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Brooks and Marcus on what’s fueling the president’s ‘ramped up’ rhetoric

New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post deputy editorial page editor Ruth Marcus join John Yang to discuss the week in politics, including President Trump’s rhetoric on immigration policy and the federal judiciary, his denial of Saudi involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the upcoming U.S. Senate runoff in Mississippi.

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  • John Yang:

    And to the analysis of Brooks and Marcus.

    That's New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post deputy editorial page editor Ruth Marcus.

    David, Ruth, thank you for coming in and joining us.

    The president, judging by social media, has been spending Thanksgiving worrying a lot about the border, threatening to through shut the border down, close it all altogether, railing against this — the migrants moving their way north.

    David, what's going on? Is this just base maintenance here, or what's going on?

  • David Brooks:

    I'm going with bluster.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    I had bluster.

    (LAUGHTER)

    You steal my bluster?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, it looks like Teddy Roosevelt tweeting up San Juan Hill. But you have to remember the troops that are down there, the actual military troops, according to Secretary Mattis, will not be carrying weapons. They will be in the background somewhere. They're there in a supportive role, which is a null and void role, basically.

    So I'm pretty sure the president — I can understand why he's upset. There's been more illegal immigration under his term than under President Obama. But it's hard to believe this administration wants — after the separation of families, wants more bad pictures coming out of the border.

    So I'm sure some — I'm not sure — reasonably confident this is mostly bluster and they will find some muddling solution.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Well, this is bluster — I get to say it too — with a little bit of a purpose, though probably not a very effective one, which is the congressional lame-duck session has begun.

    And there is — are funding bills to be done, as there are at this time of year, it seems, every year. And the president still hasn't gotten, after two years in office, what he insisted he was going to get from Mexico before he was elected, which is funding for his wall.

    And so I think a little bit of this bluster, he will end up standing down on it, is trying to raise the prospect of a government shutdown. That wouldn't make a lot of sense, when the House and the Senate — the House just for another brief few weeks — and the presidency are all controlled by the same party.

    If you're shutting down the government in that situation, you're not doing very well. But that's a little bit of the shut-down-the-border rhetoric that we're seeing ramped up right now as well.

  • John Yang:

    He's saying that we need to get a deal now that includes money for the wall. But he has said this every time, and every time it doesn't happen.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    To me, one of the questions is, has anything changed because of the election? Is his mood changed? Is his emotional state changed?

    So, previously, there was a pretty good method, that he would bluster his way toward something, and then there'd be some bad press, and then he would quietly backtrack. And somebody compared it to vaporware. You just send something out there that you don't really have, send a policy out there, even though there's no policy.

    The question becomes, has he decided he's rattled by the election, he's angered by the election, he is angered by everybody else around, and that's something has changed? So far, there's been no evidence that his mental state has changed.

  • John Yang:

    Ruth?

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Ooh, evidence that his mental state has changed.

    (LAUGHTER)

    He doesn't seem to be doing a very good job of accepting the reality that, yes, his — he and his party suffered a fairly massive and near historic defeat in the House.

    And while they are have slightly expanded their Senate majority, which is important, that's one piece of reality he hasn't taken in and that might affect his mood.

    There is also the looming Mueller situation. And this report — it does come from a while ago. So maybe the mood has been bad for a while. But the reports about arguing that we should have prosecutions of Hillary Clinton and prosecutions of Jim Comey don't suggest a president with a great mood.

  • John Yang:

    The list of people that the president has public spats with or feuds with in social media grew this week.

    John Roberts, the chief justice, responded to something that the president said. And the president, the famous counterpuncher, punched back.

    Ruth, you covered the Supreme Court. How unusual is this that John Roberts would do this in a public way? And, also, what does this mean, that these two people are going at it in public now?

  • Ruth Marcus:

    So, it's remarkable.

    Presidents get into fights with the Supreme Court, not all the time, but on regular basis. Richard Nixon ran against that Warren court when he was running for president. President Obama famously criticized the justices to their face over the Citizens United decision. And President Trump has criticized the court and Justice Roberts in particular in the past.

    What's really unusual — and you have to stretch back to well before I covered the court to the New Deal — is to have the court bite back. When FDR was trying to do his court-packing plan, the chief justice then famously helped to torpedo that plan by sending a critical letter to the Senate. They didn't have either Twitter or probably a court press officer to respond these days.

    The fact that the chief justice could not be a more different human being than President Trump — if you had two polar opposites and personalities, this is who you would have, a very restrained — he was judicious before he was a judge, the chief justice, human being.

    The fact that he chose to respond to the president's assault on judges, Ninth Circuit judges, Obama judges just suggests how alarmed he is, and — by the president's behavior and how out of the ordinary the president's behavior is.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    And I would say what's interesting is what — they weren't arguing about a case. And if Justice Roberts responded about a decision, I think that would be out of bounds. It was just defending the idea of an independent judiciary. And so justices normally do that.

    And I do think it's important to maintain the truth — at least the three-quarters truth — that there are no such thing as Obama judges and Bush judges. There are conservatives and liberals. And it's true the court, Supreme Court, votes more on party line than they used to, but it's still not totally true that they are political appointees.

    They have — they do have some sense of independence. And most of the cases are not 5-4, are not strict Republican-Democratic cases. There are lots of different modes of argumentation that come into these things. And maintaining that in public seems to me tremendously important if we're going to respect decisions.

    And if Trump wants to delegitimize the court by saying, oh, it's just Republican vs. Democrat, it's just like Congress, that really does undermine our trust, the credibility and the deference we should pay to judicial judgments.

  • John Yang:

    The fact that he punched back against someone like John Roberts, who is not a liberal justice, is — does that threaten him with his base, with the Republicans?

  • David Brooks:

    No.

    (LAUGHTER)

    No, I wouldn't think so.

    It's of a piece, which is that the only kind of power he acknowledges his personal power, not institutional power. And the idea that the attorney general or a judge has some independent mandate to do a constitutional role, that's not really part of his mental vocabulary. And so it's all, are you loyal to me or are you not loyal to me?

    And this, by the way, if you look at how — I don't to want get hysterical here, but if you look at the way regimes decay all across the world from democracy toward authoritarianism, this is a classic thing that happens in almost every case, where the institutional power gets devolved back into personal power, and you return toward the rule of the clan.

  • John Yang:

    Ruth, let me ask you also. The president is again questioning the intelligence community, when they say that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia is most likely responsible for the — for the killing of columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and saying that he's not going to do anything to punish Saudi Arabia.

    What do you make of this?

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Shameful is one thing I make of it.

    We take this pretty personally at The Washington Post. I take it personally. The notion that the president of the United States would come out and say, well, maybe he did and maybe he didn't, when the intelligence community has concluded that very, very likely he did, and when it's clear that the Saudis have lied about what happened to our columnist Jamal Khashoggi all along the way, is just — it's repul — it's one thing to reject the findings of the intelligence community when it comes to Russian intervention in the election.

    But then to reject it on something like this, and then to sort of resort to the kinds of things that he has said about President Putin — well, the crown prince has just denied it really vehemently. Oh, well, if you vehemently deny something, then it doesn't mean anything.

    And then, second, to add to that the notion that, well, he did or he didn't, but, either way, the Saudi relationship, which is an important relationship for the United States, the notion that it is too important to take steps to hold the person responsible, responsible for dismembering our columnist with a bone saw, is just — first of all, it's wrong on the facts.

    The notion that we'd be sacrificing billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs is just not right. The notion that the Saudis have so much control over oil prices and oil supply is just not right. It's very outmoded.

    But it's also wrong on the values . It is not consistent with American values or American interests to have this kind of realpolitik attitude that the president says, America first. What he's doing is not putting America first.

  • John Yang:

    David, the Saudis are now using the president's words in their own defense.

  • David Brooks:

    Right.

    And there are two sort of underlying foundational things that I worry about here. The first is the idea that the CIA, the other intelligence agencies, they respond to presidents. They see how presidents use their material. And if the president begins to go against them, they will face a tendency to write a report on any intelligence matter in the future that gives the president an out to go where he wants to go, because they don't want to run right up against the president. And that degrades the intelligence process.

    The second thing that I think is foundationally wrong about this is, why do people serve in the military? Why do they serve in the State Department? Why do they serve in the government? They don't do it because — so we can sell more weapons. They don't do it so there can be more suites rented out at the Trump hotels.

    They do it because they basically believe in the values of the country and they want to spread those values. And if you have a nakedly realistic politic — obviously, every president make some calculations, but this is naked. This is naked. We don't care about values. We care about money.

    That's a gigantic demotivator for anybody who's going to serve in the military, anybody who is going to serve our government overseas. And that, to me, is why the realpolitik never actually works as a foreign policy, because you can't mobilize people behind anything.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    And it doesn't just send a bad signal internally, which it does — I agree with you — it sends a bad signal — perhaps even more important externally to our allies and to our adversaries about what we will and will not tolerate and what we do and do not stand for.

  • John Yang:

    David, the final election of the 2018 midterms comes next Tuesday, Mississippi, a runoff in the Senate race.

    President Trump is going down there for two stops on Monday. Why is this so important to the Republicans?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, if you lose Mississippi, that is sort of a bad, embarrassing thing. It's like losing Berkeley if you're Democrat, I guess.

    And so he's going down there. There's some — she's not the greatest candidate, by a long shot, in the world. I would be shocked if this went to the Democrats, in part because it is Mississippi, in part, frankly — and I may be unpopular for saying this — there are a lot of Americans who hate political correctness.

    And 80 percent of Americans say it's a major problem. And if somebody says something that's completely racist, I think Americans will say — like Judge Roy Moore did — they will say, that's unacceptable.

    But what she said about the hanging, that to me is sort of borderline.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    I understand the argument about it being borderline, though, if you say something stupid, you might want to apologize for it a little more fully than she did.

    It was fascinating the number of major companies who withdrew their support, pretty much knowing that she is going to remain the senator from Mississippi, withdrew their support from her in the interim, Wal-Mart, Aetna, Pfizer, others.

    But I want to go to your question of why it matters, which is because there's a big difference in the Senate. It won't affect Senate control. It still matters, because having 53 votes is a lot better than having 51 or 52 votes, because it actually goes back to judges. If you don't have to worry about the Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowskis of the world or — Jeff Flake will be gone — you don't have to have inconvenient things like even an FBI investigation to slow down your confirmation of judges.

  • John Yang:

    That's got to be the last word.

    Ruth Marcus, David Brooks, thanks so much.

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