What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Shields and Brooks on Russia revelations, Trump-Bannon rift

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including new revelations in the Russia investigation, the war of words between President Donald Trump and former White House adviser Steve Bannon, and what former Vice President Joe Biden told Woodruff earlier this week about the future of the Democratic Party.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Next to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Welcome, gentlemen.

    So, David, the lead of the program tonight is what I guess a lot of people in Washington are reading and talking about right now, are these Russia revelations, what the president did or didn't do in trying to pressure the attorney general to stay involved or not in this investigation.

    Then other stories keep coming out. We talked about it a few minutes ago in the program, but are we really learning more about what President Trump did?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, we knew that he really wanted to squash this investigation, but I think what we're learning is a lot of the details, a lot of the efforts that he made, the letter he wanted to write, his attitude toward government.

    To me, the most astonishing quote of the whole deal is he saying, "Where is my Roy Cohn?" And Roy Cohn was Joe McCarthy's henchman, more or less. And so he's basically — and a mentor to Donald Trump, it should be said, later in life.

    And so he thinks government is sort of a family mafia business, and he can shut it down, and loyalty to the Don is the primary value here.

    To me, that was just a mind-boggling quote, because most people consider Roy Cohn and Roy Cohn's role with Joe McCarthy as a shameful moment in American history, not something you want to emulate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Mark, are we learning more here? I mean, the stories are coming almost by the bushel full, and every one of them has a little bit more information about what happened.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

    Well, we're certainly learning — and I'm trying to separate the stories right now, but we're learning the president was deeply involved in trying to divert attention on that return flight from his European trip in July, you know, that he was — that this is a matter of personal urgency to him, and which just sets off alarms.

    I mean, why? What is it? I don't think there is — we're anywhere near a smoking pistol or anything of the sort on him and Russia, but there's no question of his hypersensitivity, concern, involvement and unseemly involvement in trying to divert attention and to send the attorney general out as his personal attorney.

    I mean, he really views the attorney general of the United States not at the Department of Justice, but as a personal attorney, and is somewhat upset that he doesn't have the same relationship with Jeff Sessions that he perceives that John Kennedy had with Robert Kennedy, who was his brother and his campaign manager.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And he said that Barack Obama had a close relationship and that, in his view, Eric Holder did what President Obama wanted him to do.

  • David Brooks:

    That's a bit of a stretch.

    The relationship between presidents and attorney generals have generally been fraught, because they have this weird role of being appointed, but semi-independent representing their agency. And so it's a history of fraughtness.

    Trump doesn't seem to understand that. He doesn't understand the history. To me, it's a mistake, though, to think, because he's covering up, there was an underlining crime vis-a-vis Russia. That's imposing a linearity on Donald Trump's mind that doesn't always exist.

    And he could just not be — he just could be upset that they're sort of diminishing his victory. And if anything we have learned over the past couple of weeks, there may be more to do with money laundering, some of the charges about Deutsche Bank that have been floating around as well, than maybe the Russia story.

    And in the past, he certainly said, don't look at my tax returns, which is a signal that the thing he's really worried about, if there is anything, is less Russia and more some of the financial shenanigans.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, while we wait for that, Mark, what we do have this week — or what is coming out today and tomorrow and the next few days is this book, bombshell book, by Michael Wolff, "Fire and Fury," about the Trump White House.

    Some pretty disturbing portraits that are painted in there of the way the White House operates, what the people around the president think about him.

    There have been some questions about Michael Wolff and the kind of work he does as a journalist, but when you look — at least in the excerpts — I haven't read the book yet — but when you read and hear the excerpts about the language that people around the president use about him, it has to be concerning.

  • Mark Shields:

    It has to be concerning, Judy.

    And what surprises me most of all is the political equivalent of the dog not barking in the night. There is no counteroffensive. There is nobody with an anecdote about, no, no, you have got the president all wrong. He goes up with the briefing books at 9:00 at night and comes down at the next morning and asks the most penetrating questions, with the anecdotes in the margin.

    There's none of that. I mean, it's kind of, I didn't say that. It wasn't on the record.

    And what is most alarming is that the unanimity of the consensus that this does describe the president. And the only person who's been really fingered so far is Katie Walsh, who was there briefly as deputy chief of staff to Reince Priebus.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Deputy chief of staff.

  • Mark Shields:

    But, you know, it really — Rex Tillerson kind of stands as the beacon. I mean, he was the one who got nailed early saying the president was a moron, and never backed off. You know, said, oh, that's unfair, but he never denied questioning the president.

    And what emerges, very honestly, is a picture that is, you know, at the very least disturbing and distressing. I mean, it's a man without curiosity. It's a man who doesn't read. And it's a man with an attention span of a rabid Tsetse fly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, Michael Wolff on The Today Show this morning, David, said the consensus of everybody around the president, he said almost with exception, is that it's like working with a child.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes. Well, I have written that.

    I find it a little more supple. There are two issues here. One is Michael Wolff himself. In my view, I don't know what to believe in the book because I don't think he practices the kind of journalism that we practice. He doesn't practice the kind that could allow you to work in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, PBS.

    Many of the things he reports are true, and many of the things he reports are fictionalized. And a lot of things all throughout his career — this is not a new thing with him. Some of the things in the book are factually completely inaccurate. Some of the things ring false to me. Maybe somebody told him, so he put it in the book without checking it out.

    When I started my career in journalism at the City News Bureau of Chicago, we had a phrase- If your mom tells you she loves you, check it out.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    And I'm not sure he does a lot of that.

    So, that's one fact. So, I'm very dubious about accepting everything.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • David Brooks:

    Nonetheless, the general picture confirms what we already knew. And I think there is a general sense the president is unfit. They treat — they do treat him like a child.

