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Shields and Brooks on Cohen filings and Bush’s legacy

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to analyze the week’s political news, including the latest court filings on Michael Cohen, President Trump’s new nominees and the legacy of George H.W. Bush.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This week, our nation mourned a president, and got a better glimpse of the investigation into the current commander in chief and his ties to Russia.

    There is a lot to unpack tonight with Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Hello to both of you. So, there's a lot of news tonight. It's Friday, as we have seen on a lot of Fridays, David.

    The special counsel, Robert Mueller, and not only he, but the Southern District of New York, the prosecutors there, have made public what they call filings that detail activities by people who are close to the president, specifically Michael Cohen, who's his former lawyer. And later on, we had another filing about Paul Manafort.

    We have been listening, trying to — rapidly reading through this. What do we think it adds up to? What does it tell us?

  • David Brooks:

    First, these guys are not very good cooperators. If you're going to cooperate, cooperate.

    But Manafort is going to jail probably for the rest of his life, and Cohen is getting a healthy sentence, because he sort of semi-cooperated, something like that.

    But I think what we're seeing is the pace ramp up on a lot of fronts. They are clearly interested, and they're more contacts than we knew with Russia in 2015 with the campaign, the so-called synergy they apparently found, and then especially the business dealings, Trump's dealings in Moscow.

    And my instinct is that there's going to be a lot more investigation into business than there is into Russia collusion. There's just a lot more there.

    And the other sense you get is a lot of Republicans are looking at this White House, and they are seeing an administration under a lot of judicial and legal threat and a lot under political threat, and they see a White House Counsel's Office that is denuded of authority and people.

    And then what they call the membrane around Trump is failing. And the membrane is the group of people they put around Trump to protect him from themselves. And over the years, the Hope Hicks of the world and maybe in the next few days the John Kellys of the world are going and gone.

    And so you see a Trump unprotected from himself. And you're beginning to see a lot of Republicans who are looking seriously at 2019, with a lot of Fridays like this one, and Trump really hurting himself and maybe not serving out the term.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's a lot, Mark.

  • Mark Shields:

    It is.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do you — I mean, start with the filings, though. What do you see here? Are we — what are we learning?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, I mean, I don't know, Judy.

    I look at Michael Cohen. And he turned over computers. He turned over tapes. He turned over everything. He turned over his life. He had a public conversion to virtue. And it saved him a year, it looks like. I mean, that's what it looks like anyway to the layman from the outside. It certainly doesn't look like he's skating by any means.

    So, I'm not sure if he gave what he thought he was giving or what they thought he was giving or whether there was a miscommunication. I don't know. But it did not seem like a major reduction to me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's not clear.

  • Mark Shields:

    No, it's not clear. It's not clear. And I don't pretend to be an authority on it.

    I would say that Manafort is looking at a difficult choice. I mean, it looks like he was trying to keep channels open to the White House, where the ultimate executive pardon lies, and with a mercurial president, and got caught at it. That's what it appears to be.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And David's reporting on what he's hearing from Republicans expressing concern about the kind of pressure the president is — not that he hasn't been under pressure, but that it now seems to be coming together in a way that he — that is serious.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

    I have yet to see that kind of independence on the part of Republicans. I have seen the concern there, but it's Donald Trump's party. It really is. I mean, there's no question. It's the Mark Sanford experience of 2018 that has burnt into the mind and the consciousness of every Republican who is looking at 2020.

    That is the idea that Donald Trump, with just the snap of a finger or an unfortunate or unflattering comment, can cost you renomination in your own Republican primary. Sanford had been a governor, been a member of the House, and just by Trump's kind of dismissive lost the primary.

    And it made no difference that his party ended up losing the general. That's where the concern is. I do not see that streak of independence, other than by those who are leaving. I have yet to see it among those who are looking to 2020.

  • David Brooks:

    I didn't say in public. Yet they're still afraid. They know how it's Trump's party.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    But in private, it took them a while to really digest the election results and what it meant that Democrats control the House.

    And then — and so what you see is that there's going to ramp up the political pressure. The Southern District may be more important than Mueller. You just got a legal — and then there's more fear, worry, almost mania, in the White House, as they feel all the safety guardrails coming out.

    And so they really don't know what's going to happen. And to me, the including thing — the crucial thing over the next year — or a crucial thing — is how the base Republicans react if there are indictments, if there is a political catastrophe, if people start leaving the White House in droves.

    The Republican base is still very pro-Trump. On the talk radio circuit, they're getting rid of anyone like Mike Medved, who is a radio — right-wing conservative radio jockey who is not pro-Trump. They're replacing him with pro-Trump.

    "The Weekly Standard," a magazine I used to work at, it may be closed because it's not sufficiently pro-Trump.

    So what you see is the Republican base going so pro-Trump, at the exact moment when it's possible the wheels are coming off the whole thing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Mark?

  • Mark Shields:

    I mean, they're really slow learners, Judy, Republicans are.

    I mean, they lost the midterms by more votes than any midterm election in the history of the country, all right? The Republicans got fewer. Democrats got more votes.

    I mean, I don't know what point has to be driven home to them. Donald Trump announced the day after election it was a great victory. That's 40 seats later. And with North Carolina 9 still hanging in the balance, it could be 41 seats later.

    So I don't know what they — they lost 324 house seats, state legislative seats. I mean, it was a pretty stinging rebuke of the sitting administration.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about just in terms of today's news, the president announcing who his pick is, Mark and David, to be the attorney general, William Barr, who served in the George H.W. Bush — and we're going to talk about him in just a moment, his life.

    But that, and then Heather Nauert to the U.N., and a new pick for the head of the Joint Chiefs.

    Does this tell us something new in the kind of people he's thinking?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, I think Bill Barr is probably as quality a choice as there has been in the Trump administration. He's confirmable. He's an able man, is especially confirmable, in the sense that he's now identified with George H.W. Bush, 41, who was lionized, if not idealized, this week. It's even a great credential.

    To me, perhaps the unwritten story is the dismissal of — the abrupt ending of Joe Dunford's chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His term doesn't expire until next September 30th. They announced his appointment, his successor today, which puts him in a terrible position.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Unusual.

  • Mark Shields:

    Unusual position.

    The word is that both Mattis and Dunford were pushing for the chief of staff, the general of the Air Force to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and they didn't prevail. General Milley was chosen, so that is really a — it will be a real upset. Dunford will be gone.

    There are stories that the chief of naval operations will leave, the Air Force general will leave. So, there's going to be a major, major turnover in military leadership.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just a lot of change, David.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    Barr is the big one for me. He is, as Mark said, a Republican establishment figure with a great pedigree, a lot of respect around this town. He is a Republican. There are a lot of Democrats complaining he has got conservative views on this or that.

    Well, that's true. He's a Republican. And he has credibility in Trump world for a lot of different reasons.

    To me, the interesting thing is, does he become Elliot Richardson two, somebody who — Elliot Richardson resigned, rather than fire the special counsel, and that set off the Saturday Night Massacre. And after that, it was curtains for Richard Nixon.

    And here's someone who has integrity, who has credibility, and has loyalty to something higher than Donald Trump. And if Trump asks him to do something immoral, it's quite possible that he would resign, and then that you would see sort a Saturday Night Massacre again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Wow.

    In the few minutes we have left, though, I do want both of you both to reflect on the life of President George H.W. Bush. We spent several days this week remembering him, remembering his administration, Mark.

    Not a perfect man, everybody said that, but someone who stood out for his decency, for his belief in public service.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes, I found the whole week rather fascinating.

    And it's a reminder of something David has written and gotten a lot of attention for on the difference between resume virtues and eulogy virtues, resume virtues being those that operate in the marketplace, your professional achievements, your business success, your high test scores, and the eulogy virtues being the qualities of character that one is remembered or cherished for.

    And it was — the concentration was very much on the latter. And it led for an awkward ceremony at the National Cathedral, because, even by un-intention, everyone was comparing him to President Trump, the unselfishness, the decency, the thoughtfulness toward people.

    Just the little story, Judy, about when President Bush was meeting Pope Paul — John Paul. And so he arranged that, in his close detail that day, that the Catholic members of the Secret Service be there, so that they would have the privilege and honor of meeting his Holy Father.

    And when Donald Trump was meeting Pope Francis, the most excited person in his whole entourage was Sean Spicer, his press secretary, who was then excluded from the party.

    So, it stood in stark and marked contrast. And it was not nearly as overt in its difference as was the McCain, where it was sort of just one side and the other side.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Much more, much more overt.

    And, David, there was humor, too, in remembering him.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    One of my favorite Bush stories is when he was first running for office, the staff would put in paragraphs in the speech saying — where he would talk about how great he was, and he would never read them, because, "I don't do that," because that's the ethos of a modest man.

    And they finally persuaded him, and eventually he said — he read the paragraph about how great he was. And his mom, who was then still alive, called him up and said, "George, you're talking about yourself." And he would never read it again.

    And so that's an ethos of self-effacement that says, I'm no better than anybody else, but nobody's better than me. And we have come a long way from that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's also a reminder of how differently we view our political leaders when they leave office, when they step aside from being in the public eye every minute to being 25 — what is it? What are we now, 25, 27 years later — and, as you say, Mark, there's a big contrast.

  • Mark Shields:

    And it's really a prism of the present.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes. That's right.

  • Mark Shields:

    That's right.

    I mean, if Barack Obama were president, there wouldn't have been, I don't think, the emphasis upon the personal virtues, which he certainly deserves.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you both.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

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