Shields and Brooks on Trump’s first trip, press bashing in Montana

HARI SREENIVASAN: But first to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

All right, let's start this week on the foreign front. The president met potentates, presidents, prime ministers and a pope. There were magical orbs.

(LAUGHTER)

HARI SREENIVASAN: There were tweet-sized messages stuck into a Wailing Wall. How did he do?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: B-plus. No.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I'm not going to grade him. I grade him on the curve.

I would say the visual highlight was with the pope when he said, you know, the pope is a very humble man, much like me, which he had tweeted earlier, and that's why I like him so much.

But just sort of they're polar opposites, of the two, one a champion of immigrants and refugees and almost disdainful of opulence and excessive wealth, and the other sort of the embodiment of it.

But I thought, quite frankly, the first part of the trip, he laid down the policy, and the policy is that we will stand on the side of Sunni autocrats against terrorism, and no questions asked.

And here, in addition, is a major weapons, a huge weapons sale that — and we're not going to ask how you use it or where you use it, and if people are killed in Yemen, and they're — made in the USA is on the weapon that kills them, and it's done indiscriminately, that's their business and not ours, because the operating and organizing principle of foreign policy is opposition to terrorism under Donald Trump.

DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times: Yes, I thought Melania had a very good week. I thought a lot of good moments for her. There was a lot of good judgments, actually.

He, by the standards of some of the competence of the previous week, I would say you would have to say the trip was, by competence standards, a success. He did what he wanted to do in Saudi Arabia, at NATO, at various other places.

I do think, as Mark suggested, the chief oddity of the entire trip is that we seem to be mean to our friends and kind to our foes. And so, Saudi Arabia — Fareed Zakaria had a very good column on this — we're supposed to be against terrorism, and Trump loves to talk about Iranians — Iran's influence on terrorism, but the main source of terror funding for both the ideas and sometimes the organizations is Saudi Arabia. It's not Iran.

And so — but, somehow, we're super nice to Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, we're super mean to Germany and France and some of our NATO allies. And so there's just been a perversion of American foreign policy, which is sort of based on the idea that character doesn't matter, and you can — whether the leaders from Russia or the Philippines or Saudi Arabia, that people of bad character are people we can ally with.

And, somehow, I think there is a consistency between the government here and some of the governments the Trump administration likes around the world.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There was a bit of that we just saw …

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. I'm sorry?

HARI SREENIVASAN: There was a bit of that we just saw in the conversation that Judy had.

MARK SHIELDS: That's exactly right.

I would just say that the NATO part of the visit, I found particularly disturbing, because there was nothing about the principles and values. There was nothing about values and what we share and what animates us and what we respect and revere, whether it's individual rights or democracy.

That just seemed to be unimportant. And all the criticism that the president had was stored up, as David pointed out, for these folks for somehow being welfare cheats or something.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. And that's pure demagoguery.

He spoke as if we — they owe us money because they haven't been paying their dues, which is not true.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: That's not the way that the — the problem is that they sort of pledged to gradually get to 2 percent of GDP in defense spending.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

DAVID BROOKS: And some of the countries have, and a lot of the countries have not. And that's a legitimate issue.

But he portrayed it as if we're bailing them out, and they owe us money, and they haven't paid their bills, which is just actually untrue.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, let's shift gears to the budget.

What do you make of the priorities that were set forth in this? It's a political document, but it kind of lets you know what you think is important.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

We don't pass a budget, but I think it's fair to say it was mean—spirited and dishonest were the two words that come quickest to mind, again, coming back to the visit with the pope, who has sort of made himself the pope of the poor, unlike a number of his predecessors, who seemed to enjoy the opulence of Vatican City.

And Donald Trump, at that very meeting, his budget, which he is distanced from, he's not even in town as it's released, is, I think fair to say, an orthodox Republican document in the worst sense, in that it is tax cuts for the most advantaged among us, and saving the character of those Americans who are struggling, who depend upon school lunches, who depend upon supplemental food, who depend upon Medicaid — there are more people in the United States on Medicaid than there are on Medicare.

And half of the people on Medicaid get — work every day. And we're talking about elderly poor. And, I mean, all of this is being cut, for what purpose? To provide an enormous tax cut for those who are best-off.

HARI SREENIVASAN: David, doesn't some of this go right at the base of supporters that Donald Trump have, the poor working class that came to him? And it seems, as Mark is pointing out, that some of the programs that are being cut are going to affect them first.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you look at the food stamps program, and that has radically expanded over the last 10 years.

And so the question is, has it expanded maybe for some of the reasons Social Security disability expanded, just because it's become sort of welfare through the backdoor? Is it illegitimate?

Well, if you look into the food stamp program, the reason it's expanded is because a lot of people are now near poor and because of economic changes. It's not because of some illegitimate explosion of the welfare state. It's because of the underlying structure of society has disadvantaged a lot of people, and they need some help.

