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Shields and Brooks on Trump’s legal troubles, House chaplain politics

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join John Yang to discuss the week’s news, including the media blitz by Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani over the payment to adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, a new low in the unemployment rate and the attempted firing of the House chaplain by Speaker Paul Ryan.

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  • John Yang:

    But first, a lot can happen in a week. The president can again shake up his legal team, and then have one of those new lawyers contradict him, and a fired congressional chaplain can get his job back.

    Mirabile dictu.

    That's for you, David.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • John Yang:

    Here to make sense of it all, the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    We should explain, David Brooks just back from Italy, so a little Latin.

  • David Brooks:

    Apparently, where you have been studying Sir Thomas Aquinas, apparently.

  • John Yang:

    Exactly.

  • Mark Shields:

    I thought he had been to Latin America.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • John Yang:

    We have had this spectacle this week or the scene this week of the president getting a new lawyer, the star of his legal team, Rudy Giuliani, coming out and contradicting him. Today, the president said, well, he will get his facts straight, he's new on the job.

    And then Giuliani issuing this clarification.

    David, what do you make of all this?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, when one person tells a lie, it's what a tangled web we weave.

    When you have got 60 or 70 people doing it, it's like a universe of tangle. And so we have got just a universe of when did he pay off, who did the payoff, did Trump know, when did he know?

    Frankly, I find it all secondary. The headline here is that the President of the United States allegedly paid hush money to a porn star. I mean, what else do we need for the scandal? That sort of covers it for me.

    And so if people are willing to tolerate that in their president, then whether the campaign — whether the money counts as a campaign donation or not, which is one of the things being argued, to me, that is not secondly. It's tertiary or something else. The main fact is, we have come to this point in our country where that seems normal.

  • John Yang:

    So those little details don't matter.

    Mark, what do you think?

  • Mark Shields:

    I welcome David back, but I have to disagree in this sense.

    The "Access Hollywood" tape during the campaign showed that it wasn't a big factor to at least Trump voters at that point. But I think I will go back to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and President Kennedy dispatched former Secretary of State Dean Acheson to brief President Charles de Gaulle of France on what the United States had found, what the Soviets had placed in the way of missiles in Cuba.

    And after the meeting, Dean Acheson asked General de Gaulle, do you want me to show you the secret photos that we have? And he said, no, no, said General de Gaulle, the word of the president of the United States is all that I need.

    Now, fast forward. We have a man who is just incapable of telling the truth. Less than a month ago, on Air Force One, asked by the press, do you know anything about this payment, the $130,000, no. And now, of course, he does.

    And it reached the point where The Wall Street Journal, the bible of American business, which has been sympathetic to President Trump generally, especially on his economic policy, said he's compiling a record editorially that increases the likelihood that few will believe him. "Mr. Trump should worry that Americans will stop believing anything he says."

    And the word of the president of the United States is not something to trifle with. And he has trifled with it, and he has fractured it.

  • John Yang:

    David, you were outside the Beltway, way outside the Beltway.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • John Yang:

    And I know that you think that perhaps we're getting a little carried away with this focus on Stormy Daniels and payments and all this sort of thing.

    What do you mean by that?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    Well, you know, I do think the norms that he's violated and the way he's degraded public debate in the nation are a serious thing. We have talked about that for three years.

    And yet, when you think the important things that have happened this week, probably the China-U.S. trade talks were a very big deal. The North Korea-South Korea thing is promising all of a sudden. The economy is going great.

    And so apparently a lot of people have made the calculation, he has got always a bunch of scandals that those people in Washington care about, but when you think the big substantive things, things seem to be going fine.

    And that's the calculation a lot of people are making. And there are times when I think we get a little overhyped up about whatever Rudy Giuliani said this morning and we do lose sight in Washington of things like the China trade talks.

    And I hate to sound like the earnest middlebrow guy, but that's the calculation people have made. And I think the threat to our norms is serious and just poisonous to our country. But other people have said, no, I just care about the substance.

    And this week at least, the substance is pretty good on what the Trump administration has achieved.

  • Mark Shields:

    The lowest unemployment rate since President Bill Clinton is certainly impressive and certain welcome. And no American can be anything other than happy about it.

    But the presidency is historically and actually, above all else, a place of moral leadership. And you lose that, and I don't care how big the Dow Jones is, I don't care what the corporate profits are.

    And, you know, I'm not quite as sanguine about the economy as David is. I think the tax cut is the equivalent economically of catnip. We know that 86 million middle-class families will have taxes raised. And we know that 83 percent of the tax cuts will go to the top 1 percent when it's settled.

    So, that's really not unimportant, and it certainly affects the way that people live. But I thought the piece with Jim Tankersley, we're still seeing where wages are not rising. And, you know, to me, I'm just worried that the presidency itself will be a diminished and tarnished office, and we will have tough point…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    … trust in that presidency.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • David Brooks:

    It will be. It will be.

    And the effects will be long-lasting and they will be devastating for faith in politics and for the society. But those of us who are critical of Donald Trump can't hide from the facts that go against our story.

    And so I was against the Trump tax cuts. But the early evidence is that they're working better than I thought. And so, in the first quarter, among S&P companies, capital expenditures are up 39 percent. That's a seven-year high. That's far higher than a lot of us thought.

    Stock buybacks, which is just giving people — to shareholders, that's only 16 percent. So the evidence from just the first quarter seems to be that what the Trump people told us would happen is happening, that companies are reinvesting the money.

