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Brooks and Capehart on Mueller’s statement, Trump and McCain feud

The New York Times columnist David Brooks and The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart join Amna Nawaz to discuss the week's political news, including special counsel Robert Mueller’s public statement, what Democrats should do about impeachment, why President Trump is so bothered by the late Sen. John McCain and new details about Republican strategy for redrawing congressional districts.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Robert Mueller breaks his silence, John McCain's name is hidden from the president and newly discovered hard drives reveal a Republican plan to change the census. It was a busy week.

    Thankfully, we have the analysis of Brooks and Capehart. That's New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post opinion writer Jonathan Capehart.

    And welcome to both.

    David, Robert Mueller broke his silence. We have finally heard from him.

    I want to ask you, though, because the conversation about impeachment continued on the Democratic side.

    NBC's been updating their list, right, of how many Democrats, how many members of the House are actually supporting an impeachment inquiry. It's at 53 last time I checked.

    Last week, you said Speaker Pelosi was right to slow-walk the process. Do you still believe that, based on what we heard this week?

  • David Brooks:

    A whole week later, I still believe that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    OK.

  • David Brooks:

    Mostly because I think Democrats have a reasonably attractive presidential field.

    And if they spend their entire early election season fighting impeachment, they will detract away from that and give Donald Trump the fight he wants with Congress. And Nancy Pelosi said she's waiting to build an intractable case, so even Republicans will have to come over.

    Republican support for Donald Trump is now at its high. And the more they go to impeachment, the more solid that support will be. And so there's no there there. There's no way to get Republican votes in the Senate.

    And so you can have the impeachment hearings, and maybe it'd be a good idea for — just for rule of law, but it's not going to go anywhere.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me play a couple quick sound bites, because, for anyone who missed it, there were a couple of key moments from both Robert Mueller and Attorney General Barr that we heard.

    Just take a quick listen to what they had to say this week.

  • Robert Mueller:

    If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so. We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.

  • William Barr:

    He could have reached a conclusion.

    The opinion says you can't indict a president while he's in office, but he could have reached a decision as to whether it was criminal activity.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jonathan, you wrote in your column this week, "Mueller just made life more difficult for Trump and Democrats."

    Why?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Well, more difficult for President Trump because, if, say, special counsel Mueller does go to the Hill and does testify and only says what's in the report, just that quote that you had there from the special counsel, Mueller, alone is damaging.

    And if he reads what is further down in the report, page two of volume two of the Mueller report, if you have it at home, it goes on to say that we have a lot of stuff here, but because of the OLC memo, we didn't even broach the subject of whether the president committed a crime. We're not even going to go there, because, if we — if we charge him, and yet we can't bring him to trial, we can't indict a sitting president, well, it's unfair to the president, because you charge him with a crime, but then he doesn't have an avenue, a venue to defend himself, to clear his name.

    And so that's why the OLC memo says you can't indict him while he's a sitting president, but you can do it once he's out of office, because then he has the possibility to defend himself.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And yet we have heard Speaker Pelosi say she wants an ironclad case before moving forward. Is that an unreasonable goal?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    I don't think it's unreasonable. And I think I'm with David on this.

    Most people have not read the Mueller report. Most people will never read the Mueller report. In order for them to know what is actually in it, the Democrats, whether through the committee process or through the beginning of an impeachment inquiry, they will have to learn it by having witnesses come up and testify, having special counsel Mueller come up and testify.

    And, again, if he only reads what's in the report, it will be news to the American people. And the American people have to be brought along in this process, so that they're not blindsided and think that Congress is just doing something to hammer at the president, instead of, to David's point, standing up for the rule of law in this country.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    David, do you think hearing from Mueller and Barr this week changed anything?

  • David Brooks:

    I think it did, in that, as Jonathan said, a lot of people have erroneous views of what's in the report. And a lot of Republicans do too.

    And I'm reminded of that old phrase, I can tell it to you, but I can't listen it for you.

    (LAUGHTER)

    And so we have been talking about what's in the report, but a lot of people just don't know. And, frankly, not all of America watches the "NewsHour" and not all of America reads newspapers.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's shocking to me.

  • David Brooks:

    It is shocking and sad.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's shocking to me.

  • David Brooks:

    And so, when he gets up on TV, and he actually gives a voice, it reaches a broader audience. Whether any minds are going to be changed if they go through the process that Jonathan describes, well, it would go against the last couple years of political history, where no minds have been changed by anything.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I want to ask you about something else that happened this week. It was — President Trump was overseas.

    There was a report, right? Navy officials confirmed that the White House staff had actually requested military officials keep hidden the USS McCain while President Trump was there visiting troops in the Japanese port.

    The president said, look, he knew nothing about it, but he also said it was well-meaning if someone had put forward that request. That there is a picture of the McCain, and there is President Trump visiting with those troops.

    David, there are a lot of concerns being voiced by a lot of people about the politicization of the military. Do you see those concerns?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, would it really give Donald Trump — like, trigger him if he saw the name John McCain on the back? I have trouble believing this.

    But it says something about the White House culture. I believe Donald Trump probably didn't know. But the staffers, it shows how they behave. In most White Houses, the White House staff are in love with the president. Imagine the best crush you ever had in high school. That's how they feel about the president.

    And they react, and they want to get his — right now his love. But, here, it's fear. It's, I don't want to do anything that will upset this volatile man at the top.

    And so some staffer said, oh, I don't want to create a negative, so we will just sweep the McCain thing out of the way.

