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Shields and Brooks on Trump’s attempt to fire Mueller, ‘America first’ at Davos

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including the news that President Trump had ordered the dismissal of special counsel Robert Mueller but dropped the request when the White House counsel refused, Republican efforts to undermine the FBI, Trump’s speech at Davos and the latest immigration plan.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, these reports that we have been discussing with Jack Goldsmith brings us to our weekly analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s Mark Shields, syndicated columnist, and David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times.

    You heard what Jack Goldsmith had to say. And I know you have been following this story all week.

    Mark, what do we make of it?

  • Mark Shields:

    I would like to associate myself with the remarks of the previous speaker. I thought he spoke very informed and persuasively on the subject, Judy.

    Just from a straight political perspective, you wonder why it took seven months. The idea that several months…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You mean for this to come out.

  • Mark Shields:

    To come out. It’s just rather remarkable in Washington.

    And so the first question we ask is, why now? And is it because there was a concern that the president was going to try and do something like this again to head him off at the pass, to try to vertebrae transplant for Republicans on the Hill, who have not stood up to the president or stood up for Robert Mueller as the special counsel?

    It’s everything that Jack Goldsmith described it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you read all this?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    First, it should be pointed out that White House staff has repeatedly said there was no effort to fire Mueller, when they clearly have been lying for months about that.

  • Mark Shields:

    That’s right. Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    And that’s…

  • Mark Shields:

    And the president.

  • David Brooks:

    It’s always kind of shocking when people just straight-up lie.

  • Mark Shields:

    That’s right.

  • David Brooks:

    It happens to us in our profession all the time, but it’s still kind of shocking.

    I have to say, I was in Dayton, Ohio, this morning. And a friend said, in this presidency, I’m just stunned every day. I’m stunned every hour. And at some point, you get out of stunned. There’s no more stun.

    And I found this when I saw our story. If I had seen that story seven or eight months ago, I would have been, oh, I can’t believe this is happening. Now I’m inured. I’m used to it. I have been numbed.

    And I came to think, even if he fired Mueller, maybe we’re all just — we’re like, we have been numbed to the things that happen and nobody gets upset anymore. I think people would get upset if he actually did try to fire Mueller, but we have defined deviancy down and gotten used to a set of behavior that would have been shocking to us a year ago.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, there is a lot of…

  • Mark Shields:

    Just to David’s point, deserved to be underlined, imagine any president, imagine George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, or Barack Obama, that The Wall Street Journal reported that his lawyer had paid $130,000 to a porn star not to reveal that they’d had an illicit adulterous sexual encounter.

    And, you know, that’s The Wall Street Journal. I mean, that’s not some left-wing publication. And that would have been — it would have kept FOX going 24/7 if it was alleged of Barack Obama. And it does. It’s somewhere on page three.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes. That passed without a ripple, yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But what we have here, though, David, or — and in addition to that, is an extraordinary situation, where there is just a lot of guessing going on about whether the president has given up on trying to fire Bob Mueller.

    Is he going to talk to him or not? Are we just hanging in suspension while we wait for the Mueller investigation?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, with Donald Trump, it’s really hard to distinguish sound from signal. Because he’s so impulsive, things are floating in all directions.

    And are things a passing mood, or is it a designed intent to achieve some goal? What struck me about the story was that he didn’t just say, fire that guy Mueller. He had actually done some homework, or somebody had done some homework, and he had three legal arguments about why it was the right thing to do.

    That suggests it’s more than just a guy waking up in a bad mood and tweeting out something. It was an actual effort.

    But as Jack Goldsmith said, it is striking how the White House staff seems to be getting better at sort of managing around him, and is devising strategies to keep him from self-destructing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is speculation, Mark, but if the president were to fire or ask others in his administration to fire Robert Mueller, what would the reaction be, you think?

  • Mark Shields:

    I think there would be a firestorm at this point.

    How long and how intense, I don’t know, because I remain just perplexed at the limit of the finite limits of our outrage, or our sense of outrage, Judy.

    And, I mean, the three reasons that David mentioned, one was that Bob Mueller had had a quarrel at a Donald Trump country club over the fees charged. Second was that Bob Mueller’s law firm had represented Jared Kushner, totally disassociated items.

    And the third was that Donald Trump, the president, had invited Bob Mueller in to be interviewed for FBI director, and therefore there was a — there’s somebody there serving him up stuff, but it’s this kind of stuff.

    But I think it really comes down to, who’s going to stand with him? And I look at the Republicans on the Hill and, you know, the lack, the tower of Jell-O that is the speaker of the House. As Jack Goldsmith pointed out, Devin Nunes is out of control.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, that’s what I want to ask you both about.

    I asked Jack Goldsmith, could this campaign, this effort by some Republicans in the House and with support from the White House to undermine the FBI, could that have a long-lasting effect on the Justice Department in the end?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I think so.

    One of the things that people should know is that there are honest brokers in Washington. There are career people who really do their job, and they try to be good umpires. And some of those people, by the way, have private political opinions, but they leave that at the door when they go to work.

