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Shields and Brooks on DOJ’s Flynn reversal, Trump’s pandemic response

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the latest political news, including the Department of Justice’s request to throw out the case against Michael Flynn, the politicization of American government institutions and how President Trump’s reelection ambition is driving his response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now to the analysis of Shields and Brooks.

    That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Hello to both of you.

    Let's start with the administration, the Department of Justice asking a federal judge to throw out the case against Michael Flynn, the president's former national security adviser who had pleaded guilty to lying about his contacts with Russian diplomats.

    We're going to see what the judge does, but, right now, the president is praising this. He's saying the FBI is full of people acting in bad faith.

    Mark, what do we make of this?

  • Mark Shields:

    Judy, Jeff Sessions was essentially fired as attorney general for not being Donald Trump's in-house lawyer. Donald Trump said he always wanted Roy Cohn to be the attorney general or his lawyer.

    And Bill Barr is living up to that job description. It's hard to believe that Bill Barr, having been attorney general once before, would want this as his epitaph, that he was Donald Trump's Roy Cohn, but that's all you can conclude.

    This is a man, General Flynn, who twice admitted and pleaded guilty, spoke to the judge and to the court, apologizing for lying investigators, promising, the grace of God, to make things right.

    And here we are. He's walking free. And the villain in the piece is American law enforcement. I mean, that — that's the berated and condemned institution. There was no water-boarding. There was no third degree that I know of that has been alleged in that confession coming forward, but that's the impression that is left.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, David, not only this. The president seems to be promising more to come. We're not sure what that's a reference to.

    But it certainly caught everybody's attention.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, there are a couple things true here.

    The first is that Flynn confessed, so he pleaded guilty, so I take him at his word that he lied.

    The second thing is that the Justice Department has become a hyperpartisan institution, and we can't have faith in its judgments.

    The third thing, though, is that the FBI might have screwed up here. The journalist Eli Lake of Bloomberg, who is a good journalist, has been making this argument for several months now.

    And the documents that have come out seem to clear with Lake's longtime argument, which was that the original investigation into Flynn by the FBI did not reveal anything, and they kept the investigation open. They at least considered the possibility they were keeping the investigation open not to convict him of something, but to induce him to lie.

    And so I don't know how to balance these two facts. I don't, myself, have the expertise to say whether the FBI really screwed up the investigation, whether they were really trying to hound him out of the job, but it's at least a possibility.

    And it's — the problem — the core problem is here we don't have a set of authorities who we could completely trust on this. And, frankly, I have been trying to find news organizations who really give an expert opinion on the FBI's behavior. And I have — I have had trouble getting to the bottom of that, just as a journalistic outsider.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark, what about you? What do you make of these accusations from the FBI, these disclosures about what the agents were talking about before they went to interview Mike Flynn, Michael Flynn?

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

    No, I think, Judy, what we have, there is no question about it, is that this occurred — Michael Flynn's statement calling and speaking with Ambassador Kislyak of the Russians, the day that 35 Russians, spies were banished from the United States by the Obama administration.

    And the assurance was, don't you — don't act, don't overreact, we will get back to you, and this will be OK.

    And that's the story. And it's pretty damn clear that it was a condoning of Russian intervention in the 2016 election. It's a green light to Russian further intervention and subversion of the 2020 election.

    And I — when the president of the United States calls the FBI scum, and — the one charge I think that stands is the investigation of Carter Page, which was inappropriate, was wrong.

    But I just — I don't think — I don't think this is right or healthy or in any way helpful to this country. And I think the president stands responsible.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And at the same time, David, you do have Democrats — and you both have referred to this — saying, the Justice Department has just become way too politicized, in a way that's unacceptable for the country.

  • David Brooks:

    Well, this is the story of May and April and March of 2020, the need for institutional structures in our government that we can trust and rely upon.

    And, in some cases, that's just a weak response on testing and other things. But, in this case, it's a — it's the longtime erosion of authority of the Justice Department. The Justice Department has always been teetering on the brink, going back to maybe even Robert Kennedy.

    But, in this administration, it's over the brink. And so, even in a case where I — I can't believe I'm defending Michael Flynn, but saying to Kislyak, we're going to — don't be — don't be alarmed, this will be OK, that seems to be representing Trump's clear policies, which is sympathetic to Russia.