    A lot of things Trump said about North Korea are terrifying, and yet if it has an effect of unnerving the North Koreans, so they're more flexible — and we don't know if that's the case, but there are some possible implications — well, then maybe some of those terrifying tweets had some effect.

    And so it's important to oppose what's opposable and what is reprehensible and offensive. And we have been doing that, as I say, for three years. But it's also important to see reality. And the more serious opposition will, frankly, be on disastrous policies or not disastrous policies.

  • John Yang:

    Well, it's sort of a mix of sort of the substance and also what's going on, sort of the scandal is at play also.

    We're going to get into next week the beginning of the midterm season in earnest, as we start this string of primaries next week in Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, North Carolina.

    And we're seeing in the Republican primaries a lot of these candidates trying to glom on to President Trump as much as possible. Does that surprise you, given where we were a year ago and where we seem to be going with the president, that the Republican candidates are running toward him, David?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    Well, I thought that, as the scandals magnified, as the lies magnified, people would drift away from Donald Trump, including Republicans. But he's got 89, 90 percent support among Republicans, so that's not happening.

    And then I thought, well, eventually, we will snap back and the — we will revert to the normal standards of civility in public life. But I was just watching ads in West Virginia of this candidate Blankenship, the guy who did some jail time for a prison — or a series of deaths in the prison — or in the mines.

  • John Yang:

    The coal mines.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    His ad — apparently, he has decided that Donald Trump isn't vulgar enough. And so the ad is crude, quasi-racialist, you know, making wild accusations about Mitch McConnell and cocaine.

    There are really zero standards in this ad. Now, he's not winning. He's coming in third so far in the Republican primaries, but if that is the standard to which politics has descended, then Donald Trump was just John the Baptist, and we're going to see a lot worse.

  • Mark Shields:

    Politics is the most imitative of all human activities, with the possible exception of political journalism.

    And I would just say that when a candidate wins, I mean, Joe McCarthy spawned a whole generation of imitators. And there are people still running for state representative in Massachusetts today who say again and again because John Kennedy said again and again.

    But it should be no surprise that it's a race to the bottom. I mean, it was Donald Trump who announced that the president of the United States was born in Kenya and insisted that that was true.

    It was Donald Trump who told lies and paid no price for it and, in fact, was rewarded. So, it is imitative. It is derivative.

    What's interesting is that the two other candidates in West Virginia, Evan Jenkins, the congressman, and Patrick Morrisey, the attorney general, are kind of hitting each other over the head with two-by-fours, saying, you're not deserving of Trump's support, you're not a real Trumpian.

    And Blankenship, David's right, convicted, spent a year in jail, $250,000 fine for 29 miners dying on his watch and violation of mine safety standards and law. He was leading until last week. So, I don't know what's going to happen in the primary. But…

  • David Brooks:

    You know what is interesting, though, the national — a lot of the national campaigns are so ugly, and yet you go to the municipal and gubernatorial campaigns, and they're a lot better.

    I met a guy, Mike Duggan, who is the mayor of Detroit. And he's a guy who said — they tried to run us-them tribal politics against him. And he said, hey, if you want to run that, don't vote for me. But I'm just going to fix the streetlights, I'm going to fix the city. And it was, let's put all that stuff away.

    He got massive support from the African-American community. And people wanted a higher level. They just wanted a guy who would run the city well. And so you can depressed, especially at the national level. The paradox is, on the state and the city level, often, politics is working pretty good.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes. No, David makes a very good point.

    And I think probably the strongest challenger to a Donald Trump would be somebody who's been a successful mayor or governor, who's actually brought people together, who has achievements, who has worked with the other side.

    Senators are one of a hundred. They don't make history. They make speeches. They cast votes. And they go on television. And governors and mayors really run something and have a track record. And, boy, I think we will be looking for a track record in 2020.

  • John Yang:

    Let me turn — we have got about a minute-and-a-half left.

    The other story, the speaker of the House in Massachusetts said all politics is local. The current speaker is sort of learning the lesson of that. He tried to fire the chaplain.

  • Mark Shields:

    Boy.

  • John Yang:

    An uproar in his precinct, the House of Representatives, and now the chaplain is back.

    What do you make of this, Mark?

  • Mark Shields:

    I make of it political ineptitude.

    There is speculation I have done some reporting, speculation that Speaker Ryan was bowing to the interests of some in the Freedom Caucus, who didn't want Reverend Conroy there because he was — quote — "too liberal."

    Apolitical is what he's been. His one provocative statement was to offer a prayer that the tax bill not pick winners and losers, but confer benefits and burdens equally and justly upon us.

    I mean, the Catholic preferential option for the poor is central to it. He gets fired. And then there was a genuine backlash and almost spontaneous wildfire. And Paul Ryan had to back down.

  • John Yang:

    David?

  • David Brooks:

    Apparently, Jesus Christ had a low Freedom Caucus score.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes. Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    I mean, it's ridiculous. Well, he's doing what he's supposed to be doing, which is to be the conscience.

    I will give Paul Ryan a little credit. At least he backed down. We don't see backing down too often. So, he admitted a mistake and at least he backed down. But the pastor was doing what he was supposed to be doing.

  • John Yang:

    David Brooks.

    We got to leave it there.

    David Brooks, Mark Shields, thanks so much.

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