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Shields and Brooks on Paul Manafort’s guilty plea, Trump’s Hurricane Maria denial

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including the guilty plea from Paul Manafort and deal to cooperate with the Mueller investigation, President Trump’s contentious remarks about Hurricane Maria, and slipping polls for the president ahead of the general election for control of the House and the Senate.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the Carolinas grapple with Florence's destructive forces, President Trump sparked a new political storm after questioning the number of Americans killed in the aftermath of Puerto Rico's storm last year.

    And the general election for control of the House and Senate has officially begun, a perfect moment for the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated comes Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Hello to both of you.

    Mark, I'm going to start with the Paul Manafort plea. He had said for months that he wasn't going to do this, but now he has. He's pled guilty. And he's cooperating with Robert Mueller. We — it's clear there's so much we don't know, but what does this mean for the president, potentially?

  • Mark Shields:

    It means bad news.

    He is the — Paul Manafort is the person closest to the president, who was in the campaign, who was involved in a meeting at Trump Tower with the Russians, who was involved intimately in the convention preparations, to changing the platform of the — in a position on Ukraine.

    So there's a lot. Plus, he was the conduit, to the degree there was one, in the Trump campaign to the traditional Republican Party. So, Paul Manafort is potentially a real problem.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I agree.

    It's striking to me how late in the process it is that this plea deal came. Maybe Manafort was holding out. But the fact that Mueller decided to accept and cut the plea suggests there's something there, either about Trump, about a member of Trump's family, about somebody else.

    It suggests that Mueller is proceeding slowly, and — but very remorselessly. And so it might not even be about Russia. It's been interesting. A lot of the indictments that have so far come down have not been about Russia. They have been other things. And there could be some other — some other law-breaking, potential law-breaking somewhere in Trump's past.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, we will certainly watch and wait.

    In the meantime, as I mentioned, Mark, this is the week in which we're waiting for this hurricane to hit the East, Southern, Southeastern coast of the U.S. President Trump a surprise everyone with a tweet the other morning questioning the number of people who died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria that hit Puerto Rico.

    The outside experts, completely nonpolitical, had come to the conclusion, several of them, that it was around 3,000. The president said that's not so.

    It's not just Democrats, but Republicans in the state of Florida and elsewhere, who have come back and said the president's wrong.

    What has he stepped into here?

  • Mark Shields:

    He stepped into, Judy, and exposed himself as somebody whose ego is so out of check, whose narcissistic impulses are so total, that he could equate a personal tragedy of enormous dimensions, of some 3,000, now some estimates are as high as 4,000-plus, deaths in Puerto Rico to being a political conspiracy against him by the part of his political enemies.

    As far as Republicans in Florida, Rick Scott, the governor, not surprisingly, spoke, said, it's not true. He has been to Puerto Rico himself seven times. He's made a big effort politically and governmentally to welcome the Puerto Ricans, the diaspora who've been moved to Florida as a result of that storm, who immediately become voters in that state.

    But probably most telling was Ron DeSantis, the Republican nominee for governor, the Mini-Me of this campaign, the Donald Trump clone, self-styled, self-admitted, saying that he didn't agree with the president on this, which is — I don't know what it's comfortable to. Breaking with the king?

    And so it's — I would say that Trump has really, in this case, isolated himself and exposed himself.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Any positive calculus for the president here, David?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    No, hard to think of that one.

    It almost makes you nostalgic to remember when he was bragging about his crowd size at the inaugural. That at least — it was a lie, but at least it was a harmless lie.

  • Mark Shields:

    That's right.

  • David Brooks:

    This is a lie where you render nearly 3,000 Americans invisible, that you don't acknowledge their existence, and you don't even see them.

    And so it's essentially telling the families of the people who died and those who died and anybody who cares about their fellow citizens that you can write them out of the history books, because their deaths make Donald Trump look bad.

  • Mark Shields:

    Just one…

  • David Brooks:

    And so it's almost pathological.

  • Mark Shields:

    Go ahead. Pardon me.

    I agree.

    Just one other thing, Judy. The politics of disasters, natural disasters in this country, are very real. To go back to Superstorm Sandy and even the 2012 election, when Barack Obama, the president, went to New Jersey, and Republican Governor Chris Christie, who was a big supporter of Romney's, thanked him publicly for the concern and the compassion that he and his administration had showed the people of New Jersey suffering.

    And on the other side, it was George W. Bush's decline as a president in popular support really was accelerated by Hurricane Katrina, his apparent indifference, his endorsement of Michael Brown, "Heck of a job, Brownie," as FEMA just absolutely failed.

    And I would just say this about political — about natural disasters. There's no politics involved among people, whether it's red states or blue states, liberals or conservatives. They look to the federal government, regardless of philosophy, for help, for effective, efficient, responsive help.

    And Donald Trump, when he went to Texas after the great storm last year, the first thing he said was, what a crowd. What a turnout, again making it about Donald Trump.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For Hurricane Harvey. Yes. Yes.

    And, David, this comes as there are some polls now — and, in fact, a number of polls over the last few weeks that are showing some slippage in the president's approval rating. We're wary of bringing up polls, because we know they're — we're reminded they're just snapshots.

