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Shields and Brooks on James Comey’s tell-all, Paul Ryan’s retirement

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join John Yang to discuss the week’s news, including James Comey’s memoir detailing his interactions with and impressions of President Trump, what House Speaker Paul Ryan’s retirement means for the GOP and the pardoning of Scooter Libby.

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  • John Yang:

    But first to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks, who joins us tonight from San Francisco.

    Gentlemen, welcome to you both.

    We have a lot of talk about the new book by James Comey. He talks about — describes the president as being unethical, untethered to the truth, and describes his presidency as a forest fire.

    David, let me start with you.

    What — from what you have read of the reporting and the excerpts, what's your takeaway?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, I think President Trump has done a pretty good job of confirming everything Comey said by his tweets today. I mean, the word slimeball shouldn't be coming out of the White House.

    I think it's aptly titled. One of the things we see in this book is a guy who is like, frankly, a lot of people who work in government in Washington as part of the career civil service, that their loyalty is not to red and blue. And we're used to covering politics as a red and blue tribal war.

    But their loyalty is to their profession, to their agency, to their institution, to some other set of standards. And they get in the middle of red-blue fights and they probably have their own personal opinions, but Comey seems to be a guy who has loyalties to other things.

    And he's offended Democrats mightily. He's offended the Republican president mightily. And I think he passes the smell test, by and large. And I so think he's honest that it could — it's quite possible that Donald Trump didn't do anything criminal here, but did do something mafioso-like. And that's, frankly, not a completely new revelation.

  • John Yang:

    Mark?

  • Mark Shields:

    I think David makes a very good point about Jim Comey, who has been a rather remarkable public servant for a long time and then found himself, in 2016, on the receiving end of vilification from both candidates, from the Clinton people for his handling of the e-mail matter right up to the Election Day, and by the Trump people since and then his firing.

    And the president's adding to the sort of annals of American presidential rhetoric this week, along with malice toward none and charity toward all, and the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, to a weak and untruthful slimeball is what he's called James Comey.

    I do think that this is not to be confused with the "Fire and Fury" book, which was great gossip and great anecdotage. This is the testimony, straightforwardly, on the record, of a rather remarkable public servant who kept notes on everything and gives his own testimony. It's not hearsay. This is what he says.

    And I think it will be given great attention. It's already gotten great sales. And it will become part of the national dialogue, and much to the consternation of the president.

  • John Yang:

    David, I have got to ask you. There is so much of what has been said about this in the press is talking about the sort of personal comments and personal observations about the president, the size of his hands, the complexion, orange tone to his — hue to his face.

    It sort of feels like — does it feel to you that Comey is goading the president in a way?

  • David Brooks:

    Not really.

    And that reads to me like novelistic detail. One of the things we know about Comey is, he's a serious reader. He's a big fan of Reinhold Niebuhr, as am I. And so I think he was trying to write a book which had some literary detail that you are there.

    I do think, in general, from what I have read of the book and the excerpts, it passes the smell test. One important moment for me was his description of his handling of the Clinton e-mails.

    And now he says, my goal consciously wasn't to let politics influence my decision. But he allows — and this is him showing some vulnerability — he allows the possibility that the thought of her winning election and then having the e-mail investigation come out might seem illegitimate to people.

    And he didn't want her to be elected and then something new comes out right after the election. He thought that might hurt the institution of the presidency. And so he allows that that possibility could have had some unconscious influence on him.

    And that strikes me as a man who is looking at himself and saying, is it possible I messed up? Is it possible I was influenced in ways that I wasn't consciously aware of? That strikes me, by the standards of Washington memoirs, as a reasonably high level of honesty.

  • Mark Shields:

    And I think one thing that we will see is, he is a very effective witness on his own behalf. And he's going — it's full-court press.

    There's going to be media coverage. He will be on the "NewsHour." He will be on the networks. He will be everywhere. And he will be answering all the questions, and he will influence, if not drive, much of the conversation for the next couple of weeks.

  • John Yang:

    And, David, we started the week with the raid, the FBI raid on Michael Cohen's office in New York and his hotel residence.

    And that sparked the president's ire. He talked about this being an attack on America. The president keeps talking about Mueller and Rosenstein. Sarah Huckabee Sanders doesn't add the usual caveats. She says the president does have to power to fire Mueller, but she doesn't add the phrase, but he's not going to do it, he is not thinking about it.

    Does this feel like we have reached an important point, maybe a flex point in this investigation?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I'm not so sure.

    This is where Trump likes to be. He likes to be in the mano a mano feud. Somebody hits him, he hits back. It's a way he's shown that he can paint the drama to his supporters, it's me against the Washington political class.

    And that's been a very effective drama for him. When Silvio Berlusconi won election, and was sort of an administration a little like this, Italian journalist — or economist Luigi Zingales said, if you want to attack this guy, a guy like Berlusconi, a guy like Trump, don't go after their person, because it just becomes him vs. the political class.

    You have to go after them on policy. And this all distracts from the policy fights. And if anybody is going to best Trump in a popularity contest, it's not because they're going to win one of these matches. It's because they are going to say to Trump supporters, I have got a better deal for you, I have got a deal on policy.

