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Shields and Brooks on Trump impeachment evidence, Democratic debate

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s political news, including the opening of President Trump’s Senate trial and the announcement of his legal team, public opinion on impeachment, 2020 Democrats’ final debate before the Iowa caucuses and Michael Bloomberg’s remarkable ad spend.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For just the third time in U.S. history, the chief justice of the United States has sworn in U.S. senators with an oath that they will conduct impartial justice in the impeachment trial of a sitting president.

    The trial is set to begin next Tuesday, keeping four 2020 Democratic presidential contenders who are also senators in Washington, while other candidates continue their campaigns in Iowa ahead of the first primary contest of the year, coming in just over two weeks.

    Here to assess these historic times are Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Hello to both of you.

  • Mark Shields:

    Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, let's talk about the impeachment trial, Mark, that's almost here.

    House Speaker Nancy Pelosi waited a month to transmit the articles of impeachment over to the Senate. Did that turn out to be a smart move?

  • Mark Shields:

    I think so.

    I mean, the political graveyard of dead ambitions is littered with the corpses of those who underestimated the speaker. I think it's fair to say that the case has been strengthened against the president, and the call certainly for evidence has been strengthened in the intervening four weeks.

    We have learned that Ambassador John Bolton, the former national security adviser, is now willing to testify if subpoenaed. We have learned about Russian — further Russia hacking of the gas company in Ukraine.

    We have learned at least allegations about the president's more deep involvement, all the way to the point of charges that operatives friendly to the Trump campaign, a candidate for Congress, was physically surveilling in a hostile manner the United States ambassador to Ukraine, and sending messages of the sort that we — for a price, we can get something done.

    I mean, so I don't think there's any question that this builds up the case for evidence and for new testimony.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So the case is stronger, David?

  • David Brooks:

    I think so.

    I take all that Mark said as true. On the negative side — and I think they both are true — if you look at the polling over the last month, the number of people who think Trump should be removed has gone down slightly, the number of people who think he shouldn't be removed has gone up by 5 or 5 percentage points.

    So, now a slight plurality of Americans think he shouldn't be reviewed (sic) — very slight. It's pretty much 50/50, basically.

    And so, if you're looking for it political pressure on Republican senators, you certainly don't see it so far out there, and, if anything, I think the psychology of the moment is that that stuff is a little old news, we have got this exciting election campaign. I think there's more interest in that than impeachment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So the delay, you're saying, may have hurt cause, the Democratic cause?

  • David Brooks:

    I think it hurt and helped, but I certainly don't see any wellspring of public support.

  • Mark Shields:

    I think, sadly — I'm not disagreeing with David, but, sadly, we have learned facts and hard evidence mean nothing to this president in his utterances, in his tweets, or in his rally statements.

    The question is, do facts and hard evidence mean anything to the United States Senate? Or are we in a new era, where facts and hard evidence are to be ignored?

    I mean, I think, if you're playing Donald Trump's side, and you have been an uncritical supporter, your position is weakened politically four weeks later, and you're not quite sure.

    And I think you can look forward to four more weeks of not good information. The information coming forward is not going to exculpate the president. It's not going to vindicate the president. It's going to further implicate the president.

    I don't think there's any question about it, and I think they know it at this point.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, do you think more information is going to come out? There is a question, David.

    I mean, what do we expect of this trial? Because there's a question of whether there are going to be witnesses, whether there is going to be evidence presented.

  • David Brooks:

    Right.

    Yes, no, I have learned to never underestimate the ability of Trump to self-sabotage. So, I assume that he did more, and there's probably more — even within hours, there might be more Parnas evidence and elsewhere.

    And so that will continue to come out. In my view, frankly, when we saw the phone call transcript of day one on this whole deal, to me, he was 99 percent guilty at that moment. And now he's risen to 99.9 percent guilty.

    But it's a marginal difference. And it seems to me the Republicans are going to say, bad, but not worthy of removal. And that seems to be the argument they're already making. That is the argument Sean Hannity is making on FOX.

