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Shields and Brooks on Trump’s judicial picks, Bill Taylor’s testimony

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the latest political news, including trends around the federal judges President Trump is appointing, the Department of Justice’s criminal probe of the Russia investigation, how the impeachment inquiry is evolving and campaign anxiety regarding 2020 Democratic candidates.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In this week alone, the top U.S. diplomat for Ukraine told Congress that the president withheld military aid for personal political gain; Republican Congress members stormed a secure room at the Capitol, where many already had access, to dispute the impeachment process, but not the substance; and we have learned that the Department of Justice is investigating its own FBI for looking into Russia's interference in the 2016 election.

    Amidst all this, the White House announced that the president has ordered the cancellation of all federal government subscriptions to The New York Times and The Washington Post.

    That makes it a perfect moment to hear the analysis of Shields and Brooks.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

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

    So, David, no subscriptions to the White House from your newspaper.

  • David Brooks:

    This explains why I have been getting no invites…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you will soldier on.

    But let's pick up first with Lisa's reporting on these federal judges that Trump has been able to nominate and get successfully confirmed, more judges than any of his predecessors.

    What's the real significance of this?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, when you talk to conservative voters why they support Trump, that's the number one answer, the courts.

    And so he's having an effect. He's nominating conventional Republican Federalist Society judges. They're not populists. I'm not sure I see the — quite the same transformation on the circuit court level, the level just under the Supreme Court.

    Of the 13 appellate courts, only one may flip. So you have got Democratic seats staying — Democratic districts staying Democratic, Republicans getting a little redder. But you haven't seen a transformation from a more liberal court to a more conservative court.

    And his impact on future on nominations may go down because Democratic judges are not retiring. They're waiting and hoping there's a Democrat. So they're — it's expected there will be relatively fewer openings over the next couple years than there were the previous.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Mark, maybe not transformational?

  • Mark Shields:

    I think it approaches transformational, Judy.

    I would just point out, in Lisa's piece, she made the point that these were fired up — this issue fired up Republican voters. Make no mistake about it, she's absolutely right. In the exit polls in 2016, when 23,000 actual voters were polled, and they asked, what's the most important issue that you are deciding on, a full one out of five voters answered that the Supreme Court nominations and judicial nominations.

    And they broke for Donald Trump overwhelmingly, I mean, almost by 3-2. And those who just considered it an important issue or not as important issue, judicial, all vote for Hillary Clinton.

    This was a turning and key vote. Promise made, promise delivered. He has totally — as David pointed out, his appointments have come from the Federalist Society.

    And the other factor is, they're playing the actuarial charts. I mean, they're younger. Neil Gorsuch.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Some in their 30s.

  • Mark Shields:

    Neil Gorsuch, for example, was 49 when he was nominated. Brett Kavanaugh is 53, right — most recently, 35-year-old.

    So it's a real change. And it's a promise made, promise delivered, much to the consternation of a lot of Democrats.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we know it flies under the radar, and that's why we thought it was so important to take a look at it. We are grateful for Lisa's reporting.

    Impeachment.

    David, there was virtually a development every day about that. We just learned today that a federal judge has said that the impeachment inquiry in the House, in his view, is legal. And that means that the Department of Justice is going to have to turn over grand jury material from the Mueller investigation.

    But this follows a week of testimony behind closed doors, some of it, though, made public, by one public servant or diplomatic figure after another, including especially William Taylor, who served as the ambassador to Ukraine.

    What is it adding up to at this point?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    When we first learned about the phone call, you could say, well, it was just Trump being Trump, a reckless phone call, and he was sort of elbowing the guy.

    Now that's not the case. I think we have learned this was a three-month coordinated campaign, with a whole series of meetings, a lot of people involved, to try to get Ukraine to help Trump's reelection bid.

    And so the Taylor testimony in particular was detailed, methodical. It was the smoking gun. It was clear quid pro quo, an order coming from the president hold up aid, unless Ukraine did this.