    But are we seeing something here? We are now officially past Labor Day. We are into the general election season.

  • David Brooks:

    They're snapshots, but it's a moment, and we're only two months away from an election.

    And the basic trend had been, Donald Trump had been sitting around 43 for the longest of times, an incredibly stable poll. He — there was this scandal, that scandal, whatever. Nothing moved him.

    And then, in the last two weeks, suddenly, he drops to 37, 38. So — and that's a significant chunk. It doesn't — it sounds like whatever, five, six, seven, or eight points, but it — especially too months before an election, that's the difference between your party doing badly in the midterms and your party getting wiped out in the midterms.

    And so the question is, what's happened? Why all of a sudden is it going down? And there's probably no one answer. Maybe a little the comparison with John McCain.

    I mostly think it's seasonal, that people came — they weren't paying attention. It was summertime. And they come back, and they start paying attention. And they're — they're more annoyed with the guy than they were.

    But the drop is among — of course, it's among independents and Republicans. And so it's very — would be very alarming news for all Republicans, should be very alarming news.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Mark, we have been saying the numbers look good for Democrats in the House of Representatives. But now there's even a glimmer of a sign that there may be good news in the Senate.

    And the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, was quoted this week as saying, we have got the equivalent of a knife fight in an alley in about, what, seven or eight different Senate races around the country.

  • Mark Shields:

    No, you're right.

    And I would add quickly, Judy, there, I think there are two factors that contribute to Trump's trouble. First, I think the McCain funeral and its attendant attention was just a reminder of a hero of military service, and Donald Trump's total tone-deafness during that entire week. I think the contrast is in people's minds.

    Anybody who is a veteran, knows a veteran, have a veteran in the family, respected military service, I think had to look at it and just be — recoil from his performance.

    The second thing is, I think, quite frankly, his tweet — tweeting is wearing thin. I think it's lost its freshness. I mean, when you tweet two dozen times about the national anthem and the NFL — he did have an ability almost to drive the political narratives. And I think that's — I think that's failed him.

    As far as the Democrats in the Senate, it's unthinkable that they would even be competitive. I mean, they have 10 seats up in states that Donald Trump — Democrats running for reelection — Donald Trump carried, five in which he went by landslides, West Virginia, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, and North Dakota.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Mark Shields:

    And yet there are competitive and encouraging numbers for Democrats.

    And all I'm reminded of is Texas. If Texas is in play, I mean, Bill Cohen, the former secretary of defense, senator from Maine, who never lost an election in Maine, said once, before they vote for you, they have to like you.

    And if that's the case, if before they vote for you, they have to like you, Ted Cruz is in trouble in Texas, and Beto O'Rourke is a good bet.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    I will believe that when I see it.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do these congressional races look like?

  • David Brooks:

    You — we're now at end of the primaries.

    And so I think we have learned some things. Donald Trump owns the Republican Party. In just about every place you looked, the person who was most pro-Trump won, and anybody who crossed him out. And so the conservative movement is — whatever it was, it's a Trump party right now.

    The second thing we learned is that the Democrats have not swung super far left.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    If you look at the who was backed by various groups, the DCCC, which is the Democratic official establishment, like 97 percent of their candidates won.

    The New Democrats, they had like 87 percent. That's the moderate group. And then they're a bunch of more left-wing groups. They had like 30-odd — 37 percent of their candidates.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    They got a lot of headlines, but…

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, so they had some — a few races that were shocking, where the left-wing candidate really won, but, in general, the party didn't swing.

    And then the final thing is turnout. The Democratic turnout doubled over previous primaries. So those are pretty much the takeaways that I see.

  • Mark Shields:

    I think David is right.

    I think the intensity and the interest and the enthusiasm on the Democratic side right now, and, by every measurement — just in 2010 and 2014, they were on the Republican side. And, to me, in a midterm, that's the greatest measurement of what's going to happen, where the enthusiasm, where the intensity, where the interest in the campaign is.

    And it's higher among Democrats by an increasing margin than it is among Republicans.

    Part of the problem is that Donald Trump has said to his people, polls don't matter. Don't believe what you read. And now he's going to come back and say, well, wait a minute. The polls aren't great, so please get enthusiastic and get involved.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we will see where they are next week.

    But the last thing I want to ask you both about, just quickly — about a minute, less than a minute left — David, is what we just heard Lisa and Yamiche reporting on, this allegation against Brett Kavanaugh, something that happened allegedly in high school.

    Where do you see this going? Do you see it mattering?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, given what we know right now, if he did it, he would be disqualified, and he should be disqualified.

    But, right now, an anonymous, very abstract, very vague, with no police record — there was no police evidence — I don't think that stops his nomination.

    It's something that he — everyone denies. And if there's no evidence, I don't think it's going to hurt him.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes, I don't know.

    But, in this atmosphere, when you have just had a week where the president of CBS News and the producer of its most popular show fell to charges, I mean, charges are taken more seriously than they have in the past.

    But, I mean, this is a far reach back, and it's totally out of character from anything else we have ever learned about Brett Kavanaugh.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's a very different time from Clarence Thomas, very different.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes, absolutely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

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