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Dionne and Ponnuru on Bannon’s White House exit, Trump’s Charlottesville isolation

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. and Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review join Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the week’s news, including Stephen Bannon getting pushed out of the White House, how criticism over his response to Charlottesville has affected the Trump presidency and what national turmoil over racism means for party politics.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

     And now to the analysis of Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne — he’s also co-author of the upcoming book “One Nation After Trump” — and “National Review” senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru.

    Mark Shields and David Brooks are away.

    Let’s start with the big news first, your reactions to the ouster of Steve Bannon.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru, National Review:

    Well, it’s been rumored to be happening for several weeks now. And I think this is just another example of the volatility and turnover in this administration, much of it based on petty jealousy and resentment of people who are getting, in President Trump’s view, too much press.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

     E.J.?

  • E.j. Dionne, The Washington Post:

    I think that’s all true.

    I also think it’s the case a lot of this talk about Trump as populist was always phony, that Bannon was the one guy in there who on economic issues represented the kind of populism. And his being pushed out, I think means that the Trump administration becomes much more of a kind of corporate Republican place.

    He was also obviously radioactive on racial questions because of the alt-right’s — Breitbart’s history of kind of ethno-nationalism. And so I think the two forces came together to force him out of there.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

     Does this change anything at the White House? We have already had reports tonight that he’s headed back to Breitbart, that there could be a way where he ends up forcing more change in the White House from the outside than the inside.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

     One of the interesting things, although E.J. was talking about this corporate Republican Party, you see the corporate side of this White House, it doesn’t have much institutional Republican presence.

    Of course, Trump is a fairly recent Republican himself. Reince Priebus, the chief of staff, former chief of staff, who had been chairman of the RNC, was pushed out.

    And one of the really interesting things here is that how many New York Democrats are now influential in this administration? Where it goes from now, it all depends on Trump, all of this. You know, we all obsess in Washington too much about the personnel. He’s the person who sets the tone. He’s the person who sets the policies.

  • E.j. Dionne:

     Ramesh has just come up with a brilliant Republican strategy. Blame the Democrats for Donald Trump.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • E.j. Dionne:

     I think that you will see some change, but not a lot of change.

    If you really want to change the Trump administration, you have to change the guy at the top. And that’s not happening anytime soon. But, again, where I do think where you will see some movement is on this economic side, where I suspect, for example, this is a victory for China, because Trump was — I mean, Bannon was the hawk on China trade.

    And as he said in that interview with Bob Kuttner — and, by the way, a Trump administration official will never again give an interview to a liberal columnist — is that he was fighting Gary Cohn, the chief economic adviser, great victory for him — he was fighting the Treasury Department.

    And so I think that’s an area where you will see change. And I think, by the way, it’s obviously a victory for John Kelly, who wanted to impose order, and Bannon was clearly a threat to order in the White House.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

     Let’s talk a little bit about the reactions after Charlottesville.

    They have been coming from all over. It sparked another national conversation. When you look at, for example, the magazine covers “The New Yorker,” and “TIME,” and even “The Economist,” they are covers that are about President Trump’s reaction to this, not necessarily the entire conversation.

    We just put those up on screen. If you were designing the cover today, your thoughts?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

     Well, look, I think that my cover would be the incredible shrinking presidency, that the White House is smaller than it used to be.

    For decades, people right, left, and center complained that the presidency is too powerful. This administration is shrinking the presidency. This president has less and less influence over Congress. This president is not fulfilling the usual role of the president in being the moral leader and the spokesman for the country. He’s just not being looked to for leadership.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

     E.J., speaking of leadership here, we have a rare occasion where the military leadership in unison on their private social accounts say, you know, we stand for tolerance and not for racism.

    You have got entire swathes of CEOs on his different economic and business councils abandoning him completely. How isolated is the president?

  • E.j. Dionne:

     I think in sort of this moral equivalence about the KKK and neo-Nazis and those opposed to him, he really is isolated.

    But I think you’re seeing different behavior at different sectors. The U.S. military has probably done a better job than any other American institution at integrating itself racially, at guaranteeing equal opportunity.

    And the American military wasn’t going to let a president’s statement get in the way of that. They needed to send a message. CEOs appeal to a very broad audience. The companies sell their products to all Americans. They were not going to alienate African-Americans and Asians, people of color of all kinds, as well as the people who are white who really hated what President Trump said.

    The Republicans, on the other hand, have a very different audience that they’re thinking about. They’re thinking about their primary electorate. And with some exceptions — and a notable one this week with Senator Corker, who really went after Donald Trump — they are still too worried about losing primaries to take him on.

    So, on the one side, you have the military and CEOs responding forcefully.

    On the other hand, you still have Republicans very reluctant to take on Trump.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

     One thing, though, that I think President Trump has been very shrewd about is seizing on this issue of the Confederate statues, Confederate memorials and so forth.

    All the polling suggests that Robert E. Lee is more popular than Donald Trump is right now.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • E.j. Dionne:

     You and I might be more popular than Donald Trump.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

     But he’s in a much stronger position defending those statues and saying they shouldn’t be taken down than he is appearing to defend neo-Nazis and the KKK.

