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Shields and Brooks on Trump’s Syria attack, Senate’s fierce partisanship

April 7, 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 a U.S. strike on a Syrian military target after a deadly chemical weapons attack, reports of disarray and power struggles in the West Wing, the long-term consequences of the bitter partisan fight over Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks, who joins us from New York.

And welcome, gentlemen.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, let’s start out by talking about the attack launched against Syria.

Was this — what do you make of it?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, first of all, the previous discussion is well worth listening to again and again. Each of them was — made, I thought, incredibly perceptive points.

The thing that amazes me is the president’s transformation is kind of, what moves this president? This president, who had his United Nations ambassador, Nikki Haley, as recently as last week say that this was no longer a priority, removing — we’re living with Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and to have the secretary of state say it’s up to the people of Syria.

Is that the five million refugees to vote absentee, to vote to remove him from office? But — and he’s unmoved, Judy — he’s been unmoved by the unforgettable image of Omran Daqneesh, the little 5-year-old boy who was covered with dust and blood and debris after an Aleppo bombing by the Russians that killed his 10-year-old brother.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Years of killing.

MARK SHIELDS: And unmoved by the 3-year-old Alan Kurdi on the beach drowned as a refugee. But he obviously was moved by this, or appeared to be. It seemed to be an epiphany of sorts.

But I think Colonel Bacevich asked the penetrating question. And that is, what’s next? Is this just an impulse? Is this just a reaction, an altogether legitimate reaction? But is it part of a strategy?

Because military action, absent strategy, we have seen it, we have paid for it, the world has paid for it, and human beings have paid the ultimate sacrifice for it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is your take on the Syria strike, David?

DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times: The question what’s next strikes me as a secondary question.

The primary question is, what are we going to do about chemical warfare? A hundred years ago, right now, World War I was going on, and there people were being gassed in the trenches. And the fact that the world community has basically tried to eliminate chemical weapons since that time strikes me as a great achievement.

And to go back on that would be a great step backward for civilization. And Barack Obama, unfortunately, didn’t do anything when chemical weapons were used. So, I think it was incumbent upon the U.S. to do something when chemical weapons were used.

Does this signal some grand change of strategy in the Middle East? I sort of doubt it. But at least we set this precedent on this particular issue.

Now, question, I think it was probably totally impulsive of President Trump to do this. He’s an impulsive person. And we’re stuck the downsides of his impulsivity. But there are upsides to having an impulsive president, because nobody in the world, especially in places like North Korea, quite knows what’s going to happen. And so, frankly, there are some advantages to that.

MARK SHIELDS: I could not disagree more.

We had an impulsive president in George W. Bush. The last time the Congress of the United States, 15 years ago, recognized and accepted its constitutional responsibility, its sole authority to take the United States into war, their capacity to declare war, the power to declare war and send Americans, they did it on the eve of the election of 2002, when it was to their political advantage, and not once since, despite the best efforts of Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, and Tim Kaine of Virginia to step up to that responsibility.

We can’t — I’m sorry. We don’t celebrate impulse. And that he keeps other people off-balance is not a strategy. It’s not a rational process.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s not my preferred strategy. I would rather have a strategy, obviously. But I am just pointing out there is some upside to having somebody who’s a little unpredictable.

To me, one of the questions is, does this lead to a more normal Trump administration, a more normal Republican foreign policy administration, where you have the U.S. saying, yes, we’re going to guarantee some sort of world order?

Donald Trump so far has been so far away from that, any step in that direction would be welcome. And we see in the White House over the last week is the rise of General Mattis, the rise of National Security Adviser McMaster, maybe the rise, a little influence of Rex Tillerson, and possibly the banishment of Steve Bannon.

And if that’s happening, then we are heading toward a more normal Republican administration. I think it’s too early to say that’s happening. I still think we have a president who is not strategically minded, doesn’t have a long attention span, and does react.

But, in this particular case — and I suspect it was a one-off case that, as Andy Bacevich said, we will have forgotten in a week, but I think it was the right one-off thing to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that, Mark? There have been changes in the White House, including Steve Bannon coming off the National Security Council.

And we’re reading that Bannon’s cache may be dropping, as the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Gary Cohn, who runs the Economic Council, that their stock rises.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, Judy, just one point that David made I agree completely with him. The military, the defense — General Mattis certainly has — you can see his influence.

And let’s be very blunt about it. The only people in this Cabinet who know what they’re doing, who have any experience are the military people. They’re the ones that understand. And it’s understandable that General Mattis rejected and resisted and fought against the policy of Barack Obama, President Obama. He did push for more military.

So, he is filling this void. And I think that that is a — that’s a plus for the country. As far as what’s going on in the White House, I can’t believe this disarray in the White House or these tensions, because the president told us it had been the most successful 13 weeks of any president in U.S. history.

