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Brooks and Klein on 2018 election security threats, Koch-Trump brawl

New York Times columnist David Brooks and Ezra Klein of Vox join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including the contrast between President Trump’s lambasting of the Russia investigation and his administration’s heightened warnings about election threats, plus a fringe internet conspiracy theory surfaces at a Trump rally and the rift between Trump and the influential Koch network.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now back to presidential politics and the rally President Trump attended last night in Northeastern Pennsylvania to boost Republican Congressman Lou Barletta's run for the U.S. Senate.

    The president's freewheeling remarks included his characterization about his summit last month with Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I had a great meeting with Putin. We discussed everything. I had a great meeting.

    Now, we're being hindered by the Russian hoax. It's a hoax, OK? I will tell you what. Russia's very unhappy that Trump won. That, I can tell you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Of course, Putin said in Helsinki last month that he favored Mr. Trump's election. And U.S. intelligence officials have said repeatedly that Russia's efforts in 2016 were intended to help Mr. Trump and hurt the campaign of Hillary Clinton.

    The president's remarks last night also stood in contrast to this warning from his own director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, yesterday in the White House Briefing Room.

  • Dan Coats:

    In regards to Russian involvement in the midterm elections, we continue to see a pervasive messaging — messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States.

    These efforts are not exclusive to this election or future elections, but certainly cover issues relevant to the election.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that brings us to the analysis of Brooks and Klein. That's New York Times columnist David Brooks and Ezra Klein, editor-at-large for the news site Vox.com. And Mark Shields is away this week.

    Hello to both of you.

    David, to you first.

    So, on the same day that his leading national security and intelligence officials are saying, we must take this Russia threat seriously, the president is out a few hours later saying, it's all a hoax.

    Do we take this government effort seriously or not?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, the head of the opposition now uses the White House Briefing Room to oppose the administration policy. I have never seen anything like it.

    I have never seen an administration where a president says one thing or emphasizes one thing, and his entire staff basically emphasizes the complete opposite.

    And so what's the effect? I think the deep state is still doing its work to try to head off Russian interference. The Trump apparatus understands there is that interference, and they can do some prophylactic measures to try to head it off, which is what they seem to be doing.

    But unless you have the president involved, it's going to be microactivity, not macroactivity. And so it's hard to imagine the Russians, let alone Putin, being at all intimidated by U.S. policy.

    And so it's reasonable to expect that interference will continue, as it seems to be continuing to this day.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ezra, do we take seriously that the Trump administration is working diligently to fend off any Russian interference this year?

  • Ezra Klein:

    No, of course not.

    I'm fascinated by the kind of lying Donald Trump did in that clip. It's one thing to say, hey, I had a great meeting with Vladimir Putin and the problem is, the opposition, they don't want us to talk, right?

    It's one thing to shave the truth, or it's another thing to try to say, hey, look, people are just impeding me, and they're wrong about it.

    But to then go and say, I will tell you what, Russia never wanted Donald Trump to win, Russia hates the idea that Donald Trump won, there's something about his belief that reality can be that completely manipulated that I find different. It's different than the way politicians normally lie.

    It's a different level of confidence in one's ability to shape reality. But then, on the other side, to your point, of course Vladimir Putin doesn't think this would be a problem to do again, because it's clear Donald Trump on some level welcomed it.

    Putin helped him when he needed help. He's tried ever since have a great relationship with Vladimir Putin. And it's just not credible to say that, if more Russian efforts are uncovered in the future in American politics, that, as long as Donald Trump is in office, that that will redound to Putin's disadvantage.

  • David Brooks:

    There's one issue of how Republican Party foreign policy has changed.

    And so Donald Trump said, I had a great meeting with Vladimir Putin, one of the most anti-democratic, anti-American dictators in the world today, and a Republican rally cheers. And that's just a weird, jarring moment.

    But then, in Congress, within the Trump administration themselves, and among even John Bolton, the foreign policy apparatus of the Republican Party is still pretty much where it was.

    And so which is the future of the party? Is it a party that looks a lot more like Donald Trump in the foreign policy realm? Or is it one that looks like the rest of his administration? I don't know. But I suspect it's a little more like Trump.

  • Ezra Klein:

    There's another thing on that side I think is interesting, and it's a flip of what you just said.

