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Shields and Brooks on Trump and foreign campaign help, Democratic debates

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s political news, including President Trump’s comments about willingness to accept foreign opposition research, the status of election security legislation, candidate lineups for the upcoming Democratic presidential debates and the politics of Democratic socialism.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Back in the U.S., the stages are set for the first Democratic primary debates, and President Trump weighs in on accepting information from foreign governments about political opponents, which brings us to the analysis of Shields and Brooks.

    That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Hello to both of you.

    So let's start with the story that has pretty much dominated the week, David, and that is President Trump saying in that interview with ABC that if he were offered information from a foreign government about a political opponent, he wouldn't have any trouble taking it, and he — why would he report it to the FBI? Now, he's walked it back a little.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But how serious is this?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, it's a great moment in moral philosophy when you're asked if you're going to cheat, and you say, of course, everyone cheats.

    (LAUGHTER)

    I salute him for not pretending to be better than he really is. He's pretty candid about it.

    But I do think that's a bit of his mind-set, that the rules — everybody breaks the rules. And maybe he conducted his business life that way, and he certainly wants to do that. It's just his natural reaction is, of course. Everybody breaks the rules.

    What's disturbing to me is not so much him. We sort of know him already — is how many Republicans are now walking themselves up to the position, well, we're in a death match, and so we need a leader like that.

    And I think, in order to justify their support for President Trump, they have talked themselves — or many people have — into the position that this is a life-or-death struggle, the left is out to destroy us, and so breaking the rules is what you got to do.

    And so that, to me, is almost a scarier prospect than the heart and soul of Donald Trump.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, some of them, some Republicans have said that he made a mistake.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you're right.

  • David Brooks:

    Mitt Romney and others.

    But some of the others, the people who are supporting him, it's the ends justify the means argument.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark?

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes, I agree with David.

    It just — it strikes me that the president remains unchanged in a changing world. Being president has not changed him in the least. Even Warren Harding, not a particularly thoughtful or self-reflective man, said, the White House is an alchemist. It finds what your strengths are, in his case, finds what your weaknesses are.

    Donald Trump said in an interview with George Stephanopoulos: I have heard a lot of things in my life. I have never gone to the FBI.

    I mean, he was talking as a New York real estate guy. He's never made the transition to, I'm thinking, is it good for the United States of America, is it good for the working families, is it good for world peace or whatever, that a president is supposed to think through that prism.

    It comes right down to, is it good for me? And, to David's point, hey, hey, get a little advantage over my opponent, yes, you better believe I will do it. What am I, a sissy, a snitch that's going to go to the FBI?

    And it's a — it really is sort of a sad moral judgment.

    The other thing I would just point out is ABC — it was ABC's story. And ABC today broke the — they revealed the Trump state polls at this point. And I don't know if you saw that, but he is now trailing Joe Biden by 16 points in Pennsylvania, by 10 points in Wisconsin, by seven points in Florida.

    So, I mean, we're looking at the cusp right now, given those kind of numbers, of a campaign that literally would do anything.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Which the president, when he was asked about those polls the other day, said that that's not correct.

  • Mark Shields:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That his polls show that he's ahead in every state.

  • Mark Shields:

    And these are his polls that they revealed today.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, David, to your point about Republicans being on board, I mean, the fact is, you have mainly Republicans holding up efforts in the Congress right now to tighten election security.

    So, this is — this is having some consequences here.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes. And this is Mitch McConnell.

    And, frankly, I don't — the federal government has already authorized $380 million for the states. One of the bills would give them another billion. And so I don't really know what — the right spending level for this.

    But you would think, given what we have been through and the seriousness of what we have been through, that you would want to err on the side of preventing the corruption of our electoral system, which has happened, which we know is going to happen again, from multiple sources, maybe, the Russians doing something different than they did last time.

    And so you think you would — if we're going to spend whatever hundreds and hundreds of billions on defense, on our military defense, a billion on — to defend our electoral system doesn't seem to me an outrageous expense.

    And so it seems like something they should be doing. And you get the impression Mitch McConnell doesn't want to do anything that will annoy Donald Trump.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes, Mitch McConnell has been constant on this. He's no Johnny-come-lately.

    He was the one voice, you will recall, in the leadership in 2016, when the leadership of the Congress unanimously agreed with the Obama administration to go public on the revelation that Russia was already deeply involved in the systematic undermining of our electoral process, he resisted it, and, as a consequence, stopped it.