    And so that seals the deal, I think. And I think Republicans — at least the Republican establishment — has to feel just beaten. And the question is, how do they find a way to stick with him?

    But I think the Republican mood was, wow, this is bad. Wow, this is bad.

    And so I think the key thing is to look for sort of an emotional crumbling, where they just say, we have to — we have — we can't sit by along this. I don't think we're at that place, but it was certainly a week that affected how Republican senators see this guy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Because, I mean — David's right, Mark. At this point, Republicans are — most of them, the vast majority of them, are saying they still don't see the solid evidence.

  • Mark Shields:

    No, they — that's those who make public statements. Those who don't, don't say that. I mean, and I think the silence does speak, if not volumes, at least chapters.

    Ambassador Taylor's testimony wasn't a smoking gun. It was a smoking armory. I mean, it really did. David's right. It was specific. It was factual. It was compelling.

    And what I found most revealing about this is, I went through Michael Atkinson, who was the inspector general, Michael McKinley, 37 years of service at the State Department, Ambassador Taylor, Marie Yovanovitch, Laura Cooper, Fiona Hill, 163 years of public service, no hedge funds, no high-tech buyouts or whatever else.

    I mean, these are people who have devoted themselves. And I think Ambassador Taylor was the witness from hell for the White House. He really was, I mean, 49 years of public service, brought back in after retirement, at the insistence of the secretary of state.

    And he cannot go unmentioned, that Mike Pompeo is violating every rule of the United States military on the responsibility of an officer to his men and to those under him. He has totally abandoned and not stood up for any of the people he's appointed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Secretary of state.

  • Mark Shields:

    The secretary of state.

    And these professionals who have come forward, at considerable cost and risk to their own careers in many instances, or certainly threat peace of mind. And I think his silence is a telling indictment of him and his lack of character.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, as we see, David, the White House continues to say — and the president is raging about this. We heard it again today.

    He's saying, these people have no credibility. And he was saying yesterday they're part of the so-called deep state.

  • David Brooks:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And using a lot worse language than that.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    And, so far, that's holding. Impeachment is popular in the country, but it's very popular on the coastal parts of the country. Amy Walter pointed out this week that, in the swing states, its favorability rating is 10 points lower than unfavorable. People are against impeachment. In Wisconsin, it's minus seven.

    And so for Democrats to think that they can swing Republican senators, they have to get those swing states, and they have to sell the message. And, so far, they have secret hearings, which I understand you don't learn anything in a public hearing. They have to learn what happened. And so you have to get away from TV cameras for that.

    But, eventually, they're going to have to turn to public hearings in order to try to persuade the country. And whether they can do that in a month or two, whenever that happens, that, we will see.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Some reporting that it may happen in just a couple of weeks.

    Separate from this, Mark, but some people think related, you had this revelation, reporting yesterday that the Department of Justice, which had been overseeing a probe into the origins of the Russia investigation, what the Russians did to affect the 2016 election, that was an inquiry. It's now a criminal investigation, a criminal probe.

    And the question — which raises all kinds of questions. I mean, how did it become that? We don't know.

    But I just want to show for, for all of us — this is a comment from Senator Mark Warner, who's the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

    He said: "Senate Intel, wrapping up a three-year bipartisan investigation, we have found nothing remotely justifying this."

    He said: "Mr. Barr," referring to the attorney general's, "investigation has already jeopardize key international intelligence partnerships. He needs to come before Congress and explain himself."

    What's this — how much does this matter that this has become a criminal probe?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, I think it does matter, starting with the Mark Warner point.

    I mean, in an ocean of roiling, rancid partisanship, the Senate Intelligence Committee has been an island of collegiality and cooperation. So I don't know if he is speaking just for himself, as the ranking Democrat and co-chair of that committee, or with the acquiescence of Senator Burr, the chairman. I don't know.

