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Brooks and Marcus on Trump quitting Iran deal, Gina Haspel grilling

New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus join Amna Nawaz to analyze the week’s news, including President Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal, reactions from voters in Elkhart, Indiana, where President Trump held a campaign rally on Thursday, the contentious confirmation hearing of CIA director nominee Gina Haspel and more.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    And now to the analysis of Brooks and Marcus. That's New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus.

    Thanks so much for being here.

    Let's jump in.

    Earlier this week, one of the biggest stories, David, obviously, the president making good on his promise to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. That's despite the protest of a lot of U.S. allies.

    Politically, was that a smart move?

  • David Brooks:

    I think so.

    One of the things you notice with the president is that he comes from a background where basically, in the real estate business, he worked with a lot of thugs and he cultivated a lot of thugs, and he was a little thuggish himself.

    But, in my view, that helps him, for all his drawbacks, understand thugs. And so North Korea, he understood that being tough with a thug produces some results. And we're in a better situation with North Korea than we were otherwise.

    He's been much tougher on the Chinese in trade. And a lot of people thinks he's adopted the right policy, because sometimes you have got to just stand up to people. And Iran, I have very mixed views about whether Trump did the right thing.

    But President Obama, the argument he made for it, which is that Iran would moderate and become a more familiar member of the company of nations. That has turned out to be clearly false.

    They are the most genocidal nation on the face of the earth. They export violence, terror around the earth. And so Trump standing up to them at least has some legitimacy. It's possible that he understands people like that better than people who have higher SAT scores.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You wrote in your column this week thug is going to thug.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But, Ruth, looking ahead to North Korea now, how do you break from a deal like this one, and then legitimately go into negotiations with North Korea to say, no, we're going to stick with whatever deal we agree to?

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Kind of a good question. I have had that question myself.

    I think, in general, there's legitimate questions about the Iran deal, both whether it was the best deal that could have been gotten and whether it had the hope for effect on Iran's behavior.

    But the question really is, is pulling out of it — and I was a supporter of the Iran deal, so despite those concerns. But even if you weren't, is pulling out of it better or worse than staying in, and not just because of the impact on Iran? Because of the impact on our relationships with our allies.

    Thug's going to thug, but we're not thugs, and we have to continue to maintain decent relations with our allies. Now we're talking about threatening them, betraying the agreement that they agreed with, and going after their companies with secondary sanctions.

    And then you have this question about, if you have proven that your word as a country can't be trusted beyond the course of a single president, doesn't that get priced into the price of negotiating with North Korea?

    And he will say, well, yes, you, but, he, Kim Jong-un, yes, you say this, but what happens next time around? So, giving a little bit less.

    So, all in all, I think — you asked about whether it was better for him politically. He promised it. It may make his base happy to see him thugging around. But I think, as a strategic matter of the U.S. national interest, not better.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let's talk about that base a little bit now.

    Over to the primaries we're all keeping an eye on. Last night, the president held a rally in Elkhart, Indiana. It's a city that became known as sort of a symbol of the recession. He talked about economic growth under his watch here. He talked about the case for electing more Republicans, too.

    But two years ago, the "NewsHour" held a town hall in Elkhart with President Obama. We actually revisited some of the participants there.

    Here, very quickly, are some of their thoughts about the Trump administration so far.

  • Steve Peterson:

    My hometown is going through an incredible transformation right now, and I believe the changes Mr. Trump has made in our government have fueled it.

    President Trump has kept his promises to help businesses grow through deregulation, simpler tax laws and lower taxes. This has allowed our economy to grow at an incredible rate. In addition, our downtown is going through a transformation that simply wasn't possible just a few years ago.

  • Jack Cittadine:

    We have gone from a 20 percent unemployment rate to a 2 percent unemployment rate. It's one of the best in the country.

    The stock market has done very well. And I think Donald Trump can take some credit for both of those, although perhaps the groundwork was laid earlier, under President Obama.

