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Shields and Brooks on Las Vegas debate, Trump’s pardons

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the latest political news, including how the Las Vegas debate changed the 2020 Democratic race, new reports of Russian election interference and President Trump’s response to them, the sentencing of Trump ally Roger Stone and the outcry over Trump’s flurry of pardons and commutations.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that brings us to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Hello to you both.

    So, as we heard from Amna, activity revving up in Nevada. The caucuses are tomorrow, David.

    Where does this race stand right now, this Democratic race? We are two days out, plus a little from the debate of Wednesday night, and about to face the third contest. What do you see?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, Bernie Sanders had an awesome week. He's — the polls have him up 13 in Nevada, which is very impressive for a multicandidate race.

    And then, in the debate, it's not that he did anything different. He does what he does. But almost every other candidate, in my view, took a step backwards. Klobuchar and Mayor Pete had their little feud, which I think diminished each of them. Bloomberg had his nuclear meltdown.

    And Warren, who performed very well in the debate, performed very well on behalf of Bernie Sanders, because she basically adopts the exact same narrative that's already his, and then attacks everybody else on the basis of that narrative.

    But I don't think she's helping himself (sic). I think she's acting as an extremely effective surrogate for Bernie Sanders. So, I just think his grip on the path to the nomination is much tighter than it was.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Bernie Sanders in the strongest position right now?

  • Mark Shields:

    I hate to agree with David.

    (LAUGHTER)

    But his assessment overall is very good.

    Michael Bloomberg wasn't the Michael Bloomberg we have been told about on television, we have been seeing on television, who was Barack Obama's best friend, and always being praised by Barack Obama, and had saved New York City, and brought health care to hundreds of thousands, and was the one guy who could go toe to toe with Donald Trump, and Donald Trump was spooked about it.

    He couldn't go toe to toe with Elizabeth Warren. I mean, she absolutely dominated him. She dominated the stage. I'm not sure she won the crowd, but she certainly was the dominant figure in that debate.

    Bernie Sanders, the front-runner, that you'd think people would go after, really escaped almost unscathed. And it was just — it was truly amazing.

    I think it was a damaging experience for Bloomberg. Whether it was devastating will be determined in the next debate. I think the next debate really becomes important for him. He was counseled that these questions were going to come up. They knew from day one.

    And whether it was peevishness, arrogance, dismissiveness, whatever, condescension, he just refused to come up with an answer that was plausible and convincing and believable.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes. Partly, it's practice.

    He doesn't even do media interviews particularly well, and so — and he's been guarded from this. And all the other candidates have been playing this game for a year now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This was their ninth to debate.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    And when you're up on a debate stage, you're not thinking. You're repeating something you said 50 times before. And so he didn't have any practice. He didn't have any of that.

    What strikes me also about the party — first, Sanders tells a very clear narrative, corporations screwing us. That's just a very clear narrative. Everybody gets it. It resonates with a lot of people.

    I don't think anybody else on that stage has narrative that's quite that clear. And so the power — like, Trump had a very clear narrative. Those cultural elites, they are ruining life for us. And having that very compelling, clear narrative is a great advantage.

    The second thing that struck me is Democrats growing up in where the party is now have the mental equipment to go after a billionaire. It's like baked into the belief system of the party. They do not have the mental equipment and categories to go after a socialist.

    And what struck me is that they don't really quite know how to take down Sanders. And so they let him go.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes. And it absolutely eludes me.

    For the first time, Judy, the Affordable Care Act, according to the Kaiser Foundation Poll, is now at 55 percent approval.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Approval.

  • Mark Shields:

    Approval.

    This is — so — and Donald Trump — under Donald Trump, for the first time in 10 years, fewer Americans have health care than had it the year before. And that was true the year before that.

    So, under Donald Trump, Americans have lost health care. The Affordable Care Act has guaranteed it, and it's popular. And here the Democrats are talking about just willy-nilly just getting rid of it.

    It makes absolutely no sense.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    To go to Medicare for all.

  • Mark Shields:

    The Republicans are on the total defensive on this issue. It's an issue that works for Democrats. It's an issue that voters deeply care about. And, you know, there they are.

    As far as the point about Bernie Sanders, he is — the default mode of Bernie Sanders is angry. He's the angriest front-runner I have ever seen. He's the unhappy warrior.

    And I don't know how long that's going the wear. It wouldn't wear long in the carpool. I don't know how long it is going to wear on the campaign trail.

  • David Brooks:

    It's worked for Trump.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's bought him this far.

  • Mark Shields:

    It has brought him this far.

    But it's a never retreat, never concede strategy. And the Bernie bros who abuse anybody on Twitter or anyplace else who dares to criticize the Sanders campaign in any form, you know, maybe they're Russian bots. That was one of the more bizarre lines of the evening.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, speaking of Bernie Sanders and the Russians, today, David, late today, we learned that — first a news report and then Sanders confirmed it — that his campaign has been — he's been briefed by intelligence officials about the Russians trying to help his campaign.

    So, now we know it's not just President Trump. It's one of the Democrats.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    It happens to be a fact that the two campaigns the Russian are trying to help are the two campaigns that are — might end up with the nominations.

    I remain a little skeptical of how effective the Russians are at getting people to — persuading people to change their mind on a certain candidate. There is no magic formula for that. We try here every week, and it doesn't work.

