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Shields and Brooks on border wall negotiations, Mueller updates

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks analyze the week in politics, including whether Republicans are on the defensive, normal negotiations vs. “towers of ego,” Michael Cohen’s upcoming congressional testimony and the news that Paul Manafort may have shared polling data with a Russian associate.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And to the analysis now of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Hello to both of you.

    Twenty-first day, Mark, of the shutdown, it is. You could say we're right where we were a week or two ago, but the difference is that the president went to the border, the president had an Oval Office address, where he made his case. He was — the Democrats responded to him.

    Are we hearing arguments from either side that would give them the upper hand, or are we just stuck in this stalemate forever?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, I hope we're not stuck here forever, Judy.

    But I would say that there's not an upper hand, but the lower hand is held by the president, I mean, not that the Democrats are celebrating or spiking the ball in the end zone, or they have any reason to, but the president — you mentioned the speech he gave, in which he acknowledged to press people on a background check basis before the speech that he was doing it reluctantly, under duress from his communications director and Kellyanne Conway, going to the border reluctantly.

    And the speech came across as somebody who was just going through the motions. It was done with no conviction, no passion, no intensity, and I think very little persuasiveness to it.

    The difference in the relationship right now is that Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is no longer speaker. Nancy Pelosi of California is. And the difference, I think, is that he's being called out on facts, which didn't happen in the first two years of his presidency.

    When he says there's a flood of people coming across, it's the lowest it's been in 46 years. She calls him out on that. And I think that's a changed relationship.

    But I don't think this is the greatest tiff for the Democrats, and especially the rebuttal of Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. I mean, it was staged by somebody from runaway road edition of the American Gothic. And they looked uncomfortably close together. And I didn't think it particularly worked.

    But I would say that the Republicans and Donald Trump are very much on the defensive and remaining there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, do you see either side making a better argument?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I hear like the strange two-track phenomenon that's going on.

    Apparently, at the under level, they're actually having normal negotiations. The Republicans are asking for $5.7 billion for the wall. They know they're not going to get that. They're like thinking maybe, we can get three. The Democrats are thinking 1.3, and may wish go up to two — the Republicans are hoping they get up to two.

    And so it's a normal negotiation, like you're buying a house. And that sounds like a normal negotiation. And if it was that, they could get two, and Trump could walk away with money for the wall, it wouldn't be that much, and that would — we would just be done with this.

    And it's crazy that they're arguing — that they're shutting the government over several hundred million dollars.

    At the ego level, which is the Pelosi-Trump level, you have an entirely different set of situations, where it's not a normal negotiation over money. It's an absolutist ego position, my way or zero.

    And one sees the under-level negotiations happening, but then constantly being crushed by the ego level. So, for example, this week, a bunch of Republican senators, with Lindsey Graham's involvement, tried to propose another solution that Trump could accept, that we talked about last week, which would be DACA, a path to citizenship for some money for the wall.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Children of…

  • David Brooks:

    And White House apparently signaled to them, no, we're not going for that deal.

    So the Republicans didn't want to get in front of their own White House, so they never proposed the deal. Similarly, a lot of moderate Democrats would love a deal, but they don't want to get out in front of Nancy Pelosi.

    So we have right now got two towers of ego who can't give, and a lot of other people trying to do something in the middle, with not much effect.

  • Mark Shields:

    I take exception to the two towers of ego.

    I mean, let's get very blunt. I mean, if the Republicans cared about the wall, they had total control of the federal government for two years. And what did they do in those two years? They repealed, but didn't replace preexisting condition for health care. They repealed the Affordable Care Act, tried mightily to do so. They passed a tax cut, which will — that has actually reduced federal revenues, we just learned this week, in spite of the fact that the economy has grown by 3 percent.

    The last time the economy grew by almost 3 percent, tax revenues were up 7 percent. But because of the structuring of it by this administration and what it cares about — and for some reason Donald Trump and his advisers thought, well, it'll be easier to deal with Nancy Pelosi than it would — the Democratic majority in the Congress than it was with Paul Ryan.

    Now, where did this come from? Where did they ever get that idea? So I — mean, to me, the fault is on the Republican side. What they cared about was the tax cut. What they cared about was repealing the Affordable Care Act.

    I mean, that was — those were their priorities.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about…

  • David Brooks:

    Well, don't ask me to give a linear description of Donald Trump's brain, what it's thinking at any moment.

    But he should have fought this fight, obviously, when the Republicans were there. If he really cared about the wall, he should have cared about the wall. I think he was prompted by what he sees as a crisis on the border by all the families, which we saw earlier in the show, coming across the border. And so suddenly he got hyped up about all this.

    But, given where we are, you know, he won an election running on the wall. And Nancy Pelosi won an election running on DACA. So this, to me, is not that complicated. You come — both those sides come together and offer that proposal. And Nancy Pelosi doesn't give him $5 billion on the wall, but she gives him $2 billion. And we can have an actual government.

    And, to me, that's a deal that just seems so obvious. But Trump is not going there. And whatever one thinks of the merits of Pelosi's position — and I'm not a fan of the wall — but let's get this done with, and you have got two parties. Come to an agreement.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you have got 800,000 federal employees who are not getting paid and an increasing ripple effect on the American people.

  • Mark Shields:

    No, you do.

    And let's be very blunt. The late Bob Teeter, who was a Republican pollster and a strategist and a very admirable human being, once said, the American people are philosophically conservative, but they're operationally liberal.

    And by that, he simply meant, you ask people how they feel about the federal government, it's a pain in the neck, too much red tape, get them off my back, out of my life.

    However, when told a single can of tuna fish has been discovered in Pocatello, Idaho, with a trace of botulism in it, there's a universal American reaction, is, where the hell was the federal government? And I want to know. I want a report in my office in 24 hours.

    We want this energetic, small, efficient federal government working on our side 24 hours a day cheap. And the fact is that, right now, I mean, we're looking at 40 million Americans who depend on food stamps to put food on the table for their family.

    We're talking about children who go to school who need the expanded health care and school lunch program. And we're talking about women's and infant care. I mean, we're heading toward, and, quite conceivably — the Food and Drug administration being undefended — we could have some sort of a breakout of disease or infection.

    I mean, so…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And airline safety, which we were talking about tonight.

  • Mark Shields:

    And airline safety as well.

    So, I mean, I just — I really think that this is pretty serious stuff, and which I don't think has been accepted and acknowledged by the president.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, if that's the case, David, why — where are rational minds in all this? I mean, it's just — it's a spectacle.

  • David Brooks:

    Well, I think the leaders are both seeing all the people who are upset by this, and they know they're paying a price, but they're more afraid of…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    On both sides?

  • David Brooks:

    I think on both sides. Donald Trump probably has more conviction, but…

  • Mark Shields:

    More conviction than…

  • David Brooks:

    Well he, has more — he believes in his own propaganda, probably, a little more than Nancy…

  • Mark Shields:

    Do you really…

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

  • Mark Shields:

    Wow. OK. All right.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    No, I accept your sincerity on it. I just — it's your perception.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • David Brooks:

    I think he fervently thinks he's serving — he thinks there is some threat and he believes in the position.

    But I think they're also afraid — they have walked themselves up to a spot where it's hard for them to actually make a deal, because they have both been so absolutist. Nancy Pelosi said the wall was immoral. Trump says we're under threat from the whole world coming to get us.

    And so they have built these barriers of absolutism around their position. I look at this whole thing, and I think we're the country that defeated fascism. Like, we fought in World War II. That was sort of a complicated thing we had to pull off.

    You go back to the '60s, all the Great Society legislation. I was even looking. In the '70s today, Ted Kennedy and the Republicans got together to deregulate airlines.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's right.

  • David Brooks:

    We just have a history of taking for granted a level of professional craftsmanship in our legislators. And we don't have anything like that now.

    And that's been a long process over many decades that just the level of skill of crafting legislation has been in slow, gradual decline. And now we're at a nadir.

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, Donald Trump may believe it, but he's wrong.

    And I just — I don't fault the Democrats for correcting him. When he says that there's — drugs are flooding across the southern border, 90 percent of illegal drugs that come into this country come in through legal…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Legal.

  • Mark Shields:

    … legal ports, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency of the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But that hasn't stopped the administration from making that argument.

  • Mark Shields:

    That's what I mean.

    So, sincerity is one thing. Stupidity is another, or woeful ignorance.

  • David Brooks:

    Let me just say, like, I agree with you. But this is not a debating society. This is politics. In politics, they win an election on a position, you got to have — and they have some power. You have some power. You reach agreement.

    You can't just say, you're wrong. That's not a real good negotiation strategy.

  • Mark Shields:

    No.

    I mean, he just lost an election, 40 House seats, on the caravan, all right? The caravan turned out to be not the great threat, not the marauding invasion there was. There is no caravan now, and he's still trying to sell the same bill of goods.

    At some point, you got to say, hey, pal, maybe we could work it out.

    They did have a compromise, David, as you know, before Christmas, until Ann and Rush intervened and said, Donny, you're not being tough enough.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The conservative talk show — talk show hosts.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two minutes or less that we have left.

  • Mark Shields:

    Sorry.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    No, we're going to be — much more uplifting subject, the Mueller-Russia investigation.

    David, there were a couple of developments this week. We now know the president's former lawyer Michael Cohen is going to testify before Congress.

    And, in a surprising move, it turns out that Paul Manafort, former campaign chairman for the president, his lawyers had a piece of paper in their filing that disclosed that Paul Manafort shared election — campaign polling data with Russians.

    What are we to think about this?

  • David Brooks:

    I hate it when incompetence ruins corruption.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    They — well, we have learned a few more things.

    First, the Cohen thing would be interesting, I think, not for any Russia angles, but because Cohen was Trump's fixer for a long time. And so there's all sorts of stories about — about Playmates and other things that Cohen has access to. So that will be — that will be a week of our life will be dedicated to analyzing that.

    But the Mueller thing is just — it's like a growing algae or something. It's just — there's always something new here. And it's — none of it is like killer, impeachable events.

    But when you see all the Ukrainians were — who were heavily involved in the inauguration, who came, paid a lot of money, these were the same oligarchs, the pro-Russia thing, who Manafort met with. They had a vested interest in some sort of lifting of the sanctions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Twenty seconds. Twenty-five seconds.

  • Mark Shields:

    Twenty-five seconds, Judy.

    In 25 seconds, I would say the following. The Mueller investigation was initially about Russian intrusion, intervention in the election of 2016.

    And both David and I think we were a little skeptical about it, more than a little skeptical about it. And, if anything, the evidence just keeps building. I mean, this is back now to the mandate that Mueller had, which was Russian intervention. And we're finding out about Russian intervention.

    We're going to find out about whether the information went to — polling information went on Michigan and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We got a peek at it this week, and we're going to get more peeks.

  • Mark Shields:

    We got a peek at it this week. And Michael Cohen will be the John Dean of this generation.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.

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