    On the negative side — and I have to say I'm a fierce independent, but on the negative side, I am both embarrassed and ashamed of Donald Trump. I think our standing with the rest of the world, particularly the world leaders, has been diminished. We have a president that we're talking about who lies frequently.

  • Richard Aguirre:

    I'm old enough to remember the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

    And in the immediate aftermath of his assassination, Republican and Democratic lawmakers said they would work to end discrimination and promote equality.

    I actually believed that this country might someday be rid of racism, but I don't believe that anymore, since the election of Donald Trump.

    Latino immigrants in Indiana no longer feel safe in their own communities, places where they have lived for decades. They don't feel there will ever be a path to citizenship for them, and many of them are losing hope.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, David, the few range of views there from voters in Elkhart, Indiana.

    How do you square the message the president has been delivering on these kind of campaign rallies with what we're hearing from voters like these on the ground?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, it's funny, three radically different positions.

    And I think everything every single person said is true.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    And so it is true. If unemployment in Elkhart has gone down from 22, kind of astounding, and downtowns all around the country and town around the country are reviving.

    It's also true that many people object to his views on race, his views on immigration, and his basic manners.

    I was struck by a survey which must have been old, but I hadn't seen it until this week, which was that in the last election 65 percent or so of Americans thought he was unfit to be president, and of those 20 percent voted for him anyway.

    And so I think we saw that in the middle gentleman in the blue blazer, that really offended by him, but some of the results are the results. And so people are making this calculation, if I can get a better economy, a better society, am I willing to tolerate a lot of norm violation?

    And I personally wouldn't make that choice, but a lot of people do make that choice, and I sort of get it.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    But everybody always tends to overestimate the impact of a president on the economy.

    And in this case, yes, it's fantastic. And Elkhart is, by the way, the kind of poster child for the resurgence of the manufacturing economy, because they build a lot of recreational vehicles there.

    But, at its worst, indeed, the unemployment rate in Elkhart was 20 percent. But guess what it was when Donald Trump took office? It was 3.2 percent. Now it's 2.2 percent. If you're going to give credit to a president, the bulk of the credit goes to a different president than Donald Trump.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • David Brooks:

    By the way, we're sick of Elkhart. We have too much Elkhart. Everyone goes to Elkhart. Like, there are a lot of towns in this country.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You're going to get a lot of viewer mail from people in Elkhart now.

    We're not sick of you, Elkhart.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Send it to Brooks.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me talk about the larger primary picture, though, because the president has made clear he wants to get out there, right, that he wants to keep hitting the road.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    He loves a good campaign rally.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    He loves a campaign rally.

    There are now looking ahead 10 states where Democratic senators are on the ballot that President Trump won. How does he calibrate his message in those places?

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Not just 10 states where they're on the ballot, but in five of those states, Hillary Rodham Clinton didn't even crack 40 percent. That's a pretty big challenge for Democrats.

    You know, Democrats, in order to win back control of the Senate, it looks easily achievable, because they only would need to win two seats. But they are facing a really daunting map, 26 Democrats up for reelection — 26 Democrat seats up vs. nine Republican-held seats.

    And then you have those — within that group, this group of 10 and then the even harder group of five. So expect to see the president back in Indiana campaigning against Joe Donnelly. I think he called him Sleepy Joe the other day.

    In Montana, campaigning against Senator Tester, because the one thing we know about this president is, he knows to hold a grudge. He wasn't happy with Senator Tester going after Dr. Ronny Jackson, his choice for VA secretary. In Missouri, with Claire McCaskill. And in North Dakota with Heidi Heitkamp.

    Those have to be the top targets.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, David, he's clearly — he's putting himself on the front lines. He's trying to fend off some of those congressional and state house losses that often come in midterms, for the Republicans in this case.

    Can he do it? Will he make an impact on the ground?

  • David Brooks:

    I think so.

