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Brooks and Klein on Trump’s Supreme Court shortlist, Scott Pruitt’s scandals

New York Times columnist David Brooks and Ezra Klein of Vox join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including President Trump’s likely finalists for the Supreme Court, Scott Pruitt’s exit from the EPA, the president’s insults at campaign rallies, and the horrific stories of family separation at the border revealed in a lawsuit.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that brings us to the analysis of Brooks and Klein. That is New York Times columnist David Brooks and Ezra Klein of Vox.com. Mark Shields is off this week.

    Welcome to both of you.

    So much to talk about, but we're going to start, David, with where we just left off, the Supreme Court vacancy.

    What if — of course, we don't know what the president is going to do, but if it's down to these three, what does that tell us about what he wants the Supreme Court to be, about his thinking about replacing Justice Kennedy?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, it's like we got our old Republican Party back, because these three are not Trumpy people. They are pretty elite, pretty established

    And it's a testament to the Federalist Society, which is a conservative legal society that started in the 1980s, designed to create — to turn talent into judgeships. And they have done a fantastic job over the last several decades of producing just this funnel of talent that goes up to all the courts, but especially the Supreme Court.

    And so, whoever the Republican president is, there is just this whole series of people who are well-qualified, pretty temperate, well-connected with each other. And they're just ready-made. So, it's made to order.

    It's not a Trumpy set of people. It's a very establishment set of conservative jurists.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Establishment set, Ezra?

  • Ezra Klein:

    I think that's right.

    So, Donald Trump made this deal with the Republican establishment. And it went something like this. You don't like me. And I definitely do not like you. But if you unite behind me, you will get your Supreme Court picks.

    And, unusually, he brought out this document and he said, these are the people I will look at. And he's made good on that.

    There are a lot of places where he's been a very, very unusual president, but these are not very different picks than we would have expected from a President Ted Cruz.

    The one thing where I do think it's worth noting that there is a bit of betrayal here is that, at the same moment, Donald Trump is also making a deal with voters. And he was saying, unlike the traditional Republican Party, I care about Medicare, and I care about Social Security, and I care about Medicaid, I won't let anybody hurt these programs.

    And at least some of the picks, particularly Kavanaugh in there, they're very, very pro-business, very anti-safety net, anti-government action picks.

    So, by the same token by which Ted Cruz could be making these picks, there are a lot of Republicans who liked Donald Trump because he wasn't like Ted Cruz, because he was supposed to be more of a populist. And that is also absent from this process.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about that, David, and this — what appears to be open squabbling, disagreement, maybe more than that, between social conservatives, who would prefer Amy Coney Barrett to Kavanaugh or Kethledge?

  • David Brooks:

    By the standards of the Republican feuds of the last 20 years, this would definitely be in the bottom 5 percent.


  • David Brooks:

    Most social conservatives are a little more for Barrett, some just for optical reasons. If Roe v. Wade is going to be a big issue, it would help to have a woman on the court. They would like to get out of the Harvard-Yale group. And she's slightly outside that group, I guess.

    Kavanaugh is more well-plugged-in to the conservative establishment here. As Ezra said, he has got a much bigger record on economic issues and regulatory issues than she does. She's more socially conservative.

    And she became a lightning rod about a year-and-a-half, I guess, when Dianne Feinstein, the senator of California, seemed to question her Catholic dogma. And that became a rallying cry for social conservatives.

    So, she's sort of the darling. But that doesn't mean they're against Kavanaugh. And the Kavanaugh people, they are not against Barrett. There are slight preferences, some of it just political judgment. It's not anything doctrinal or ideological.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We're maybe making too much of this?

  • Ezra Klein:

    We will see, right? It depends on who he picks. But I agree that it's not a huge feud inside the Republican Party right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes. And we don't know. We have to keep stressing we don't know what he's going to do until he makes the announcement on Monday.

  • Ezra Klein:

    That's going to be the name of my memoir for the Trump administration. Of course, we don't know what the president will do.


  • Judy Woodruff:

    We will remember that.

