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Shields and Brooks on the danger of Trump’s refusal to concede

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week in politics, including President Donald Trump’s continuing and baseless claims about election fraud, how Republicans and Democrats have reacted and the long-term impacts of Trump’s refusal to concede on Americans’ faith in the electoral process.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We have said this before, but this truly has been a week like no other in U.S. politics.

    To help us sift through it all, the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Hello to both of you on this Friday evening.

    David, it's been almost two weeks since Joe Biden was declared the winner of this election. President Trump still says he won by a landslide. And he seems to be doing everything he possibly can to change the results and get himself reelected.

    What is going on?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, the Trump administration is a bit like the COVID pandemic. You can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but the worst — the last chapter is just the worst.

    This has been the most unsuccessful, the most just horrible in every way transition of power in American history, surpassing Rutherford B. Hayes in 1870 by a country mile.

    He's throwing everything at it. I don't think there's really much chance he's going to be successful in any ways, for a million reasons I could get into.

    But a friend of mine, Jonathan Rauch, says it's like the fire hose of falsehoods strategies that disinformation campaigns use and have used against the United States. And that is where you just fill the air with lies. It's not necessarily that people believe your lies. It's that people don't believe in anything.

    And so the long-term effect on American society, American politics, and American culture is a country that's even more cynical, even more disabused, and where you have a majority of Republicans right now who think that Trump won.

    And what does that mean for the next four years? It's a — it's just a poisonous spewing that should not be underestimated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark, how do you make sense of all this? Or do you?

  • Mark Shields:

    First of all, I'd like to associate with the — myself with the previous gentleman's remarks. I think David makes great sense.

    Joe Biden, who has been the model of restraint, said that the president's actions were irresponsible.

    They are irresponsible, but they're also reprehensible. The president shows absolutely no concern for the president-elect and his group's effort to prepare to govern, to lead the country. It just goes through the myriad of problems facing the country. He has refused to support a COVID relief bill, with benefits running out by just after Christmas.

    He has no interest in that, does the president. The president has had no interest in showing the new incoming administration its best way of providing the vaccine to the millions of Americans who so desperately will need it. It's oblivious to national security opportunistic moments that our enemies and those who wish us ill in the world can take advantage. Across the board.

    And what David said, I mean, he is sowing doubt and mistrust. Americans historically, Judy, have given the benefit of the doubt to every new president. It's a wonderful quality of ours. Even we swallow partisanship.

    What Donald Trump is doing his best, through his 90 million Twitter followers, is to reach the 70 million-plus who voted for him and say, don't trust. Don't trust your government. Don't trust your nation.

    And it's reprehensible. It's beyond irresponsible.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, but it's not just that they're saying that there was a problem here or a problem there. They're alleging massive fraud, conspiracy.

    Giuliani, Rudy Giuliani, yesterday speaking about Venezuela being behind a giant conspiracy, the Clintons, and on and on, fairy tale-like information.

    What — I get — I mean, I wonder, is this something that you believe the American people are wise enough, smart enough to reject?

  • David Brooks:

    I want to say yes, but this is really what I wonder about.

    I mean, holding up documents and claiming you have evidence, when you have no evidence, is literally what Joe McCarthy did. And now we're seeing a re-picture of it.

    And we have always had in this country a paranoid style. Richard Hofstadter wrote a book about this maybe 50 or 60 years ago, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," the John Birch Society, the conspiracies against — alleging that the mafia or somebody killed John F. Kennedy.

    That's always been there. And so that's not new.

    The question I have — and I don't know the answer to this — is, to what extent is that spreading? To what extent has QAnon just become like a large religion out there? And has the — all the distrust that's built up over the decades now created the — a paranoid wing that is just bigger than ever before?

    I just don't know the answer to that. I do know that, every time we have an election, more — we ratchet down our quality of politics. People claimed that Barack Obama was an illegitimate president. Hillary Clinton and Jimmy Carter said Donald Trump was an illegitimate president. But that's nothing compared to what's happening right now.

    And how it seeds in the country and how it seeds over the next four years, there's some evidence that we're just seeing a bigger, alienated, paranoid wing of our country, and who may believe in this or may just believe in nobody, it's just pure nihilism.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what makes it more, in my mind, a question, Mark, is that most elected Republican officials are backing the president in what he's doing.

    They're saying he has every right to challenge. Very few of them are saying that he's — what he's doing is wrong.

  • Mark Shields:

    Judy, they have taken a vow of silence, apparently.

    The most amazing moment of the week to me politically was to find out that "Meet the Press" last Sunday called every single Republican senator and invited him or her to be on the show that Sunday, and every one of them turned "Meet the Press" down.

    Now, I mean, that is unheard of, to be invited to an important forum like that. Senators jump at that opportunity historically.

    And what you're back to his Dante's great quote that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a time of moral crisis, remain neutral. I mean, that's what they have done. They have taken this vow of silence, with conspicuous consumptions. They are enabling him.

    And they are undoing democracy. And they're doing enormous damage, I mean, saying, well, just humor him. Humor him along a little while.

    We're facing the greatest public health crisis we have had in 100 years. We're facing an economic crisis of dramatic and historic proportions and dimensions. People's lives are really at risk.