    The Democratic Party is so angry at Russia that the stakes for Putin in the election get that much higher. If Trump wins in 2020, he retains an ally. If he loses, then he's got a Democratic Party that has spent four years blaming him personally for everything that they believe has gone wrong in the country.

    And so when you're thinking about Russian engagement in the 2012 election, I feel like that's a dimension of this too, that the parties have polarized on how they treat Russia in a way that has made the incentives for Russia to try to keep their ally in and their enemies out all the higher.

  • David Brooks:

    Rabid anti-communist Democrats now.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, before we get to 2020, Ezra, you were just talking about manipulating reality.

    David, you mentioned the deep state.

    At the Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania rally last night, and then at a rally earlier in the week in Tampa, Florida, there were in the crowd fans cheering wildly the president, people wearing T-shirts QAnon or holding up the letter Q.

    And we have looked into this. We interviewed our reporter P.J. Tobia this week, who explains it's this conspiracy theory. It's grown. It's been out there for months. But it's now at the point where it's come out into the open. Essentially, what they believe is, there's a group of people supported by the Clintons, by President Obama, even by President George W. Bush, who are trying to overthrow this president, and they're going to stop that from happening.

    How did we get to this place?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    Well, I used to say, we tried to bring democracy to the Middle East, and we ended up Middle Easternizing our democracy, because we now have become a realm of suspicion and conspiracy theories.

    Remember the alleged child pornography ring that was happening in a pizzeria on Connecticut Avenue here in D.C.? These things come and go. The John Birch Society back in the '50s, they were filled with conspiracy theories. These things come and go.

    The question is, is there a William F. Buckley, is there a Ronald Reagan, is there a Democratic establishment that can quash them? And now it's quite the opposite.

    And so what's happened is, the mainstream — a lot of us mainstream journalists have become delegitimized in the eyes of a lot of Trump supporters, sometimes for our own fault. We — if — it turns out if you don't hire from large segments of American society, you becomes attached from them, and they write you off. And a lot of that's happened.

    But then the fans have been — the fires have been fan by Trump himself. And, basically, what seems to be happening is a complete inversion of where information comes from. And the those of us in the mainstream media who used to provide information are now discounted in large sections.

    And this new thing has arisen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How worried should we be about all that, Ezra?

  • Ezra Klein:

    About the…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do we take it — do we take it seriously? I mean, I'm asking the same question, in a way.

  • Ezra Klein:

    The QAnon conspiracy itself, which is — which is a fascinating conspiracy, right — the argument of the QAnon conspiracy is it Donald Trump, on some level, has this all in hand, that we're seeing a lot of chaos, but the chaos is all carefully orchestrated, and that, at some point, there's going to be this big reveal, and Donald Trump and the people he's working with are going to come out and basically root out all the corruption that has been endemic in Washington for so long.

    There's comfort in believing something like this.

    It is hard for me to tell if QAnon is a more profound or wide-reaching conspiracy theory than the ones we have had in the past. I mean, I think back, even in the Clinton years, to the widespread belief that the Clintons killed Vince Foster, that they were running cocaine out of Arkansas.

    I mean, this kind of thing in American politics is not new. It does have a lot of salience in social media. It's a kind of thing that we cover more aggressively nowadays than we used to.

    The thing that I do find strange about it is, I tend to associate this kind of conspiracy theorizing with the folks who are out of power. That's when you tend to see this stuff take hold.

    But Donald Trump and a lot of his supporters act like an out-of-power group, despite being in power. There's this talk of the deep state. There's as an alienation from a government that they actually have to some degree authority over. And that's a weird piece of it that could lead it to go in unusual directions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But it's thriving under a president who's in office, David.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, the underlying feature is social distrust, tremendous distrust of institution, dismissal of any institution, so an assumption that every institution, whether it's a hospital, a newspaper, they're all corrupt, they're all in it for themselves. It's all a con on the American people.

    And once you embrace that as your fundamental truth, this is sort of what happens.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, another thing we saw this week, I guess this has been brewing for some time, was the conservative libertarian Koch brothers, billionaire businesspeople who have invested a lot of their money in supporting candidates they believe in, David.

    They were quoted in a Washington Post story as being critical of the president, saying the government is spending too much, critical of his trade policy and so on.

