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Shields and Brooks on Mueller’s testimony, election security

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s political news, including the aftermath of Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony, the current legislative landscape around election security, changing dynamics within the 2020 presidential race and the fiscal significance of the bipartisan budget deal.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that brings us 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 Aspen, Colorado.

    And hello to both of you.

    We're going to talk about the 2020 candidates.

    But, first, I want to ask about Robert Mueller.

    Mark, he spent, what, almost five hours before two House committees this week. What's the main story that we should take away from what he had to say?

  • Mark Shields:

    Robert Mueller was Robert Mueller.

    He was — he's the rarest of public figures in Washington, D.C., a man with no detectable political agenda. He refused to be a political prop for the Democrats, who wanted him to read the report aloud. He refused to go after Donald Trump, who has salvaged him personally and accused him of being unfair and prejudiced and fake news and running a hoax and a witch-hunt.

    Never responded in kind. And I thought he did the rare thing in Washington, which was to present his case. He left us — certainly, we have — on this broadcast, David and I have agreed in the past that the Russia thing seemed to be the weakest link of any of the criticisms of Trump.

    And Donald — if anything, Bob Mueller made the case compellingly, and really to the point where I think he left Republicans on the defensive very much on that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, made the case compellingly?

  • David Brooks:

    Of Russian interference, he certainly made that case very compellingly. It was a calm performance, but he had his hair on fire about the ongoing nature of Russian interference in the American electoral system.

    There was no collusion. And I think the headline on that front is that it makes it much less likely that we move forward with an impeachment process. There's still people in the House who are sort of angling in that direction.

    And there's been a lot of fantasy that we'd get what they call a deus ex Mueller, a hidden hand to remove Donald Trump. But it's looking much more likely that's going to be the work of the election.

    And, in retrospect, I'm out here in Colorado with people from all over from the world. And one young man from South Africa said to me, our democracy is 30 years old. Your democracy is really old. And one of the things we have learned from you and in our experience is that when people elect a leader to be president or head of a country, it should be really hard for people in that nation's capital to take him or her out.

    That's just not great for democracy. And our system did make it very hard to take a president out for even the corruptions and the sins we have seen Donald Trump commit.

    They want to invest power in the people. And there's some solace, I think, in that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yet, Mark, yes, Speaker Pelosi is saying, we're not there yet, it's not the moment to decide on impeachment.

  • Mark Shields:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And yet, as Lisa Desjardins was reporting tonight, the House Judiciary Committee already using the term impeachment investigation as they go after more information from the White House and the Justice Department.

  • Mark Shields:

    That's right, Judy. And I think it's absolutely understandable they would proceed.

    I couldn't disagree more with David about collusion. I don't think there's any question that what came through clear and loud and repeatedly in Bob Mueller's presentation was that the Trump administration, the Trump — Donald Trump himself, his campaign, and those who worked for him cooperated at every opportunity.

    Now, we can call — get into a question about what's collusion and what isn't, but they were actively involved, to the point of sharing polling figures and strategy and all the rest of it.

    So it's kind of fascinating that — and then the Republicans in the Senate, led by Mitch McConnell, refuse to even address any response, any meaningful response to election security, as we discussed earlier in this broadcast.

    I mean, the Republicans seemed bound and determined to keep Americans from participating in elections, but they are reluctant to keep the Russians from participating.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about…

  • Mark Shields:

    And subverting.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Excuse me.

    What about that, David, the fact that you did get a clear sense from listening to Robert Mueller, as both of you have said, that the Russians not only were very active in 2016, but they're still active, and we expect them to be going into this next election, and yet Republicans are not allowing election security legislation to move ahead?

    You have both parties, frankly, pointing fingers at each other.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I would invite Republicans to take a look at the globe and see that there's a lot of countries that could get involved in American election interference.

    Right now, it's Russian. I guess the — Mitch McConnell thinks it's somehow good for the Republicans. That, to me, is probably not true. It's probably just bad for democracy.

    But, you know, Donald Trump has been pretty tough on China. Suppose China decides to get involved in interfering in our elections in a way that hurts Donald Trump.

    The fact is, interfering in an election is an act of war on the country. And the idea that an act of war should be greeted by state and local responses is, to me, an absurdity. And that argument that our elections are handled on a state basis is just not an argument that — I understand the historical precedent, but it's not an argument that's in any way commensurate with what's actually happening.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • Mark Shields:

    David is right. David is right. It's a national security — there's no more important national act than a national election, choosing a president.

    And say that the good people of Maricopa County, Arizona, are responsible — and they are responsible for running their elections. But this is national security. It's in our national interests.

    And anybody meddling, it's not a question of even cyber-response or anything of the sort. It has to be a response, a national security response.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But just quickly, to go back to both of you on this question of impeachment.

    As these members of Congress go home to their districts and their states over the August recess, is it your expectation, Mark and David, that they're going to come back and say, forget this, or that this could still be alive, will still be alive in September?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I — you know, if the presidential candidates who are out on the trail every day with Democratic voters were talking about the Russia thing, then I would think maybe there is a chance that that will happen.

    But they are not talking about it, and they don't particularly want to talk about that. They want to talk about the issues that are on voters' minds.

