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Brooks and Klein on Tom Price’s plane scandal, Trump taking aim at the NFL

New York Times columnist David Brooks and Ezra Klein of Vox join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including the resignation of Tom Price as HHS secretary over expensive chartered flights, the anti-establishment upset in the Alabama Senate runoff and President Trump’s divisive rhetoric over the NFL protests.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And now 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.

    Gentlemen, it's good to have you both.

    We — our lead story tonight, David, is the resignation of the secretary of health and human services, Tom Price. We were going to talk about the flights several Trump Cabinet officials seem to have been taking. But now he's gone, the first Cabinet member to step down. Big deal.

  • DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times:

    Yes, I don't think he should have to go.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You don't?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    If Donald Trump thought he was a good secretary of defense — of health and human services, and he knew his policies, which he did — he knew the policies — and he was generally supportive, which, as far as I could see, he was, then this scandal doesn't merit a firing/resignation.

    He made Trump look bad. And Trump's only loyalty is to himself. So, I get that. He had to go.

    But, personally, I think the government should have a fleet of planes to take around Cabinet secretaries. It would just be more efficient. Any company of any size has this sort of thing. And so this scandal makes Trump look bad, but it certainly doesn't merit firing, I would say.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Didn't have to be fired?

  • EZRA KLEIN, Vox:

    No, I think he probably did have to be fired. But I have different views on what's a decent health and services secretary than Donald Trump.

    I think there are two things here that are interesting. One is, Donald Trump has not been running an administration of very high ethical standards.

    When Tom Price was nominated, there was quite a lot of ethical smoke around him. There were allegations of insider trading. These were things the Senate decided not to dig into. There were things that he misstated. They didn't hold a secondary hearing to look into them.

    Donald Trump himself has had a lot of conflict of interests and quasi-dealing things that he's been trying to get around and certainly not address in any serious way. Nobody knows the tax returns.

    But the other thing that I actually think is a bigger scandal here — it's not at all why Tom Price was forced to step down — but he's been fundamentally sabotaging Obamacare, which is the law of the land. They're just making it worse in an effort to weaken it.

    It's going to make a lot of people's lives a lot worse, and feels to me like it should be a bigger scandal than whatever planes he did or didn't take.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, David, in fact, we are told the president was unhappy with Tom Price because he didn't get Obamacare repealed.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Yes, I understand that, but that really wasn't Tom Price's fault.

    If Donald Trump wants to fire somebody for not getting Obamacare repealed, he should fire himself.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    He was the one primarily who messed up the investigation, who had no clear agenda, who was ignorant when he entered into the negotiations with the Congress, messed everything up even worse.

    And so, if that's the standard, then there is a lot of people to be fired.

    Donald Trump has a problem with loyalty and a problem with his administration. How many people has he gone through already?

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Exactly.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    We're only a country of 320 million people. He's going to run through all of us.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    He's going to start hiring labor from Mexico.

    So there has to be — if you're running a successful administration, then you're loyal to people who are basically good who make a mistake. And that seems to be essential for any organization. And it should be essential if this were a normal administration, rather than a fiefdom, where everybody simply tries to give Donald Trump a good headline every day.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And if he holds to this standard, Ezra, these other four Cabinet secretaries could be in trouble. But it's hard to believe that four more would go.

  • EZRA KLEIN:

    Is it that hard to believe?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    I don't know. I don't know.

  • EZRA KLEIN:

    This has been a very unusual administration so far.

    I do think that there is a very unclear level of conduct in the Trump administration. That's one reason you're seeing this among so many different secretaries. Again, Trump himself has been bending ethics rules left and right.

    But the problem is, Donald Trump is loyal to himself. He's not loyal to them. The rules are different for them in ways that they don't understand. It's creating a lot — a real lack of clarity.

    This is something, though, that I think Senate Republicans deserve a fair amount of blame for. They should have been much harder in terms of the confirmation hearings in insisting on a fairly high level of ethics and a fairly high level of competence in the folks they let through.

    You do that and you have those standards to protect yourself, so these things don't happen down the road and make you look bad and imperil your agenda.

    There is a lot that they didn't do at the front end that is going to come back to bite them in these coming months.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, speaking of Senate Republicans, they have got other headaches right now.

