Shields and Gerson on refugee crisis responsibility, Trump’s GOP pledge

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that's the cue to turn to the analysis of Shields and Gerson. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. David Brooks is away.

Welcome, gentlemen.

So we have just been listening to a little bit of the politics of the week, Mark. Hillary Clinton, important interview she had today, a lot of questions about the e-mail server. She said that she wished she had done it differently. She said it wasn't the best decision.

What do you make of that? I mean, does she — has she put this behind her in any significant way, this issue?

MARK SHIELDS: No. I mean, she was apologetic. She was contrite, I think it's fair to say. And it was an interview with Andrea Mitchell, who is not only a respected journalist, but who has covered Mrs. Clinton and Washington very well for a quarter-century. So there weren't going to be any curveballs thrown the interviewer's way.

I think this, Judy. First of all, it's in the FBI's hands now. And we're going to continue to have the e-mails released a month at a time. This story is still with us, and it will remain with us. It will be part of the run-up to Iowa.

The one question that strikes me, as I listened to her today, is every president needs — and very few have — that one person who can say, no, stop, you're making a fool of yourself, you're doing the wrong thing.

Bryce Harlow, who was the wisest — one of the wisest men I ever knew in Washington, counselor to President Eisenhower, President Ford, President Nixon, said, everybody, I don't care how powerful they are, a CEO, chairman of a committee, president of a university, when they walk into the Oval Office, they're ready to tell the president what to do, and they say, Mr. President, you're doing a wonderful job. Our prayers are with you.

And she is not the only person, but she needed someone to say, no, you can't do this. And the question is, does she have someone now?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in fact, Michael Gerson, I heard Andrea Mitchell ask her. She said, was there somebody on your staff who said this is a bad idea? And she talked about how they — she didn't think, she said, when she did this.

MICHAEL GERSON: Yes. As far as I could tell, the main answer she gave was, oops. She didn't really think of it at the time. That's really her argument here.

It strains plausibility for people who have been in government that know how much emphasis is put on record-keeping and secure communications when you're at high levels in the executive branch. It's just a big deal, you know, the federal acts that relate to records.

So it doesn't have the ring of truth in that case. She's also well behind this story. We found this week that the FBI was — is now investigating possible security breaches with like the Russians and Chinese with her account.

We learned that we — that her — she has an aide taking the Fifth Amendment. And we learned there are at least six e-mails that she sent that have classified information in them. I mean, these are serious things, cumulative things that she has not provided a very good answer on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Mark, at the same time, Hillary Clinton, the people around her have been saying, you're making a mountain out of a molehill, there was nothing nefarious going on here, anything that was classified was made classified later.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. No, that is their defense and their position. And it's tough to argue with. And the example cited of her trying to get a speech given by Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, publicly that could not be sent because it was classified gave you somewhat of an indication of how overly-classifying the intelligence area — agency is.

I will say this about Secretary Clinton today. Her answer to Andrea on Joe Biden was pitch-perfect. I mean, it was human, it was natural, it was very personal in the best sense. And it didn't have any political angle to it that I could detect.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, she asked her, do you have a comment about the fact that he's considering running?

MARK SHIELDS: Right. Oh, I'm sorry. Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And she said, it's not for me to say. And then she went on to say, he needs the space to think about it, right?

MARK SHIELDS: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael, we ran a clip of what the vice president said last night at that speech at the synagogue in Atlanta.

Do you think get the sense that he's leaning away? He clearly didn't sound like he is there yet.

MICHAEL GERSON: I get the sense that you're seeing that process in public, exactly what he's thinking about this. It's one of his appeals, is this transparency.

And this is a family that underwent a terrible trauma three months ago, that, you know, a trauma like that can strengthen a family, but it also can be a difficult time. And a presidential campaign brings minute and massive scrutiny.

And so I think that is a real issue. But he could come in here. He doesn't fit an ideological gap. He's very much like Clinton in a lot of his views. There is no ideological gap he would fill. But there is a kind of ethical gap that he might fill.

The worst thing that's come out of the e-mail situation for Hillary Clinton is one of these polls recently about what are the top three words you think of when you think of a candidate, and it was liar, dishonest, untrustworthy. Those are serious issues that come out of the e-mail situation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And she was asked about that today, again, Mark, by Andrea Mitchell. And she said, our campaign goes on and I don't worry about that and we feel good.

MARK SHIELDS: No. Yes, it hasn't been a great six months since Hillary Clinton entered the race. She still is the front-runner, still is the favorite and is still obviously quite formidable.

On Joe Biden, his greatest virtue may be also his occasional vice. And that is that total lack of artifice to him. I mean, he was just being — I think he was being totally frank with that audience last night in Atlanta. I think he's saying — Judy, with the possible exception of asking someone to be your life partner, the most personal decision anybody makes is the decision to run for president.

It is a difficult, painful — and he knows from personal experience it can be heartbreaking.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're asking your family to be part of the journey with you.

MARK SHIELDS: And you're asking your family. Do I want to do this? And I have got a wonderful reputation at this point. And after eight years as vice president, do I want to risk it all and — all of that. I mean, it's really difficult.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's turn quickly to the other party.

Michael, Donald Trump yesterday did what he said earlier he wasn't going to do. He met with the head of the Republican Party and he said he signed the pledge. He held it up for everybody to see and said he pledges he will not run as an independent or third-party candidate if he doesn't get the Republican nomination.

