Shields and Brooks on Trump’s conservative confrontation, Senate’s Gorsuch showdown

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that brings us to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Gentlemen, great report from William Brangham from Michigan.

David, a lot of these voters, they still like Donald Trump. It's been a rough two months, but they're looking past that.

DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times: Yes, he's got still 80 percent approval rating among Republicans. And that's the bind that a lot of Republicans in the House and the Senate face, which is that, if they cross Donald Trump, that they face some immediate heat back at home.

I'm not sure he can go out and defeat them in two years, as he's threatened to do. But he's a popular guy still in Republican circles, but 35 percent, 40 percent approval nationally.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What did you make of that?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I think it was a terrific piece by William.

But I think, Judy, we have to understand, having missed that story last November myself, that Donald Trump…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Most of us did.

MARK SHIELDS: Donald Trump felt the pain of these people. That's what he communicated to them. He acknowledged their existence. He acknowledged what they had been through, and that, while the great — big numbers in the country were great, the stock market, the unemployment, that these were people who felt themselves and experienced being left behind.

And he said, I would stand up for you.

And I think they are still giving him very much the benefit of the doubt.

DAVID BROOKS: Imagine how popular he would be if he actually had some policies to help those people.

MARK SHIELDS: Right, as opposed to a health care policy which would have taken 24 million people off health care.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, David, we heard one of the women who voted for him in Michigan say she just thought this Russia story, all the tentacles of it, she said it doesn't really add up to anything for her.

And, yet, this week, it just didn't seem to stop. You have got two sides of the Congress, both houses of Congress, going after it, the FBI. Now we learn more about what was going on inside the White House.

How damaging is this? How much of a problem is it for the president?

DAVID BROOKS: I really don't know.

We have a tendency to get a little overhyped to some of the Trump scandals. We go to outrage level 11 at every moment. And I think the Russia — the case is still out how serious it is, whether there's actual ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, which I think is the core of it, where Paul Manafort came from, whether there was any money laundering, and things like that.

There is a lot we don't know. And I'm trying to not prejudge it. What we do know is, there's high levels of incompetence. And we have a president who tweeted this wiretapping tweet which was completely wrong. That's incompetence.

We have this young man in the National Security Agency whose his boss tried to get rid of, Trump was preserved by Steve Bannon, who was involved in giving information to Nunes, Chairman Nunes. We have Nunes himself, who is behaving incompetently.

Forget he's too close to the Trump campaign. There is a way to conduct an investigation. And it's not to cancel hearings willy-nilly. It's not to go brief the guy you're supposed to be investigating. It's not to create a civil war within your own committee.

And so we have just levels and levels and levels of just incompetence, of people who do not know how to play this game. And when that happens, you never know what's going to happen next. And so I don't know if it's a scandal in the class of Watergate scandal, but it's not inspiring to see what we have been seeing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, whether it's incompetence or something more than that, how much is it hurting the president?

MARK SHIELDS: It's hurting the president, Judy.

Everything in politics is a poll. If you want the ultimate poll, forget Gallup, forget NBC, Wall Street Journal or anything else. On Monday, April 3, the baseball season begins in Washington, D.C.

And Donald Trump, former baseball player, proudly proclaiming his athletic ability, will not be there. Why will he not be there? Because he would be booed. He would be booed loudly, he would be booed long.

And it would be would be seen all over the world, and it would be seen time and time again. So, that's what it's done. That's what it's doing.

That's what his presidency — David's right. This is a White House that prizes loyalty above ability, imagination, experience, judgment. And so, what do they do to the one loyal supporter, acolyte, apologist they have in the entire Congress and part of the Intelligence Committees, Devin Nunes, inspector Nunes of California?

They bring him down to the White House under the cover of darkness on a secret mission, show him these documents that he discovers. And then he goes and reveals them to the president of the United States, even though these documents are shown to him by people who work in the White House for the president of the United States, including one of his former employees.

They take his loyalty, turn him into an absolute butt of jokes. He's defenseless. He's unflinchingly loyal. And he's incompetent.

So, what they set out to do was to slow down the investigation, which suggests there is something there. And what they have done is highlight, spotlight and given a new energy and new urgency to it. The testimony of FBI agent Clint Watts before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday was compelling.

It was compelling about the efforts and the sabotaging by Russia of the American democratic process. Anybody, Democrat, Republican, should listen to that and say, this is serious stuff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this is — so, whether there is more there on Russia or not, David, this is one that's going to go on.

And I think one of you mentioned health care. When we talked last week, we had just learned that the Republicans had pulled the bill, David, in the House of Representatives. But, this week, you have the president criticizing the conservative Freedom Caucus members, naming them, calling them out, singling them out by name, going after them and the Democrats.

Is this a tactic, a strategy that's likely to cause them to bring back the attempt to repeal Obamacare successfully and get that done?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, first of all, I highly think it's unlikely they are going to bring it back.

The core problem, which was that the Freedom Caucus and the moderates wanted a completely opposite bill, that problem is still there. It's a structural problem. The Republican Party does not have a consensus position on health care.

The decision to send these tweets and to threaten people like Mark Sanford and other members of the Freedom Caucus was amateur hour, another kindergarten mistake.

First of all, he's not going to do it. He's not going to run people against somebody in two years. Second, if he did, it would be highly unlikely to be successful. Even Franklin Roosevelt, at the head of his popularity, he once tried to run against a local person and lost all the way across the board, because people like their — they like their local member.