    All right, another personnel move this week, and this one is on the way out, Ezra. Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, a lot of news stories about him over the last year or so about alleged ethical lapses. Some of them have been borne out. Others are still being investigated.

    Does this tell us something about the president hanging on to him so far, or is it he's gone, and we move on to the next chapter?

  • Ezra Klein:

    I think, if we just let this be a move on, we will have made a big mistake.

    Yes, this tells us a lot about President Trump, about their management style. Scott Pruitt's level of corruption was a magnificent thing. It was something I have almost never seen in politics. It was like he was trolling, like he was daring people to see what was too far.

    And the thing that I think it showed about the Trump administration — and I think we have seen this in other places, too — is they have become so used to outrage, they have become — they have this whole idea about triggering the libs, triggering the liberals, doing things that their opponents don't like.

    And there is such deep tribalism, that it begins to destroy their own immune system for seeing when somebody is actually a detriment to them, to their administration.

    It was powerful in 2016 for Donald Trump to run as a guy who was going to drain the swamp, powerful for him to run against the perks that people like Hillary Clinton took after they left office.

    And now he's allowed a lot of people like Pruitt to be around him. And he is going to get tagged with all this, these people who are using the public dime to take private flights and first-class flights and build themselves fancy telephone booths.

    And the fact that they were not better able to see earlier that this guy was, not just potentially incompetent, but deeply, deeply corrupt, it says a lot about their management style and about what their blind spots really are.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about that?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes. I would say it says two things about the blind spots.

    One, the ability to distinguish public service from private enrichment. Just like a normal person, do I get a sweetheart real estate deal with the wife of a lobbyist — connected to a lobbyist in my industry? Like, normal person, oh, red flags, I better not do that, I could get in trouble. He did this over and over again, where normal red flags would go off, and somehow they were not going off.

    To me, the bigger problem is that, within the EPA, it became just this — vipers attacking each other. There was no camaraderie. There was no sense of, we're going to — we're all part of this together.

    And people have been fleeing that agency, Trump appointees, not just the career people. Trump appointees have been fleeing it for months now because the atmosphere was so poisonous.

    And so the core issue here is character. And he seems to lack character, have a vicious or violent character. At the same time, he's trying to maneuver to get jobs like secretary of state and attorney general.

    So, you know, character is destiny, I guess except if you're the Oval Office. Then it doesn't matter.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I want to get to immigration.

    But I also want to quickly ask both of you about the president's speech last night, some of the things that he said.

    We have heard him, Ezra, go after Elizabeth Warren. There was, of course, the points of light comment, which was — you could interpret it as a criticism of President George H.W. Bush.

    But there were more comments, Maxine Waters, the congresswoman from California, the — then getting it wrong about Ronald Reagan and the Electoral College and Wisconsin.

    And you could say, are we making too much of this?

    Is this just more of the same of Donald Trump? Does it stick? Does it land anywhere? The crowd seemed very enthusiastic in Montana.

  • Ezra Klein:

    We are making too much of this.

    So, this is on a night when Donald Trump's unbelievably corrupt, scandal-ridden EPA chief resigns, on a night they name Bill Shine, the FOX News executive ousted for covering up decades of sexual assault within FOX News, to a deputy chief of staff position in the White House.

    And what Donald Trump knows is that, on any other night like that, he can mount a stage and offer a bunch of insults towards Elizabeth Warren, towards John McCain, towards Maxine Waters, and the media will sort of rush to cover it.

    And then he's back on ground that's very firm for him. Yes, like, they're against me. I'm against them. You know who our enemies are. My enemies are your enemies.

    At this point, there's not a lot of new information encoded in these rallies. It's not that we don't know that Donald Trump offers schoolyard insults. Not that what we don't know that he often lies or gets facts wrong.

    And, at some point, I do wonder when we're going to stop letting him be our assignment editor this easily. I mean, you will remember, when Barack Obama or George W. Bush would go to an Ohio steelworking factory, and they would get no coverage for a carefully worded speech, compared to what Donald Trump gets for these off-the-cuff monologues.

    I think it says something bad about us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, he's not our assignment editor, but we did spend a few minutes on it. We fell into that.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I think Ezra persuaded me.