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think the image of the head of the RNC making the pilgrimage to the Trump Tower in order to get some assurances is exactly what he wants.

He looks in control. This is the man who wrote "The Art of the Deal." He has really taken the RNC to the cleaners on this and has done a very good deal, because he now has gotten what he wanted. And his — the pledge he has made is less than useless. He can just come and say, the Republicans violated their part of the deal, I was treated unfairly. He builds his case.

There is nothing to prevent this. This is a man who has changed some of his most fundamental political views over the last few years in order to shift. This is not going to be an obstacle for his ambitions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you see going on with…

MARK SHIELDS: I couldn't say it — I couldn't say it better. I think the idea that the chairman of the Republican Party and the states requested that he to this in order to run in those states, they're changing their own rules, but comes to him, Reince Priebus did, and became almost a prop for Donald Trump to do his declamation and take shots at the other candidates.

And the chairman had to stand there and do it, take it in all the time. I just think this fuels the fire of Mr. Trump's lack of humility.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I gather Priebus met with him and then left before the news conference.

But I guess my question, Mark, is, does this change the race in some way? Does this change the Republican equation? What do we think, Michael, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, Judy, the question is — obviously, Jeb Bush and others are taking him on.

And the question becomes, what happens on the 16th of September when they have their next debate? And you will recall, just four years ago — I'm sure Michael does — Tim Pawlenty, the governor of Minnesota, was a very formidable candidate, and he went on television on a Sunday and talked about Obama-Romneycare, Obamneycare.

The Affordable Care Act had been based on Mitt Romney's. And 24 hours later in the debate, when asked about it, he wouldn't say it. And his campaign just evaporated.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He wouldn't criticize — wouldn't criticize…

MARK SHIELDS: Wouldn't repeat what he had said 24 hours earlier.

So this is the test. It's one thing to say when he's 1,000 miles away. Will they say it to him on the stage?

MICHAEL GERSON: And then also an interesting test for Jeb Bush, too. Will he repeat the criticisms he's making to Trump's face?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. Yes.

MICHAEL GERSON: And they have been stuff. They have been that he's not a consistent conservative, but also that he's using racial dog whistles.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. That's right.

MICHAEL GERSON: Jeb Bush has made this case. Will he press that case in the debate? That will be fascinating.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to turn you all back to this terrible humanitarian crisis we're seeing over the refugees in Europe.

We have seen the pictures which just tear at your heart, the one we showed, and again on the program tonight, the little 3-year-old boy, Mark, a Syrian child whose parents were trying to get him out of there and into Europe.

How are we think about where responsibility lies in all this? I mean, is it — where should we be looking? I mean, there is some disagreement. We heard tonight Hungary is providing buses now, but a lot of these refugees want to go to Germany, they want to go to France. Who should be stepping up right now?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, you know, I think Angela Merkel is probably the exemplar at this point.

I mean, Germany is the size of Montana, slightly smaller than Montana. They have pledged to take 800,000. If they take 800,000, that's the equivalent of the United States taking 3.2 million refugees. Now, you could say, yes, Europe is aging. It needs young, vibrant, hardworking people. These refugees are obviously overwhelmingly that.

They're young and dedicated and energetic and ambitious. But, you know, Judy, I don't — I am surprised it has not become an issue in this campaign. Now, given the Republicans' position…

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean, that — about whether they should come to the United…

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, what if the United States — I mean, these are refugees from Afghanistan, from Syria, from Libya, not totally divorced from the United States policy and presence and invasion and military actions in the Middle East.

What do we have? We have taken 1,800 Syrian refugees over the last four years in this country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right. I heard Trump asked about it this morning, and he said it was something that the U.S. would — might have to consider doing.

But, Michael, where should — where do we look at a time like this?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, when you look for responsibility, you have to look for — to President Assad, who destroyed his own country…

MARK SHIELDS: I agree.

MICHAEL GERSON: … through his own arrogance and brutality, and then ISIS, which has, you know, taken root in the ruins.

But we have also had four years of American policy that's not been very active when it comes to Syria. We had a number of American officials, including Hillary Clinton, David Petraeus, Leon Panetta, John Kerry, who proposed more strenuous action to strengthen proxies that would — to try to push for a peace agreement, and to try to undermine the capacities of the regime to perform mass atrocities.

And those — the advice from those people wasn't taken again and again. And we're seeing some of the results of relative inaction, I think.

MARK SHIELDS: I would just say, without getting into an argument with Michael, it's 15 years now of United States policy there. We did, in fact, topple the most formidable adversary that Iran had, and we left in our wake…

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Saddam Hussein.

MARK SHIELDS: In Saddam Hussein.

We left in our wake a nonfunctioning government, a Shia government which showed no respect for rights of the Sunnis. And out of that grew ISIS. And ISIS is not just a — didn't come from the bow of any Greek god. This is a direct consequence.

I think that there was no — there is no will in this country right now for military intervention. I think that has been killed. I can listen to Dick Cheney and read his books from now until the cows come home, but there is no — there is no — not even a third of the Congress who would vote to send in military action, and you would only do limited accomplishments with airstrikes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the debate goes on. And I think we can guarantee we're going to hear more about it as this campaign continues.

Mark Shields, Michael Gerson, we thank you both. And have a good Labor Day weekend.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.