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Shields and Brooks on the Mueller report

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to analyze the week’s news, including what the Mueller report's details mean for the Trump presidency and American politics, whether House Democrats should pursue impeachment and how Attorney General William Barr’s handling of the report reflects on him.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now to help us understand the broader implications of the Mueller report, we turn 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 Vancouver.

    And hello to both of you.

    So, the Mueller report is out, still generating a lot of controversy, as we heard a few minutes ago on the show.

    But, Mark, I want to ask the two of you, what do you — what is your main takeaway from this? What is most important here?

  • Mark Shields:

    I guess sadness, more than anything else, Judy, sadness about the state of the leadership of the country.

    I mean, every White House is inevitably a mirror reflection of the president at the top of it, whether it's in terms of optimism of a Reagan or sort of the paranoia of a Nixon.

    But this White House, it may be good at some level to have worked in Donald Trump's White House for somebody, but it's terrible for one's self-respect. I mean, at no point in the entire narrative does any sense of the president's unselfishness or patriotism or larger national interest ever emerge in any way.

    And I'm grateful that people who are there who didn't come with a heroic reputation did heroic things by resisting his orders to do corrupting acts.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, your main reaction?

  • David Brooks:

    That we have a lot of threats to the infrastructure of our society.

    Donald Trump is a threat to the systems of government we have and a threat to the basic honesty of our system. There are all the — every time he appears in the Mueller report, he's running roughshod over what he's supposed to be doing. He's interfering with an investigation. He's ordering somebody to fire somebody else.

    He just takes all the procedures and all the systems we have in place in our government and he just runs right through them.

    And then the second character in the report are the Russians, and they're undermining the informational infrastructure of our society, the fact that we can have a debate based on solid facts and solid information, and they are systematically, as the report says, aggressively trying to undermine that.

    And then the third player in the report is Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. And they're trying to undermine the idea that we can have privacy in our society, the idea that organizations can deliberate with each other.

    So what I see are three players who in either a tight alliance or a loose alliance that are all engaged in the same project which is disrupting the basic infrastructures of our society.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Pretty grim.

    Mark, so, clearly, this administration doesn't come out looking great from this report. What does it mean, though, for government, I mean, for our federal government, for our system of government? Is there a long-lasting effect from what we see here?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, we obviously don't know yet, Judy.

    I think there's a couple of events that will take place. I mean, I think Robert Mueller's testimony on Capitol Hill will be very crucial to where we go from here.

    And just picking up on the point David made, if there's an imperative that comes out of this whole sordid tale, it's for a new 9/11 Commission. It's to have — the 9/11 Commission after the attacks of 2001 chaired by Tom Kean, a Republican governor of New Jersey, and Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman, to investigate what happened.

    How do we avoid it ever happening again? What do we need to do, statutorily, collectively in the country? And the Russians did — they subverted and sabotaged our election. And the Obama administration was remiss in its response in 2016. And President Trump has chosen for two-and-a-half years to deny what Russia did.

    And the most public of sacraments that we have as a people, a presidential election, was subverted and sabotaged. And they're about the same evil mission again with no — we ought to have that. It ought to be bipartisan. It ought to be Republicans and Democrats. And we ought to just demand that American elections be only — involve Americans.

    And it has to bring in all of the Silicon Valley and all the companies, and we have to do this to preserve our democracy and to restore some sense of public trust.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, David, follow this with another investigation, something that maybe provides a catharsis for what we have been through?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, I would say we need an action plan for what to do with Russia, because, obviously, it's still ongoing, so that would be something that would be good.

    I'm concerned over what's going to happen over the next two years or maybe even the next six years. Yuval Levin had a piece in the "National Review" today that's getting a lot of attention. And he asks, what do we do if there's a world crisis?

    We now see a White House where the president makes a disastrous decision, and it's not — we're only saved because of the fact that his staff doesn't carry it out. But in moments of crisis, where decisions have to be made in rapid fire, everything gets centralized in the Oval Office.

    And we have been fortunate we have not had that kind of crisis, but most presidencies have one or two or three. And what do we do when the centralization of power falls on a man who can't basically make sound decisions?

    Do we build an alternate structure around him? It's a scary prospect, if there's some world instability that the leader of the free world has to do something about. And that's one of the effects of this report.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is that something we should be worried about?

  • Mark Shields:

    It is something we should be worried about, Judy.

    And not to go back to ancient history, which is my life.

    (LAUGHTER)

    But I can recall when the Cuban Missile Crisis happened, and the president of the United States dispatched Dean Acheson, the former secretary of state, to meet with Charles de Gaulle, the leader of France, to tell him about the presence of Soviet offensive missiles in Cuba 90 miles from the United States and what the president intended to do about it and confronting Nikita Khrushchev.

