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Shields and Brooks on Cohen testimony, North Korea summit

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to analyze the week in politics, including reverberations from Michael Cohen’s appearance before the House Oversight Committee and conclusions from the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It has been a turbulent week in the Trump administration, from hours of damning testimony from the president's former personal lawyer, to the collapse of nuclear talks with North Korea.

    To help navigate the different twists and turns, we turn to Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Welcome to both of you. Are you ready to navigate the twists and turns?

    (LAUGHTER)

    (CROSSTALK)

  • David Brooks:

    Just another week in Caligula's Rome.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    Ooh.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ooh.

    All right, on that note, we're going to talk about Michael Cohen's testimony all day long this Wednesday, David, before the House Oversight Committee, Government Oversight Committee.

    What was your main takeaway from it?

  • David Brooks:

    There were some things we learned.

    We learned that Trump asked about the Moscow building project all the way through the campaign. We learned about the $35,000 check. We learned a few things.

    But, to me, it was more of a moral occasion, more than anything else.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A moral occasion?

  • David Brooks:

    A moral occasion.

    What it illustrates is a president and, frankly, Michael Cohen who long ago decided that celebrity and wealth is more important than being a good person. And they have dragged us all down there with us.

    And the people they have dragged most effectively are the House Republicans, a lot of them on that committee, who decided that they were completely incurious about whether Donald Trump was a good guy or a bad guy or a really awful guy, that — their own leader, they didn't seem to care about that, but they were going to rip the skin off Michael Cohen.

    And so they attacked him. And what struck me is how moral corrosion happens, that you decide you're going to defend or ignore Trump, and then to do that, you have to morally distance yourself from him. And then you have to morally distance yourself from him every day.

    And, eventually, you just get numb to everything. And so Jim Jordan and other people on the committee were saying, oh, we all knew this, like, it's all unremarkable. And so that's — that's how moral corrosion happens.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How did you see the — I mean, was it — what role did the Republican questioning take, when most of them went after Michael Cohen, as David was saying, rather than talking about President Trump?

  • Mark Shields:

    They took the old attack route, Judy, which is, if you can't argue the substance, you go after the source. If you can't deal with the message, you shoot the messenger.

    And that's what their whole strategy was. The very fact that not a single member of the Republican committee defended Donald Trump or what he was charged or alleged to have done, to me, was revealing. They just decided to go after Michael Cohen.

    Now, it was — Michael Cohen's defects are there. They're on the record. He's going to pay for them, the legal defects in particular. But there was no payoff for him to lie. I mean, the Mueller crowd was sitting there, the Mueller, special counsel office.

    They know exactly what he said. If he said anything that was false or perjured himself, he faced further problems from them. So there was a strong incentive for him not to lie.

    And, to me, it reminded me of scripture's injunction that the meek will inherit the earth. If that's the case, then the congressional Republicans someday will be land barons, because they are the meekest, most docile, most submissive group of people when it comes to any judgment at all, any opinion on what Donald Trump does.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, David — go ahead, David.

  • David Brooks:

    what strikes me is that they don't fear final judgment.

    I don't mean that in the ultimate sense, just like…

  • Mark Shields:

    Primary judgment.

  • David Brooks:

    Primary judgment.

    The idea that you can side and suborn your soul to someone who lies constantly, and that you won't ultimately pay for that, how does that work? Michael Cohen ultimately paid. In my suspicion, Donald Trump will ultimately pay. Most people who lie and cheat their way through life ultimately pay. Maybe some get away from it.

    But why you would want to hitch your career to that kind of wagon is just a mystery to me, because that's just not the way the law of the universe works.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, of course, the Republican argument, Mark, is that Michael Cohen is a flawed character, that he's lied before, he's lied a lot. Why should we believe him now?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, I mean, I just come back to the — there was no incentive and there was a strong disincentive for him to lie on — in his appearance under oath on television before the world.

    So, I mean, everybody in the world could hear what he was saying. And it could be stacked up to what he had — he had previously said and sworn to. So, no. And he acknowledged the fact.

    I mean, you spend 10 years with Donald Trump, and it's going to come at a moral cost. I'm sorry. I mean, that is the lesson we have learned. The one person in this entire administration that has gotten away with a reputation enhanced seems to be Nikki Haley. Everybody else who's near him is somehow tarnished, diminished, hurt, wounded by that association.

    It is absolutely remarkable. I think…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • David Brooks:

    Dan Coats. You can think of a few.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes, Dan Coats. Yes, Dan Coats. You're Right.

  • David Brooks:

    He's the director of national intelligence.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    The thing that got me about Cohen is, how many times did you become a thug to small businessmen to stiff them for dealing with the Trump administration?

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    Five hundred times.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    And so that's — I don't know if it's illegal or what.

    But it's unbecoming in the extreme. And so I don't treat Michael Cohen as sort of the repented Chuck Colson. I mean, he — I think he didn't have any the air of someone who's really repented or really faced the spiritual music. He's just decided one side is against his interest, which is Donald Trump, and now the other side is for his interest, so he will say things that are nice for his interests.

    I don't think he lied. I think what he told was basically the truth, but he was basically catering now to the left and some sort of GoFundMe campaign that will help pay his legal bills.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But does this advance…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    I don't know. I don't have that kind of moral X-Ray.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    I mean, I don't know if he was a sinner and became a saint.

