Shields and Ponnuru on the 'dark cloud' of Russian cyberattacks


JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to the analysis of Shields and Ponnuru. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Ramesh Ponnuru of "The National Review." David Brooks is away.

Welcome to both of you.

Let's start out, Mark, by talking about this back and forth. Every day, there's a new piece of information about it did between what Donald Trump is saying about whether the Russians were involved in this hacking of the Democratic National Committee and what the CIA and now the FBI, President Obama weighed in today on this. What are we to make of all this?

MARK SHIELDS: I think what we're to make of it is, to me what's fascinating is not what Donald Trump is in no particular position to know, but what's most alarming to me is Donald Trump will become president of the United States, he won the election. This is not about who won the election. He will become the 45th president the 20th of January.

It is about whether the sovereignty and self-determination of the United States was compromised by an organized at the highest Russian levels, which means the imprimatur of Mr. Putin, espionage, sabotage of the American democratic system. And there is an office in this country that's higher than that of president and it's patriot, and John McCain is filling that right now, and John McCain is saying, these are questions that must be answered, that these are questions that demand an answer.

And the idea, as Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, says, sending it to the Intelligence Committee is a way of sending it to limbo because we had — we spent $40 million in five years in the Intelligence Committee investigating torture at Abu Ghraib, we have yet to get a report about it. That's a nice way of saying, oh, it's national security, we can' t talk about it. We will not get a 9/11 Commission. But I think John McCain and the Armed Services Committee with Jack Reed, the Democrat, with Lindsey Graham and others, and Tim Kaine in a pretty damn good committee, I think you will get an honest hearing and we need it.

The idea people are so concerned about a $500,000 contribution to the Clinton Foundation changing and influencing American policy somehow indirectly and incurious about Russia's involvement and sabotaging an American election is unforgivable to me and irrational.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ramesh, do you think this will be investigated thoroughly?

RAMESH PONNURU: I think this controversy is expanding in all directions. You're going to have an investigation. You're going to have a report from the administration.

During the a press conference, President Obama said there would be a report tying loose ends, tying it all together before he leaves office. And then you're going to have the hearings over the configuration of Trump secretary of state nominee, Rex Tillerson, where I believe the number one topic and probably number two topic as well is going to be the administration's intentions toward Russia.

Trump is going to be our third president in a row coming into office wanting friendly relations with Russia. But, of course, this incredible backdrop now is going to color everything.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Mark, getting to what both of you are saying, this does leave a cloud — a dark cloud hanging over the question of our democracy. I mean, if another nation, unfriendly, to put it I guess in the best terms, can come in and leak and get information and have it leaked at will, what does that say about our system of government?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, it says — no, I mean, it says that, A, we're vulnerable to such attacks and, B, that we're manipulated and could be manipulated by Russia. I mean, Russia, this is not a one-off for Russia. I mean, Russia's done it already in Germany and Italy and democracies in Western Europe and Eurasia.

I mean, and it's — and they're good at it. Let's be very blunt, it's not a major investment of time or money. It is of talent and skill, and they have been very good at it.

But, Judy, I mean, the question is — obviously, it's on everybody's mind — is why did they just reveal John Podesta's and the Democratic National Convention and Debbie Wasserman Schultz —


MARK SHIELDS: — and the Democratic campaigns, and only attempt, according to reports and the best evidence, to get into one Republican staffer's email who had long since left the committee? And if, in fact, they did have Republican — why that wasn't leaked? So, it does raise questions about where Putin's affections and loyalties lay in this election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ramesh, the president was very careful about the way he spoke about it today. He mentioned in his news conference, but a lot of people are just — are saying they're now convinced that the Russians, Vladimir Putin was trying to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump.

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, yes, that does seem to be the view, at least based on the latest reporting of the U.S. government.

I think, though, that one of the things that President Obama was trying to do is to not allow that to be the conversation that consumes the Democrats as they figure out what happened in this election. He also made a big point of talking about the mistakes the Democrats made, although was careful about that, too, since he didn't want to personally criticize Hillary Clinton.

If the Democrats obsess about the Russian role in this and they take their eye off the ball of some of the reforms they need to undertake themselves.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it does — again, as both of you were saying, the suggestion is if, indeed it is known, if they conclude at the end of the investigation the Russians were behind this, something is going to have to be done. President Obama said he told Vladimir Putin, Mark, to cut it out, but beyond that we don't know —

MARK SHIELDS: No, something has to be done, there's no question, and whether it's revealing Putin's own financial situation, his wheeling and dealing, embarrassing him, whatever form of retaliation.