And then, meanwhile, the Freedom Caucus guys are loving this today. They are the little guy standing up to — the little guy representing their district. And then their manhood has been called into question. So, they can't back down now. So, I found it completely counterproductive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Judy, an old friend of ours, Les Francis from California, said today, since the collapse and the failure of the Republicans to — that promised for four consecutive elections to repeal and replace Obamacare as their first act, and total abject failure, that the Republicans look more like the Donner Party than they do like the national governing party.

For those who don't remember the 19th century, the Donner Party were settlers who got caught in the Sierra Madres at winter and ended up practicing cannibalism to survive.

And this is really — it's been a circular firing squad ever since. Donald Trump is attacking the Freedom Caucus. Paul Ryan is attacking the Freedom Caucus and suggesting that the worst thing that could happen was for the president to work with Democrats to solve a national problem.

We have never had a speaker of the House in the history of the country say that before. To work for — to solve a national problem, we won't work in a bipartisan way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: About the opposition.

MARK SHIELDS: Ryan has been crippled by this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Really?

MARK SHIELDS: He has had editorial upon editorial.

His approval rating has fallen from 35 percent to 21 percent. And he's getting battered on all sides. I mean, Paul Ryan — I know David has great respect and admiration for him — but he is like a — philosophically, he's like a hammer.

And for the hammer, every problem is a nail. And for Paul Ryan, his solution is invariably cutting taxes on the wealthiest Americans. And he's tried to sell this tax — this health care bill as a tax cut of a trillion dollars time and again in interviews. And it knocked 24 million people off of health care.

And Donald Trump, who had been the tribune of these people, stood by, uncuriously, uninterested, and watched it happen. And now he's blaming Paul Ryan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you want to come to his defense, briefly?

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Well, no, I want to blame Trump more.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: No, I think the — well, Paul Ryan, I respect a lot of his policies, but I do think he's a bit locked in the 1980s intellectually.

But the problem, the core problem here is still with Donald Trump. He doesn't have a theory of what Trumpism is. And he doesn't have a strategy for converting his populist campaign into some sort of legislative agenda.

You could pick a right-wing agenda and get people all on the right and push through a pretty Republican agenda. Or you could pick a populist center-left, and not worry about the Freedom Caucus.

But he's managed to offend the right, the center and the left. And so how many people — how do you get to 50 percent of that? And you don't. And so he — I assume that, if he — he will sometimes figure out and say, OK, I have got to be this kind of president or that kind of president.

But, right now, he's no kind of president. There's no — it's not center-right. It's not center-left. It's not far-right. It's just chaos.

And so, somehow, he's got to figure out, OK, I have an actual strategy. He doesn't have one right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, as he's criticizing the Democrats on health care, Mark, he's counting on at least some Democrats to support his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch.

Two of them have come forward this week and said — but there are others who you would think the White House would be counting on who are saying they're not going to vote for him.

What does that nomination look like right now?

MARK SHIELDS: What it looks like now is that — I think Clarence Thomas is the only sitting judge who was confirmed by fewer than 60 votes. He got 52.

And Neil Gorsuch will not reach the 60 level. And this will be, I think, a dramatic moment, when the — they're going to impose, the Republican majority will impose the nuclear deterrent, the nuclear solution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The so-called nuclear rule change.

MARK SHIELDS: A majority — a majority to confirm a Supreme Court justice. The question is, do they do it on this one, on Gorsuch, or on the next one?

But, no, I think that Democrats — Donald Trump has done one thing. He may not have energized Republicans, but he has certainly energized Democrats and the Democratic base. And there's a sense of outrage, a continuing outrage over the fact that a mild-mannered, widely admired person of high character and principle, Merrick Garland, the same things they say about Neil Gorsuch, his supporters never even got a moment of a hearing, never had the decency to — many, meet to with him.

So there is a sense of vengeance and anger over that still brewing.

DAVID BROOKS: It's pure vengeance. It's an eye for an eye. It's two wrongs make — trying to make a right.

But two wrongs do not make a right. Neil Gorsuch, it doesn't look like he will get 60. But that has nothing to do with Neil Gorsuch, who is completely qualified and almost a model nominee.

And the fact the Democrats are doing this, maybe they can say, OK, well, Republicans did it to us. What's fair is fair. But it's wrong in both cases.

And the Democratic arguments against Gorsuch are pathetic. Their substance of which — the core argument is that he's the sort of judge a Republican candidate nominates for justice. Well, of course. He's — a Republican won the White House, so that's what you're going to get.

But there is no question about his character, about the mainstream nature of his jurisprudence, about his intelligence, about his qualifications. There's no question about any of that.

And so to blow up the nuclear option over Gorsuch seems to be pointless partisanship, which will have longstanding damage to the country. We have the 60 votes, so it forces people to think about being bipartisan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

DAVID BROOKS: Once we get rid of that, you never have to worry about it again, if you're in the majority.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It makes it a more partisan …

MARK SHIELDS: You do admit that he has not been forthcoming in — on the question of dark money, I mean, he has been totally …

DAVID BROOKS: We will get to that next week.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We are going to get to that next week.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, OK, but I'm just not going to let it pass like that, Judy.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're allowed to say that.

And so are you.

David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you both.

Recently in Shields and Brooks