    But it certainly is a serious thing. I mean, you have to come to the conclusion, Judy, that, in Bill Barr, Donald Trump finally got the attorney general he wanted, that Jeff Sessions didn't deliver for him. Jeff Sessions recused himself.

    I mean, his — Bill Barr is, at taxpayer expense, hurling around the globe, from Australia, to Italy, in pursuit of information to somehow rationalize, justify that Donald Trump didn't lose in 2016, and that the Obama campaign, Obama administration was somehow behind some spying on him.

    And Mark Warner's point is, I mean, after a three-year investigation by that committee, there is absolutely nothing that has come to support that. And I don't know what the answer is.

    David perhaps does.

  • David Brooks:

    I, of course, know the answer.

  • Mark Shields:

    I know you do.

  • David Brooks:

    It's — you have to — having thoroughly politicized the State Department, you have to go on the presumption Trump is trying to politicize the Department of Justice, and you have to go in prejudging against that.

    The one mitigating factor is the guy they selected to do the investigation, this guy John Durham, who has been appointed by both parties, who has done — who has a sterling reputation. So at least we can rest, I think, in trust with him.

    And that's — that's really — this goes to what Mark was saying. The whole question for the last two years, would our institutions hold? And I would say, given the testimonies of the last week and whatever Durham does, I think the institutions are sort of holding.

    And the result is this impeachment, a guy who — president who doesn't go by any institutional logic, doesn't obey institutional rules, and yet the institutions are sort of standing up for those rules.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A couple of minutes on the — to look at the 2020 field.

    Mark, there are 18 still in the race. We had Tim Ryan, the congressman from Ohio, drop out just yesterday.

  • Mark Shields:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But 18 still running, and there is reporting out there — you have seen it — that some Democrats are getting anxious because they're worried they still don't have a horse that can beat Donald Trump.

    How widespread do you think that worry is among the Democrats?

  • Mark Shields:

    I'd say it's a lively anxiety.

    I mean, the flaws or the defects of the top four candidates, I mean, on ideological grounds, fear the Democrats, with Senator Warren and Senator Sanders, that they are far too left, that they're vying for sort of a liberal sliver of the electorate right now.

    That Vice President Biden may not be the Joe Biden that we have come to know and love in previous years. That Pete Buttigieg is the mayor of a very small city, with a male partner, married to, is maybe, at 37, just a little bit more than the country's ready for, and especially in an election where they want the referendum to be on a flawed, damaged, manifestly imperfect incumbent.

    So I think that, whether it's Michelle Obama or whatever else, I mean, Democrats are kind of casting around looking.

    But I think the key question Democrats have to face is this, Judy. There are 206 counties that Barack Obama carried twice that Donald Trump carried in 2016. And if the Democrats can go back and carry those counties again, these are people, you can't call — these wouldn't be racists.

    And I think that's the question. Can Democrats do that? And is that the kind of candidate and campaign they want to run?

  • David Brooks:

    Two years ago, I thought the two strongest Democratic candidates were Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans, and Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts. And they're not in the race.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Neither one.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • David Brooks:

    Neither one in the race.

    And so I do see the sense of the anxiety. But I would say to Democrats, if you're unhappy with the top four, look at the bottom 14.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    Because there are perfectly serviceable, good candidates there, in my opinion, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bennet, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris.

    And so…

  • Mark Shields:

    Steve Bullock.

  • David Brooks:

    Steve Bullock.

    So, I think, look around. Like, try out some others, if you're unhappy with the top four.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, one of the challenges they have is just getting attention, with all the focus in Washington on impeachment and everything else. It's hard for them to get airtime, shall we say.

    One thing we want to note at the beginning — at the end of the program is that — as we near the end of the program, is that the "NewsHour" announced today that we are — we will be hosting, moderating a Democratic presidential debate toward the end of December, December 19.

  • Mark Shields:

    Oh, terrific.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, we are looking forward to that opportunity.

  • Mark Shields:

    Wonderful.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, with that, Mark Shields, David Brooks, have a great weekend.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you.

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