    He is now stopping the reforms. I mean, even Roy Blunt, the chairman of the Rules Committee, has been quite candid about this. I mean, the fact is that, in a secular democracy, the closest thing to a public sacrament is a national election.

    And when you're starting to tamper with that and trifle with that — I mean, we went through it in 2016.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In '16.

  • Mark Shields:

    We saw what happened when there was strife and disunity nurtured on the Democratic side between Sanders and Clinton campaigns by those e-mails. A party chair was forced out.

    And Donald Trump himself 140 times mentioned WikiLeaks approvingly during the campaign.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Mark Shields:

    I mean, so, there was a play. And the Mueller report — committee — investigation confirmed it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, at this point, not — nothing is really moving that would change — that would protect…

  • Mark Shields:

    No, thanks to Mitch.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … that would protect what we have — gone on.

    Mark, you mentioned the polls. The Democrats, it probably brought a little spring to their step. But we know these polls are temporary.

    Today, David, the Democratic National Committee announced that they have got their first debates coming up next week. And they're divided into two nights because there are so many candidates. The Democrats — the party said, OK, the most we're going to allow on the stage on any one night is 10. So they have got 10 one night and 10 the next.

    Today, they drew names. And we can show you the lineup now. On the first night, June the 26, there are going to be these 10. And I'm not going to name every single one of them.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But I can tell you that this is — Elizabeth Warren is included here, Beto O'Rourke, and then the others, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar and a number of others.

    The second night, you have, frankly, several of the front-runners, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, and others.

    Does this — is this a lineup, David, that tells you something about what we can look for, or what? I mean, the party was clearly trying not to have an adult night and a kids night.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes. Right. No.

    And it's 10. It's a minion. So it's an honor. It's a tradition that you get the minion of Democrats.

    (LAUGHTER)

    Yes, I think the short answer — I don't know — the first thing is, it's bad for Elizabeth Warren, because the better night is the second night.

    You have got Biden, Buttigieg. You have got Sanders. You have got three of the top tier, and then some of the wild cards who we — as well as Kamala Harris. So, if people are going to watch one night, I suspect they're going to watch night two. But, of course, we will all be watching both nights.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Both nights, yes.

  • David Brooks:

    And, so, that.

    The second thing is, in hearing from the campaigns, is, you usually go into a debate with some strategy, like who you're going to say what to. But with so many, there's no strategy. It's just — there's no — you can't pick a strategy, because you don't know where — what's going to happen. There will be 10 of the people on the stage.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two hours each night.

  • David Brooks:

    And then it'll be another 10 the next night, or some other time.

    And so it'll be a little more parallel play, I think, with the candidates not trying to react so much to each other, but just trying to shine their own solipsistic self.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, match solipsistic…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    Their own — oh, wow. Boy, that's a PBS word.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

    But, Mark, I mean, does this lineup foretell something special about this?

  • Mark Shields:

    It does.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Or it's just there are so many….

  • Mark Shields:

    It does, Judy.

    And I will tell you what it says. If you're going in it, you're 2, 3 percent, this is your night. I mean, you have got to say something that's memorable. That's what it is.

    Now, that is maybe good news for a candidate, maybe bad news for the party. Going to make the boldest assertion. I'm going to take a position that's far to the left and challenge everybody else to do it. But I have to do something that's memorable. I want to bell the cat. I want to go after Joe Biden or one of the front-runners or Elizabeth Warren in the first night.

    I would say Elizabeth Warren's probably got the best position, because she has the first night. And out of curiosity, a lot of people will tune in.

    But, no, I think that's the risk. And, plus, it's the reward, I mean, that you do something that's memorable. I remember, 1988, the Democrats, the seven dwarfs, or nine dwarfs, or whatever they were then, when Bruce Babbitt, who was a dark horse, the governor of Arizona, stood up and said, we're going to have to raise taxes. We know that after Ronald Reagan. And I know we're going to. And I will do it as president. And I will stand up. And I challenge the rest of you to.

    And they all — all the others sat down. And, of course, he was right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He was the only one.

  • Mark Shields:

    He was the only one who did it.

  • David Brooks:

    Did he get the nomination? I'm trying to remember.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    No, he didn't get the nomination.

    But you have to do something to roll the dice to get the…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Go ahead.

