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Shields and Brooks on Mueller developments and congressional dynamics

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks analyze the week in politics, including recent developments in the special counsel’s investigations, party dynamics after the midterm elections and the “impressive” strength shown by Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in her quest to become House speaker.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It has been a momentous week in the Mueller investigation.

    To help us better understand the broader implications, we turn 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.

    So, as we just heard in Lisa's conversation, we have been watching the story all week, Mark, a lot of the information out there, a lot of it from Mr. Mueller himself, a lot more reported in the media, not confirmed yet.

    What does it all add up to right now, to you?

  • Mark Shields:

    I think it adds up to gravity. I think it adds up to anxiety. I think it adds up to nervousness on the part of the administration, and particularly the White House.

    I think, Judy, what we saw is that the president's personal attorney testifying in court, with Mr. Mueller's own ratification of his testimony, that all the way through the nominating process in 2016, right up to the eve of the convention, by the time Donald Trump had sewed up the nomination, that they were actively — he, Mr. Cohen and others were actively seeking to establish a signature property in Moscow, an ambition, as we just heard in the previous segment, of Donald Trump for more than 30 years, and in spite of Donald Trump's denials to this effect, that he said there was no such thing going on.

    And I think is — I think it becomes serious that he lied to the American people throughout the campaign of 2016, now becomes, I think, a matter of at least public debate, if not presumption.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, David, the president is saying, but no deal developed, there was no hotel built. So is there really anything here to see?

  • David Brooks:

    There's got to be something.

    One of the things that strikes me about this investigation is that it's like a million pieces out there. There's like the Julian Assange piece, the Moscow deal piece, the tax piece, the Roger Stone, whatever he was doing, piece, paying off strippers. There's just a million pieces in this investigation. And we don't which will open on any given day.

    And so that tells me that this is going to occupy the Trump presidency for a long time and probably dominate the Trump presidency for the next little while.

    The second thing I think what we're learning from the Cohen — what we have learned from Michael Cohen is that Trump was probably more involved in a lot of these things than we knew before, that it wasn't just some minions off somewhere. Trump seems to have been involved in these calls and things like that.

    The thing that — the crucial thing that I don't know is, when he's accused of something, he just shifts the goalposts, which is to say, he re-norms.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    So, you say, oh, you were lying during the campaign? And he said, yes, yes, I was doing that. Fine.

    You might have been compromised in Moscow to get a business deal. Yes, well, you know, that's business. That's what I was doing.

    So every time he does something that any past administration would have thought, this is shocking and appalling, I'm ashamed of myself, he's completely unashamed of himself.

    And so the question to me becomes — Richard Nixon was forced to reside, sort of over obstruction of justice . Suppose there's an obstruction of justice case here. Have our norms so changed that that is no longer a political death sentence? And that may have happened.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes, I think David raises a good point.

    I think our — I hope and believe our norms have been changed. There's no question that Donald Trump is a mutant. I mean, he has no embarrassment gene. There's no way in the world…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Did you say mutant?

  • Mark Shields:

    A mutant. He really is.

    I mean, he's aberrational. I mean, he's not embarrassed. I mean, Richard Nixon, on tape, said, we could do this, but it was wrong, it would be wrong, and we know what's wrong.

    That doesn't — that's not a construction, a sentence that would pass Donald Trump's lips. I mean, that is — it isn't the question. It's transactional? Is it to my advantage? Is it to my disadvantage? That's — that's how he sees — that is his morality. Does it enhance him? Does it in any way diminish him, which, of course, is the original and most grievous of all sins?

    So I do think that our norms, I hope, have not been hopelessly impaired or damaged. And don't forget that it was, in fact, the — David is right — obstruction of justice in both the cases of Bill Clinton's impeachment, attempting to influence witnesses and how they testify, and Richard Nixon's.

    So, I mean, these are serious offenses. And there are precedents for pursuing that.

  • David Brooks:

    But it seems to me this is the hardest thing for the Mueller team, is that there's a lot of prosecutorial discretion involved in these things.

    At what point do we go out and say, this is enough to really challenge the president in some fundamental, existential way? And do — at what point do they think we have enough to really go out in this aggressive way? And what point do they think, no, this will just turn into a political circus?

    And so the political — the norms of the culture are going to affect how Mueller is going to make that decision.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So you really — you believe the president is changing, may be changing the norm, the cultural moral norms of this country?

  • David Brooks:

    He's being doing it since he walked on the stage.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    I mean, that first Republican debate, he was talking about things no president ever talked about, insulting other people's looks.

    And so it's just been a continual process of that. And, at some point, the norm runs into law. But, again, the law has this area of discretion that Mueller is going to have to make that case.

    The thing — the thing that's hanging out there is, there's just so much. And then Mueller has — I mean, it's not really even about collusion with the Russians anymore. There's just so much out there that this person has been involved in for the past 20 years. And we just don't know what's going to spring up tomorrow.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But while we wait for Mueller, Mark, is the president hobbled at all? I mean, how is he impaired?

    We saw a Senate vote this week. Republicans, most of whom have never stood up to…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    Vertebrae transplant in the Republican Caucus.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Joined in and said, yes, we're going to have debate on whether the U.S. should be backing the Saudi — Saudi Arabia war in Yemen.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But is that the beginning of their standing up to the president? What is it?