    And the FBI is filled with honest brokers, the Congressional Budget Office. There are a lot of agencies that are filled with honest brokers, and the idea that everybody in this city is a politician is just not true. It’s always amazing to me that a lot of people in government, they are not actually that political. They believe in the public service and they try to do their jobs, but they’re not sort of super political people.

    They just believe in public service. But there’s been a campaign to say, no, those doesn’t exist, it’s all politics, everybody is partisan.

    And the people who are partisan have trouble understanding people who are not. There was an interesting moment on Sean Hannity’s show last night. When it came out that this story came out, he said, oh, it didn’t happen, Sean Hannity said. He denied it ever happen.

    And then some FOX journalists confirmed that it did happen. And so then he turned around, well, it did happen, but Trump was absolutely right to do it.

    So there was one 180. And then Trump turned around and said, oh, it’s fake news, and then so Hannity did another 180, his third 180 — he’s getting — it’s like figure skating — and he said, it never happened.

    And so FOX can do a party-line switch and do — are Republicans willing to stand up to that? That’s an open question.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the question is, what’s the effect on the public servants?

  • Mark Shields:

    It’s corrosive. And it’s corrosive.

    How long has it been since the president has said, public service is a noble calling, that you’re doing the public’s business, that we’re grateful to you, that you’re a patriot for your public service and the contribution you’re making?

    The idea, Judy, that the FBI, made up of professional law enforcement people, is a hornet’s nest of bleeding-heart, knee-jerk liberal lefties, which is what Trey Gowdy and these people are selling, is that somehow there is a great cabal, left-wing.

    First of all, they’re not political. And the ones who have run for public office have overwhelmingly runs as conservative Republicans, as sort of law and order candidates. So it’s just — it’s not only harmful.

    Donald Trump, to use the fake news — I mean, he is the boy who called wolf now on this. He’s calling fake news the charge today. And I think he’s overusing that term.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, meantime, the president — in fact, he’s reacting to all this when he was in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum, David.

    His speech today seemed to be well-received. He talked about America first doesn’t mean America alone, America is open for business.

    Do we understand better why he went and what the point of this was?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, if he wanted to show that the global elites would suck up to him, mission accomplished, because they certainly did.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    And people love power. It’s an aphrodisiac, I guess.

    But I have to say the speech wasn’t bad. We have come to understand Trump’s speeches, that they’re not about a foreign policy vision. They’re not about a vision of the world order. They’re very much business. We do business our way. We’d like you to do business with us. We would like to get richer. We would like you to get richer.

    So it’s a commercial, almost mercantilist view of the world. But, as a view of the world, it’s fine.

    And I have to say, as someone who is not wild about the tax bill, it has accumulated some benefits, at least in the short-term. You have Apple repatriation, a lot of bonuses, some growth. Maybe it will — I wasn’t a fan of it, but I hope it will surprise us and have a better impact on growth and jobs and wages than we expected.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Mark, the president was touting the tax plan and talking about people’s wages — some wages are going up, bonuses, jobs being created.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes, he was.

    And that’s obviously the problem. They have got a hard sell to make, because, overwhelmingly, the perception that it tilts in favors and was written for the rich by the rich.

    But the overall economic picture is good, Judy. I mean, Americans feel good about the economy. And it’s rather remarkable that, feeling as good as they do about the economy, they don’t feel good about their own leadership.

    But the president doesn’t do set speeches well. He did today better than he usually does. I don’t think there’s any question about it. But then he immediately falls into the fake news charge.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, but when he says he deserves credit for this, is he right?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, you know, David’s theory is that no president deserves credit during his or her term for the economy.

    I thought — you know, I look to presidents that make courageous moves. And I thought Barack Obama did turn around the economy, to bring it back from the precipice and ask for some tough action.

    And so I’m willing to give him a little credit. But, you know, the economy is Donald Trump’s now going into 2018. The president who sits in the White House owns it politically, whether in fact it’s good or it’s bad.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just quickly, immigration. The White House rolled out its immigration plan. Got a little — got some praise, but some heat from the far left and the far right.

    Prospects?

  • David Brooks:

    Slim.

    You know, we have tried to have comprehensive immigration. The two parties are much further apart even than they were seven or eight years ago or 12 years ago, when George W. Bush tried to do it, so very unlikely.

  • Mark Shields:

    Marco Rubio is the person to watch, senator from Florida.

    He is terrified. He hasn’t even entered into deliberations with senators who are trying to work it out. If the Republican president was serious about immigration reform, he wouldn’t have the spokesman be Stephen Miller, who has been scorched earth on this policy, and have the first person to endorse it be Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who is for the elimination — basically the shrinking of legal immigration in this country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I saw that.

  • Mark Shields:

    So, that’s not addition. That’s not reaching across the aisle.

    If the senators themselves, Judy, work out a bill, and come out with something that they get 65 votes on, then the House will have to deal with. But it will not be the White House bill.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, they have a few more days to figure it out. We will see.

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you both.

    And just a reminder- Mark and David, along with our entire political team, will be back Tuesday night for President Trump’s first State of the Union address.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I’m going to bring back millions of jobs, reforming our system. Our allies will find that America is once again ready to lead.

    We will provide massive tax relief for the middle class. Democrats and Republicans should get together and unite.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That’s Tuesday night right here on PBS.

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