    Dean Acheson, when he went to see Charles de Gaulle, he explained this to him and offered to show him the photographic evidence that the president only had at his command, that President Kennedy had authorized him to do that. And Charles de Gaulle said, no, no, that's not necessary. All I need is the word of the president United States.

    That's unthinkable in these times, that the word of the president of the United States, I mean, even to his own staff, for whom he was unfeared and unloved. Thank goodness that they could resist his commands.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, what about in the shorter term? You have Democrats saying not only they want to see the entire unredacted report, they want Robert Mueller to testify. They want to pursue this.

    There are some Democrats on the left end of the spectrum who are saying, let's move toward impeachment. So far, the leadership of Democrats in Congress is resisting that.

    But what do we — what should we see Democrats doing right now?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I would say they should have Mueller testify.

    I think they should use the power they have of hearings to educate the voters. And whether that's Mueller testifying or getting more information out of the report, if that's necessary, though I hardly think it is, they should have that. And we could have hearings.

    I think it would be a gigantic mistake to do impeachment. I think it would be handing Donald Trump the kind of gift that he really likes, where he could set it up as the left vs. right, rather than just, what is Donald Trump's actual behavior?

    And this is a case where I think we're voters. And voters should have the ultimate word here. And giving information to the voters about what's really happening is a good idea. Subverting the choice of the voters by taking it into a legal process, I think, would be a mistake.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes, I mean, politics remains the art of the possible.

    There is — I have yet to see — other than Senator Romney today being quite critical of the president and his lack of truthfulness or honor, as seen in the report, the Republicans have been mute. They have — they have united behind him.

    To talk about impeachment, conviction would mean, what, 20 Republican senators in the United States Senate coming over? So I think — I think that's — it's unrealistic.

    But I do think that the Mueller testimony is important. I think that hearings should be conducted in specific areas. And public education is important. But I don't — I don't see impeachment right now as a plausible alternative.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, David, if it's not about impeachment, is it just about educating people, as you just said?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, Mueller in the report gave us a little road map.

    I mean, he was clearly disinclined to indict on the obstruction of justice charges. And he said, I was collecting information for either future prosecutors or for members of Congress.

    So there is an open avenue, if people want to seize that. I just think — I just hate the idea of conducting our politics always through scandal, always through the paradigm of Watergate, where we're going to bring down a president. Sometimes, that's necessary.

    And it may be necessary in this case. This is, to me, a borderline case. I just think, A, it's not going to happen. And when we have our politics through the politics of scandal, we're not having a politics through the politics of issues.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are we — and, Mark, what about that?

    And are we stronger as a country because we see in detail what happened throughout this move from the — what, the middle of the campaign year in 2016, or even before that, when the Russians started trying to interfere in the election, up through the end of Robert Mueller's investigation?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, we're not stronger if we don't do anything about it. I mean, that's why I come back to — and I don't mean the 9/11 Commission or that reincarnation of that as just a feel-good measure.

    I mean, I think it's — I think it's imperative that we confront it. I mean, American elections are sacred. I mean, they are our sacred public institutions. And they were sabotaged. They were subverted. And this president has denied it, because somehow it would affect the magnitude and enormity of his own victory, and his own vanity would somehow be pierced.

    So, no, I — we're only stronger, Judy, if, with that information, we act.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And how much does it matter, David, that the president come around to acknowledging the Russians were conducting this sweeping attempt to undermine the elections two years ago?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, the glaciers will march down on Pennsylvania Avenue before that happens.

    (LAUGHTER)

    Yes, I don't think that's going to happen.

    One of the thoughts I have had this week is that impartiality is our scarcest resource by now, and that Robert Mueller seems to have been pretty impartial. And we rely on umpires in this society who are impartial.

    I think Bob Barr, frankly, ruined any reputation for impartiality with that press conference. He ruined the benefit of the doubt that a lot of people like me were inclined to give him.

    And, so, restoring the value of impartiality, especially when people in government — that's just a necessary thing. And you don't see it in Congress. You really don't see it on the Supreme Court.

    We have lost a little of that sense that one should just try to be an empire some of the time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fifteen seconds, Mark.

  • Mark Shields:

    Robert Mueller and Donald Trump are the bookends of a generation, born to privilege, private school education, Ivy League education, confronted the dilemma and the great tragedy of their generation, Vietnam and military service.

    One chose to go, was wounded, carried the wounds of battle with him, was a decorated veteran. The other can't remember which foot he had the bone spur on that prevented his serving. One devoted his life to public service, the other to the pursuit of private money.

    This is it — 58,220 Americans died in that war, and Donald Trump and Robert Mueller have been the avatars of it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, we thank you.

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