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Shields and Brooks on Trump’s unprecedented transition

December 23, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
President-elect Donald Trump made headlines this week for his reference to a possible arms race and his involvement in U.S. foreign policy prior to taking office. Judy Woodruff speaks with syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks about whether Mr. Trump’s strategy is to keep people “off balance,” as well as potential conflicts of interest within his Cabinet.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Gentlemen, welcome.

So let’s start out talking about two major foreign policy waves, I guess you could say, that Donald Trump is making today, David. He directly intervened with the White House as they were deciding how to handle this U.N. resolution on Israel. There is now an open rift with President Obama. This is different, isn’t it, from the way we see a transition normally work?

DAVID BROOKS: Certainly, the country can’t have two presidents at once, so the tradition has been to hang back if you’re the president-elect and wait for your time in office. Trump is not a hang-back kind of guy.

And he has shifted — President Obama has shifted American policy in a much more critical way in Israel with the settlements than the previous presidents. But we’re about to get a head-snapping shift the other way. President-elect Trump’s ambassador to Israel is further to the right than almost anyone in Israel, further to the right than Bibi Netanyahu on the settlements, and almost opposes the two-state solution, doesn’t he?

So, we are about to see a tremendous shift in American policy toward the Middle East.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see this, Mark? Are there consequences of this or is this going to be something we look back on and say, well, that’s what happened?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I mean, I think Donald Trump is sui generis. I mean, he is acting by president or tradition. He’s acting as Donald Trump has throughout his entire public career of, what, a year and a half, and that is to be impulsive, be spontaneous, keep his opponents or adversaries off balance. That’s his approach. He is not into nuance, that is not his strength.

And the president said this week, he’s entitled to his own policies and but just hope that it’s deliberate and thoughtful. And this strikes me as anything but.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, in addition to Israel, what we were sitting here talking about nuclear policy because Donald Trump tweeted, as far as we can tell, out of the blue yesterday, David, that the United States needs to beef up its nuclear arsenal. He did an interview with Mika Brzezinski of NBC this morning and I’m just reading the quote here. He said, “Let it be an arms race, we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”

So, what does this say?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, one of the things I think about with Donald Trump is what are his words actually attached to? With a normal president like President Obama, he says a word, and that’s because there has been some thought that he’s done and there had been policy papers and there’s been aides and there’s been advisors and then there is a connection to an actual set of policies. And so, the words like have roots into actual stuff.

With Trump, I’m not sure the words have roots. They are emanations of his psyche, but has he thought it through? Is there an argument, is there a policy implication?

Even in this nuclear thing, he says we should be stronger and expand. What does that mean? So, what is concrete in what he’s saying?

And I think as we interpret him and frankly as the world learns to interpret Donald Trump, are these just words that are enigmatic things floating on air or are they actually shifts in policy and will they change moment by moment, day by day without any underlying connection to the actual stuff of governance? I don’t know.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, we’re talking about nuclear arms policy. This is something that in the past, it was something that people spent time thinking about before statements were made. You know, you said a minute ago, you think he’s keeping everybody off balance. Is this a deliberate strategy?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think that’s part of it. The points David make I think really deserve reflection and consideration. I think Donald Trump, we have to understand, has not had experiences like any other president we’ve ever had. He’s never been accountable to anybody, save Donald Trump.

I mean, he has no investors. He has — he has debtors, but he doesn’t have a board of directors. He doesn’t have a corporate structure he’s had to answer to. So he’s been able to kind of wing it at every stage.

I just don’t think he understands — the point David was making is when a president makes a statement, Judy, it is studied around the world, the nuance and was there an emphasis here, and what was in the last statement that’s missing — perhaps overly done, maybe overly analyzed. But because the president’s words are pretentious, they really carry with them enormous significance and are usually reflective of great consideration and even arguments within that one side is wanted, one particular paragraph or sentence, while the other said, no, that shouldn’t be in there.

So, I just think that Trump — he has not made the transition, it seems to me, from candidate to even president in waiting. He has been a sore winner. He continues to in his rallies to berate Hillary Clinton. That sense of gracious, generosity or larger vision has eluded him so far.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, David, some — not but — and some people, David, have looked at what he’s doing and they said, this is really part of a strategy. Keep people off balance, keep them guessing about what you’re going to do.

DAVID BROOKS: I think that’s a rationalization for just the way he is. But it does have the effect of keeping people off balance. I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good thing.

And to bring us back to the nuclear thing, keeping people off balance with nuclear weapons is not a good thing at all.

MARK SHIELDS: No.

DAVID BROOKS: And — so I would say, given, as Mark describes, sort of — he’s not part of a process. And so, I think there are two things that could happen as a result of this.

One, it’s possible to imagine him having relatively little influence on his own government because he will be off in his own world and the agencies and the permanent bureaucracy will just go on and do its merry way. There is a lot of passive aggressive behavior in all governments. It’s very hard to get things done.

But at the same time, because he’s not tied down, there could be a lot of erraticness and he could get caught up, just the macho thing, especially, let’s say Vladimir Putin, or somebody like that, and then more and more erratic with, you know, potentially, some sort of nuclear weapons attached.

MARK SHIELDS: It was even suggested to me, apropos the point David was making, that Republicans and Democrats have been adversaries for a long time on foreign policy. But, I mean, it could be a common interest at some point in sort of uniting in solidarity. I mean, we’ve had every president, Judy — I mean, John Kennedy began in 1963 with a nuclear test ban treaty banning, you know — agreeing with the Soviets to ban all testing in the atmosphere or space or underwater. I mean, that has been the guide of every president.

I mean, Ronald Reagan who came in as the leader of the toughest Soviet bloc, the evil empire — I mean, ended up as really a possible arms reduction advocate, a champion of it. When Mikhail Gorbachev — you know, I mean, it’s been the policy of both parties, presidents of both parties, and just to see something like this cast aside as an aside, as his own people are going on the air last night explaining what he actually meant was to stabilize or modernize.

Then, he goes on with Mika Brzezinski this morning before the show and says, no, no, what he said originally he meant. I mean —

JUDY WOODRUFF: An arms race.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we’ll outlast them all.

So even he’s got — he seems to have a lot of support among Republicans and even Democrats for his position on Israel, nuclear — nuclear is something different.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to ask you about incoming Trump administration potential conflicts of interest. Story in the “Wall Street Journal” this week, David, about Tom Price, the congressman from Georgia having done stock trading in the last few years and health medical companies, he’s going to be overseeing these policies — he was voting observe these policies as a congressman, he will be overseeing that at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Carl Icahn named as an informal to the president on business regulation. He’s somebody who’s got enormous business interest.

And then there’s the story about Eric Trump, his son and the charitable organization. Do we — how do we even get our arms around all this?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, to me, it’s mostly about public trust. Do — can you trust people to do their public service roles in a pretty much straight-up, honorable way on the merits of the issues? And I happen to think most people go into government do it for the right reasons and they really do things as they see them on the merits of the issues.

But it doesn’t help if there’s the appearance and it doesn’t help if the standards by which we separate public and private life begin to erode. And that generally was the course — you leave private life behind when you go into public life, because you’re not just a person. You’re inhabiting a role that the Constitution gave you.

And I’m not sure Trump has had that distinction between private and public life in his head. And so, I think there’s likely to be an erosion of just that standard, that different standard, consciousness, and I think it’s likely we’ll see what we haven’t seen in the last eight years and even the last 12 or 16 of private enrichment in office and scandals where people have to resign and things like that, because just once the standards go, behavior tends to go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Mark, are his supporters prepared to accept a different standard for Donald Trump?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, no, I think part of Donald Trump’s appeal is that he’s a guy that does cut corners, that he’s the guy that does get deals and maybe does break a speed limit. I think there was sort of a roguish, rascally, but I get things done even if I break the rules.

But I do think, you know, the words of Jefferson echo even today, when a man assumes a public trust, he must assume he is public property, and that’s exactly what’s the case here. I mean, Tom Price, I don’t know he had time to make votes on the floor, he had such an active stock portfolio and in areas that he was legislating on. I mean, so that will be a subject of hearings.

But Donald Trump’s statement that Carl Icahn, because he’s not taking a salary doesn’t have a conflict of interest — I’m sorry. I mean, Carl Icahn has major oil interests. He urged and recommended the appointment of the EPA administrator, and, you know, he was championed for him.

Of course, there are conflicts of interest. It doesn’t come down to a salary. It comes down to your own enrichment. And is there a difference? Is there concept in Donald Trump’s mind of public policy that there is a public interest that is separate and distinct from personal interest?

I don’t know if there are people around him, who — certainly they haven’t been throughout his career, who are saying this is in the greater public interest. It just doesn’t seem to be part whether in his personal behavior, personal comportment, doesn’t seem to be a strong commitment or value of public service.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We seem to keep coming back, David, to this question of what he was used to in the private sector and what now he faces in the public sector.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. He’s one thing. Some people are very different in different circumstances. He’s not. He’s one thing.

And he’s been one thing. Remember, we were talking about he’s got to moderate his campaigns. So, it’s worked for him, at least by his lights. So, I imagine he’s going to be this way all straight through. I can’t imagine a 70-year-old guy is going to change.

And so, he’s going to be this way and we’re going to have to cover it and the world is going to have to — I keep coming back to the world literally — how much of this is actual literal and how much is a marketing guy who treats words as tools for money? And so, we’re going to have to adjust and not react a lot of the time and think that something’s substantively actually happening.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Gentlemen, we wish you a merry Christmas, happy New York and happy Hanukkah and every holiday that’s coming. Thank you both.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, Mark.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.

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