    I will say this. The story of 500 people did you threaten or entities, did you threaten on Donald Trump's behalf, it was a good question asked by Congresswoman Speier from California. And it was a — and he said 500 — 50, 100, 200, 500. Let's say 500.

    And — but the thing about it is, when he stiffed those small business — the plumbers and the electricians who did the work in the Trump projects, and he came back, and Donald Trump loved to hear about it, I mean, reveled in it.

    Now, I mean, at what point do you say that there's no honor here? I mean, there's nothing to admire.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And he made a point of telling that — of sharing that…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    He did. He was not — he did not set out to flatter…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But quickly, to both of you, does this advance the case against Donald Trump, advance the case of impeachment, David?

  • David Brooks:

    I think a little.

    We know the Trump Tower stuff in Moscow, the hush money. I tend to think there's much more — and, actually, everybody agrees, and I agree too, that AOC, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, did a very good job of laying down specific questions for specific predicates.

    And she focused quite a lot on the business side of the Trump empire. And if I'm a Republican, I'm thinking there's a lot of bad news to come from there, and just whether it's taxes for all — whether it's other things.

    And that's what the Southern District of New York is looking into. And so I think I'm less concerned that — there seems to be less to the Russia collusion and a lot more to everything else.

  • Mark Shields:

    I agree.

    I mean, he advanced the collusion case not at all, but he certainly laid out — I mean, he gave them leads, suggestions, people to talk to, to interview, and I would say enough stuff to keep several committees going.

    I did want to give a shout-out to Elijah Cummings, the chairman of the committee.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The chair.

  • Mark Shields:

    I thought he did a good job.

    I mean, I thought there was an earnestness and a directness about him. And I thought his summation is worth repeating and thinking about for all Americans, that this is important and we have got to return to normal. This is not normal.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And handled some very delicate, delicate moments.

    To North Korea, David, the president went over, I think, with some high expectations of what was going to come out of that, but came back empty-handed. Was there — and we have talked on this program about whose responsibility that was.

    There's disagreement about who's — whether it's the U.S. or the North Koreans. But what does this tell us about Trump foreign policy and the approach to foreign policy?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    I actually give the Trump administration a fair bit of credit on this. You would talk to people two years ago who really knew the North Korean situation from the inside, and they were terrified. I would ask people with security clearances, is it better or worse than I think? They said, it's way worse.

    And so we were in scary times with a pseudo-confrontation with a nuclear-armed power. And now we're in a much better place. So it's better to talk. It's better to just at least keep them engaged. It's better to probe to see if there's anybody in the regime who is willing to be semi-decent.

    And, if it's not there, you walk away from the deal. And I'm frankly glad Donald Trump walked away from a deal, rather than have a cheap political win. So are we in a good place? No, but we're in a lot better place than we were two years ago.

    And I think the administration's policy has been basically reasonable.

  • Mark Shields:

    Was he right to leave with no deal? Yes, absolutely. It had to bother him that the professionals, both in diplomacy and intelligence, who had been skeptical, openly skeptical about the whole deal were vindicated and were validated.

    After such a euphoric and ecstatic first date, it was almost inevitable that the couple would run into roadblocks and some rumbles in the road.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    And that's what — that's what happened.

    I mean, there's — 50 years after he was first asked to go there by his country, Donald Trump went to Vietnam. And, no, I think that what he never came to deal with is that North Vietnam is not — North Korea, rather, is not only the least democratic, with the least economic freedom of any country in the world.

    It's 43rd of the 43 countries in the Pacific Asian region economic development. The only reason we pay any attention to North Korea is that they have nuclear weapons.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Mark Shields:

    And the idea that he's going to give up his identity, his reality and the whole raison d'etre for his country to exist, I think was just a pipe dream.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, if I could revise and extend my remarks, I said it was reasonable policy.

    The emotional atmospherics are appalling, like, to say, this guy is my friend, I like him, that he didn't kill an American.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    This is a regime that practices slavery. They practice slavery.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And worse.

  • David Brooks:

    They kill people — and worse, and mass murder.

  • Mark Shields:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Worse.

  • David Brooks:

    So the idea that, emotionally, we can buddy-buddy up to the guy, that part, I want to add, is appalling.

  • Mark Shields:

    I accept his addition.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, speaking of that, what the president had to say about Otto Warmbier, the American student who was there, who was in prison, came back in a coma, and died just a few days later.

    The president today said, well, I do hold North Korea responsible. But this was after he gave Kim, leader Kim, a pass.

  • David Brooks:

    I spoke to a friend of Trump's a couple months ago. And he said, you have to remember, this guy hates conflict. He will do it over Twitter. He will never do it face to face.

    And so he's there with North Korea.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He said that about President Trump?

  • David Brooks:

    Trump, yes.

    And so he's there with North Korea. He doesn't want to offend the people in the room with him, because he just hates that sort of thing. So he will just kiss up to anybody in the room, and then tweet about them behind their back.

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, he kisses up, but he kicks down. I mean, that's the character — a lack of character of the man. In other words, you're nice to people up here, but people who are below you, there's a mistreatment and a maltreatment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, as I said, when he came back to the United States, he said, I hold North Korea responsible.

    But that was not what he said when he was over there.

  • Mark Shields:

    And when Otto Warmbier's parents…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    After they said today — that's right.

  • Mark Shields:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

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