    And so it's — it's a description of what the White House culture is like, which is driven by fear of his tweets and his angry reactions, more than the desire to actually serve anything positive.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You think they're acting preemptively to stop something from happening?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I don't want to get on the bad side of the boss.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What did you think about that, Jonathan?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    I thought it was small, petty, and shameful, and utterly predictable.

    But what we have here is a well — the president, in his own words, said — well, it was, whoever did this was well-meaning.

    And what you have here is an administration and a president who is triggered by a war hero, a former prisoner of war, the 2008 nominee of the Republican Party for president, an elder statesman up until his dying day.

    And even after his passing, the president still cannot resist taking a dig at Senator McCain. Whether he knew about the covering up of the name on the ship and stuff is beside the point. When he was asked the question before getting on Marine One, even then, he couldn't resist hammering the late Senator McCain for casting the deciding vote that maintained Obamacare.

    This speaks to — speaks to the culture of the White House, but speaks to a larger issue about the man sitting in the Oval Office.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    David, it's worth mentioning that used to be sacred space, right? You wouldn't impugn the memory of a former senator, former POW.

    And yet, as Jonathan mentioned, he said, I'm not a fan of McCain, he killed health care for Republicans, when he was asked about this.

    Is that sacred space now gone?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, we have had a lot of sacred spaces. It's a very small little island of sacredity, if that's a word.

    He's — McCain has always gotten under his skin, for apparent reasons. We could imagine what are they are, the manliness, the guy who actually did serve.

    And Trump has sort of machismo vs. machismo. And John McCain, who I knew pretty well, was definitely a macho man, and a genuine macho man who lived it out in pursuit of honor. And so that — it would be natural that he would get under Trump's skin.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I want to ask you guys about another story that caught some attention this week. We don't often get to talk about the census here, but I welcome the opportunity.

    There was a man named Thomas Hofeller. He passed away last summer. His daughter discovered a bunch of hard drives that he had left behind that basically revealed he played a key role in what's now a major legal question before the Supreme Court, right, whether or not to add a question about citizenship to the census.

    And this man, of course, was considered sort of an architect of gerrymandering, right, was very, very good at drawing those district lines to Republicans' advantage.

    When you heard that story, Jonathan, what did you think?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Well when it comes to this particular story, it's one of those things where, especially if you're a person of color, it's like, we know this is happening, but we don't have the — we don't have the evidence.

    Or you will hear the errant comment from a legislator, like the one in Pennsylvania a few years back, who said, we have done this so that we can deliver Pennsylvania to Mitt Romney, who was the 2012 presidential — Republican presidential nominee.

    But what was on those hard drives was like in — it's in writing. Like, we can see with our own eyes — or at least the late Mr.s Hofeller saw with her own eyes what her father planned and how those plans went from his mind into Justice Department legal briefings.

    And now the Supreme Court is going to make some sort of decision on these very questions.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There was some specific language, I want to point out for anyone who wasn't following along with the details, because a lot in there, but, basically, Hofeller had said, if we want to redraw the lines to really work to Republicans' advantage, we have to draw them around voting age citizens.

    We don't have that data, so we need to add a question to the census to get that data to redraw the lines.

    It's — there's a straight line there. Did that surprise you?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, well, not really. But, as we said, we — we just didn't know it was there.

    My first reaction was, if you have an estranged daughter, delete your hard drives if you get really sick, because she like — she released them.

    But the second thing is the gradual erosion between two sets of institutions in our public life.

    Sometimes, some things are the things we fight over the issues, but some things are just the rules of the game that make it fair. So it's like, in baseball, we hit doubles or we hit singles, but we try not to move the strike zone from batter to batter.

    And what's happened here is that that distinction has been erased. And we try to — the rules that make it fair are now fair game for us to manipulate in order to help our own side.

    And that's happened in the Senate, in the Senate rules, and it's happened in these case of drawing the lines. And what's striking is the shamelessness of it. And that's always a dark underbelly of Washington. There are always a group of people. I remember Jack Abramoff, who was here. You remember those scandals?

    There's a level of — some people crash through all moral standards, and whatever we can get away with is what we're going to get away with. And there's sort of a boyish delight in that.

    And you almost saw that, that we're — like, the thought that I'm doing something wrong here didn't even seem to be in the parts of the reporting that I wrote about those papers — I read about those papers.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's worth noting we don't often get to talk about the census, because it only comes around every 10 years.

    But just to remind people what is at stake and why this one question matters so much, just kind of fill in that context for us, Jonathan. Why is this such an important thing?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Well, it boils down to resources.

    If — by knowing how many people there are in the country, there are people at the federal level, the state level and the local level who turn to census data to determine, how many people live in my community, in my district, in my jurisdiction, and how much — how much money will I need? How many people will I need to help or defend?

    So, the fact that they're trying to narrow who gets to partake in the census or — not narrow, because it's not narrowing who partakes in the census. But by putting a citizenship question on the census, the impact of that might be to scare away people from participating, which will then skew the results.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Right.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    You could, say, a town of 100,000 people, but if you put the citizenship question on the census, you could scare away maybe a quarter of those people.

    And that skews the visibility of legislators, public officials to helping their communities.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    David, less than a minute left, but whoever thought the census could be a controversial political matter, right?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes. Well, it always is, though, because it determines where the dollars go. And so it's always been controversial.

    And, to be honest, when I first read about the idea of asking a citizenship question, it doesn't seem like a ridiculous question, just in the abstract. Like, we ask that question when we go into — leave the country.

    But the fact that the question has never been asked on the census seems to be pretty persuasive that they don't need to do it. And just switching that would jar the results from all the census data we have had over the last X-number of years.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That will be a case to watch, for sure.

    David Brooks, Jonathan Capehart, thanks so much for being here.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Thank you.

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