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Shields and Brooks on the whistleblower complaint, Saudi oil attack

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s political news, including reports of a whistleblower complaint that might involve President Trump, the debate about whether a sitting president can commit a crime and the U.S. response to attacks on Saudi oil facilities.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now we turn to the political analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Hello to both of you.

    Let's start with our lead story tonight. And that is the whistle-blower from the intelligence community.

    The word gets out — or this person is alleging that he that the president, in a conversation with — now we think it's the president of Ukraine, urged the president of Ukraine, Mark, to investigate Joe Biden's son.

    And we have a — there's still no — the president denies it, and others do, but now we have several news outlets backing up the story. And I was just handed — and you have seen it — a statement by Joe Biden.

  • He says:

    "If these reports are true, there's truly no bottom to President Trump's willingness to abuse his power and abuse our country. This behavior is particularly abhorrent because it exploits the foreign policy of our country and undermines our national security for political purposes."

    How seriously should we be taking these allegations?

  • Mark Shields:

    I think they're enormously serious.

    And the fact that The Wall Street Journal is leading this story, along with The New York Times and The Washington Post, but this is not false or fake news or anything of the sort. It's not a political vendetta of any sort.

    And this is quite beyond a Playboy model or a frat party at an Ivy League school or anything of the sort. This is really serious. This is totally exploiting the national security, putting at risk the national security of the United States for narrow political, personal interests, if, in fact, the reports are true.

    And I guess the most disturbing thing to me, Judy, was the president accused the whistle-blower, who, at enormous risk, and it required considerable courage, of being an extreme partisan, which means, A, that somebody in the White House knows who the whistle-blower is.

    This is mafia-like threats. We know who you are. And they have investigated his political affiliation or her political affiliation. I mean, so, I think it's enormously grave.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, in fact, the president — David, the president was saying today to the television cameras that people in the White House were making fun of all this.

    Are we looking at something where it's going to be a he said/he said situation going forward?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, presumably, the call was listened to by others and recorded. So, I'm not sure it was recorded, but it was certainly listened to. These calls are not — it's not just a one-on-one call. There's people on the line.

    You know, I think it is pretty grave. Most presidents go into the White House thinking, I'm here to serve the office, I'm here to serve America.

    Donald Trump is using America to serve him and American foreign policy to serve him. And most presidents go into the office thinking that the phrase my fellow Americans means something and that we have greater loyalty to our fellow Americans than we do the people in outside countries.

    And he's basically using another country to be oppo research on his fellow American.

    And I think this rises to more a level — I'm not sure this really is foundationally changing, but it rises to a different revel, if there's a connection between the foreign aid and the promise.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • David Brooks:

    That really is using — suborning U.S. government money for your own private gain. And that's clearly corruption of a high order.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, as both of you are saying, Mark, we don't know for a fact that this happened. But the evidence is now building, the reporting is building.

    And there are two strands. It is urging the leader of another country to get involved in a political campaign, but then the quid pro quo, potentially.

  • Mark Shields:

    No, exactly, Judy.

    To say, look, be in touch with my Dr. Dirt, my oppo research guy, who once was America's mayor and is now doing smear jobs.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Rudy Giuliani.

  • Mark Shields:

    Rudy Giuliani. How the mighty have fallen to that point where he's an errand boy to be a hit man on political opponents.

    No, David put it very well. I mean, this is a total, total corruption of the — if it's valid and if it's accurate — and I think that the news reports are done very soberly, quite honestly, because they take their position — their mission seriously.

    If it's true, Judy, then I don't see how the Democrats can back off on impeachment investigation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I want to ask you about that because this week, David, as both of you have pointed out, the president's lawyers were in court.

    They were arguing against a New York lawsuit, an attempt to get the president's tax returns to be turned over, to be made public. And the president's lawyers are saying you can't investigate a president while he's sitting in office.

    What we're learning today in these reports about Ukraine raise questions about that.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, this was the Nixon defense with David Frost, that, if a president does it, it's not illegal. And it didn't work for Nixon. I'm not sure it would work for here.

    I mean, a basic principle of our government is that no person is above the law. And so I don't think that will work.

    I am struck — I do think, if there's a link to the foreign aid, the Democrats obviously have to launch a different and new investigation.

    I'm struck mostly by, when President Trump does something out in the open, or Rudy Giuliani does something out in the open, like, it doesn't become a big thing. Now that we have something secret that the press have uncovered, suddenly, it blows up.

    But Giuliani wasn't shy about this. And the fall of Giuliani is one of the great stories of our age. I covered him a lot when he was mayor, extremely brilliant, extremely sharp, not the man I see today.

    The one continuity is that he would sit around with his staff and watch "The Godfather" movies over and over again.

  • Mark Shields:

    Wow.

  • David Brooks:

    And the mob behavior — this really is mob behavior. It's like, let's dig up dirt on this guy.