    Now, there are still people in some districts — there are about 100 House Democrats who do want to proceed,. But, to me, what happened today with the — continuing the investigation is very much in line with what Nancy Pelosi has said all along. She doesn't want to go to the country unless there's an ironclad case.

    And if you just want to reduce it to one sentence, Watergate, everybody understood what Richard Nixon did. There was a cover-up of a break-in.

    There's never been that one-sentence case. And there's been a lot of terrible things Donald Trump has done, most of them out in public, but there's never been that one-sentence case that would I think impel a lot of people to suddenly start caring about impeachment right now, rather than just go to the election.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let's turn to the 2020 candidates, Mark.

    As we heard in the report from — again, from Lisa just before this, they are — we're hearing sharper disagreements out there, Joe Biden going after Cory Booker, after Cory Booker went after Joe Biden, Biden pointing out his differences with Kamala Harris.

    Are we seeing something materially different in this 2020 contest or not?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, if you're Cory Booker, and you're back in the pack, going after the front-runner, Joe Biden, gets you covered, and gets you coverage.

    I'm not saying it was a synthetic dispute. But, I mean, it's a proven tactic to do it, Judy. There's got to be differences. There's going to be competitions.

    At the risk of throwing a little cold water, at this point four years ago, 75-15 Hillary Clinton led Bernie Sanders, before losing New Hampshire by 20 points, and Donald Trump was at 1 percent and Ted Cruz was at 4 percent. Leading the Republican race was Scott Walker, second behind Jeb Bush, and just ahead of Mike Huckabee.

    So I just — I really think that what we're seeing is a sorting out more than anything else at this point.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Did you really have to remind us about those polls from…

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, I just — I think it's something to bear in mind, just a little perspective.

  • David Brooks:

    For some Republicans, those were the good old days, by the way.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, David, what do you see developing or not among these Democratic candidates right now?

  • David Brooks:

    The first thing is how — because everybody's so intensely involved, it doesn't feel like the kind of campaign that's going to be won by doing a lot of town halls in New Hampshire or a lot of barbecues in Iowa.

    It feels like a national campaign already, where there's huge social media buys, where the TV appearances and the debates really matter, where the local Iowa, New Hampshire polls look a little like the national polls.

    And so that's one thing that's kind of interesting to me. I am surprised by how tough they are on each other. I'm especially surprised by how strong, frankly, the candidates have left — on the left have been toward Biden, and, frankly, how much hostility there is in that part of the party to Biden.

    To me, if he emerges as the nominee, I think he will have a lot more work than almost anybody, except for maybe Bernie Sanders, in the party to unify the party. There really is a lot of hostility there that goes back to a lot of things, and mostly just a desire not to go back to the Obama years.

    And the final thing is, if Biden is not the moderate — in the moderate lane, I don't know who plan B is. There's been no other clearly defined moderate who has emerged, neither Michael Bennet, nor — maybe Amy Klobuchar is — the ones who come closest. But I don't really see a strong plan B on that side of the party.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark, do you think Joe Biden has the moderate lane locked up?

  • Mark Shields:

    I think he certainly dominates the moderate lane right now, Judy.

    But I think, as far as party unity is concerned, there's just an absolute miraculous guaranteed party unit fire, and his name is Donald Trump. And whoever the Democratic nominee is, short of his turning out to be an abuser of small animals, he's — he or she will have the unified support of Democrats.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last thing I want to touch on with both of you, and that is, lo and behold, we saw the two parties come together this week, David, and agree on a budget for the coming year.

    Now, this is just an outline. It's a blueprint. It doesn't mean that's what we're going to spend. But it happens to include a $1 trillion deficit.

    Both parties, Democrats and Republicans, signing on to this. What's happened to worry about red ink?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, the Republican Party is no longer the party of balanced budget amendments and things like that.

    Donald Trump began to walk away, and then the party has followed at a gallop. Both parties can agree on one thing. They love giving away free stuff. And they're giving away a lot of free stuff. And some of it may be good and some of it may be bad, but the winners here are Nancy Pelosi, who got a lot more spending on domestic discretionary spending.

    She got more of that than on Pentagon spending, which had been the rule in the Obama years. You keep them 50/50.

    And Trump, to the extent that he has a lot of money to — stimulus money to throw around an election year. It might boost the economy. The losers, I would say, are Generation Z, who are going to have to pay this off somehow.

    And so this has been the deterioration of our budget system for the past 20 years, I guess.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thirty seconds.

  • Mark Shields:

    Judy, the Democrats were roasted as the tax-and-spend party. The Republicans turn out to be the tax-cut-and-spend party.

    Make no mistake about it, this is a party that, if hypocrisy were a felony, the Republicans would be doing hard time about a balanced budget constitutional amendment. They have — they have cut this to the point where it — we — the last time we had 3 percent economic growth, Barack Obama was president. Revenues went up by 7 percent.

    That was collected by the government. Because of the tax cuts that Donald Trump imposed or passed, with the cooperation of the Congress, 3 percent growth resulted in a 1 percent diminution in revenues.

    That's what David's talking about that the next generations are going to have to deal with and the burden.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We will let that sink in.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you both.

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