  • David Brooks:

    The good news for the Democrats — I left out a syllable from solipsistic, by the way.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

    (CROSSTALK)

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark and I noticed that.

  • Mark Shields:

    We didn't want to say anything.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    The good news for the Democrats is, all these people qualified, because they all — you had to get, what it was, 65,000.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And be at least at X-percent in the polls.

  • David Brooks:

    And so you have all these people, some of them not so well-known. They all did it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • David Brooks:

    And that's a sign that Democratic interest is super high, and then we could be seeing exponentially record turnout, either through primaries or maybe through the whole year.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I'm expecting we're going to have a huge viewership of both — on both nights.

  • Mark Shields:

    Are you really? OK.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, Mark, you mentioned the candidates having a chance to stand out.

    There are a few of them who are now beginning to take shots or mini-shots, I guess we can say, at the front-runner, Joe Biden.

    Last night, I interviewed Beto O'Rourke here, and he took what I think you can say is a gentle swipe at the former vice president.

    Let's listen.

  • Beto O’Rourke:

    I think some of the appeal of the vice president's candidacy is a return to an earlier era.

    And while we are grateful for that era, and certainly for the service of President Obama, I think we need to be focused on the future, because, even before Donald Trump, we had challenges in this country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Even before Donald Trump, we had challenges.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes, that's true. I don't think anyone's going to argue with that.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    Nostalgia isn't what it used to be. That's the Beto O'Rourke bumper sticker.

    I mean, I can understand that. I think, more than anything else, it was a subtle, non-venomous way of raising the age issue, that Joe, Joe Biden, is yesterday. I'm tomorrow.

    Tomorrow basically wins in American politics. I think today might be an exception, when yesterday looks pretty darn good to most Americans.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is that effective for him to be doing that?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And he's not the only one.

  • David Brooks:

    Well, I think, substantively, there is an argument whether the Democrats want to continue on the Obama-Biden trajectory or they want a totally different trajectory.

    And Sanders, Warren and maybe Beto are sort of on a different trajectory. I personally don't think it's effective to do it right now.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    I think that the Democrats, even with all these good poll numbers, are terrified of blowing this. And they do not want to sully each other too much.

    I think there's going to be low market, especially early in the campaign, to sully the other candidates. Second, people like Joe Biden. And so there's some expectation from some of the other campaigns that he's just going to fade on his own, or they hope he will.

    But, anyway, to go out so early and to be negative, even if it was pretty gentle…

  • Mark Shields:

    It was a pretty gentle….

    (CROSSTALK)

  • David Brooks:

    It was pretty gentle.

    But I would make just the larger point that I think going after each other as heavily and as hard as Sanders and Clinton did, or as Obama and Clinton did, I think that's probably the wrong formula this year.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's my question, Mark.

    I mean, is that the kind of thing that we're going to look at, look for in these debates next week? How hard are they going to go? Are they going to be prepared…

  • Mark Shields:

    We will say we're looking for substance and new ideas, but we will look for elbows and knees in the groin, and all sorts of rabbit punches and that, and whether, in fact, they're rewarded for it.

    I mean, I think — I mean, I think the urgency, the sense of urgency that you have got to break through in one of those appearances is just — is so strong and so compelling, overwhelming.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, this week, we saw — David, we saw Bernie Sanders talk about Democratic socialism. He's clearly feeling some heat from — maybe not so much from Democrats, although they have expressed their differences, but also from Republicans.

    Is that something he needs to do right now?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    I have certainly heard it from Democrats that, we're not all socialists. We don't want to be the socialist party.

    I don't think he helped himself at all. I mean, he didn't describe what kind of socialist he is. Is he just a socialist who wants to do the New Deal? I wouldn't call that socialism.

    The key issue is, what do you think of capitalism? And how much would you interfere in the market?

    Elizabeth Warren makes very clear she's got some pretty progressive policies, but she wants to reform capitalism, not do away with it. And Sanders is never able to define the left where he won't go, whether it's Venezuela, or whether it's the Nicaraguan regime, the Sandinistas. He will never say, those people are not me.

    And so, without drawing that boundary, Trump can say, look, he's as socialist as you want to be.

    So I don't think he did a very good job of defining what he means by socialism.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, he will have a chance to do that next Thursday night on the debate stage.

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, we will be talking about that next Friday.

    Thank you.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you, Judy.

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