    That's the way it strikes me, more than anything else.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, and, again, Mark, with these — with the president's lawyers fighting back, which they have been — they have been fighting all these attempts to get any information turned over.

  • Mark Shields:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But this is the first time we have heard them argue a president can't be investigated.

  • Mark Shields:

    Can't be investigated.

    I agree with David about the Nixon defense. Nixon, of course, invoked that defense in 1977, three years after he had been forced out, in an interview with David Frost.

    But no president — he did prove that, and by his own statement and his own actions, that no president can be above the law.

    And, no, I really think the gravity of this is yet to be fully appreciated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The major — other major story we're watching very closely this week, David, of course, is the — in the aftermath of the attack on the Saudi oil complex and the administration pointing fingers immediately at Iran, although, so far, we don't have absolute proof.

    I'm told there's just been a press conference at the Department of Defense. The defense secretary, Esper, is saying everything we have now points to Iran.

    President Trump's response has been first to talk about being locked and loaded and we could do whatever we wanted to Iran, but, on the other hand, today and at intervals this past week, saying, no, that's not what we want. We don't want war with Iran.

    What do we make of this American response?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    Well, you know, this happens in the Middle East. And all arrows do point to Iran. I mean, Iran has been clearly ramping up their terror activity toward the Saudis over the last several months with a bunch of these missile attacks.

    Secondly, the fact that these attacks, somehow, they did it — a sophisticated enough weapon to get through. No American missile base saw them. There are a lot of American bases in the region. And so that suggests it was something more than just a small rebel army. It was a really sophisticated attack.

    And so what's happening is, Iran is clearly testing to see what it can get away with in order to intimidate the Saudis. And the Saudis know they're very vulnerable to this kind of attack. They're trying to sell their oil company. The oil markets are their bread and butter.

    And Iran is the country that is hegemonic or trying to be hegemonic in the region. And they have got an ideology they're trying to export. And so I think Trump is actually playing it reasonably well. I mean, it's a chess match, where they launch something, and then we try to frighten them, or we try to put some economic sanctions on them.

    And so Trump is pushing back without going crazy. And so he's not being violent. And so far, I think he's playing the game as — sort of as well as you can do under in the circumstance.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He's handling it well?

  • Mark Shields:

    He's not being violent, but I think we have to say that we are where we are today with Iran because of Donald Trump.

    Donald Trump withdrew, on political grounds alone — that was his only basis, that Barack Obama had negotiated that agreement, the nuclear agreement, with the Iranians, with the United States, and U.K., and Russia, China, Germany, France, put it all together.

    There were 98 percent reduction in their capacity. They were open to inspection. And he withdrew, and there was nothing to replace it. He has no coalition partners. He has lost his coalition. We are now standing, waiting for the judgment of the Saudi prince as to whether we go to — send Americans to war.

    I mean, what are our shared values with the Saudis? I missed those. Are they freedom of press, religion, assembly, rule of law? Is there anything?

    I think what we have seen is that — the limitations of budget defense sales to a country. I mean, Trump boasts over the fact we have sold $4 billion. They have the fifth largest defense budget in the world, the Saudis do, and they can't even defend themselves.

    And, you know, they are overbuilt, they're overmuscled. And David's right. We're not going to win this. And the Iranians know we're not going to — President Trump doesn't want to go to war.

    I don't say — accuse him of being a warmonger. And he doesn't want to go to war because 2020 is coming up, and a war in the Middle East is about the last thing in the world any president wants.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes. I…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I should add, I just was told another comment from the defense secretary just now.

    He said: "We will send" — the U.S. will send some troops to the region, but he said it won't be in the thousands.

  • David Brooks:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So we don't know what that means, but it's a half-step, David, I think.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes. This is what — you do this, I do this. We are signaling to each other. It's a dance.

    I think the Iranians probably know Trump is not going to do anything. He's going to send a signal, but he's not going to — he doesn't want to go to war, so they do have the upper hand on this.

    One area where I disagree with Mark…

  • Mark Shields:

    OK.

  • David Brooks:

    … is, I don't think this is entirely due to the Iranian nuclear deal being canceled.

    The critics of that deal, even before it was accepted, said the problem is that Iran has two bad things. They're doing the nuclear program, but the terror in the region program.

    And many people criticized that deal because it did nothing to address Iran's terror in the region program. And that's what this is a continuation of. It may be ramped up a little, but they have been doing this sort of thing for — well, since 1979.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

    I mean, I'm not here as an apologist for Iran. I'm saying there was a coherent coalition to contain and to limit Iranian activity and Iranian negative influence. And I believe it was working, and that there is now no substitute is exactly like his health care plan. 0 There is no substitute. I mean, dismantle what is there, and replace it with nothing. And I honestly think — there's no one-off with Iran. I mean, Iran has got Syria bases. Iran has opportunities to perplex and torment us in all kinds of places.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, and this story is — now we're a week into it, but it looks as if we're about to see the next phase with the announcement of troops going into — more troops going into the region.

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

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