    And so that's not an evidence argument. It's a what kind of Constitution we have over what are our standards argument. And I think that's what they're going to stick with.

    And I'm, frankly, struck by the number of people who have joined his defense team, Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    I wouldn't do this.

    I mean, there's not — like, whatever you think of Trump or not, there's like not a lot of good arguments on your side. Like, why would you want to go to a movie where you got nothing but bad lines?

    And so I think they're all going to hurt them. I mean, I think they will get through this. But I wouldn't say it's a career enhancer for anybody. I don't know why they're all signing up for this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You mean because you think they will say things that will hurt the case?

  • David Brooks:

    Schiff will just — he will just walk all over them, because he has the evidence on his side.

    So, it's not a debate you want to have when you're on a losing side. And this is basically a political game to get through it.

  • Mark Shields:

    David is right there.

    I mean, the old cliche about sports coaching, there's I in team. This defense team has got a lot of I's in it, I mean, starting with Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr, recently deposed president of Baylor University for an athletic scandal and other shortcomings, former federal judge.

    Pat Cipollone has the toughest job in the world managing it. I just don't see it a cohesive unit. And I think the Democrats are really in a lot stronger position with Adam Schiff and his team. I think they're far more cohesive, for one thing.

    And we had exposed, Judy, this week — we even heard it on this show by one of the president's supporters — that it was all about corruption. You know, the president was — all he was looking for to hunt out — he was he was actually the Jane Addams or William Lloyd Garrison reformer of our time, seeking out corruption.

    And…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A little history lesson. Thank you.

  • Mark Shields:

    And then we find out, in Phil Rucker and Carol Leonnig's book the "Stable Genius," that the president goes to the secretary of state, said, we got to get rid of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, because that's unfair to American companies, because we got to be able to bribe. We have to be able to bribe.

    I mean, this is the avenging angel of anti-corruption. So that one's sort of exposed and exploded, I thought.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    Yes, which is weird, because every CEO you talk to, they love that act because it gives them an excuse not to bribe. They don't want to do it. And they love the law.

  • Mark Shields:

    That's right.

  • David Brooks:

    Well, we're learning more. And the book, you're right, is getting — is getting a lot of attention. We look to be interviewing the authors in a few days.

    So while all this is going on, David, by the way, there is this contest for the Democratic nomination for president. And we mentioned Iowa caucuses coming up in just a little over two weeks.

    There was a debate, another debate this week among six of the Democrats. What do we learn about the contest from this? What do we learn about the candidates?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, we had the spat at the end between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and we had a strong Warren performance, I thought, a strong Biden performance, in that he got through it.

    But I'm sort of impressed. We always look at candidates who are sliding.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's not a high standard.

  • David Brooks:

    Not a high standard, but all he needed.

  • Mark Shields:

    Get through it.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    … the stage.

  • David Brooks:

    It's like your first date. Oh, I got through it.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    But — so Warren is not doing well in the polls. And so if you look at just — dumbly look at the Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, the first four or five states, she's like fourth in almost all of them, and that's not good.

    And so you think, candidates — you always think, OK, try something new. And I thought, A, he tried something new with the Sanders direct challenge. I'm not sure it'll work. And then she was just more aggressive on a lot of issues.

    And so I think she's making as good a case that she can make to be relevant in the top two or three.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What did you take away from it?

  • Mark Shields:

    I don't disagree.

    The only sense of urgency in that debate, I thought, on any candidate's part was Elizabeth Warren. I mean, she realized where she was, and I thought she baited Bernie Sanders into the trap 48 hours before, got him on the stage.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This is where she says that he told her a few years ago that he didn't believe a woman could be elected president.

  • Mark Shields:

    A woman could win, even though, in his defense, he had urged her to run in 2016 and said he would support her if she did, prior to his own running, when she decided not to.

    So he obviously must have thought a woman could win then. But there's no question, she did it. She framed it well, and that was it.

    But I didn't — what surprised me was Joe Biden's leading in the national polls, and nobody went after him. And nobody wanted to bell that cat or, you know, whatever phrase you want to use.

