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Shields and Brooks on GOP’s response to Cohen allegations, Trump’s shutdown scuffle

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join William Brangham to discuss the week’s news, including Mick Mulvaney stepping into the role of White House chief of staff, how the GOP is keeping quiet on Michael Cohen saying that President Trump knew that it was wrong to pay off women during his campaign, and the skirmish between Trump and top Democrats.

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  • William Brangham:

    From the political fallout of Robert Mueller's investigation, to the Senate sending a strong message to Saudi Arabia, it has been a very busy week here in Washington.

    To help us understand it all, we turn to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Gentlemen, nice to see you both.

    So, we have, according to the president's tweet, a new acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.

    David, that means, certainly, the storm is over on Pennsylvania Avenue, right?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I don't know why he is only acting. I mean, he was the OMB director, the budget director. He was a member of Congress before that from South Carolina.

    He was on the super fiscal hawk side of the ideological spectrum, and is generally well-regarded, as far as I know, in the House, or was in the House, and in and around Washington. He knows the players in Washington.

  • William Brangham:

    So, you would like to see him be the guy?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, he seems like a solid pick.

    The question for the chief of staff is not the normal question for a normal chief of staff, is, can this person protect Donald Trump from himself? And I would say that's an open question. We will see.

    You have got a — John Kelly was a big tough guy who had the general gravitas. And Trump would sometimes defer, but even at great personal cost to General Kelly. And so we will see if Mulvaney has that.

  • William Brangham:

    Mark, what do you think? Is it…

  • Mark Shields:

    He wore two hats. He was budget and management — OMB director. And he also took over the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau.

    And two things. We have seen the largest growth in the national debt in a time of prosperity in the world's history. Usually, when the debt goes down, it's a time of economic retraction and things aren't going well, and the government spends or war.

    We have had peace and we have had prosperity, and we have had the debt reach historic highs, on its way to even more historic guys. That's the first plus.

    The second is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which Mr. Mulvaney was wearing his second hat, had the largest drop in morale of any government institution in Washington.

  • William Brangham:

    This is the bureau that is supposed to protect consumers from predatory lenders.

  • Mark Shields:

    Protect people — that's right — from predatory lenders and student loan exploiters and all sorts of other people.

    And his job there was basically to dismantle it. So, based upon those — that performance so far, it's perfect for the Trump administration.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • William Brangham:

    So maybe you would like to keep him in the White House, it sounds like.

  • Mark Shields:

    I think he — I think he just — it's a good fit.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    I mean, I would say, you're expecting a life expectancy slightly shorter than that of a 2nd lieutenant in combat.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    I mean, it's not — it's not a job of longevity.

  • William Brangham:

    This week, we also saw — the tail end of last weekend, this week — a greater understanding of these hush money payments that were made to these two women, so that they wouldn't talk and tell these somewhat troubling stories about their interactions with Donald Trump.

    We now have two people who were in the room who say that candidate Trump was there, and that they were clearly paying this money to direct these women to be quiet to protect the campaign.

    David, the collective response from the GOP seems to have been a collective shrug of the shoulders. Is that — is that just what we are to expect now?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    These are felonies. They are felonies. And so they have to be taken seriously. I weirdly spent a lot — not weirdly, but, characteristically, spent a lot of time with Republicans on Capitol Hill this week, and they're just keeping their head down.

    One of the things, the Senate has become like a think tank. They sit around. They have a lot of time, not passing a lot of legislation. And they're thinking about the future of the Republican Party. They're thinking about policy. And so they're trying to plan the future probably post-Trump.

    And when they have to — and the thing that annoys them most is, they're trying to come up with policies to deal with poverty, foreign policy, the normal things that government used to do. And all the press wants to ask them is about Trump, and they're frustrated by that fact.

    So I think, collectively, they have decided, let's work on policy. Let's think through what conservatism means these days. And we will — we will talk about Trump when we're absolutely forced to, but, in the meantime, we will sort of try to do wonkish stuff.

  • William Brangham:

    Mark, what do you think about that? Is it OK for the president's party to put their heads down, when we are talking about potential felonies here?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, I think it's fair to say that there is no Republican Party. It's a Trump party.

    And we have got 90 percent of self-identified Republican say they approve of the president's job, that that's what their loyalty is.

    A political party, William, is a coalition of people who disagree on some issues, but agree on more. And they organize for the purpose of winning elections and then passing policy, establishing policy, changing policy.

    And this is not — this is not a political party. I mean, we saw it this week with The Weekly Standard going out of business. We see it with Republicans on Capitol Hill.

    You do not dissent. I mean, there is no Gene McCarthy in the Republican Party that stands up.

  • William Brangham:

    Speaking up from within.

  • Mark Shields:

    Speaking up. And there is no movement within the Republican Party. They keep their heads down.

    They — I'm not part of this. I'm thinking beyond.

    And the fact is that it's now a Republican Trump cult, is what it is. And they're not looking for converts. They're not trying to build a coalition larger. They are looking for heretics. And that's what they are doing. They're drumming people out of the ranks, whether it's Mark Sanford, who we saw earlier tonight, or whether it's The Weekly Standard magazine.

    If you don't — you don't buy into the program, you can't even be part of the team.

  • William Brangham:

    To Mark's point, for those people who are not aware of this, you were one of the founding members of The Weekly Standard. And this was a magazine of conservative thought.

    And, for many, there were many writers within that magazine who were very critical of the president. Is Mark right that this is yet another sign of the implosion of the conservative party?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I think so.

    The Standard was the greatest collection of talent, concentrated collection, I have ever been around. When we started it, Charles Krauthammer, Tom Wolfe was a writer, P.J. O'Rourke. We had Bob Kagan, a very prominent foreign policy writer. We just had a great collection of people.

    But the thing that always defined it was, we were not team players. We don't — we're not just doing the party line. And so there was just this random efflorescence of opinion, a lot of it very good.

    And The Standard was killed this week for three reasons, I think, first because it wasn't a Trump organ, and that hurt it with subscribers and generally.

    Second, that the owner, Phil Anschutz, and his organization didn't understand what an opinion magazine is. And they were trying to get it to hire AM radio jocks to be the writers because they wanted sensational dumbness.

    It would be like buying the "NewsHour" and say, you know, Ann Coulter is really good. She'd be great for your organization.

    And they were getting stiffed by the editor, the past editor and the current editor, who said, no, that's not who we are.

    And so they just didn't understand what an opinion organization is. And then there was the possibility that people would buy it, and there were various possibilities. And that was prevented by the owner. And so since they have murdered it, intentionally, partly because they wanted to keep the lists, and partly, I think, maybe out of vengeance or something.

    But the death of it is a blow to the idea that you go into this business not to be a party player and a cheerleader for a party, but you go into because you value a set of ideas. So I find myself angry about it. And I think it's a great loss for America.

  • William Brangham:

    Mark, let's shift to the Democrats.

    There has been a lot of question as well about — we see how the Republicans are responding to the president. There's also a lot of question about, are the Democratic — are the Democrats responding effectively?

    We saw Nancy Pelosi has secured her position as — as the speaker. And a lot of Democrats were cheered on this week when they saw her performance with the president and Chuck Schumer in that — in that remarkable scene in the Oval Office, where they had this fight about the border wall.

    Do you think the Democrats are rising to the occasion?

  • Mark Shields:

    Rising to the occasion of impeachment, or…

  • William Brangham:

    Of the Trump moment.

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, certainly based upon the unprecedented, unorthodox session in the White House, where the president invites in the cameras, doesn't tell anybody, and, all of a sudden, you're sitting there, as the leader of the Democrats in the House, the leader of the Democrats in the Senate, and you're going against Donald Trump, who's a master of that form.

    And I thought Nancy Pelosi won two out of three. I mean, she pinned him. She had him on facts, said, you have got the House, you have got the Senate, let's vote on it right now, Mr. President. You really — really think you have got — you don't have the votes, Mr. President.

    And she corrected him on facts, which, of course, is, I guess, very few people — he doesn't take correction well. He doesn't take correction from a woman well. And I — but I thought she did it with great respect. It was always, Mr. President, rather — he's calling her Nancy. It's a sort of an arm over the shoulder, and was just one of the guys.

    So I — but as far as the Democrats, they're in a quandary. It's a political quandary. I mean, I think David mentioned earlier the evidence is piling up against Donald Trump.

    But the political will is there. Donald Trump had a very low level of expectation coming in. He — unlike Jimmy Carter, he didn't say, I will never lie to you. Integrity wasn't his strong suit. So, there's dismay, but not total astonishment at these revelations about him.

    And he started off, you will have to ask Michael Cohen about these payments. Then was, it was really preserving family sanity and well-being. And then, who's Michael Cohen? And then Michael Cohen was doing this on his own. And then there's nothing wrong with it.

  • William Brangham:

    And the president's lawyer this week saying…

  • Mark Shields:

    The president's lawyer — yes.

  • William Brangham:

    … it wasn't even a crime. No one got killed. No one got hurt.

  • Mark Shields:

    That's right. Rudy reduced it to the most elementary of New York street crimes.

    So that — to me, the Democrats, there is not the will, I don't think, in the country now to impeach him. And I don't that probably there is evidence. But there's certainly a mounting circumstantial sense that this is not the — that we're seeing the tip of the iceberg.

  • William Brangham:

    David, in just the last few seconds we have, what do you make of the Democratic response to the president?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, well, I don't know if they were smart enough to do this, but the Republicans were organizing at that moment their messaging of how are we going to handle the shutdown, and they were going to call it the Schumer shutdown, and try to pin it on the Democrats.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    And then Trump says, no, it's mine. It's my shutdown.

  • Mark Shields:

    My shutdown. That's right. I own it.

  • David Brooks:

    So, he completely undercuts the message of his own party.

  • William Brangham:

    David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you both very much.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you. Thank you, William.

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