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David Brooks and Karen Tumulty on Trump’s July 4 event, 2020 Democrats

New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty join Judy Woodruff to analyze the week’s political news, including President Trump’s Fourth of July celebration, political and cultural implications of the crowded detention centers on the U.S.-Mexico border and the latest dynamics within the race for the 2020 presidential nomination.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump may have kept his July Fourth speech last night focused largely on the U.S. military, but that doesn't mean it was free from political fallout.

    Just one story in a busy holiday week to discuss with Brooks and Tumulty. That's New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty. Mark Shields is away.

    Hello to both of you.

  • Karen Tumulty:

    Great to be here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So let's talk about what the president had to say last night.

    David, he was focusing not only, but mostly on the military, and he wove that into his story of America. How does his story of America comport with the real story of America?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, well, I was up on the Mall earlier in the afternoon, and there was a rally of Gold Star moms and wives, people who had lost a son or husband in Iraq. And there was a great military feel to that.

    And they took the service, which they were so proud of, and what they had suffered, and they tied it to the fight on socialism. And it struck me that really is the Trump story, that he goes to the military as a source of American values, and then contrasts that to the hostile world outside.

    And that's one story of America. I don't think it's the real story. I think it's the story of Rome, frankly. Our stories, we have military power, but that's not really what the American story is about.

    For most Americans, it would be, we're an immigrant country who provided social mobility and really liberation for a lot of people who came from oppressed lands. That's actually not — obviously can't be the Trump story, because he doesn't believe in that story.

    I would say we're the story that believes in democracy, and democracy is the belief in the universal dignity of all people. And it's — so, we have a strong military, but not for itself. We have a strong military to realize the promise of democracy, the promise of human dignity.

    And Trump doesn't really go there. He gives us basically what is a pagan Roman story.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Karen, how close do you think he was — he is to the true story of this country?

  • Karen Tumulty:

    Well, I'm nobody would mistake this speech for Winston Churchill.

    But he did weave in a lot of threads of the American story. He talked about the students who sat in at lunch counters during the civil rights movement. He mentioned Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. He talked about the Wright brothers, the ingenuity.

    So, all of those — all of those threads were there in the speech. Where it was incongruous was with the rest of his presidency. I mean, it's probably grading on a curve that we are surprised to see him stand in front of a big crowd and not start them in a chant of "Lock her up" and not start railing about witch-hunts.

    So it was sort of a one-off. I think the speech itself did what it should have done. I think that — I love the flyovers. I mean, I will — I love the Blue Angels. And we see them in a lot of other contexts. They fly over the Super Bowl. So, that part really didn't bother me.

    It was just the — again, it was just very jarring to see that against the context of the rest of Donald Trump's presidency.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How, David, do you think this affects him politically?

    You were saying it helps him with his base, the people who already like him. Does it add — do people look at this and say, I want to feel better about my country?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, well, his political strategy — I remember back like 15 years ago, there were a lot of conservative books that were coming out from Ann Coulter and people like that.

    And the publishers said, our job is not to please conservative readers. Our job is to anger liberal reviewers. And once we anger the other side, then our people will rally to us.

    And when I think back, that is sort of Donald Trump's political strategy. How can I anger liberals? If I can get them attacking me, then my people will be for me.

    And so, frankly, a lot of this stuff with the tanks, for example, I thought there was a lot of over-the-top, frankly, Trump phobia. Oh, he's going to have fascism in the streets.

    But a lot of presidents have had tanks in rallies, FDR, Eisenhower and people that like. It didn't strike me. Tanks for cool. People like to see tanks. I like seeing tanks.

    And so what he tends to do is poke something and then generate a response. And then his people rally to his side. And I do think that is the Trump genius, if you want to put it that way, the marketing genius, that he knows how to pick fights that will cause the other side to be offended, and his people to be loyal.

  • Karen Tumulty:

    You know, and I'm going to be really interested to see what he does next year, because, next July, we will be right in the middle of a presidential season. We will know who the Democratic nominee is at that point.

    It will be very interesting to see whether he tries to do this again next year, and if he takes a different kind of tone when he is in the middle of the campaign season.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Go ahead, yes.

  • David Brooks:


    I was going to say, one of the things we're struggling with as a country is, what's our national narrative? We had a narrative that left a lot of voices out. And now we're trying to see if we can have a narrative. Maybe our narrative, as such a diverse country, is, we have no narrative, we're just a universal country with a lot of different narratives.

    But I sort of admire the way Trump has at least started this conversation, probably not meaning to. It's better than just, we watch fireworks and we go home. It was a more substantive event, a more interesting event this year than all past years, except when the Beach Boys play.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, Karen, do I hear you saying it's not clear whether this is a political plus for him or not, if he's still got to figure out whether to try it again?

  • Karen Tumulty:

    You know, we're living in Trump warp speed. I think that, by this time next week, this will feel like it happened five years ago, and there will have been 10 other controversies.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Probably true, or 25.

  • Karen Tumulty:


  • Judy Woodruff:

    Immigration. We had more images, troubling images, this week from the border, pictures of crowded holding cells for people who had come across.

    And you have — you had a Democratic congressional delegation go down there and say that this is inhumane, many of the — much of the same criticism that we have we have heard before.