    And what they do is futz around on this and pretend that we're not going to tell the emperor that he has no trousers on or that he has no shirt on? There's no attempt to win here. Nobody believes that Donald Trump won the election.

    It's just to sow doubt and mistrust and distrust. And what a terribly dishonorable objective.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it appears that he believes it, and a number of people who are backing him may believe it. It is not clear.

    But, David, is there — as you look at how Joe Biden has responded to this, the comments that he's made — he's been asked about it day after day. Is there anything — I mean, what do you make of that? Is that — is that a response that is likely to win opinion, win hearts and minds?

    What do you see? What do you hear?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, first, I want to acknowledge the Republicans who actually have stood up, Mitt Romney foremost — first and foremost, Jeff Flake early.

    But even this week, Lamar Alexander and Ben Sasse, senators from Tennessee and Nebraska, have really put out statements. And so I think they get some credit.

    As for Joe Biden, I think he's handled it reasonably well, not overreacting, getting down to business, focusing on COVID. That strikes me as very sensible.

    His transition put out an e-mail today raising money. So, we have got a country, we're living in a country where the president-elect has to raise money to pay for the transition because they can't — he can't yet get public funds.

    It's like we're not a First World country anymore.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, David, you mentioned Republicans, but I think it's still the case, Mitch McConnell, the majority of elected Republicans are still not challenging the president.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I'd say there are four levels.

    There's a very small level of heroes, like Romney. There's the 80 percenters, who are sort of moving away. Then there's 90 percent, who are just completely silenced, including, by example — for example, Cory Gardner, the guy who just got defeated in a Senate race, who has nothing left to lose politically. Even he's still silent. And then there are the hard-core Giulianis.

    And, right now, you're right. There's that core group of Republicans who are disgraceful in their silence.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark, what about Joe Biden and how he is dealing with this? What are you — what's your assessment?

  • Mark Shields:

    I think Joe Biden has handled it well.

    I mean, you can feel his mounting frustration, a greater sense of urgency as time goes by, and the enormous task confronting him and his administration. They're being robbed of the chance just to consult, Judy, just to consult with the people who have been there, who are there, who are working.

    I mean, it's — the Republicans' mantra during impeachment, you will recall, was, let's wait until the election. Let's let the voters decide. Let's let them cast their ballots.

    Well, they have done that, and it's time to accept it.

    I acknowledge Governor Romney's, Senator Romney's leadership. Lamar Alexander on — after three terms and his retirement, did make a statement today. And Ben Sasse has, in fact, shown some independence.

    But that's three. That's three. And I'm — I'm still waiting for the leadership to move on it and stop pretending. I mean, this is a fantasyland we're living in. But it's a dangerous fantasyland. And we're playing with people's lives; 258,000 Americans are dead because of this pandemic.

    And the president seems — he just seems consumed with his own ego, his own vanity.

    Think about this, Judy. If he were really even shrewd, he would be large-spirited and magnanimous right now, and do everything he could, and take credit, an earned credit for his administration, to produce a vaccine in eight months, nine months. It's an amazing achievement.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • Mark Shields:

    And it will potentially save millions of lives.

    But he hasn't even — that isn't even anywhere near his interest. That — he's not concerned about that at all. I mean, it would be in his interest to go out as a magnanimous and large historic figure, and serve his purposes, whatever they are in the future.

    But, instead, he's going on as a small, mean, vindictive and self-absorbed man.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I guess he did make a statement one day this week about the vaccine, the progress made on a vaccine.

    But, David, I do want to come back to something else the president has done. And that is announce pulling U.S. troops out of the Middle East here in the last weeks, months of his presidency, making moves that raise — I think, raise some questions about where this administration wants to leave U.S. power, and what he wants to leave for the next administration.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, there's no question that America wants to get out of Afghanistan. The question is how.

    And when you measure that, there's always a conflict between the political forces and the military. And, sometimes, the military probably wants to stay in a little too long. They're probably a little more confident in their abilities to turn things around than they should be.

    But I'm really struck by how the military leaders, especially the former militaries, the retireds, have really reacted with apoplexy to the way we're withdrawing.

    And we're going to get out, but they really think there's no military justification, pure politics, and destructive effects in Afghanistan to get out.

    And for all the young men and women who served there over these many, many years, if we — if we stay in a couple more months, and leave a lasting legacy they can be proud of, that certainly is worth it.

    And so what you see from Trump is what seems to be just pure politics, so he can brag.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Mark, just 30 seconds. Thoughts about the president and the military.

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, Judy, 2,500 people in Iraq and Afghanistan are too few to fight, and too many to die. So, that is a strategic decision.

    But the reality is that we have never had in this country any exit strategy in either Iraq or Afghanistan, the two longest wars in American history. We don't know how to measure what victory or success would be.

    And that is a failure. It's been a failure of four administrations. And it — the fact that we got into it with no end strategy, with no insight is a terrible indictment. And it's the only war since the Mexican-American War of longer than three months that America has fought without a draft and with tax cuts, instead of tax raises.

    And both Republican presidents during this war, their principal domestic policy has been to cut taxes. So, we have now spent $5 trillion, thousands of lives, and disrupted millions of lives. And I ask, for what?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A week that's just — that's raised a lot of questions.

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, we thank you both.

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