    So, to me, it's not necessarily convicting. But I have no authority as a citizen to go to think, OK, these guys are on the level, because the Justice Department under President Trump doesn't seem to be on the level.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I want to — so much to…

    (CROSSTALK)

    Mark, go ahead. And then I want to ask you about something else, but go ahead.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    On the Justice Department, I think that, certainly, under Ed Meese and a couple of other Republican attorneys general, there were open questions.

    I think we, for the most part, have been served with attorneys general who have operated independently and honorably and legally. And I certainly would include Robert Kennedy in that group.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, I want to turn both of you to the president and the pandemic.

    I mean, it's clear, in the last few days, he's talked repeatedly about we need to change the focus more to the economy, worry more about getting people back to work. He said today — when he was asked about — he said: "Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open, and we have to get it open soon."

    Is he making the right call here?

  • David Brooks:

    I don't think so. I mean, there's a clear trade-off between our safety and our economy.

    And if we were winning, then I think his rhetoric would be justified. But we are not winning. If you look at the death rates, we're pretty much around 2,000 a day. It's been month after month after — or at least week after week after week of this. The curve is flat, but it's not going down. The death rate is hellacious.

    The people who model these things are raising their estimates of how many people are going to die. So, we're just not winning. And, someday, we will get to the point where opening up seems to me a smart strategy. But I personally don't see the evidence of that, looking at the data. And neither do people who know a lot more about this than me, the health experts.

    And so Trump seems to be wildly premature in doing this. And, frankly, the American people seem to me a little premature. Over the last week, even as the health data continues to be terrible, people are loosening. The travel is up. Gathering this up.

    And so I think, just as fellow citizens, we have got to try to hang in there a little longer, until we can get some sense of a better sense of control, some sense of a downward slope, which we just do not see right now.

    Especially when you take out the New York data, the rest of the country, you see an upward slope.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And — but, Mark, the president just seems determined to let these states do what they want, as we — now more than 30 states are loosening — are opening up at different — a different pace.

    But he does seem determined to let this run its course, to let them do what they think is right.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

    And all responsibility is with the governors for opening it up. And if anything, then there's a second bout, then the president can distance himself from it politically.

    I don't think there is any question, Judy, that, given the numbers today, the reported unemployment, which, if anything, were probably lower, the percentage, than really are at risk and are suffering as a result of this tragedy, that the economy, which was the issue on which Donald Trump was going to run for reelection, is his hope for — only hope for reelection, which, quite frankly, seems a lot — his prospects for seem a lot less bright than they did just two months ago.

    And I think that he is really almost determined to will the economy to be recovering heading into the campaign and the election of the fall. I don't think there is any question about it. And he's trying to have it both ways, that the governors are the ones making the decision.

    And I think that's the political reality. I think it's that simple and that straightforward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to ask both of you. We have only got a little time left, though — about — David, were you going to say something? Go ahead.

  • David Brooks:

    Just quickly, that I'm not sure the governors are having that big an effect.

    The American people shut themselves down before the governors acted, and the American people began opening themselves up before the governors acted. So a lot of this is on us. And we're not following the governors' rules. We are — it's our own society that we are running.

    And we have got to be a little more self-disciplined.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just quickly to both of you on this question of White House interference, you have the scientist at the Health — the Department of Health and Human Services saying he was removed because he wanted to work on vaccines earlier this year.

    And now — just tonight, we just are reading an AP report on White House efforts to bury CDC recommendations on opening up.

    Just quickly, Mark, and then you, David, is this something American should worry about?

  • Mark Shields:

    Sure they — we should, Judy.

    I mean, it begin with the colonel — we — first, we saw it with Colonel Vindman. We have seen it time and again, that — Ambassador Sondland. Anybody who faced their responsibility, answered truthfully, and testified openly, retribution.

    I mean, we saw it with Michael Atkinson, the inspector general at the intelligence, I mean, all of whom got the gate when they didn't do what the president wanted.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, just a few seconds.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • David Brooks:

    … complicated. Tell — tell the truth.

    And this administration is not telling the truth. Telling the truth is the key to a pandemic policy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David Brooks, Mark Shields, staying safe, thank you both.

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