  • Mark Shields:

    It may be the beginning and the end of the Republican insurgency.

    I mean, I don't think that there is a real Republican movement. There are doubts, Judy. The presumption about Donald Trump was that he was magic among Republicans. I mean, he won on issues that Republicans had run away from, had disdained, and had rejected, whether you're talking about trade, whether you're talking about a non-interventionist foreign policy, whether you're talking about chumminess with Russia.

    I mean, he just ran totally against what had been the Republican dogma. He won the nomination, and he won the Electoral College. So they said — and he won an awful lot of white blue-collar voters in the process that had not been available to other Republicans.

    And there's sort of a sense that he had magic. They have just sustained — the Republicans — make this — let this be known — they just sustained the biggest defeat in a midterm election suffered by any party in popular vote terms since — in the last nine presidential elections.

    You have to go back to Ronald Reagan in 1984 to see a larger margin between the two parties, nine million votes. So the magic is in doubt now. The Democrats just gave them a pummeling. They lost 40 House seats. There is one Republican left in all of Southern California. His name is Duncan Hunter. He's under indictment and he's facing divorce. He is going to lose his seat, and he's going to lose the house, his own house.

    So, I mean, that's the Republican Party in California at this point. That's the Republican Party in so much of the country. So they are — he's lost his magic.

    But they are still intimidated by him, because they're scared stiff that he will do them what he did to Mark Sanford, come in and beat them in a primary. Mitch McConnell is craven to please Donald Trump to this day, because he's afraid of 2020 in Kentucky.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, do you — do you see the Republicans in Congress more willing to stand up to the president than they were?

  • David Brooks:

    Maybe marginally, for the reasons Mark described.

    I should say, on these foreign policy matters, they have been more willing to stand up to him. The Russian — the Republican Party since 1917 has not been particularly fond of Russia or the Soviet Union. Since 1948, they haven't particularly fond of Saudi Arabia.

    And so when Trump has — he has a foreign policy doctrine built on authoritarian business partners, Vladimir Putin and the Saudis. And that's not where the Republican Party ever has been, or probably will be after Donald Trump.

    And so there's an actual intellectual difference on these matters. And they're willing to be much tougher on the Saudis than the Russians. And that's sort of true for the last two years.

  • Mark Shields:

    We just saw the CIA director banned from testifying before the Senate of the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Over the Khashoggi….

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes, over Khashoggi, over the very Saudi prince's involvement, if not ordering, of the murder of Khashoggi, and which the CIA has concluded is the case.

    But Donald Trump says, no, those are just feelings on the part of the CIA.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But the administration is saying, we get to say who shows to talk to Congress and who doesn't, so…

  • Mark Shields:

    That's fine, if you want to jeopardize permanently relations because between the CIA and the Congress of the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's talk quickly about Nancy Pelosi.

    This week, David, she cemented the fact that she's now the nominee of the Democratic Caucus in the election for speaker. They're going to vote in January. But 32 Democrats voted against her. What does that mean? Can she pull it together? What — and what do you see that's happened among the Democrats in the House?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, a lot of people want — there was just simply an age issue for a lot of Democrats.

    But I have to think Nancy Pelosi looks pretty impressive and pretty strong right now. It's sort of hard to lose a football game when there's no other team. And so she had that advantage. There was no other team.

    But she still has really solidified her support. I don't think she will have much trouble. The one thing she is giving away — I'm not even sure it's giving it away — is, the speaker has a tremendous amount of power to not bring things to a vote.

    And it seems she's agreeing to change the rules, which is a lobbying campaign a group called No Labels has been on for the last several years, to make it hard — make — when you have a lot of sponsors or where you have a lot of bipartisan sponsors, then it has to come to the floor for a vote, and one person, the speaker, can't just sort of bury it in the closet.

    And that's a good — that's a good thing for the House in general. And it's something Pelosi is agreeing to. And it's not even sure it's being done over her will. It may be something she actually wants to do just because it's a good piece for the House.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    Mo Udall, a great Democrat from Arizona, said, when the Democrats form a firing squad, they begin by organizing a circle.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    And that's exactly what they have done.

    They're snatching — tried to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. They just sustained this marvelous victory, led by Nancy Pelosi. She had 136,000 attack ads run against her — that's according to The Wall Street Journal — with no answer.

    She doesn't have rallies. She doesn't go out and run positive TV spots. And she's — she's the most effective speaker of my lifetime. I say that with the greatest respect in the world for Tip O'Neill and for Sam Rayburn and for other great speakers. She's the best.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's saying something.

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, it is. It's a long lifetime.

    And I will say this. I will say this about her. The Democrats, they don't have anybody else, Judy. And the hottest places in hell, in a time of moral crisis, are those who remain neutral.

    I don't know what these 32 are going to do. They going to sit there and vote for Kevin McCarthy from California, Donald Trump's choice to be speaker? Are they going to turn that back? And they have to decide. They have to make a choice.

    I respect their integrity and their interest in changes and reform and everything else. But it comes down to, are you for Pelosi or for McCarthy? That's going to be a speaker. Who's your choice?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You don't see anybody emerging between now and January, that whatever….

  • Mark Shields:

    No.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, thus spake Mark Shields and David Brooks.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you both.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

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