And it seems a funny way to celebrate that. But it’s a pretty good rule of thumb, Judy. Steve Bannon is the only person that has had a worse week than Bill O’Reilly. And it’s a pretty good rule of thumb that, when you start talking personnel changes in any administration, whether it’s Jimmy Carter in 1979 firing Joe Califano, or Jerry Ford cashiering Nelson Rockefeller in 1975, George H.W. Bush getting rid of John Sununu as chief of staff, it’s a pretty good indication you’re in political trouble.

All three lost. I would point that out. And I think that’s going on right now. I don’t know — Steve Bannon made an incredibly dumb move. And that is, you don’t put the boss in the position of trying to — being forced to choose between your daughter, your favorite child’s spouse, Jared Kushner, and him.

And it looks like that’s what Bannon has done, and he’s coming up short.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that, David? What’s going on?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

Well, from what we can tell, there are two things going on. One, they have had a series of failures. And I hope they recognize them as failures, the health care failures, the budget failures, a series of other things.

And, second, the poisonous atmosphere within the administration. If you talk to people who are working with the administration from outside or those within, they all describe a scorpions-in-the-bottle-type atmosphere.

And that’s something the president has engineered himself by deciding who’s going to be with him one second, who’s not going to be with him one second, who he favors one second, who he disfavors another second.

And so he has set an atmosphere primarily concerned to tear his staff apart. And he’s hired people who are apt at that. And so the atmosphere is extremely unhappy. And so those — both those things are happening, which, in a normal administration, would recommend a change.

It is still — it should be said, still in the realm of rumor. But the acidity of life in the White House, that seems to be pretty well-established.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Acidity?

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: Acidity. Acidity is good.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As David said.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

Every White House, Judy, is ultimately and inevitably a mirror reflection of the person at the top. I mean, the self-righteousness of Jimmy Carter’s, the insular — the paranoia of Richard Nixon’s, the detachment of Barack Obama’s, it all reflects the person at the top.

The chaos and the civil war in the leper colony going on now reflects Donald Trump’s style and preferred modus.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I’m sure none of these presidents take what you said personally.

MARK SHIELDS: No.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, David, we do have now a new Supreme Court justice to fill the Antonin Scalia slot.

But, in the meantime, what we have seen is the Republican leadership in the Senate change the rules in order to get Neil Gorsuch over the line.

There is some — there is a lot of talk right now about, what does that mean for the future? We already have a very polarized country, House of Representatives. The feeling was, the Senate maybe wasn’t quite so polarized.

What does this mean going forward, that they now are going to make it so much easier for — it appears, for nominees from the far left or the far right to be confirmed?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

Well, it’s the 967th nail in the coffin of bipartisanship.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: And so it’s the end of a long process.

It may be the end. Maybe things will get even worse. Now, Democrats took a big step in lower judges. We can go back to the Bork hearings. We can go back to a million different hearings. But the Senate has become gradually to look more like the House.

And so I think it’s a sad day. It’s a pretty inevitable day. I think, if the Democrats had won this election, they would have done exactly the same thing if they were in the similar circumstance. The precedent was set.

And I think the sad part going forward is, it used to be, if you were president, you had some incentive to try to nominate a judge who could maybe get 60 votes, who could appeal to some people in the other party.

Now you have zero incentive as long as you can control the Senate. And so we will see more — even more partisan judges than we do now.

The only thing I would say to mitigate, which I think is a decline and a degradation and a sadness, is that I have a feeling that something is about to happen with the Trump administration. Either it will shift, or something bad will happen, a scandal or something, and that we’re in sort of a pre-apocalypse phase, or maybe that’s putting it strongly.

But history is about to change, because I don’t think the status quo can maintain. And so if we have something, an administration that really suffers some grievous blow, then the Washington culture will have an opportunity to change for the better.

But, as of now, it’s a long, slow slide.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do I hear you forecasting an apocalypse of some sort?

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Well, that word came out. I should have stuck with acidity. That was a better word.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: But I do think Washington — it doesn’t feel like this administration can maintain the current state.

Something is going to happen, and then we will be in a different world, with the possibility of bipartisanship. And some senators, like Senator Collins and Coons and others, are still hungering for that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you see coming out of the Senate?

MARK SHIELDS: John McCain is fond of quoting Chairman Mao. And David brings that to mind, which is, it’s always darkest just before everything goes black.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: And that is what strikes me.

I join him, I join David in commending Susan Collins of Maine, the Republican, and Chris Coons of Delaware, the Democrat, for trying to keep alive a sense of comity and — I-T-Y — and rapprochement and bipartisanship.

They’re sponsoring a resolution that 61, or at least a letter that 61 senators have signed that they will not have the nuclear option on just legislative — domestic legislation, and that that would keep at least some hope alive that there would be a chance of moving across the aisle, working across the aisle.

I think one of the saddest moments for me of the year 2016, Judy, was when John McCain, who had been the apostle of bipartisanship, announced before the election that he wouldn’t vote for any Supreme Court nominee whom Hillary Clinton — President Hillary Clinton nominated. And that’s contagious.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Slings and arrows coming from both sides.

We wish you both a wonderful weekend.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

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

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