the thing here. But we know this from special counsels and special prosecutors. Once they get in the tax returns, once they look at the Russian investments, the — whatever the ancillary business relationships are, it seems to me that’s where the — that’s where Mueller is more likely to go than simply the campaign collusion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lastly …

MARK SHIELDS: And, Judy …

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: What is it? What is it that, I mean, every time the president — I mean, he really is obsessed with this.

I mean, just — he keeps — he won’t let it go in any way. I mean — so, I mean, that just raises curiosity, suspicion, whatever you want to call it, interest, in what actually is going on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just last quick thing in only a minute.

David, these telephone conversations the president had months ago, early in the administration, with the president of Mexico, the prime minister of Australia, just fascinating that he was pushing President Pena Nieto on the wall and saying, you have got to say that Mexico is going to pay for it.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, shocking that it’s leaked. We should never admit that — that should not be leaked.

But Donald Trump is a guy we know. I think we’re full up of Donald Trump. He’s petulant. He cares about his own image. He’s not always pleasant. And he is certainly not deep in policy knowledge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fifteen seconds.

MARK SHIELDS: Fifteen seconds.

What you see is what you get. Donald Trump in private conversation turns out to be Donald Trump in public, I mean, concerned primarily about himself, how he’s seen, and with a large dollop of self-pity in dealing with other leaders.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, meantime, as you started out saying, the economy is doing well.

MARK SHIELDS: It is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which is what a lot of people are focused on.

Mark Shields, great to see you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Great.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Brooks, thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.

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