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Shields and Brooks on Barr testimony, Democrats’ dilemma

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s political news, including Attorney General William Barr’s Senate testimony and absence from a scheduled House Judiciary Committee hearing, deteriorating relations between Congress and the White House, the president’s phone call with Vladimir Putin and 2020 Democratic candidates.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    From the attorney general's testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary, his refusal to appear before the House committee, and a growing 2020 field, it's been another busy week in Washington.

    Here to assess it all are Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks, who's joining us tonight from San Francisco.

    Hello to both of you, David and Mark.

    Let's start by talking about that phone call that we learned about this afternoon, Mark, the president on the phone, over an hour, with Russia's President Vladimir Putin. We are told the president himself said they talked about Russian interference or alleged interference in the 2016 election, but completely dismissed it.

    He said the two of them agreed that the Mueller report was a waste of time, in so many words, and that the whole Russian — belief that the Russians did anything wrong was a hoax.

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, the president has ended the discussion. That's it, Judy. I mean, it's over.

    I mean, ignoring the findings of the CIA, of the NSA, of the intelligence agency the Center for National Intelligence, Senator, former Ambassador Dan Coats, all of the American agencies, including General Jim Mattis, the secretary of defense, and Secretary — now Secretary Pompeo, Mike Pompeo, when he was CIA director.

    All concluded that Russia had interfered. But when asked by Kristen Welker today, did you talk about meddling on the part of Russia, he accused — the president accused the NBC correspondent of being rude by asking such a question.

    So that's where we are.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, are we — does it undermine what Robert Mueller did that the president continues to say this whole thing was a hoax?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, it really undermines American democracy. It's like having a conversation with the Japanese emperor in 1942 and not mentioning Pearl Harbor.

    It was an invasion of this country, an invasion of our democratic process. And every American in our country, except one, understands that. And so Trump wonders why people investigate the idea of Russian collusion and the idea that he's somehow tied to Russia in some nefarious way.

    Well, this is why they do it, because, in public and in the way he conducts himself, he acts like someone who is in collusion with Russia . And there was probably no collusion, but he certainly acts that way.

    And you just wonder a few things. You wonder what Putin is thinking when he doesn't get challenged when he does something like this. And then you wonder, what exactly is the motivation here? Does Trump just like Putin personally? Is there an actual strategic thought behind these decisions? It's kind of baffling.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we are told that it doesn't appear the president brought up any concerns about the Russians interfering in 2020, which, Mark, as you said, other officials have said.

    But somebody who was before the Congress this week because of the Mueller report was the attorney general, William Barr. Mark, he spent hours answering questions before the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was very contentious when Democrats were asking questions.

    But he held his ground. He said he — he defended the way he handled Robert Mueller's report. And this came just hours after we learned that Mueller had stepped in to tell the attorney general he didn't like the way the report had been characterized.

  • Mark Shields:

    That's right.

    Judy, I have to say that the attorney general — finally, the president got an attorney general he wanted. This is what he's been asking for, that Jeff Sessions failed the test of the loyal counselor, the apologist, the defender, and all-out defender.

    I mean, he even ascribed the president's interventions or attempts to get people to do things, to make calls to fire people as just the innocent act of somebody frustrated, not in any way nefarious or double-dealing.

    So that's what he did. And now he's not going to appear before the House. And I would say, as long as this feud goes on, as it's Bill Barr against Jerry Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, it's exactly where the White House wants it to be.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, what did you make of the attorney general this week before the Senate?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I thought it was best expressed by a piece by Benjamin Wittes, who's a legal expert in "The Atlantic."

    He said he didn't see any sign of perjury, that he didn't lie, as Nancy Pelosi claims, but he spun. And so everything he said was shaded in the direction to make Trump look good.

    And if there was one thing we needed right now, and one thing we need, it's people being honest, people who you can actually trust, who are not just spinners. And the job of attorney general is to — is not like the other administration jobs. It's supposed to have its own independent loyalty to the law and to the agency.

    And when you become just another spinner for the president, then you're undermining your relationship to the American people. You're undermining your defense of the agency, and you're subtly undermining law.

    And so I just would have loved for him to just get out there and say, here's the facts, you can trust me, I'm telling you straight.

    But he didn't tell it straight. He withheld when he wanted to. He was — he sort of sidestepped things. He was just another press spokesman.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And this all seemed to play in, Mark, to what appears to be a seriously deteriorating relationship between Democrats in the Congress and the administration.

    As the Democrats seek more information, they want to investigate what comes out of the Mueller report, the administration, the Trump White House is saying, no, we're not going to turn over documents. We're not going to let you interview people.

    What are we headed for? I mean, as David just mentioned, the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, was comparing — today was comparing what the president is doing to Richard Nixon.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

    I mean, that the attorney general was deliberately misleading, deliberately unclear, nobody can argue. I don't think there's any question about that.

    As far as deteriorating relations, Judy, I mean, the Democrats have the House, the Republicans have the Senate. And the election is some 14, 15 months, 16 months away. And it's a — it's politically fraught, make no mistake about it.

    If — the Democrats have to make the case against Donald Trump. And the case to be made is on health care, that this administration, led by this attorney general, this week moved again for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

    That would lead, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, 32 million Americans losing health insurance. All right? That's where you ought to be fighting politically.