  • E.j. Dionne:

     Although it’s interesting you raise that, because I think the cause of keeping those statues up suffered a huge blow this week.

    There is now more support for taking those statues down. The mayor of Baltimore arranged at nighttime to have them take all the ones that were in Baltimore taken down. And I think many more people now realize that those statues aren’t about the Civil War past. They were put up for political reasons to support Jim Crow, and so I think…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

     Look, I think, in the long run, that’s right, but I think the short-term politics of this do work for President Trump, and they work for the neo-Nazis.

    There is a reason why they chose this issue. They chose an issue that would have somewhat wider appeal than they themselves normally would.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

     All right, let me just interrupt here.

    Even if you succeeded in taking every statue and putting it into a museum, right — I mean, we had a black nationalist and a South Carolina secessionist on the program sitting next to each other.

    And one of the things that he actually said was, listen, we had that South Carolina Confederate Flag thing resolved a couple years ago. Where did that get us?

    Does the conversation about the statues paper over the deeper underlying issues of race and class that still are unaddressed?

  • E.j. Dionne:

     Well, if you’re asking does taking down a statue down solve deep inequalities in the country, of course that won’t happen, and that we need much more fundamental action on both the fronts of race and class, inequality.

    On the other hand, symbols matter, symbols teach, symbols represent how we think about both our past an our future. And so, I agree, I don’t want politics to be all about symbols. I want politics to be about action, but I think the debate we’re having around these symbols can sometimes propel action in the right direction.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

     Speaking of action, what do Republicans do? Right now, it seems that they are very good at marking out, hey, here’s my tweet, I’m not a racist, OK? It’s on the record. I said it this day.

    And this is also recess. When they come back, is there some action that they can take to show the country, this is actually where I stand, this is actually what I support?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

     I think what you’re more likely to see is the Republicans starting more and more to ignore President Trump.

    I think they have realized — it’s taken a while, but I think a lot of them have realized there isn’t going to be a change, he is who he is, there’s not going to be some pivot or some growing in office, and they have to deal with that.

    I don’t think they have come together to figure out how exactly they move forward, but I think they are at least beginning to get a grip on the problem.

  • E.j. Dionne:

     I think they could send a really powerful signal by passing the Voting Rights Act.

    Voting Rights Act was gutted by the Supreme Court. There was talk in the last Congress among some leading Republicans that they were going to restore the Voting Rights Act. That’s something they could do.

    I think they could stop these voter suppression efforts and challenge President Trump’s commission, which I think is much more about voter suppression than voter fraud.

    There are concrete steps they could take if they wanted to put real policy behind these claims that they have put out there. I welcome the fact that they’re against the KKK and the Nazis, but I think they need to do more.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

     One of the things that now Breitbart’s Steve Bannon has said repeatedly when he was in the White House in different interviews is that, you know what? The left in its frenzy right now to talk about identity politics and about race, that is great, that is a winning strategy for us, because we will talk about economic nationalism.

  • E.j. Dionne:

     Right.

    And I think if — I think that he is trying to encourage and Trump is trying to encourage the left to split on this, that you’re either about identity politics or you’re about economics.

    The fact is, if you look at the broad, progressive movement since the 1960s, progressives have always been committed to equal rights for people of color. They can’t back away from that. They shouldn’t back away from that.

    At the same time, they have been committed to greater economic equality, and we have had a long period of growing economic inequality. And I think on the progressive side you have to pursue both agendas simultaneously. You can’t just cast one against the other, but I think that’s very much what Trump and the Republicans would like to have happen.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

     He’s not wrong, Steve Bannon, in suggesting the Democrats could well overreach on some of these symbolic questions.

    The problem is with the other side of the equation. This administration is not going to be able to move toward a working-class agenda on economics, mostly because it’s underdeveloped.

    They don’t really have much of a sense of what they want to do for working-class people. Their protectionism is only going to take them so far, and, as E.J. noted, it’s something that divides the administration internally.

  • E.j. Dionne:

     And I think underscores what Dinesh — what Ramesh said is that the Republicans didn’t know what to do about health care.

    Their failure on health care reflects the fact that they really weren’t willing to take the steps to help working-class people get health care. They cut away health coverage. And that proved to be very unpopular among parts of their own base.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

     Does this conversation delay or completely derail the agenda that is still on the docket when they come back?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

     So, people talk about this Republican agenda. Why is it having so much trouble getting through? What’s the obstacle to it?

    And the basic problem is, there isn’t an agenda. There is no consensus of the Republican Party on what the basic outlines of the policies ought to look like. They are in favor of tax reform, as long as you just call it tax reform.

    When you actually spell out what it’s going to involve piece by piece, they are nowhere near where they need to be to actually pass something.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

     All right, Ramesh Ponnuru from “The National Review,” E.J. Dionne from The Washington Post, thank you both.

  • E.j. Dionne:

     Delight to be with you. Thanks.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

     Thanks.

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