    You had the president coming back, Karen, and saying, well, what we have got to do is tighten up our asylum laws, because that's the only way we're going to get this under control.

    Is there a way through on this immigration, or do we just have this weekly combat, political combat, over it from now on?

  • Karen Tumulty:

    Well, you also had the president today saying that these centers are beautifully run and clean, and really that the administration is doing a terrific job.

    A federal judge has given them until July 12 to come up with some kind of — some kind of plan for fixing the problems down there. It's going to require a lot of resources, not only in improving the conditions in these centers, but also in hiring hundreds and hundreds more immigration judges to deal with a backlog of over 800,000 immigration cases.

    So there's not a real short-term solution. But until the administration is willing to recognize that there is an immediate problem, that there is a crisis down there, it's really hard to imagine that they are going to move to solve it, other than to just blame this on the Democrats.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, David, react to that.

    And I just keep coming back to the Republicans keep saying, we need to tighten up the asylum law and — so what's the answer to that? I mean, is there — is there a legislative remedy somehow to this?

  • David Brooks:


    Well, a couple things. One, we have had these great jobs numbers. We could be feeling good about ourselves. But a lot of us look at those centers and think, I'm ashamed of my country. And it's such a drag on our national morale that our government is sponsoring something that makes us feel embarrassed and ashamed. So that's the first thing.

    The second thing we have learned is, deterrence doesn't work. The idea of the Trump administration, we could be so cruel, and make it so hard to get here, and cause people so much pain, that they will stop coming.

    Well, they're still coming. And so that's the second — the second thing. The third thing is, presidents used to appoint czars. You would get a problem. You would pick somebody who's super competent at administering programs, and you say, figure out what to do, and build more centers, get more judges, do all the things that one needs to do to just manage the problem.

    But we take immigration and these issues as sort of cultural abstract battles, and not as concrete things that we could actually address.

    And so it becomes like a philosophical piece of the culture war, rather than, oh, let's build more centers and let's hire more judges.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So both sides end up just making the same arguments, same arguments over and over again.

    I do want to come back to the Democratic presidential candidates. And we mentioned immigration. Clearly, that's an issue.

    But you did have — we're now a week, Karen, past Joe Biden faltering in the first Democratic debate in that encounter with Kamala Harris. He tried to sort of explain this week what he meant when he answered her challenge on busing.

    How is he doing? Is he still on his back foot? What do we see?

  • Karen Tumulty:

    Well, if you look at the polls that came out this week, this is suddenly a very, very fluid race for the nomination.

    Both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have fallen significantly in the polls. Joe Biden is still ahead, but much more narrowly. And the two women who I think were the standouts of the two nights of the debates last week, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, have really seen a surge in their numbers.

    I don't think that you can overstate the amount of pressure that is going to be on Joe Biden at the next round of debates at the end of this month. He's really got to come back and show that he got the message in these — in the first debates, and that he is, in fact, who the Democrats want to have on a stage a year from now against Donald Trump.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Pressure on Joe Biden?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, for sure.

    And he's still on his back feet. He can't really hit back. And yet he can't pivot either. And that's what mystifies me. And we're talking about busing, something that happened in the mid-'70s. Are we going to talk about temperance movement next? I mean, this is ancient history.

    Why can't he just say, I was — I had the position, which was a very dominant majority position back then, that we have to integrate, but busing isn't the right solution? That was like a 95 percent position in America back then. But let's talk about segregation now. We have more segregated schools right now than we did in 1975.

    And so he could say, here's my plan for that. And just reacting with a much more aggressive posture and saying, this is my plan right now, what do you think of this, Kamala, that, to me, is the right thing to do, because he can't — he tried to rise above the fray. And he thought he could coast as the transcendental candidate, embracing all the wings of the party.

    That clearly is not going to work for him now. He's got to pick a moderate side, and then just keep coming back with his own version of Elizabeth Warren plans. I have got a plan for that. I have got a plan for that.

    I think that's the way you hold the moderate part of the party together, which is right now his only strategy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is — it's almost as if what they do and say between now and the next debate, Karen, you're suggesting it doesn't really matter, because, when he's on that debate stage, there is going to be a much bigger national audience hanging on everybody's every word.

  • Karen Tumulty:


    And he made the argument in an interview with CNN today that: I'm the kind of guy who would just go punch out a bully like Donald Trump.

    But then, at the same time, he says: But I didn't see that — those questions coming from Kamala Harris.

    It was…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Because she was a friend of our family's or something, yes.

  • David Brooks:


  • Karen Tumulty:

    But it was like, how could they not have anticipated that?

    I mean, these were questions that came directly out of the news of the week before the debates. And so I think — I think you're right. He's going to have to — he's going to have to realize and show that he's realized that he's not just sitting there waiting for the nomination to come to him.

  • David Brooks:

    And that itself was an obsolete answer.

    I mean, we're not in the relative politeness of 1992 anymore. It's 2019. And people play by much harder rules. And when Kamala Harris said to him, I don't you're a racist, I mean, that's really going somewhere.

    And so he has to be ready for that and understand the way politics are right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, and talking about punching people out. Where are we? Where are we with that?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes. Yes, right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David Brooks, Karen Tumulty, thank you.

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