    (LAUGHTER)

    And so — and so I'm not sure the Russians are really effectively changing a lot of votes.

    I really wish the intelligence agencies would tell us explicitly what they're doing. Like, they say they're undermining institutions, undermining trust, spreading conspiracy theories.

    I'd love to be able to know, as a consumer of social media and all the rest, what do I look out for? What do I do? How can I tell? I think they haven't — they have been too vague about what actually is happening and what countermeasures we, as individuals, can take.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, they talk about taking disinformation and repeating it and repeating it through social media.

    So that's one of the things.

  • Mark Shields:

    One of the things we could do as a people is just pass what the House has passed, which is simply that any campaign that is approached by a foreign power, foreign source to help it, to be involved in any way, has to report it. There's a responsibility.

    That's died in the Republican Senate. That's been killed by Mitch McConnell.

    But, no, I really — I really think that, Judy, it's unthinkable, if you really just take the sense of, the president of the United States is told that a foreign country is interfering and trying to change the most — the sacrament of democracy, which is our public voting, the secret ballot, and they are trying to tamper with it and tamper with the results.

    And what is his reaction? Fury at the foreign power? Anger? Let's get them?

    No. Who divulged this? An admiral, a decorated admiral, who took this, as a public servant, and an honored his constitutional and statutory responsibility to inform the Congress of the United States.

    I mean, that's just unthinkable, what's going on.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You're contrasting the president's reaction to this to Bernie Sanders, who announced today and rejected…

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

    Bernie Sanders, to his credit, I mean, having honeymooned in Moscow in 1988…

    (LAUGHTER)

    I mean, you got to explain that someday, Bernie — the trip to Nicaragua in '85.

    But, I mean, he's — he came and said, no way. I mean, you stay out, Putin. And if I'm president, I will make absolutely sure. I don't want your help and you shouldn't be involved or whatever.

    That was a strong statement, the kind you would expect from any political leader in this country of either party, and that the president United States refuses to give.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, and then appoint somebody as head of the — or acting head of the national intelligence — or intelligence service, someone with no experience, who is politicizing that relationship even more.

    So…

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, the other thing — many things to ask you about, but one thing I do want to touch on is, this was the week the president's longtime friend Roger Stone was sentenced to prison by a federal judge here in Washington, more than three years.

    Remains to be seen whether the president's going to pardon his sentence. But what the president did do this week was pardon or commute the sentences of 11 individuals who seem to all have some connection, David, with the Trump White House.

    What do we make of this? I mean, this is — the president's within his power, his rights to do this, but what do you make of it?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    I mean, the naked politicization of this is — again is the — Trump is, as some have predicted, really is unleashed by impeachment. His behavior has really shifted in the last month in all sorts of ways, much more attack on the institutions of our society.

    I happen to — the only person I know — and I don't know him at all well — is Michael Milken among those who've been pardoned. And I thought the pardon was legitimate in that case. This is a guy who had his Wall Street problems in the '80s, prosecuted by Rudy Giuliani.

    But as far as I can see, the Milken Institute is out in California. He's really dedicated last 20 or 30 years to serving the public, running a think tank, trying to spread ideas.

    And so in the case of somebody like that, who really spends decades in public service after whatever he did years ago, a pardon doesn't seem like the worst thing in the world.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you see this?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, I think we owe a certain tribute to Joni Ernst and to Rob Portman and Susan Collins, who told us that the president would be chastened and changed by that simmering experience of going through the impeachment.

    He is. He's unbridled. He's unfettered. He has only around him enablers now. There is nobody to hold him back. There's no Kelly or Mattis or anybody else there to say, no, Mr. President, argue another point of view.

    And what they have in common, I guess, white-collar crime, fraud, tax deception, and ability to give money to Republican causes. I mean, it's — there is almost a self-identification with many of these cases, because the president has not gone uncharged on some of these actions or similar actions.

    And so it's — I really think that it's not a question of — I don't know Michael Milken. But he certainly did change American finance while he was there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The junk — they called him the junk bond king.

  • David Brooks:

    It should be said, I mean, just to get back to Roger Stone, we're all made in the image of God, but it's hard to think of somebody whose public career has shown fewer redeeming qualities.

    And the president has surrounded himself with reasonably shady characters. And Roger Stone is almost epically shady.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And this is the third individual who was considered close to the president who — sent off to prison, at a time when — there's a lot of focus on what the president can do.

    Again, he has the power to commute sentences, to pardon people. And we remember, at the end of the Bill Clinton administration, there was a flurry of pardons.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    Usually, it's on the way out, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Mark Shields:

    There's just one thing about the Democrats that I just want to — that kind of fits in here.

    And that is, the Democrats, I think, after that debate, are in danger of fragmenting and fracturing themselves. And I think there's a page in American history, the Revolutionary War. The revolutionists sought the active alliance with Charles XVI of — the king of France — Louis XVI and Charles III in Spain, monarchies, to help them.

    I mean, but one — they had a single objective, and that was to defeat the king of England, to get independence.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The monarch.

  • Mark Shields:

    The monarch.

    The Democrats better say — they better come together in a hell of a hurry, because their sole purpose in 2020 is to defeat the monarch, to defeat Donald Trump.

    And I just — I think the danger of fracturing is severe.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We hear you.

  • Mark Shields:

    OK.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

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