    I mean, so he kind of came out of it unscathed, even though it wasn't a spectacular by any…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You thought somebody would go after him?

  • Mark Shields:

    I thought they would.

    I thought Buttigieg would try to take him on. I thought Klobuchar would. I mean, Klobuchar was energetic and busy, even though she had a Rick Perry moment, when she forgot the name of her very good friend, the governor of Kansas, Laura Kelly.

    But, no, so I just didn't think anybody — Bernie Sanders is Bernie Sanders and he doesn't change. I mean, everything is through the prism. If you said Sunday school attendance was down, he would say it's because Amazon's not paying any taxes.

    And Amazon is not paying any taxes, but maybe there isn't a direct causation. But Bernie — you can count on Bernie to deliver his message.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    And with six candidates and maybe eight in the field, really, or so, it's always in all of their other — the non-Biden candidates, it's in their interest that somebody take on Joe Biden.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    It's not in their interest for them to be taking on Joe Biden.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    You want to be the beneficiary of the assassin, not the assassin.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Not the one.

  • David Brooks:

    And so I do think they're leaving him off for that reason.

    And I wonder if the final moment, where she refused to shake Bernie Sanders' hand, Elizabeth Warren, whether that was — thought about it in advance or whether it was just a spontaneous moment of anger.

    It became the television moment of the whole debate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    She looked — this is after the debate was over. She walked over. He extended his hand. She didn't accept it. But then we later heard her on the microphone saying, "You called me a liar on national television."

  • Mark Shields:

    That's right.

  • David Brooks:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But just quickly, David, to get to the point she was — the dispute between her and Bernie Sanders is over whether a woman can be elected president.

    I mean, are we still having that discussion in 2020?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    So I think it's a little bogus. A, Bernie Sanders denies saying it. B, I don't believe he believes that as — for the reasons Mark said. And so it's picking up on an issue which I think is an attempt for her to, like, cast him aside.

    I don't think it's a particularly relevant issue, because I think his record is one of respect for toward women. And I don't think we're having that argument.

  • Mark Shields:

    It is still an open question. I don't think it's…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Whether a woman can be elected president.

  • Mark Shields:

    It's a little bit of the Al Smith, Jack Kennedy.

    Jack Kennedy had to win the primary in West Virginia, which was 97 percent non-Catholic or 97 percent Protestant, to prove that a Catholic was electable or at least nominatable in 1960, some 32 years later. Hillary Clinton's defeat raised the question and raised the doubts that — people don't want to say it openly, but whether a woman, and especially I think, against Donald Trump.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why?

  • Mark Shields:

    That Donald Trump is the alpha male, and is this — going to be tough enough to take him on?

    I think that is the lingering doubt in some Democrats' minds.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    It's in doubt, but it's projecting an ugly thing onto people that you don't know.

  • Mark Shields:

    I agree.

  • David Brooks:

    And every time the American public is faced with this, oh, we can't elect a Catholic, we can't elect a black guy, they do.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    And Hillary Clinton lost the electoral vote, but I don't think it's because she was a woman. I think it was for a lot of other reasons.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, I mean, neither one of these women candidates who are on the debate stage are shrinking violets. Neither Elizabeth Warren nor Amy Klobuchar is someone who retreats in a challenge.

  • Mark Shields:

    No, I agree.

    You wouldn't call either of them a shrinking violet, no. I would call them a rose.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, yes, I don't know — I don't know what name they would — just quickly, 30 seconds, Michael Bloomberg, almost, what is it, $200 million in ads.

    We don't have time to talk about it.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But he's spending a lot of money.

    I saw he's fifth in some national polls.

  • Mark Shields:

    He's a gift. He's a gift.

    Judy, I mean, he's going — he bought a $10 million spot for the Super Bowl. Donald Trump responded by — he's — Donald Trump's terrified of Michael Bloomberg. Let's be honest about it.

    He's doing a great service for the country, for the party. He will not be the nominee.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We will get to expand on that next Friday.

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you both.

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