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Brooks and Klein on Trump’s ‘moral affront’ and the rule of law

It’s been a dramatic week for President Trump and some of his former associates. New York Times columnist David Brooks and Ezra Klein from Vox join Judy Woodruff to discuss the president's legal and moral standing, emerging patterns among the circle of Trump intimates, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the rule of law and the final episodes of 'great man' John McCain.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first to the analysis of Brooks and Klein.

    That is New York Times columnist David Brooks and Ezra Klein of Vox.com. Mark Shields is away.

    Hello to both of you.

    It's Friday. And I say this every week. What a week. But it really is what a week.

    David, this week, we saw the president's former campaign chairman, manager being found guilty of some very serious charges, a number of felonies. We saw the president's personal lawyer, former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleading guilty to a number of serious crimes.

    Where does this leave the president?

  • David Brooks:

    I think hurt.

    But the debate a lot of my friends are having, is this the unraveling moment? And I personally do not think it is. It may lead to the unraveling moment.

    But the Manafort conviction is on matters that were scarcely related to Donald Trump. The Cohen conviction is about a campaign finance law. I mean, to me, one of the things — weird things about our culture is, the president of the United States paid off two porn stars to keep them silent from an affair, and we're talking about campaign finance.

    To me, the moral affront is so gigantic. The legal affront seems to me less. And so I don't think that's the kind of — whether the — whether Michael Cohen fronted him some money to pay off the hush money, that doesn't strike me as the sort of thing that really alters a presidency.

    It does open up a lot of legal avenues. And as the prosecution grants people immunity, the thing about these special prosecutors is, you don't know where they're going. And so they may start out with Russia collusions, they may wind up with Stormy Daniels, and then they're off to the races.

    And so, assuming Donald Trump did something else in his life, it seems to me a lot more likely they're going to find that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Ezra, I mean, just the fact, though, that these two people who are — had such a prominent role for — working for the president in his campaign for presidency, the campaign, and then the person who was his personal — they called him fixer, lawyer, whatever you want to call it, somebody close to him, Michael Cohen.

  • Ezra Klein:

    Yes, it does seem like a tremendous coincidence that there was so much criminality and thuggish behavior all around Trump.

    I think the thing that is important here is twofold. Number one is what we're actually seeing is tolerated around Donald Trump. David's right that I don't think we know where any of this ends. And I'm not sure that the things we have found out so far are going to lead to the unraveling or lead to impeachment.

    But we only know what we know. And what we also know is, there's a huge amount we don't know about the Donald Trump Organization, about the connections with Russia. We know that Bob Mueller knows a lot more than we know.

    And so, as we see different things come out, as you see what kind of behavior was tolerated, and even encouraged, right — the Michael Cohen behavior appears to have been directed by Donald Trump within the Trump Organization — that should change our estimation of what is going on in the things we don't know.

    The second thing that I just think is interesting and telling this week is Donald Trump coming out and saying that he thinks it ought to be illegal or potentially ought to be illegal for low-level criminals to flip on their bosses, coming out and saying that what he really hates is rats.

    We have a sort of president now saying that what he doesn't like is snitches. And people who don't think they have a lot to hide don't come out with principled objections to that kind of prosecutorial pressure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I don't know whether we're calling them flip — people who flip or not, David, but you have got the man we have been talking about tonight, Allen Weisselberg, who's the man with the knowledge of the money inside the Trump business organization, on top of his good friend, a man named David Pecker, who runs the company that runs The National Enquirer.

    They're both cooperating. They have been given immunity.

  • David Brooks:

    And Cohen and, before that, Omarosa.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • David Brooks:

    I mean, one thing we have learned about Donald Trump is that he does inspire a lot of lifelong personal loyalty, that, if you're working with Trump, it's not personal, it's business.

    And he turns on people like a dime. And, as a result, people turn on him like a dime. And so you have a lot of people who are loyal for pragmatic reasons right now in the White House and in the Republican Party, but it's not because of any affection.

    And so the lesson is, if things turn, they will probably turn all at once. If it's no longer useful to pretend you like Donald Trump, people are going to stop liking Donald Trump. And so when something — if there is something big out there — and I want to caution us, we don't know.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's true.


  • David Brooks:

    But if there is something big out there, you will see a turn all at once, because there's just not a lot of love there holding people to loyalty.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But is the president already weakened by this, Ezra, or do we just wait and watch and withhold judgment?

  • Ezra Klein:

    I mean, I do think he's weakened. The question is weakened in what and in what way.

    Long term, I think people underestimate how important Donald Trump's drain the swamp, anti-corruption plank was to his 2016 victory. It was a very close election. And if you look at the final polls — there was a Washington Post/ABC News poll from just a couple days before the election.

    The single category on which Trump led Hillary Clinton was corruption. He was tied on the economy. He was behind on immigration and national security and other things. But people believed in him to clean up Washington, or at least believed in him more than they believed in her to do that.

    Donald Trump has now had multiple Cabinet secretaries resign for corruption. He's had key people around him go to jail. He's under constant investigation. Things around his family are very strange.

    To give up that is going to be rough for the Republicans in 2018. That's already becoming an issue for the Democrats. But, in 2020, I do think people underestimate how much more difficult it is going to be for him to run as the person who is now a paragon of Washington corruption, as opposed to its key enemy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, how do you see that, David?

  • David Brooks:

    It could be.

    I mean, if you look at the polling — Ezra would know this better than me, but I saw in AP today where he was down to 38, so maybe there is some slippage.

    I would just say, from my personal experience — I was with a lot of — some Trump people this week in North and South Carolina. First of all, we didn't talk about it. We talked about politics and life in general. But these scandals were just off the radar screen.

    I certainly didn't detect anybody who was a Trump supporter not being a Trump supporter. So, as long as he has a death grip on the Republican Party, and as long as that death grip — or the loyalty is to Trump himself and not to the party, not to any position, which I think it is, he's where he has been, with a very solid party really wrapped around his finger right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, Ezra, this does seem to be giving pause to at least some of the Republicans. They're not abandoning him yet, but, in their language, in the way they're talking about this, you sense a — I don't know, a discomfort, at the very least.

  • Ezra Klein:

    I think has been — I think there's a lot of discomfort lurking very, very close to the surface.


  • Ezra Klein:

    But, in general, I think this something that we always need to be careful with.

    I think the media has a tendency to think about Trump's support as this one kind of thing. And so we will go and talk to very die-hard Trump supporters and say, OK, do you still support Donald Trump? And they will say, of course I do.

    Donald Trump clearly has a base of support, and it's big. It looks to be around 30-ish percentage points in the polls. There's a Morning Consult that — this is way too early to do, but matched Donald Trump up against every Democrat they could think of.

    And what was surprising was that the support for Democrats varied a lot, from people like Joe Biden, who people knew, to Montana Governor Bullock, who they didn't. But what didn't change was Trump supporters, always right around 30 percent.

    The key for Trump is not strong Republicans who support him. The question is that sort of 5, 10 percentage points that pushed them over the edge. That's the people who he can't lose. And while they're probably not paying a huge amount of in-and-out attention — a lot of these folks might be less attached to politics than, say, the people in this room — they're also not die-hard Trump supporters.

    And if they begin to think he is part of the problem, that's where things get very dangerous for him, because his margins have been small. And, also, the coming election is 2018. And Republicans, they don't have his personal charisma.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, David, while all this is going on — and I don't know — we don't know if it's a result of it, but it's happening now — the president today — this week taking out frustrations again on his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, at one point saying, is he — is he a man? Did he take over the Justice Department?

    We did hear Jeff Sessions finally speak up for himself and put out a statement saying, yes, I took over the Justice Department.

    But does that — I mean, we know the president is unhappy with what's gone on at Justice. He's unhappy with Sessions. Is that something, though, that could build something bigger in terms of the integrity of the Justice Department and the work that it does?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I think — in some ways, I'm more offended by this.

    The people in government — I was just listening to this audible book by Michael Lewis on the National Weather Service — and it's just about how great the people in the National Weather Service are. Like, they get no money. But they work really hard to try to predict tornadoes, so people don't die.

    And that's true in a lot of government agencies. And in my experience around Washington, it's true of people in the Department of Justice. It's a very good agency. There are some agencies where — and people are not particularly political. They want to do their job.

    And to have faith in the country, to have faith in government, you have to have some faith that basically the people are fair-minded in the government. And, in my experience, whether they're more liberal than I or not, they're basically fair-minded. They want to do their job well.

    And if you portray something which a lot of people are — because they're cynical, are already inclined to believe, that everything's rigged, everything's politics, everything's crooked, then you really make it hard for the government to work, because the government has no legitimacy. And you can get away with anything.

    And so Donald Trump's cultural effect in this strikes me as gigantic.

  • Ezra Klein:

    I think that's true.

    If I could add one thing to that, I think there's something extraordinarily telling about the way Donald Trump has treated Jeff Sessions.

    And you can see it in another place. Donald Trump gave an interview at one point. And he was asked in this interview about how he felt about Eric Holder. And he said that what he thought about Eric Holder was that he really respected him, because Barack Obama was this lawless, criminal president, and Eric Holder had really done his job as attorney general and protected him from consequences.


  • Ezra Klein:

    Now, let's put aside the portrayal of the Obama administration, which I think one can argue with.

    His view was that a good attorney general, like a good personal lawyer, like Michael Cohen was supposed to be, protects you from investigation. And his continuous frustration with Jeff Sessions, that he's not playing that role on Donald Trump's behalf, is telling.

    It's not the way this whole thing is supposed to be run. It has downstream effects, but it also just has its direct effect. Jeff Sessions has spoken up for himself a little bit, but this is a lot of pressure he's under. And having the attorney general under constant pressure from the president of the United States to protect him or be publicly humiliated is not how rule of law supposed to work.

    But, at the same time, you're now seeing, David, Republican senators speaking up saying, well, I guess he may need to go.

  • David Brooks:


  • Judy Woodruff:

    I mean, Lindsey Graham this week said, it's not a working relationship. I can think of other people who could do the job.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, there are a couple senators — Ben Sasse from Nebraska has raised a fuss, saying, no, you can't do this.

    But Lindsey Graham has clearly moved over. And I suspect the Republican Party's silently inching over more in the Lindsey Graham direction.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The last thing I want to bring up is the sad news we heard today about John McCain.

    We know the senator has been fighting brain cancer. And we — family — family — his family put out word today that he's no longer going to receive treatment.

    He's still with us. We're all thinking of him and praying for him, but someone who — who has been a big figure in this city for decades, Ezra. And, again, he's still with us, but it's — I think it's a good thing to think about his character and what he's done for the country while he's still alive.

  • Ezra Klein:

    I think one of the fascinating things about John McCain is, when you look at American politics, when you look at what's happening right now in Congress, in our politics, one of the great questions is, why don't more members of the Senate, members of the House of Representatives stand up and do the things they clearly know are right?

    David, like I do, talks to a lot of members of Congress. A lot of them are quite horrified by what's going on, not just with Donald Trump, but often within party discipline. They don't like the way the whole place works.

    John McCain was one of relatively few who, whether you agreed with him or didn't, was often willing to go his own way. He was willing to act out of a personal conviction and out of looking at things and deciding the way he believed things ought to be.

    If everybody in Congress acted more like that, I think that we would be in a better place politically.

  • David Brooks:

    Well, that's partly family legacy. He's got two generations. Actually, if you go back to the McCain family, I think, in the 12th century, they were fighting against somebody.


  • David Brooks:

    So he has that family legacy of honor, and honor code deeply.

    He spent five years in a cage. And after that, everything else was sort of gravy, so he was going to speak his mind.

    One of the things I was thinking of today, just a random anecdote — covered him very closely in 2000 and 2008 — in early 2008, before the New Hampshire primary, he looked sad. He was losing. He was way down, nowhere in the polls.

    And I was sitting around with a consultant, and it was sort of sad to see him. But the consultant said — we were having a drink. And he said, there's really only one great man in the race.

    And that's true. He — we always knew he was a great man, whether he was up or down. And then, of course, he did all these town halls in New Hampshire, and came back.

    And so he remains a great man for a zillion different reasons, one of which is, when he does something wrong, he knows it. He was — is never the sort of person who lies to himself. And I have always admired that, that he has a private inner voice that, even when he's compromising on the Confederate Flag in South Carolina in 2000, he said, yes, I'm not doing the right thing here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So many ups and downs in his life, but, as he nears the end of it, somebody I think everybody can appreciate, does appreciate.

    David Brooks, Ezra Klein, thank you both.

  • Ezra Klein:

    Thank you.

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