And so it's — as Donald Trump's own secretary of agriculture said, it's a successful program, and yet it's getting savagely cut. And I think that's — and that, as you say, goes right at the Trump voters, because the lower-middle-class voters in rural areas are getting a lot of those benefits.

To me, the most egregious, two egregious things about the budget is, as Mark said, it hurts the poor and helps the rich, but it also hurts the young and helps the old, and that whether it's food stamps or a lot the other programs, if you believe in human capital, that we're investing in the future with a lot these programs, then that's the good kind of spending, even if you're kind of conservative.

And, to me, we should cut some of the money that goes to affluent elderly people and give more money to young, struggling people. But Donald Trump does the reverse.

And the second thing is just the almost in-your-face dishonesty of it. Some of it is — just it's assuming there will be 3 percent growth, which is not going to happen, given our demographics. But Larry Summers pointed out that this made the most elementary budget calculating error of any administration in 40 years.

They took the same revenue source, and they counted it twice, in order to cover. And that's just — everybody had the to catch that error, but they were just going to do it anyway, and they didn't care what anybody said.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Larry Summers, the former treasury secretary.

I mean, what about the president coming back and saying, hey, you know what, I made these promises, I said I wasn't going to touch aid to the elderly?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, he said he wouldn't cut Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. That was the promise he made in one of his campaign tweets, that I'm the only candidate. He made that point.

And he has not. He has not touched Social Security. He's cutting SSI, Social Security — the Supplemental Social Security, for people who are disabled and elderly, but he's not cutting Social Security payments to the elderly. He's not means-testing it in any way, and nor is he touching Medicare.

But Medicaid, having promised not to, he is. He is, in fact. It's almost — cutting Medicaid, proposed to cut it in half, the spending. Federal spending would be cut in half. And the food stamps will be cut by one-quarter.

And I don't know how you justify this when, in the same week, Hari, the Congressional Budget Office, the Republican selected chief economist, but very respected nonpartisan, says 23 million people are going to lose the health coverage insurance that they already have under the Republican-passed plan.

I will say this unequivocally. Tonight, three weeks after the House passed that health care bill, there is not a single member of the House who regrets having voted against it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What about members of the Senate? What do they do going forward?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, well, they're going to have trouble.

First, it was kind of surprising they went through all the change of rewriting the thing, and they basically got the same CBO number as they got last time. And I can't believe — I couldn't believe they got so many House people to vote for this thing, because it's going to be a killer issue for a lot of people.

In the Senate, they're doing everything in secret right now.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And so we don't exactly know what's happening. They're talking with each other. But we do know they're divided almost down the middle on some of the Medicaid cuts, on some oft other issues, on some of the preexisting conditions. And passage in the Senate, you wouldn't want to bet on that, not by a long shot.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And whatever gets through the Senate, there's a good chance it wouldn't get passed in the House.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. It wouldn't get passed.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. I think that, in order to make it acceptable — the pledge to repeal Obamacare was great as a political rallying cry. It's terrible policy. And it's not — it won't pass.

DAVID BROOKS: But they could — if they could get — they could have another way to give people health insurance through health savings accounts and tax credits and things like that, if they guaranteed the same level of coverage that Obama is doing.

And I think that would be a completely legitimate approach. Maybe introduce some more competition into the system. That is not what they're doing.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, lastly, in the last two minutes we have here, a new member of the House of — Republicans — during a special election in Montana, Greg Gianforte beats his opponents, but body-slams a reporter on the way to getting there.

What does this say about — you know, and the thing that I heard this morning on NPR is, one of the reporters was talking to some of his supporters, saying, you know what, that guy had it coming.

I mean, the extent of hostility toward the press and how it's manifesting itself in different ways in the past couple of months.

MARK SHIELDS: I don't think there is any question. I think it was legitimized in part by President Trump's campaign, which included this and sort of rhetorical excesses and singling out members of the press.

But Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, who was the pollster for the Contract With America, Newt Gingrich, said, if you check the party affiliation of someone who commits assault before deciding how you feel about it, you're what's wrong with America.

And that's really what it's become. I think the seminal moment in contemporary American politics was when President Obama was addressing the joint session of Congress on health care, and Joe Wilson of South Carolina stood up and said, "You lie," unprecedented in its rudeness and boorishness, and he raised a million dollars in the next week in funds.

And I think that polarization was rewarded.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

I would say two things are true. The climate of ugliness is no doubt ratcheting up and giving some permission to this. In this case, I'm willing to give the guy a break. He did apologize. And he could have just lost his temper. We will see what his career is like.

But I'm willing to — if a leader is at least willing to apologize, that's frankly a step up from what we have seen on the presidential level.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, New York Times columnist David Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Hari.

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