    The leader of the Senate Republicans, David, Mitch McConnell, was backing a particular candidate, Luther Strange, in the Alabama Republican Senate runoff, the same candidate President Trump was backing.

    But folks like Steve Bannon were backing Roy Moore. We have talked about Roy Moore here, very, very conservative Republican from Alabama.

    How much of a rebuke is this to the Republican majority in the Congress and the president?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Pretty strong. And they're rebuking themselves.

    The thing I think we learned this week is that Roy Moore and Steve Bannon, what we will call the nationalists, they have a story to tell. They have a story about the country and why it's going astray. They have a story about what is wrong with Washington and the swamp and why it needs to be drained.

    The regular Republicans, the Mitch McConnell Republicans, have no story. And they thought they could hold off the nationalists with money, and with logistics and with party organization.

    And I think one of the things we have learned is they can't do that, that if you want to hold off Steve Bannon, you actually have to have an argument, you have to have a story about why his kind of Republican is the wrong kind.

    And they don't have that. And if they don't have it in Alabama, they are probably not going to have it in Tennessee, and they may not have it in Wyoming, and they may not have it in Arizona and all the other states where Republicans are up for grabs, at least in the Senate, in 2018.

  • EZRA KLEIN:

    There is one place I would push on that a little bit, which is that I think David's right, except that what's strange about it is, this is a story that the establishment Republicans have also been telling.

    The hard thing that they have been doing in the past couple of years, a thing that I think has given them a lot of trouble, giving them to some degree Donald Trump, is, they have bought into, have helped along, have at the very least indulged a story about what a swamp Washington is, about how the establishment needs to be torn down, about how government has become completely dysfunctional, about what Barack Obama was or wasn't doing, about how corrupt he was, about birth certificates.

    And then the voters believe them. They believed that they were going to repeal and replace Obamacare. They believed a lot of what the Republicans were saying. And then, when you get to election time, they try to run these more establishment candidates, and it's at odds with their own story.

    And then folks like Bannon come in and hijack it and become more authentic than the party itself. That's worked for Trump, worked for Bannon. But it's not good long-term for the Republican Party. And, at some point, they have to tell a story that they can actually fulfill.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, in the short-term, this is a headache.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Yes, and I do think Republicans — right now, the establishment Republicans are frozen in fear and they're just trying not to be the next target.

    But I think, if I were them, I would say, how do we get out in front of this thing? Maybe Mitch McConnell is not the face of establishment Republican Party. Maybe we do have to have a new leader, somebody who can actually speak to the country.

    And maybe we do have to have a story to tell. And maybe Mitch McConnell's job shouldn't be secure, because the hatred toward Mitch McConnell, while I think 50 percent unearned, is vituperative and not going anywhere. And so if every Republican has to really run as Mitch McConnell's partner, that's going to be a problem for a lot of Republicans in the primaries.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    True. If he stays, and they have to figure out a way to work around that, they have got a complication in so many of these races coming up.

  • EZRA KLEIN:

    I think that's right.

    It's been true for a couple of years. One of the things that's going to be a real big question here for Mitch McConnell, the things that can really imperil you as a Senate leader is if you put your Senate majority at risk.

    So, we just saw a poll come out — I believe it was today — that said Roy Moore's only leading the Democrat in Alabama, who is a strong candidate actually, 50-44. That is not the margin you would expect to see for a Republican in Alabama.

    Now, it's early. Special elections have unusual dynamics. I would still certainly put Moore as a favorite. But if you begin to see an upset in Alabama or Tennessee, then maybe Democrats take something in Arizona, particularly if Flake loses his primary to another — to Kelli Ward, to another sort of nationalist more Tea Party-like challenger.

    The thing that will really put McConnell's job in danger in if, in what should be a very good year for Republicans — the Senate map looks very good for them — they lose more than expected or, even worse, lose the Senate. And it seems more possible than it did, say, two months ago.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    I want to turn to the NFL story.

    The president's really gone to war with the National Football League, David.

    I'm just learning from our producer that the White House has announced that the White House chief of staff is going to have to approve, going forward, all charter travel on the part of senior Cabinet official — I guess any Cabinet official or Cabinet at any level.

    But what about — David, what about this story that has — confrontation that's just blown up before our eyes over the last week-and-a-half, between the president openly criticizing professional football players and the league standing up for them?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Yes, well, I don't approve of what Colin Kaepernick did. I don't think you kneel before the national anthem.

    I think, if you are going to protest, you protest in a way that doesn't undermine our common nationality. And so I didn't think — he did what he did.

    But Donald Trump reacted in his typical way, which was to find a wound in the American body politic, in this case, a wound about race, and then to stick a red-hot poker in it and to rip it open. And to me, that is what is most troubling about what we're seeing over the last year, maybe two years, is that the fabric of society is being destroyed by someone who's really good at finding out where we're weakest, and exploiting those differences in order to launch really a cultural agenda.

    And so the fragmentation we saw last Sunday, and we will probably see again, is something that he is exacerbating. And somehow we have to find a way to reverse that cycle.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It doesn't get a more serious indictment than that.

  • EZRA KLEIN:

    No. And I think that part of it — and I think that's right.

    I think that Donald Trump — Donald Trump didn't need to wade into this fight. There was plenty going on that he could have focused on, Puerto Rico, tax reform, his own administration and how it's running.

    He looks for these points of cultural conflict. The one thing that he is doing still that is responsive to his base, right, in a moment when they're bringing a tax reform bill that doesn't look good for that base, in a moment when the health care effort was incredibly unpopular among his own voters, as well as everyone else, he looks for these points of cultural conflict, because that at least is one place where he's able to deliver.

    He's able to deliver on leading one side of a tribal war. And it's not a good thing for the country. And it's not a good thing for any of the folks involved. It's probably not even long-term a very good thing for Donald Trump, but it is the one place where he can stand on firm ground and be assured of keeping his side coalesced.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, cultural conflict is right.

    We can quickly show our audience this news "NewsHour"/Marist poll that shows — people were asked about their views on athletes kneeling or locking arms. Overall, very divided between respectful, disrespectful. Among Democrats, 82 percent say it's OK, Republicans, 88 percent disrespectful.

    David, you're — the president's going right at a sore place in the American psyche.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Yes, I wrote a column this week trying to argue that he's sort of the Abbie Hoffman of our era.

    Abbie Hoffman was a prankster in the 1960s who just was great at political theater, great at pulling at the weaknesses in that — the establishment of that era. And his only job was to destroy, so something could replace.

    And that's more or less what Donald Trump was hired to do. He doesn't have to build anything. He just has to pick apart at the cultural fabric and destroy the consensus of that we had. And that's sort of what he's been running on and what he's been doing, with some effectiveness, culturally for two years.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Which begins to raise the question, how do Democrats and other Republicans counter this?

  • EZRA KLEIN:

    I'm not sure there's a way to counter it.

    The thing that Donald Trump does control — doesn't control votes in the Senate, not control them in the House, does not even really control the legislative agenda. He controls his Twitter feed, and, to some degree, he controls the media.

    There is a question here, why are we even talking about this, right? What happened here? Was there a policy put in place towards the NFL? Did he do something?

    He said some stuff at a rally. He sent out some tweets. His ability to pull the media to whatever zone of conflict he wants us in, that is Donald Trump's one real great power. He doesn't use it judicially. He doesn't use it wisely. He doesn't always use it always in ways that benefit himself.

    I'm not sure that pulling apart our cultural consensus is even good for him, again, in the long run. But there isn't a lot that other actors in politics can do, so long as Trump's ability to move the media is as complete as it currently is.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It's hard to see how others compete with that, isn't it?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Well, we have to find — if we solved the underlying problems of the country, a large number of people who are financially disenfranchised, then that will make the culture wars a lot less fierce.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, we are — but you're right, Ezra. There is a lot that we're talking about, and Donald Trump is behind it.

    We didn't get to tax reform. We got — I think we may have a few weeks to talk about that.

  • EZRA KLEIN:

    That's the Trump administration in a nutshell right there.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, that's for sure.

    Ezra Klein, thank you for joining us.

    David Brooks, have a great weekend.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Thank you.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Thank you.

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