    And we're all being distracted away from that.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes, just one other point that I didn't make on the Comey book which I think is important.

    And that is, where was the sense of outrage? Where was the sense of just upset as an American citizen that an adversary nation was trying to subvert and sabotage our electoral process, our civic secular sacrament of democracy, the election of a president, a free and fair election, and that they had sabotaged it, and set about doing that?

    And all the president and the president's men were interested in was that this didn't affect the outcome of the election. It, to me, was revelatory. It truly, truly was, and upsetting.

    And, as far as the president's reaction, you know, I think Michael Cohen is not the Roy Cohn he was looking for. And whatever Roy Cohn's defects of character and morality were, and I think they were manifest, was compensated for with a towering intellect and guile.

    And I'm not sure that, in Michael Cohen, he's got going — he's got beyond the great loyalty, and I think that right now is a weak link in the president's situation.

  • John Yang:

    David, one person who did have a turning point this week was Paul Ryan, saying he was going to leave the House at the end of his term, is going to retire.

    What does this say and what does this bode for the midterms and for the future of the Republican Party, the future direction of the Republican Party?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, in the near term, if you're trying to raise money for Republican candidates, when your speaker steps down, that's not a good way to raise money. That's not something you brag about and say, it's really important you invest here.

    I think the bigger story is that a lot of us got to know Paul Ryan. He came on the scene as an intern an organization called Empower America, which was run by Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett and Jeane Kirkpatrick and a few others.

    And that was in the 1980s. And that was Reaganism at its high water mark. And he more or less carried — in the 1980s and 1990s, he more or less carried that creed and that gospel right up to 2018. And I think this is why Donald Trump was able to really take over the Republican Party and make it his own.

    It's because Reaganism was never updated. And the Republican establishment never developed an economic model or a domestic policy model that was fit for an America where inequality was widening, where anxiety was widening, where rural America was getting hit hard.

    They stayed with the gospel of 1984. And to this day, Paul Ryan has stayed with that gospel. So, his story is one of somebody not changing with the times, I think.

  • John Yang:

    Mark?

  • Mark Shields:

    When I started in this business, shortly after the cooling of the Earth, I remember being smitten by one celebrity candidate and I was sure was on his way to the White House.

    And one of the grizzled veterans in the press bus said, hey, kid, he said, always check one thing. Did they get a bigger hand on the way in or on the way out? In other words, after you have spoken to the crowd or just when you're introduced.

    Paul Ryan is in that category of getting a bigger hand on the way in. He was the boy wonder. He was the intellectual force. He was the guy with now, bold ideas.

    He leaves as a much diminished figure for not meeting the Margaret Chase Smith test of standing up to the demagogue. She did to Joe McCarthy in saying she didn't want the party to ride to victory on the four horsemen of calumny, of bigotry and smear and fear and ignorance.

    He said the president was a man of exquisite presidential leadership. And I just think he leaves with a tax bill that is — not only the country with a debt of a trillion dollars a year as long as the eye can see, according to the Congressional Budget Office, but a bill that is seen by voters in 2018 as written by the rich, for the rich.

    And so it's a political — it's no political asset going in. And I will say, in his defense, of the all-purpose, one-size-fits-all excuse for leaving, I want to spend more time with my family, I think Paul Ryan does know the names of his children and does really care about his family.

    I think they are teenagers, and anybody who's had teenagers know that teenagers aren't interested in spending much time with their parents, or as much time as their parents did. So I wish him luck.

  • John Yang:

    David, let me quickly, as we run out of time here, turn to the Scooter Libby pardon.

    Is this something that — the president says he doesn't know the guy, but he has heard for a long time that he was treated unfairly. Is there anything more to this, do you think, that meats the eye?

  • David Brooks:

    People are saying he's trying to set a precedent so people will perjure themselves on Trump's behalf.

    I'm a little dubious about that. There are a lot of people in the Republican Party and there are lot of people in the press, including me, who think Scooter Libby got a bit of a raw deal, that Richard Armitage was the person who leaked Valerie Plame's name, not him, and that his trial was conducted in a hyper-political environment.

    And it seems very likely to me that some of those people have been hanging around this administration asking for this pardon. And one of the people most ardent about this subject, by the way, is John Bolton, who is the national security adviser.

    So it seems likely to me that it was that kind of intervention and not any broader trying to send a signal.

  • Mark Shields:

    Oh, I sound cynical. I really do. And I have great respect for David's point.

    But Donald Trump is not somebody with an established track record of acting spontaneously and altruistically for others. Donald Trump thought Scooter Libby was a shortstop for the Houston Astros until this week. And somebody made the point to him that this would be helpful in sending word to those now being questioned and interrogated by Robert Mueller's investigation that I do pardon.

    And that — I don't think there's any question about that. This was — Scooter Libby was the issue that broke permanently the relationship between Dick Cheney and George W. Bush on the way out. Bush refused to do it, partly probably self-interest. He didn't want it to be his Marc Rich pardon, as it had been for Bill Clinton.

    But he did get two-and-a-half years in jail. That was the sentence, which was, in fact, commuted.

  • John Yang:

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, another week down, and more to come.

    See you next week.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thanks.

  • John Yang:

    Thanks.

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