    The president responded not gently, said, "The Kochs," he said, "and their allies have become a total joke in real Republican circles. I don't need their money or bad ideas. I have beaten them at every turn."

    Is this a fight to the finish? The president says they don't matter. Do they matter still?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, I think money matters a little, so I guess they still matter.

    They were never, like, partisan Republican hacks. They were — they had a belief system, which was a more libertarian-leaning belief system. And if you were with them, fine. But if you were an organized standard Republican, that wasn't fine with them.

    And so they were part — there were two ways the Republican rejection of the Republican establishment could go. It could go in the Koch direction, which was a more libertarian direction. But it didn't. It went in the Trump direction.

    And he was more in touch with people's views about entitlement programs, about the role of the state. And so I think it's very clearly that the libertarian moment that seemed — always seemed burbling ever since Newt Gingrich and even John Kasich back in the day, Dick Armey, that was a moment that has not grown.

    And so this, in fact, not just a fight between a couple of rich people. This is really a philosophical dispute between a populist-leaning party and a much more libertarian one.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's fascinating. They're going after spending in this administration. We have been reporting this week about the deficit climbing and climbing. The government's now having to borrow money to pay for what it what it wants to do.

  • Ezra Klein:

    It's interesting the way that these groups are fighting.

    So, on the one hand, Donald Trump has given the Kochs a lot of what they want, not everything, but there are a lot of places where there have been convergences. Mike Pence is a very close Koch ally. A lot of folks in the Trump administration, because Pence had a lot of authority over staffing, have come from that world.

    And there a lot of things the Trump administration has done on deregulation, on taxes that they have been quite happy with. But then there are parts where Trump has more idiosyncratic personal views, and they have not been.

    The spending thing is fascinating, though, because it's not just Donald Trump. Donald Trump doesn't have authority over spending. Paul Ryan has been pushing those bills forward, and Mitch McConnell's been pushing those bills forward.

    So to the extent that they're upset of over more than just free trade, they're also upset with Republicans in Congress. But there's a way that it gets identified and personified in Donald Trump that strikes me as a little bit convenient. They don't really want to be at cross-purposes with people they otherwise like, but it's not Donald Trump making all these spending decisions.

  • David Brooks:

    There's one area where I agree with Trump, and that's on how you win elections.

    The Koch method is, you pour billions of dollars into different congressional races. Their record is terrible. They do well when Republicans do well. They do terribly in years when Republicans do terribly.

    There's not a lot of evidence that their method is really a great method for winning elections. Donald Trump, just strong message and a guy with a Facebook and a Twitter account.

    And so it's not the big structure. It's not the big money. I would say, in a media age like we're in now, actually, the Trump way of winning elections is a better way than the Koch way.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I do want to spend a minute-and-a-half that we have left talking about a Democrat.

    And it's former President Obama, Ezra, who came out a couple of days ago with, what, 81 Democrats running for office across the country, mostly congressional offices, some state seats, saying, these are some people I would like to support.

    What does this say to you? Is it going to have an impact this year?

  • Ezra Klein:

    I can't quite make all that much sense of it.

    It wasn't a vast enough set of endorsements to be pushing a particular message in through — in through the election. It's not like the way Bernie Sanders is going around endorsing people who support Medicare for all or Seth Moulton is endorsing former — is endorsing veterans.

    So it's a lot of folks who are basically mainstream Democrats, not people who have former ties to the Obama administration. It's engagement for Obama, but it isn't the level of party leadership or party redirection that some people have wanted from him.

    And so it ends up where I think a lot of Obama's political engagement does now, which is between the people who don't want him involved at all and the people who want him to be take a leadership role in the Democratic Party.

    It seemed basically pretty standard.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Excuse me.

    He just issued a paper statement, David.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, what struck me was how many local places he — I think he feels that the Democrats tend to focus national and not enough local, and they have done poorly locally as a result.

    Redistricting will be coming up before too long. And I think he wants the party be focusing on that. So I think he's trying to do something he didn't do a great deal of when he was president, which was to rebuild the local Democratic Party.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, a lot of people have been waiting to see what he's going to do. He says there are more he's going to endorse. We will see.

    All right, thank you both, David Brooks, Ezra Klein. Thank you.

  • Ezra Klein:

    Thank you.

  • David Brooks:

    Thank you.

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