    I was starting the other way, but I think you're right. Well, I don't want — we don't want the guy to control our brain. And yet he's, "Our we not entertained?" It's like the end of the Roman Empire.

    And he's a master at that. And one wants to say, well, we have to keep objecting. And there are little tidbits that are psychologically interesting, the fact that he doesn't know what the thousand points of light, like, what is that all about? Because it involves empathy or something.

    So, that's always characterologically interesting. But I do think breaking free from the entertainment zone era that he creates is probably on the balance. So, Ezra has persuaded me to go against my earlier…


  • Ezra Klein:


  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let's talk about — finally, about something that's been in the news every day this week and every day now for weeks, David.

    And that is the immigration — the really horrific — some of them horrific stories of children, after having been separated from their parents. Lisa Desjardins reported last night about this lawsuit that a number of Democratic attorneys general have filed, the Trump administration, saying, you have got to stop treating children this way.

    We heard more of it tonight.

    Is this something that is going to — that is rubbing off on the president? Are people separating it? Are his supporters simply looking at that and saying, oh, it's just the left and the press going after him again?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I remember when Katrina happened. The first night, Mark Shields and I happened to be sitting on the set. And we hadn't seen any of the footage. And we first saw it on live TV. And I think we were just appalled.

    And this one, when we see what's happening to the kids, it literally reminds me of Katrina, in that this shouldn't be happening in this country. It's just abhorrent.

    But with Katrina, we immediately saw this big effect on the president's approval rating. Now I have been looking at the president's approval rating the last week or two. There's some slight decline, but it's pretty slight.

    And so, to me, the tribal warfare has become so rigid, that it's almost as if nothing can move anything. And so while we see images which should be horrific for anybody of any political persuasion, it doesn't seem to move politics.

  • Ezra Klein:

    I think that's right.

    The place where I want to push on this — and it's not about the politics, but it's about the false choice we are being offered.

    What the Trump administration has said is, we have two choices here. One is, we can treat families unimaginably cruelly, either by separating them from their children or by indefinitely detaining the whole family for as long as they want to, or we cannot enforce our laws.

    And, by the way, both of those first two options are illegal. Courts have ruled against both the indefinite detention of a whole family. And they have ruled against separating the children from the family at this point.

    So, they're in a place now where they're saying — they're doing something they know is not allowed by the courts. And they're saying, but, on the other hand, we have to enforce our laws.

    There are so many other things we could do. We could give ankle bracelets, which they have done before. And it turns out when you give these folks, by the way, folks who have already passed an interview, that they have a real, credible threat back home, ankle bracelet, they show up for their hearing 99.4 percent of the time, I believe it is.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    They stay in the country, but with an ankle bracelet.

  • Ezra Klein:

    Right. We're choosing cruelty.

    And whatever it's doing to the politics, I feel like the one great advantage of the Trump administration is, they offer frame our choices. And that is not the only choice we have. We can be a better country than this, while still following the laws, while still making people — sure people show up, while still making sure we're secure. And we should be.

  • David Brooks:

    I would just say that the only — Democrats seem to be walking into the trap, at least some them, by saying, let's get rid of ICE, which strikes me as purity madness on the other side, because this is an actual agency that does actual things, and sometimes in good ways.

    Sometimes, they will fight human trafficking and things like that. And so, to me, some of the Democrats who are walking off to the other extreme are making a politically and also probably a immoral calculation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But is this family separation policy, does it say something, David, about the president, about his values, or is it just…

  • David Brooks:

    Well, I would put it in a global context.

    A lot of countries are disturbed by the number of people crossing their borders. To really keep those people out, it takes cruelty.

    And so you can either find ways to do it in the least cruel possible manner, or you can say, we're going to show some real cruelty, and that will deter people from coming here.

    And the Trump administration has clearly made that choice. And they're more comfortable with the levels of cruelty than I think most of us would be.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We're going to leave it there.

    David Brooks, Ezra Klein, thank you both.

  • Ezra Klein:

    Thank you.

  • David Brooks:

    Thank you.

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