    I mean a lot of those states, North Dakota, and I think what happened this week in the primaries is Republicans got pretty much their best possible candidates. The party didn't go crazy in West Virginia. They nominated a good guy in Indiana, Braun, in Ohio.

    And so the odds that the Republicans keep the Senate look better than they did before. And so he will do pretty well with those Senate races.

    If I were the Democrats, I would say, if we win the Senate, that would be nice. That would be a big wave. But we should go for the House and make Donald Trump the issue. A lot of people oppose Donald Trump. And just run an anti-Trump campaign.

    The president's approval is the number one issue in the fall. And just go after him, after him, after him. You may not get the Senate in these red states, but you will do pretty well in the House. And that to me would be the target of opportunity.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you about one of the other big stories of this week that is sure to lead over to next.

    That is the president's nominee to lead the CIA, Gina Haspel. She had a lot of tough confirmation hearing, taking a lot of tough questions, largely focused on the issue of torture, how she handled it when she was overseeing certain parts of the CIA, and her overall views towards it.

    Now, Ruth, she pledged not to restart the programs, those same interrogation programs that were in place, but she also refused to condemn them. Does that hurt her?

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Depends on with who.

    It actually hurt her with me. And it may hurt her further with Democrats, some of whom were wavering, some of whom had already expressed their opposition to her. And it hurt her most obviously with Senator McCain, who came out with a tweet and a conclusion that I thought was the right one, that what we did in terms of enhanced interrogation, torturing of detainees, was wrong, and it was disqualifying for Gina Haspel not to be willing to say that.

    But let's be clear about this. We have got a situation where the president's party controls the Senate, where there's already a thumb on the scale, as there should be when you're confirming an executive branch nominee. The president should get his choice.

    When this is an otherwise — other than what she did regarding torture and destroying tapes — and I know that's a big otherwise — and, remember, I'm opposed to her — so I will send all your e-mail to Brooks.

    She's otherwise qualified, and in an administration where we don't always get the best and brightest. I think what we're having a little bit here is torture fatigue. The country went through this really wrenching debate about this and it's not really willing, and the Senate kind of doesn't have the great energy there to go through this torture debate again.

    It looks like she's going to be confirmed.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    David, do you agree?

  • David Brooks:

    Not really, no. I don't think so.

    One of the things we know about her is, she's, as many people said, possibly the most experienced person ever put up for this job.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Thirty-three years in the service, right?

  • David Brooks:

    Extremely well-admired by people across Democrat and Republican lines.

    She made it clear the CIA will not be doing enhanced interrogation, or torture. So, to me, the argument about what she said about what happened in 2003, when 'N Sync was at its peak, that's an academic debate. That's a debate we can have.

    And I would agree with Ruth on the merits of torture. But we don't have a lot of great people running agencies around the government right now. She seems to be a great person. And we're not going to torture. So I don't really need an academic debate, when this real issue is in front of us.

    And so I certainly admire and agree with Senator McCain on almost everything, including this issue, but I think it's worth it to get a good person that won't torture.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Is this about qualifications over judgment, then? Is that the argument?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, listen, if you went through the transcripts of those questions, they were asking her very simple-minded questions. And she was saying, we can't tell whether it worked. We know we got information out of these Al-Qaida. It's an academic, unknowable question about what produced that information.

    Basically, I think she just didn't want to trash her own agency.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    When John Brennan was up, and he was also implicated in the same controversial programs, when he was up, he said that water-boarding was reprehensible and he said it should never have been done.

    Gina Haspel couldn't bring herself to say that for whatever reason. That is a moral problem. And though we won't be torturing again, I certainly hope — there are going to be other moral judgments that she's going to be called on to weigh in on as CIA director, how you deal with civilian casualties, how you use drone strikes.

    And I thought her unwillingness to condemn this really was a big mark against her.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And we will see how the senators vote on that. We expect that committee vote next week.

    David Brooks, Ruth Marcus, thanks for your time.

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