What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Shields and Brooks on the White House’s revolving door, Conor Lamb’s upset

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s firing amid a wave of rumors about a wider Cabinet shakeup, Pennsylvania’s stunning election upset and Sen. Jeff Flake’s comments about 2020.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The secretary of state is fired, a Democrat claims victory in a conservative stronghold, and that was just on Tuesday.

    Thankfully, Shields and Brooks are here to help make sense of it all. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    And we are so glad to see both of you this Friday.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Welcome.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we just mentioned, David, there have been top people, the secretary of state, the chief economic adviser to the president. We could name many others. There is speculation that a number of Cabinet secretaries may go. We're showing a picture of just a few of the names out there.

    McMaster, the president's national security adviser may be fired by the president.

    How do we process all this going on in this administration right now?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, Trump is getting Trumpier, and the administration is getting Trumpier.

    He's decided that he's — in the beginning, he was sort of on the learning curve of the presidency, but he's got it mastered, and so he doesn't need all these people who are telling him no all the time.

    And it's a process of him feeling comfortable with himself. And it's also a process of him being anti-system. White Houses work through the system. You have got this vast apparatus. And normally it all works in some form, with deputy meetings, deputy-to-deputy meetings, and then principal meetings and all that.

    Trump sort of resists all that. All the process is sort of within here, or maybe lower, I don't know. And…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    This is a PBS station.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    Sorry.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    And so he's decided, I'm happy here, and I'm going to get rid of the people who are making me feel uncomfortable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark, should we be wringing our hands over this or just say, as the White House does, that he's just having people around him who make him comfortable?

  • Mark Shields:

    It's a new standard for hiring people for jobs, does he or she make me comfortable, not whether they can contribute to the public wheel and make the country better or anything of the sort.

    I want to salute David for coining Trumpy, what are the — Sleepy and the other seven dwarfs.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    But, Judy, anytime you go through this sort of wholesale firing of — it's an indication of weakness in a president. It's of political uncertainty.

    I mean, the two most recent presidents who did it, Gerald Ford in 1975 going through, getting rid of Jim Schlesinger, secretary of defense, and dropping Nelson Rockefeller from the ticket, was a sign of political weakness, and Jimmy Carter in 1979 when he got rid of five Cabinet members, including Schlesinger again and Joe Califano.

    And it is really — and that's what you are seeing with Donald Trump. But I think, at a personal level, there are two things that have to be commented upon.

    First of all is that there is about this administration just a fatiguing, draining aspect. People really — Americans are not consumed with politics and policy and government. They want somebody who's going to run things and run them in an orderly way.

    This has been disorderly from day one. And it's draining, it really is, of the nation's, I think, well-being and peace of mind. And Donald Trump promised he would bring the best people, that he knew the best people, they would all come.

    Now we have reached the point, quite frankly, where people won't even accept invitations to the White House to be interviewed or overtures. And just — he's running out of — I think of personnel, and I think he's running out of time politically.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, David, the president himself says he believes in being disruptive, he believes in sort of rearranging things, being — creating a little chaos, in so many words.

  • David Brooks:

    Well, that's true. He's accurate about that.

    The problem is, the staff never knows what's going to happen. And it's just hard to do your job, A, if you don't know what's going to happen, B, if you're constantly being undermined by the president himself.

    Everyone who has gone in there, whether it's Tillerson, looks smaller coming out. H.R. McMaster is being dangled and dangled and dangled. H.R. McMaster had a really sterling reputation going in. He was compelled to not be totally honest early in the administration about what the president told a bunch of Russian diplomats who came. That hurt his reputation.

    And then it's a process of constantly having to suck up to the president. Gary Cohn, the economic adviser, let some comments known that he was unhappy with the way the president responded to Charlottesville. And so he fell out of favor, out of quite — comments that suggested some integrity on Mr. Cohn's part.

    And so you have always got to please the prince. And you have always got to play in a princely manner.

    And what worries me is, they never had really access to the Republican A-level staff, but they had the B-level. And now we're going down to C and D. Larry Kudlow, a new economic appointee, very nice guy, I agree with him on a lot of things.

    But Philip Tetlock, who is a scholar who studies decision-making, several years ago identified Kudlow as one of the worst decision-makers, because he's always driven by ideology. John Bolton is talked about coming in to the national security adviser. That's a job where you want somebody neutral to let the process work its way.

    John Bolton, who is a FOX News analyst, is anything but ®MDNM¯neutral on anything. And so what you just see is worse personnel, more chaos.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Go ahead.

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, I agree with David. And I just want to underline one point he made.

    And that is, the way it's done, Judy, it's public humiliation, the people who did leave.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, Tillerson, who was notified in a tweet.

  • Mark Shields:

    Tillerson in particular.

    But everybody is demeaned or denigrated in tweets afterwards. And, you know, again, I come back to ordinary Americans. Just this is not — this is bullying. This is mean. This is ugly. This is not what you want in a president.

    Finally, just a personal note, and that is, 50 years ago today, Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy for president. I was lucky enough to work for him in the primaries in Nebraska and Oregon and California, and got totally unearned status and credit because I had worked for Robert Kennedy, one of the great men of the 20th century, in retrospect, and — but unearned benefits.

    Now people of public service, of commitment have gone to work for Donald Trump. They're diminished, they're demeaned, they're smaller. They're in a cauldron of resentment and revenge in the White House. And they have got legal bills. And they don't know from one day to the next whether their job is there and what their job is.

