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Mark Shields and Ramesh Ponnuru on Trump, Ukraine and ‘quid pro quo’

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Ramesh Ponnuru of The National Review join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s political news, including President Trump’s insistence that foreign leaders should investigate the Biden family, how the White House is responding to the subsequent House investigation and the newest fundraising and poll numbers among 2020 Democrats.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And an update.

    Late today, the House of Representatives' Oversight Committee formally notified the White House that it is issuing a subpoena for documents related to the impeachment investigation.

    Now to the political analysis of Shields and Ponnuru. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Ramesh Ponnuru of "The National Review." David Brooks is away.

    Hello to both of you.

    So, the news just keeps coming. It's been a week of cascading information about what the president said in a phone call. And then the president himself, Mark, reinforces this with announcing to the world that he's urging China to look into Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

    My bottom-line question for both of you is, is there fire here? Is there evidence, in your mind, of either a law that's been broken or a violation of the president's oath? Or is this just smoke?

  • Mark Shields:

    I think there's more than smoke, Judy. I'm not a lawyer, and I don't play one on TV, but there's certainly a strong case to be made that the president openly solicited and sought the intervention and involvement of a foreign government on behalf of his own candidacy, an American presidential campaign.

    And I think, usually, it's the law that's in dispute in these cases of a big argument, rather, about facts. There's no real argument about facts here. They're pretty much out in the open. And the president really opened it up on the driveway on Thursday, when he bid China to come in and come up with information, unflattering, libelous or criminal information, on Joe Biden and his family.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ramesh, do you see this as either a law broken or a violation of his oath?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    We have this tendency to see scandals in terms of hidden events that have to be uncovered.

    And so we can't always process when the president says something in public, the way he did with respect to China, when he openly, publicly, with the world watching, said that he wanted China to investigate political opponents, and that his treatment of China in trade negotiations would depend on that.

    All of his defenders have been saying, no quid pro quo. We saw a quid pro quo on national television.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, of course, the president said today — made a point of coming out today and saying to the press, no, there's no quid pro quo. I'm not tying what China does with regard to these investigations to the trade negotiations.

    But he did say that yesterday.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    Right. He said it.

    And he — I think he realized that he made a mistake, and he is trying to un-say it. But it also shows you that he will undercut the defenses that his allies make, which is one reason why a lot of Republicans have been heading for the tall grass.

    They don't want to be out there defending the administration with a line that the administration itself might abandon.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, Mark — Mark…

  • Mark Shields:

    No, I think Ramesh's point is salient and right.

    There's been a little bit of the old Sherlock Holmes story about the dog that didn't bark, the story of the dog that, when the race horse was stolen, the dog didn't bark in the night, which suggested that maybe it was somebody inside the household who was responsible for the crime.

    The dog didn't bark. There's no Republicans — usually, Republicans — there's a number of Republicans you can count on to be on television. There's no such term as indecent exposure to them. If there's a microphone and a camera, they're there.

    All of a sudden as Ramesh puts it, they're in the tall grass. They don't want to. And the reason is, Judy, that there is no White House strategy. I mean, it's pretty obvious.

    I mean, the difference between this and Bill Clinton in 1998, when Clinton effectively compartmentalized, I'm going about my business, Donald Trump, as one leading Republican said to me this week, ought to be working on prescription drugs. He ought to be doing that and holding meetings on it, and this and that and the other thing.

    And he's totally obsessed with this. And he — so if you're going to defend him, you don't know what you're going to be defending an hour from now or certainly tomorrow morning.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you see a — did you see a — do you discern a White House strategy in all of this?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    Well, I think, as often is the case with this administration, there is a strategy for holding the president's base supporters.

    And that may well be enough, because you need a two-thirds supermajority in the Senate to convict and remove a president from office. So if you're looking forward to the endgame, just maintaining your base is enough.

    I don't see a strategy right now that is trying to change the minds to of people in the middle.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Meanwhile, Mark, the congressional Democrats, the House Democrats — and we just mentioned another one — they're asking the White House now for documents.

    I was told just a moment ago it's White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, among others. They're asking for documents as they pursue these investigations.

    But they have asked Secretary of State Pompeo. They have asked Vice President Pence. This is not — they seem to be moving briskly with this. What does that tell you? Is that the smart course? Should they be taking their time? What do you make of this?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, I think events are very much in the saddle. And I think it's moved a lot faster than anybody anticipated.

    If a week ago, you had suggested that the president was going to call for the arrest and trial on treason for the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee this week, and go on at a pace, as Ramesh described, as his negotiation on trade with China on the basis of information on the Bidens, you know, it — so I don't think there's any master plan here, Judy.

    And the White House's decision to say, we want a vote on the impeachment in the House, that puts a lot of House Republicans in a bad position. I mean, do you want to vote against an impeachment inquiry and then get overcome by events, I mean, to put you in a position November of 2020 when you wanted — it looks like you wanted the dust everything under the rug, because, given the velocity with which disclosures are being made, that's a very risky vote for a lot of House Republicans?

  • Judy Woodruff:


    Do you want to give the Democrats, the House Democrats, a grade on how they're pursuing this?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    Well, I think there have been some errors.

    I think that Chairman Schiff's dissembling really about his contacts or his staff's contacts with the whistle-blower was an unforced error.

    But I think the key thing going forward, the Democrats have to internalize that the politically smart thing to do is not to constantly be trying to figure out the politically smart thing to do at each step of the process.

    They have got to handle this like a serious inquiry for adults and not be distracted by every moment's polls.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you think they're doing that right now?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    I think that they are trying.

    I think that Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made a very concerted effort to get Democrats to take a step back a little bit, not be gleeful about condemning this administration, but to rather have a posture of seeing where the facts go.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark, you have been watching this city for a long time.

    Do you think this is something the Democrats can get done? They have said they want to get it done as quickly as possible. Can they get something like this, the inquiry finished, move on potentially to an actual impeachment vote in a matter of a few weeks or month?

  • Mark Shields:

    I think probably months, Judy.

    But, I mean, just take somebody like Mike Pompeo, secretary of state. They were talking seriously a week ago about him running for the United States Senate from Kansas. He was the logical inevitable candidate of the Republicans. I think he's a lot less so today.

    I mean, this is reaching out and touching more and more people. I do disagree with Ramesh on NICK SCHIFRIN: and the Intelligence Committee. I think it's absolutely natural that the whistle-blower, a professional public employee, would go to the staff.

    I mean, he has been surrounded by people who have been hostile. And I think it's very — it's very frank, and we ought to take notice of the fact that the only reason we're aware of what's happened is because of career public employees.

  • Mark Shields:

    This is not — these weren't political appointees. These are people who are nameless, faceless, who get attacked by every cheap shot in a political campaign.

    But at Foreign Service and at CIA and the Department of Justice — the I.G. was a Department of Justice 15-year attorney. So, I mean, I think it's time to give some credit to the people who did put their vow of service above their own self-interest.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Excuse me.

    I do want to turn to the 2020 candidates here and ask you quickly, number one, is Joe Biden hurt by this? What do you think?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    Well, Biden, I think, had been sinking in the Democratic primaries, and Senator Elizabeth Warren had been coming on pretty strong, even before this story really blew up.

    But I think that those trends have continued since that story has blown up. I don't know if the — if Biden has been sufficiently agile in making his case and being aggressive and saying, look, the president is afraid of me.

    I think he's started sound that note, but it's a little late.

  • Mark Shields:


    Joe Biden ought to take a leaf out of the campaign of Grover Cleveland, where he was nominated at that convention by General Edward Bragg, who said Cleveland had alienated the Democratic organization, the corrupt Democratic organization, and big money on the Republican side.

    And he stood up, and he said, we love Grover Cleveland for the enemies he has made.

    That's — Joe — Joe Biden ought to have the — his campaign ought to have the wit and wisdom stand up and say, it's obvious that they're terrified. They're so terrified of Joe Biden. They don't want to run against Joe Biden. And that's why Trump has been doing everything.

    And I think that's — that's a natural way to come back. But I agree that he has slipped.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, one thing that has — new information that's come in, and that is how much money the Democrats have been able to raise in the last quarter.

    Joe Biden came in fourth among all the Democrats.

    And I just want to say that I just learned both The New York Times and The Washington Post are reporting tonight that Bernie Sanders did have a heart attack this week. We knew that there had been an incident of some sort. He had two stents inserted in an artery.

  • Mark Shields:


  • Judy Woodruff:

    But we now know, the reporting is that he had a heart attack.

    Having said that — and we just showed the graphic there, Ramesh — he earned — he picked up more than $25 million, Bernie Sanders did, better than all of the all — of his competitors. Elizabeth Warren after — came in after him, and then Pete Buttigieg, and then Joe Biden.

    And we just showed our audience — we're going back and forth here, but we just showed them President Trump's amount. And it's $125 million, of course, overshadowing everything that the Democrats have done.

    But, Ramesh, what do we learn from these numbers, if anything, right now?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    Well, I think that they tend to confirm the trends that we were talking about, that Warren has been rising, and that Biden has been sinking.

    Biden is closer in his fund-raising haul to Andrew Yang than he is to either Senator Sanders or to Senator Warren. We know that Senator Sanders has a strong fan base.

    And I think one thing this fund-raising appeal shows us is that he's not going to be fading out. He's not going to be muscled out of the primaries in favor of some other candidate, but can stay in the long haul, if he wants.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark, about 30 seconds. What do you see in these — in these numbers?

  • Mark Shields:

    Money matters. I mean, make no mistake about it.

    I think Warren — Bernie, God bless him. His numbers in the polls have been slipping, but, I mean, he got $25 million. They — he has a committed donor base.

    Elizabeth Warren's surge, both in the polls and in money, is impressive. Make no mistake about it. I don't think this campaign is going to be won or lost on money. I really don't.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • Mark Shields:

    Among the Democrats.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One thing is for sure right now, that it's the president who's getting most of the attention in this — in this campaign.

  • Mark Shields:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark Shields, Ramesh Ponnuru, thank you.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    You're welcome.

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