    But I understand the Democrats' dilemma. It's, quite frankly, this, Judy, that they are facing what is a constitutional challenge and test with this president and what he has done. And to leave it be and move away from it completely is to somehow establish the precedent that a president can do just about anything.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, are the Democrats making a mistake? Are they going overboard by the demands that they're making?

  • David Brooks:

    I think, in some ways, they are.

    The focus — I think Nadler's focus is — seems just as partisan as anything that's coming from the Republican side. I think there's one more step here. That's a Mueller testimony . But it's hard to see too many other steps after that.

    If I were a Republican, I would think, if they want to talk about the minutia of the Mueller report, and we want to talk about 3.2 percent growth and 4.4 percent increase in wages for the poorest workers, that's a conversation I would like to have as a Republican.

    And so I do — I think the Democrats would be wiser politically to let the voters settle this argument and take it to the voters on the issues the voters actually care about.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Mark, just to wrap this up, so are you saying Democrats should just drop this?

  • Mark Shields:

    No, I don't think — I don't think they drop it.

    I think, quite bluntly, Judy, that Chairman Nadler has come across as almost on a personal vendetta against Donald Trump. I think there's hearings to be held. I think the Bob Mueller hearings — I mean, I don't know, for example, why they just didn't have Attorney General Barr in.

    And then, if they wanted to turn it over to a staff attorney to ask questions at some point, let the attorney general get up and barge out. I mean, why get into this back and forth, if you really want to hear what he has to say?

    And that's what it's — that's what it's become. Yes, no witness should be able to determine exactly what the conditions are under which that witness will appear.

    But, listen, I just don't — I think Bill Barr, Jerry Nadler, with the best unemployment record in 50 years, is a plus for the White House. And that's not exactly where you want the Democrats to be right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, just quickly, any middle ground here?

  • David Brooks:

    I don't think so. I haven't seen much middle ground in Washington in a few years.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's true.

  • David Brooks:

    So I don't think so.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let's move on just quickly, both of you, to 2020.

    We — Joe Biden jumped in the race over a week ago. But he made his first big campaign appearance, David, this week in Pittsburgh. He's making a clear pitch, reach to Democrat — I mean, to voters who are working-class, who are members of labor unions, and others.

    Is that a smart approach for him? And, by the way, we have now got close to, what, 23 Democrats who are talking about running for president.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    First, I think Biden is taking the smart approach. And it's paying off for him. I think a lot of us were stunned by how well he's done in the polls since he announced. He's very strongly ahead. He's tied with Bernie Sanders among Democrats who call themselves very liberal.

    He's strong in the center. He's strong on the right of the party. He's strong across the board. He's especially strong with minorities, 50 percent of minorities. African-American voters support him. He's opened up — it's very early. He's opened up a very compelling lead. So his strategy is clearly working.

    As for the number of candidates, I'm beginning to think it's a problem. You have a dinner party, you think how many people can we have a good conversation with? Twenty-two is not the right number.

    (LAUGHTER)

    And I think, if we have that many candidates, first, they're going to have to do desperate things to win attention.

    And, second, we in the media are going to act as gatekeepers. We're only going to be — pay attention to a few and we will be the gatekeepers and not the voters. So I'm sort of worried about what's about to happen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about that? I want to ask about Biden…

  • Mark Shields:

    Sure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … but also about this notion that there are so many candidates who are making a serious run.

  • Mark Shields:

    Judy, there's so many candidates for a very simple reason.

    In the last Gallup poll before the election of 2016, the first time in American history, both candidates were rated personally unfavorably by the voters. Donald Trump was 36 percent favorable, 61 percent unfavorable. He had never served a day in public office, either in civilian or military life. He had no experience, and he won, an unpopular man.

    I'm a congressman, three terms, I'm a county commissioner, why shouldn't I run? If I could be one of the two people on the field against him in November, I can beat him.

    That encourages all kinds of people who never thought, quite frankly, of running in the past to run.

    David is right. The idea of the press being the gatekeepers is a rather sobering and un-reassuring prospect, based upon the great job we did in 2016 with Donald Trump in particular.

    (LAUGHTER)

    So I think that's a problem.

    The other problem is that somebody could win in that big a field with 33, 35 percent, and never have to worry about getting to a majority.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot less than 50.

  • Mark Shields:

    A lot less than 50. If you have got a solid 30, then that's problem.

    But it will winnow out in a hurry. We won't get — have 23 in Iowa. And we sure as hell won't have more than four or five, max four, after Iowa. So I'm confident in that respect.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, 30 seconds, David. Do you think we're going to be down to four or five by Iowa?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    No, I don't. I think we're going to have many.

    And let's just respect the office of the presidency. It's an impossible job. It's some — you should have the preparation of a Bob Dole or a John McCain or somebody who's been around, John Kennedy, before you step into that job.

    Let's — there should be a ladder leading to that job. You just — it's not a novice, first job for anybody.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That rules out several of the folks who are running. We won't name any names, but it does rule out a few.

  • Mark Shields:

    And it rules several in.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It does rule several in.

    David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you.

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