I thought what was most interesting, Judy, was Donald Trump's official response which was an attack upon the CIA.

Now, Donald Trump has never spent time in Washington, so he's never been to Langley, Virginia, where the whole CIA headquarters. He would find on the wall of stars 113 names of American CIA operatives and employees who died defending this country.

And one of them, Hugh Redmond, was 19 years a prisoner in Shanghai where he was tortured by the Chinese communists. I should not get ahead of myself because Donald Trump doesn't like people who were captured. He likes people who weren't captured.

But, I mean — but these are patriots, these are people who work hard and no president coming in should ever disparage or demean or denigrate the heroic efforts these people go to, to keep us safe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ramesh, Mark mentioned Rex Tillerson who is the choice by Donald Trump to head the State Department. There are going to be these hearings, his confirmation hearings. What do you think is going to come out of that? Do you think he's going to sail through knowing what we know now about his close connections with Mr. Putin?

RAMESH PONNURU: My suspicion is he will not see this process as one of sailing through. I think there's going to be tough questioning. I do think he comes with some real advantages. I think the Republicans, who, of course, have a majority in the Senate, tend to think well of businessmen, successful businessmen which he certainly is. He's got the support of some leading Republican foreign policy establishment figures. Apparently, former Vice President Dick Cheney is making calls on his behalf.

But absolutely, there are going to be these questions about the Russia policy. I was saying how Trump will be the third president in a row coming in wanting friendly relations. It didn't work out for the previous two.

So, one has to ask whether this is an ambition that makes sense for our country right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What else about Mr. Tillerson, Mark, and then the other I guess prominent appointee this week is former Texas Governor Rick Perry to run the Energy Department. We're just about finished now filling out the Trump cabinet, at least those he's nominating, to take these positions.

Do you think we have a pretty good sense of where Donald Trump wants to take the country from looking at it?

MARK SHIELDS: I don't, Judy. I think Mr. Tillerson in all likelihood will be confirmed for all the reasons that Ramesh addressed. He's got a strong — Bob Gates recommended him. He's got Jim Baker and Condi Rice weighing in and it appears the Republican establishment is certainly. He doesn't need Dick Cheney's support now as much as the Gates-Rice-Baker backing.

But that aside, there is always a presumption in favor of a president and the cabinet because the president gets to choose the cabinet is. They don't last — unlike a judge who's appointed a life time, that this greatest group may attach to.

Rick Perry, irony of ironies, who can forget 2011 in Auburn Hills, Michigan, as every Republican does in a presidential debate talked about all the agencies he was going to get rid of them, you recall there was Education and there was Commerce and that third one — whoops — and it was Energy. But here he is and instead of getting rid of it — maybe he's going to get rid of it.

But the irony, the man who called Donald Trump a cancer on the conservative movement, who had to be excised, is now nominated by Donald Trump showing what a big person Donald Trump is to be his secretary of energy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The last thing I want to talk to you about is Syria, President Obama, Ramesh, was asked about this today. We see Aleppo, which is the rebel stronghold finally all but completely falling today to the Assad regime. President Obama says, yes, I take responsibility. I take responsibility for everything that happens on my watch, what — I mean, how do you read the Obama administration and the story of what's happened in Syria?

RAMESH PONNURU: I don't see how this is anything other than a black mark on the Obama administration's record. Of course, there is a temptation for Americans to think that everything that happens in the world is somehow, you know, our responsibility, our fault or our credit. But here we have a situation where the administration pursued a policy that by his own admission today was ineffective and where his continual, even now he wants to work with the United Nations while admitting the Russians are going to prevent the United Nations from doing anything.


MARK SHIELDS: The villains of the piece remain Assad himself, Putin, Iran, al Qaeda, and ISIS. I mean, you're talking about the death. But the failure of the United States to be able to lead any kind of movement, to save the humanitarian tragedy, to avoid and rescue the innocent suffering there is a failure, is a real failure.

I mean, it is — Aleppo will be in the same category as Dresden. It will be remembered as a humanitarian disaster. But the president gets responsibility, the Congress are the cowardly lions in this.

I mean, they talk a big game and none of them steps up. Very few. I mean, there was Jeff Flake and Tim Kaine who were willing to lead an authorization of military force, but the others talk a good game. And as far as the "no fly" zone, there wasn't the will to impose it, let's be honest, and there wasn't the leadership.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I was struck the president said today, every day, he thinks about, you know, what more he could have done and in particularly, I was struck by he spoke about the children who have died in Syria.

Well, it's great to have both of you here. Ramesh Ponnuru and Mark Shields, Friday night. Thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.



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