    It's too simplistic, though, to say it's like the madness of King George. I certainly have talked to many people over the last several months who said, yes, I went into a meeting, he was surprisingly well-informed, surprisingly ran a good meeting.

    I have certainly had that experience. And he's running a White House that, whether you approve of the policies or not, has done this Pakistan deal, or the change in Pakistan policy, which is defensible — they did pass a tax bill. They are doing this regulatory stuff, this judicial stuff.

    It's not completely dysfunctional. They are getting stuff done. And so I think that he has severe mental flaws. But the picture that's coming out that he's completely off his rocker, I think that's overly simplistic and underestimates this…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we are going to be interviewing Michael Wolff on the NewsHour on Monday night. And we do plan to ask him some of these questions about, how did he confirm — how do we know that he — that this is the real deal, that it wasn't made up in any way?

    But, Mark, the president's reaction to this has been over the top. I mean, he called Steve Bannon, who's quoted in it a lot and I guess who gave Michael Wolff a lot of the access — just has basically banished him from Trump world for the time being.

    So, what does that do? I mean, Bannon has been the strategist. He's been out, but now he seems to be truly out. They had this plan. They were going to unseat all the establishment Republican senators who were up for reelection this year.

    I mean, where does all that go?

  • Mark Shields:

    I'm not sure. I'm really not.

    I mean, I think Bannon is an interesting figure. I think he had — was guilty of overreach. I mean, he either encouraged or allowed discussion about running for president and his being president, which was beyond delusions of grandeur for somebody, A, who has never run for school board, city council, library board anywhere, and no one is kind of seeing as a charismatic candidate.

    But, Judy, I don't think there's any question that the explosive in this book, as far as Donald Trump is concerned, were the charges about the meeting that Donald Trump Jr. hosted with Paul Manafort and others at the Trump Tower with the Russians, and that he called it traitorous.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

  • Mark Shields:

    Steve Bannon, whatever his shortcomings are — and I think they are manifest — is somebody who has worn the uniform of his country, did serve at the Pentagon, and has a gravitas on these matters that nobody in that meeting had or understood.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is the Bannon-Trump split consequential?

  • David Brooks:

    I think it is consequential.

    First, in the short term, it will no doubt complicate the effort by the populist wing of the party to upset a lot of the normal — the mainstream Republicans, which they have been trying to do.

    I think, in the long term, I think, paradoxically, everyone is saying Bannon is out, Bannon is finished. But Bannonism or populism has real roots in the country. It was Pat Buchanan was spokesman for it before Bannon, and Andrew Jackson, if you want to go back.

    And so that tendency in the party, whether led by Bannon or not, will continue. It's much bigger and broader than Trumpism. There's not a big movement to have narcissistic billionaires in the White House. There is a big movement to have a populist style of government.

    And so in some way, if Bannon can continue to lead that movement, I don't know if he will, he, in a weird way, could have longer staying power than Donald Trump.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Change of subject.

  • Mark Shields:

    Bannon's principal problem is that he's got a movement that is funded by plutocrats. And there isn't any economic base to it in terms of support. I think there is electoral support.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Change of subject.

  • Mark Shields:

    Sure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Joe Biden, he was on the program last night. I asked him, among other things, about running for president. He says he's not making a decision this year.

    But I asked about his age and whether that was an issue. He would be 78. He laughed it off and said, sure, it's a factor, but he said Donald Trump will be 75.

  • Mark Shields:

    Donald Trump, yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But here's another part of our conversation. This is about a minute or so I want you to listen to and talk about it at the other side.

    What about, Vice President, this split that many say isn't going on inside the Democratic Party, that there are a lot of Democrats who are saying, we have got to be more progressive in our thinking, we have got to be outspoken about it?

    You have got the Hillary Clinton-Joe Biden wing of the party, and then you have got the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren section of the party.

  • Joseph Biden:

    Hey, man, I — if you take a look at my positions…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, how do you see what is going on?

  • Joseph Biden:

    My positions are a hell of a lot closer to Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders on some of the economic positions.

    There isn't — I sat with Bernie. I'm the guy that told him, you shouldn't accept any money from a super PAC, because people can't possibly trust you. How will a middle-class guy accept if you accept money?

    But here's the point. This is a false debate. I show up wherever I go, and I talk about the need for a woman's right to choose being protected. I talk about the need for us to be open arms for immigration.

    I talk about all the things we talk about in terms of the minority communities, what we need to do. And I also talk about — in addition to that, I talk about the fact that I know you have a problem. Here is what we're going to do.

    There should be free college education, for God's sake. Why don't we talk about it? All we have got to do is eliminate one loophole, stepped-up basis. You can pay for every kid in America to go to community colleges for free who is, in fact — who, in fact, qualified.

    And so there isn't — and, by the way, there's never been a consistency before.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, David, I should have said — talked to him around his book, which is on the death of his son Beau, but he was ready to talk about politics.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you're hearing him say, hey, I can do it all. I can talk to liberals, I can talk to moderates and conservatives.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, that wasn't the answer of an armchair philosopher reflecting back on his life.

    That was a guy who is actively involved. Whether he says — knows it consciously in his head, his heart seems to be very much into running for office.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He was engaged.

  • Mark Shields:

    He was engaged, as Joe Biden is.

    There was there at least, I thought, an implicit criticism of the deplorables, of the elitism that was described of the Clinton campaign, and a reminder that labor is prior to and preexisting capital, and capital only exists as a result of and following the work of labor.

    That was Abraham Lincoln in 1861. And I think it's something that Democrats forgot in 2016.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, he is giving all of it a lot of thought, even though, as he says, he's not going to make a decision this year. He's just focused on the midterms. We will see.

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest