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Shields and Brooks on impeachment hearing revelations, Democratic debate takeaways

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week in politics, including the biggest revelations and most compelling characters from impeachment hearings, whether they will change voters' minds about impeachment, how 2020 Democrats performed in their fifth debate and President Trump’s moves on military justice.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Historic impeachment hearings and another debate for the Democrats running for president. It was a very full week. It has been, is a very full week for American politics.

    And here to help us make sense of it all, as always, Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Hello to both of you.

    Let's go straight to impeachment, Mark.

    Five days of hearings now, three more this week, a lot of drama, a lot of attention on television. What did you take away from it?

  • Mark Shields:

    I took away from it, Judy, a quote from Oscar Handlin, who was the great American historian, Pulitzer Prize-winning for his book "The Uprooted."

    He said, I sought to write a book on American immigrants, the history of American immigrants, and I realized that immigrants are American history.

    And that point was driven home so forcefully. It was Ambassador Yovanovitch. It was Colonel Vindman. It was Fiona Hill.

    And these are people who are Americans by choice, not by accident, like you and I. And he and she, every one of them was reassuring. And I have to say, for every cheap political ad that is run against nameless, faceless bureaucrats, these were people with names and with faces and who put their careers, their comfort, their peace of mind, their futures, in many cases, on the line to speak truth to power.

    And I was humbled to watch them and to listen to them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I agree with that. It was a good couple of weeks for Washington insiders, people who have been trained by the government to do things a certain way.

    And that way — there's a right way and there's a wrong way. And most of the people who have been trained by the Foreign Service understood quickly that this was the wrong way to go about things. This was unethical.

    I think Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani, I don't think it ever occurred to them that this was unethical. What strikes me — and this came out in Sondland's testimony — that everyone was in the loop, that this was not something they tried to hide.

    This was just something they thought was the way politics gets done or foreign policy gets done, that there's no division between personal gain and public service.

    And so I think that's the big takeaway for me out of these weeks, is that, when this started, you could have thought, oh, it was Trump just rambling on a phone call, because we had that transcript, if you remember.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • David Brooks:

    But now it's clear that everybody knew. And some people reacted with shock and horror. And some people said, well, this is just the crazy stuff we got to tolerate working for Donald Trump.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is the case, Mark, now made stronger that the Democrats have been trying to make that they say is a slam dunk, that the president tried to get the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son, in other words, to do the president a favor politically?

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes, I think it is.

    Yes, I think Ambassador Sondland was probably the least impressive, but the most damaging, of all the witnesses. He was going to go down. He was going to say, as David put it, in the loop were Secretary Pompeo, in the loop was Chief of Staff Mulvaney, in the loop was Ambassador Bolton, who, interestingly enough, we're going to find out if he has the same courage of his convictions, the same backbone as Fiona Hill, who worked for him did, or has a $2 million book sale advance bought his silence.

    I would be interested to see if he's going to come forward and speak truth to power.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He tweeted today that he's going to speak.

    (CROSSTALK)

    But we don't know.

  • Mark Shields:

    He got his Twitter back, is what I read in his tweets today. And I'm just really reassured by that.

    (LAUGHTER)

    So, I just — I really think that the case is strong.

    What I have underestimated — and I think David was right — is the fear that David — that Donald Trump exercises over Republicans.

    I mean, people talked about Lyndon Johnson being a fearsome political leader. They don't even approach. I mean, he strikes fear into the hearts of Republicans up and down the line. And I think that is — that, to me, has been eye-opening in its dimensions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, the case — is the case stronger, David, or does it even matter?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, the case is legally stronger, but it's not politically stronger.

    We have had now a bunch of polls. Nate Silver's Web site, FiveThirtyEight, has an agglomeration of them. And it shows that the public support for impeachment has gone down very slightly over the last couple of weeks. It's now about 45-45. The nation is evenly divided.

    In swing states, it's gone — impeachment has become less popular. We don't have a lot of data. But, in Wisconsin, only 40 percent of voters support impeachment. Roughly 53 oppose it.

    And I think we have seen there's a Politico poll where they asked independent voters, what do you think? And independent voters don't like it at all, and by 61-23, they think that's the sort of thing that's more of interest to media people than it is to me.

    And so I don't think — I don't think — I think everybody knows he's guilty. They just don't think this is the issue that affects my life. And why are they talking about all this stuff?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you — I mean, Mark, the Republicans keep saying, as we heard yesterday, it's a show trial, the Democrats have been out to get President Trump from day one.

    Is that the argument that is winning people over?

  • Mark Shields:

    It's an argument, Judy, but it's not a persuasive argument. I mean, just as a political calculus, it was not — it didn't make sense.

    I mean, there was no question, after the Mueller report was botched, or however you want to put it, or the — Attorney General Barr stepped on it, Donald Trump felt liberated, and liberated enough to make that phone call.

    And the reality is that there wasn't a Democrat who was not under indictment or detox who was thinking in terms of impeachment at that point. It wasn't until the news of this came out, and it became so obvious.

    I mean, not to act was an action itself that Democrats or anybody else in Congress or America would have to answer for. I mean, if this is modus operandi, acceptable for an American president to do this, to extort basically another country that is dependent upon us, to get information, unflattering, unhelpful, damaging information the president's political opponent, and that that is — that's, what, OK, acceptable, look the other way?

    I mean, you have got a lot to answer for if you don't address it.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I think that's a strong argument. They had to do this just to uphold the standards of our country, and that I can't think of any president who has done anything as bad as this and didn't get impeached.

    And so, I mean, that's basically true. I think Democrats do have to acknowledge that it's not a political winner. And some of them walked into this sort of knowing that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why not? What do you mean, not a political winner?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, I think if you're losing independents and you're losing swing states, and you're — it's very likely now that six of your Senate candidates will be sitting in Washington, D.C., through January during the Senate trial, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and the rest, then this is a kind of a disadvantage.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

    And I think it is just — I think — my conversations with Trump supporters in red states, first of all, when I go out there, nobody talks about. It's just not on the subject. Then, if you ask, everyone I have spoken to says, yes, he did it, and he shouldn't have done, it was a stupid thing to do.

    But this is — we're in the context of a long political and cultural war in this country. And, finally, I have got a guy who hits back at the people who hate me. And so I'm not going to abandon him.

    And so they don't see it as a unique trial about one incident. They see it as part of the longer political battle we have in this country, and they're not going to abandon him. That's been my experience with people I have spoken with.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you mentioned the Democratic presidential candidates.

    Mark, they debated this week. There were a lot of them on the stage. What did you take away? Memorable moment? What changes in that contest?

  • Mark Shields:

    I don't know what changes, Judy.

    Memorable moments? Andrew Yang showing humanity, saying that he missed Beto O'Rourke, I mean, that was just sort of a human statement, I thought, that came through to me.

    Best line of the night was Amy Klobuchar's, by far, when they asked questions that she had suggested that Pete Buttigieg, if he were a woman, with his credentials, would not be a plausible candidate. And she said, anybody who doesn't think a woman can beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every day.

    And I thought that — I didn't think there was a game-changer. I thought Biden had even — uneven night. And, obviously, his stumble on claiming to have the only African-American woman ever elected to the Senate, Carol Moseley Braun, as his endorser, while Kamala Harris is there…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    When he was standing a few feet away…

  • Mark Shields:

    … on the stage as the second African-American woman, who's obviously not endorsed Joe Biden, was a little bit of a stumble.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What did you think?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I thought they all did well.

    I thought, actually, Donald Trump did a little well. There was sort of a tone. They all have the same politician's tone when they're speaking. And, sometimes, when you listen to what they say, it comes — you hear the content, but sometimes there's that just tone of urgency, and they all speak in the same tone.

    It's not the way normal people talk when they're over a dinner table. And so I was like, oh, somebody talk like a human being. And occasionally Pete Buttigieg, Andrew Yang told a joke about what — he would say to Putin if he got elected president, but it was the same monotone of politician talk.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Huh.

  • David Brooks:

    Having said that, I thought Buttigieg walks out of the week the advancer, because he was — he's the one who star is rising. And nobody really touched him. And he sort of solidified his case, as the outsider, as the person who doesn't have Washington experience, and who's a little more moderate.

    Elizabeth Warren got to talk about the wealth tax, a policy I don't particularly like, but I think it's probably very popular among Democratic primary voters. So I thought she did well.

    I thought Biden, if anybody was the loser, I guess — I guess you would have to say he was.

  • Mark Shields:

    I do think that Buttigieg is interesting.

    Why the dog didn't bark in the house is why the Democrats — leaders did not — had they not seen the polls that showed that Pete Buttigieg had surged in New Hampshire and was now in the lead in Iowa?

    And I just…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You mean why they didn't go after him more.

  • Mark Shields:

    Why they didn't go after him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes. Yes.

  • Mark Shields:

    And I think there's a certain reluctance.

    The litany of sins in the Democratic Party is to be sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, whatever. And I think they walked very, very gently around the fact that he's the first openly gay candidate and they're reluctant to go after him.

    Interesting number. David cited a number. When asked, would you be comfortable with a gay commander in chief, openly gay commander in chief, 50 percent of voters say , yes, they would. A little over a third say they wouldn't.

    But they ask the same question, do you think your neighbor would be, 25 percent think their neighbor would be comfortable with a gay, openly gay…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very interesting.

  • Mark Shields:

    And almost half say they wouldn't.

    So it's a question of, of course, I'm magnanimous, open-minded, large-minded, but it's that mean-spirited guy next door.

  • David Brooks:

    They need to move to a new neighborhood, then.

  • Mark Shields:

    That's right.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, one last thing I want to ask both of you about. We only got about a minute-and-a-half.

    But, David, the president this week, a lot of attention around he pardoned or reduced the sentence of three men who are accused of war crimes. And what do we take away about this? I mean, we know that, I guess, the Navy is still considering one of his moves.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    One, don't go against your own military, which he seems to have done. Second — and I have heard this — and Joe Kristol and others have been saying — making this point. These are people who served in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    That Trump said, well, these people who were in combat, they're damaged. And a lot of people come back from — and so they should be forgiven.

    And a lot of people who have come back from combat, say, don't treat us as damaged goods. We're transitioning back into life, but we're not damaged goods. We're strengthened goods, and we have been through some challenges, but we're not damaged. And when we fought, we tried to uphold the honor of the United States while fighting.

  • Mark Shields:

    Judy, the cleavage, the division on this issue is between those who have been in uniform, and those who have not.

    The most fierce foes of absolving torture, rationalizing torture, accepting torture by Americans were John McCain, Colin Powell, General Joe Hoar, the Marine general, Pete Peterson, a prisoner of war and ambassador to Vietnam.

    They understood that what separates us from the other side, from our enemies, is who we are and what we stand for and what we believe.

    And, to me, that's the test. Donald Trump doesn't understand it. And he failed it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.

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