    And I just — I feel badly for them, I mean, because every one of them is going to carry that with them the rest…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • David Brooks:

    I will say one other thing about just having been around a lot of Trump supporters in the last week.

    They have tuned it out. They support the administration. They like the big things about it, the tax bill, the deregulation, that kind of thing. And I always ask them, what about this, what about this, the things we frankly talk about a lot every week.

    And it just sort of drifts by them unnoticed. And so if you want to know why he's still got 90 percent approval roughly among Republicans, I think that's the answer. A lot of things that would cause most people to shake their heads, they just — it just doesn't rise to the level of consciousness and it just gets tuned out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let's talk about something that happened this week that is connected, but in the political realm, Mark, in Pennsylvania, a district that went — congressional district, special election, Donald Trump won this district near Pittsburgh by 20 points.

    The Democrat won by, what, 600, 700 votes, very close, but the Democrat appears to have won.

    What does that tell us? Does it say something about the fall midterms? What do we read?

  • Mark Shields:

    It does tell us something about the fall midterms, someone who's lived through an awful lot of midterm elections, the following.

    When a president's job rating is below 50 percent, the president's party loses, on average, 30 — 43 House seats. When a president's below 40 percent, you're in uncharted territory.

    What it tells us is, the Democrats consistently are far more enthusiastic about 2018 than are the Republicans. The Republican — the Democratic turnout was higher. It was 67 percent in Allegheny County, as opposed to 60 percent among Republicans.

    The overall turnout was phenomenal. More people voted in the special election on Tuesday than voted in the general election in 2014 when Pennsylvania elected a governor.

    But, most of all — and David had a piece about this today — candidates do matter. Conor Lamb was a good candidate. It's the House of Representatives. In Washington, Democrats want to apply an 18-point litmus test, and unless somebody passes every one of them, they can't support them.

    Ronald Reagan's dictum is worth heeding. Ronald Reagan said, someone who agrees with us 80 percent of the time is our valued and cherished ally and friend, and we are committed to them. They are not our 20 percent enemy.

    And Conor Lamb was a good candidate, and didn't meet the litmus test, and he can hold that district or any district around him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do you read into it?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    Obviously, the tides are all in the Democrats' favor. If you looked at the — I saw a scatter graph of the races, including state legislature races, in the first eight months of the administration, and it was sort of all over the place.

    There was a Democratic advantage, but it wasn't universal. In the last four or five months, it's just universal. The Democrats just have this big advantage built in. And that looks pretty baked in, for the reasons Mark said, even despite the great economy.

    But, to me, the most important thing is, what is the Democratic Party going to look like this year? The only way they can blow it is if they look like Berkeley, California. And if they indulge the inner passions, they could blow this.

    But in Pennsylvania with Conor Lamb, they didn't blow it, and they didn't blow it on two fronts. The most obvious is having somebody who is a political moderate. Conor Lamb was against the assault weapons ban. He said he won't vote for Speaker Pelosi. He did a whole series of policy things toward the center.

    To me, that was less important than the character thing. I think that people always vote against the president — the style of the president they just had. And I think, because of the exhaustion that Mark referred to earlier, a lot of people want to go against the Trump character style.

    And they want to go to people who put character first before policy. Conor Lamb, former Marine, comes from a good Catholic school, talks about his faith, a long, distinguished political family, he just seems like a good guy.

    And when Trump came in and violated all the norms of normal campaigning in his own district, Conor Lamb didn't answer. And so that's a sign of good character. I think that's going to be in special demand this year.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we're — it's 2018, and lightning is going to strike for me even bringing up 2020, but I can't resist, because, this morning, in New Hampshire, one of the two Republicans — one of the Republican senators not running for reelection, Jeff Flake of Arizona, talked to a group at saint Anselm College.

    And here's what he said. I want to ask you about it, Jeff Flake.

  • Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.:

    It has not been my plans to run for president, but I have not ruled it out. I hope that someone does run in the Republican primary, somebody to challenge the president.

    I think that the Republicans want to be reminded what it means to be a traditional, decent Republican.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, whether it's Jeff Flake or somebody else, serious challenge maybe to Donald Trump in 2020?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, as of today, what David mentioned, the people he had seen, there isn't that simmering resentment.

    But when somebody does run, Judy, as Gene McCarthy did in 1968, and exposes the weakness, or Ronald Reagan did with Jerry Ford or Ted Kennedy with Jimmy Carter, it's usually because there is a perception of weakness on the part of the incumbent.

    Until Trump shows that, he owns the Republican Party at this point. To Jeff Flake's credit, he's an insurrectionist.

  • David Brooks:

    That's true, but a lot of people behind the scenes are making contingency plans, post-Mueller, post-2018.

    They're saying, we can't wait until 2019 to begin planning, in case we need somebody else. So, they're opening up, how do we get on the ballot, how do we build a donor infrastructure?

    And they are not going to do something if there's no Trump meltdown, but they are suspecting there may be, and so they are beginning to plan for it.

  • Mark Shields:

    And when it comes to coattails in 2018, Donald Trump — and I apologize for this visual — is wearing a tank top.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    I mean, he is — there's nothing there to cling to if you're a Republican. He's not going to carry you across the finish line.

    And I think that could have the greatest impact upon whether in fact there's a challenge.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, gentlemen, let it be said that, on March the 16th, 2018, we first talked about 2020.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you both.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest