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Shields and Brooks on Trump’s role in the economy, Michael Cohen and the Russia probe

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including a blockbuster new report on U.S. economic growth, the fallout from President Trump’s trade wars, plus the latest developments in the Russia investigation, including whether the president knew about a 2016 Trump Tower meeting ahead of time.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, from the Russia investigation to the economy, and other things, it's been a busy week for this president.

    We turn now to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    It is so good to see both of you together.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sometimes, in the summer…

  • Mark Shields:

    I have been here, Judy.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    I haven't been missing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, let's start — David, we're going to start with you, because you have been away — with the economy, our lead story tonight.

    Blockbuster numbers for the past second quarter of the year, growth off the charts. The president said today several times that he deserves the credit for this, his policies have led to a turnaround in the American economy.

    Does he deserve the credit? What's the significance for him?

  • David Brooks:

    Totally. We would be back in medieval economy if not for Donald Trump.

    No, it's just a truism that presidents get the blame when it's going down and they get the credit when it's going up. But their effect on the economy is generally over the long term. It's not a short-term thing and not a quarter-by-quarter thing.

    I think, if you look at the economic data, there is a lot of consumer spending. And that probably, as David Wessel said earlier in the program, because of the tax cuts.

    I think the business investment is not as high as you would think it would be. The whole idea of corporate rate cuts is, you're handing a lot of money back to corporations, and they're going to blow out the ceiling.

    And it's fine, but it's not what you would expect. And, earlier, I thought the tax cut really was having an effect in inducing corporations to invest. That seems not to be the case. It's not bad, but it's not fantastic.

    And so I would say the tax cut gets some credit, but not a lot.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark, how do you look at these numbers and the president's role in all this?

  • Mark Shields:

    I look at it, Judy, that Donald Trump is capable of convincing people of just about anything.

    I mean, recall, if you will, November 2016, when he got elected, he convinced enough voters that the country was at the brink of desolation and destruction. We, at that point, had — were in a point of 89 consecutive months of economic growth, of 80 months, an historic high in the country, of job growth consecutively.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    When he was elected.

  • Mark Shields:

    When he was elected in November 2016.

    He somehow was able, at a time when longevity was an all-time high, graduation rates were at an all-time high, pollution, other than greenhouse gases, were at an all-time low — I mean, it was — it was really a good era. And yet he was able to say, this is the worst time in America, it's the darkest moment.

    Now, David's right. He does — the president does either get credit or blame. And I would just point out to him, as a cautionary note, the last time the economy grew at a faster rate was third quarter of 2014, when it grew — Barack Obama was president. It grew at 5.2 percent, David Wessel mentioned.

    And that election of 2014, the Democrats' numbers in the House of Representatives lost to the point where they had their lowest number since 1928, they held fewer state legislatures than they had at any time prior to the Civil War.

    And so, when the economy is bad, the economy is the only issue. When the economy is good, the elections are oftentimes about other issues.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, well, while the economy has been doing what it's been doing, David, the president has been stirring up trade policy. He's been getting into — he doesn't want to call it a trade war, but a trade dispute with China, with the European Union.

    And now we see some of the consequences. You have — he's shaken up much of the agricultural sector. There are farmers complaining. He went out this week and talked to some of them, made speeches and said, just be patient, it's all going to be OK.

    How patient should they be?

  • David Brooks:

    Well…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    I think they should be upset right now.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    I mean, this is one of those cases where 90 percent of economists sort of think what Donald Trump is doing is wrong, probably 99.9 percent. And then nobody seems to defer to the economists.

    We're in an era where deferring expertise is not something that one does. And so whether it's on climate, trade or anything else, whatever the experts say, we don't really care about that stuff.

    When you ask those voters, the Donald Trump voters, what's causing economic stagnation, they give two answers, immigration and trade. I happen to think those are both completely wrong answers for what's causing immigration, but that is their belief.

    And so when Donald Trump declares a trade war or something like that, a lot of voters will say, hey, it's going to hurt me. I'm a farmer. I'm working in a factory in Indiana, whatever. It's going to hurt me, but I'm willing to take this hit for the country, because they believe that fundamentally is the problem.

    And so it's not going to hurt him politically. But it is something that he's right to go after China. They are unfair. But the way he's doing it, in a manner while attacking every other ally we have with — also with a trade war, with Canada and the European Union, is — it's just craziness.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, as David said, Mark, he's going against the Republican orthodoxy that free trade is a good thing.

  • Mark Shields:

    Right. He's repealed the Republican orthodoxy. Let's give him credit.

    I mean, there is no longer Republican orthodoxy. It's what Donald Trump says the Republican Party stands for. And Republicans (INAUDIBLE). I mean, that — that's true.

    But David — David's point about the Republicans on tariffs.

    I think the one point he felt some pressure this week was from Hill Republicans. I had leading Republican say to me today exactly what David said. A war with China or a contest with China, totally understandable, justifiable politically, not unwise at all, but to take on the world, but — so, the problem is, Donald Trump is putting at risk Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate.

    And that's what he was persuaded this week, that he was — he was hurting them. And I asked this Republican, a Republican wise man, why can't he understand this? And he says, Donald Trump spent 72 years thinking uninterruptedly only about Donald Trump.

    And the idea that, miraculously, at the age of 72, he would now start thinking of others, but he's been persuaded it's in his self-interest now to kind of back off on the wall and back off on this other….

    (CROSSTALK)

  • David Brooks:

    You notice two things when people — from talking with people, especially in the business community, from around the world.

    The first is, the U.S. is now becoming like this black hole, that they just don't want to get involved. And there are plenty of ways to invest in China. There's plenty of ways to invest in Africa or Europe or Asia. So why get involved in the U.S.?

    And, as a result, foreign direct investment is plummeting here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You mean because of the controversies?

  • David Brooks:

    They just don't want to be involved with Trump. They just don't want to be.

    And they get the sense that America is no longer the central nation. It's the (INAUDIBLE) the U.S. is imploding. And so you — we should be seeing surges of people who want to invest here. Our economy is doing pretty good. But we're not seeing that.

    And, second, you see this pattern of Trump — and we saw it with the E.U. this week — where he will make an attack, and then he will sort of backtrack and have a sort of peace deal.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    And that's sort of the drama that he likes.

    But it means that you can never count on him. I mean, if you're for — if he does something good or do something bad, there's always going to be a back track. So there's just permanent instability in the U.S. presidency.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, even, Mark, if he does cut a deal with the E.U., which he says he's done, to come up with some trade agreement, it may not alleviate some of this — these hard feelings that are — have already built up.

  • Mark Shields:

    The hard feelings don't go away, Judy.

    I mean, obviously, his attacks on political leaders of independent E.U. countries and NATO countries, it has repercussions for them at their own political constituencies. They have to then establish their independence from him and their unwillingness to cooperate with everything he wants.

    It robs America of its leadership role. It robs America of its coalition power that it's had. But, no, I don't think there is any question that the anxiety — I mean, we began the war — we began the world — for the week — we forget — war with Iran was in the offing.

    I mean, he had almost invented — again, to divert attention from what was and continues to be a negative story on Helsinki.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But it's a distant memory now, I guess.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Russia. I have to ask you both about, I guess, a number of developments in the Russia investigation this week.

    David, I guess the one that's getting all the attention right now is the report that the president knew before Donald Trump Jr. met with that Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in the middle of 2016. The president's denying it. We talked to Nick Schifrin about it earlier.

    But are we looking at serious political jeopardy? The president — people who believe the president are still believing him. Everybody else is saying, aha.

    How do we look at it?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I'm sitting out these recent allegations of Michael Cohen, just because I don't know whether he's believable. He's in legal jeopardy. I mean, it just — it's fishy. I wouldn't want to like — if you were a journalist, you wouldn't want to write a story based on — and say that definitely is true.

    On the other hand, I have been a skeptic of the Russia thing. And so I have had like it from zero to 10. I have been a three for a long time, just because I think there was no campaign to collude. So they probably collude.

    I have to say I'm moving up to a five or six these days, just because there's been clouds of behavior that does begin to smell pretty fishy. And those are clouds of behavior surrounding whether the Russians actually got analytics from the Democratic computers and handed it to the Trump campaign.

    Those are weird timings with the Russian assaults connected to Trump tweets and Trump statements. And then on the — on the obstruction of justice side, what Mueller is looking over, the tweets, and the whole constellation of things.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • David Brooks:

    So, again, there's no one thing where you can say they colluded. That still seems to elude us, but there are clouds of behavior that make it seem a little more plausible.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Clouds of behavior, Mark?

  • Mark Shields:

    I think so.

    I would say a face-off in integrity between Donald Trump and Michael Cohen is not to be confused with Mother Teresa against Abraham Lincoln.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    I mean, both of them start with enormous obstacles and impediments to believability.

    But the man formally who used to be Rudy Giuliani, who's become the flack for Donald Trump, said last night that — said actually earlier that Michael Cohen is an honorable man, a man of integrity and an honest lawyer.

    And last night, he was — he's been lying for years, lying all his life, according to Mr. Giuliani.

    This is from Mr. Trump, who said he was going to bring nothing but the best people, at least a half of whom have left since they got here. But it — most of all, Judy, I think the question about Russia remains, why does Donald Trump, this assertive alpha male, turn into this submissive, cloying, almost eager-to-please person, a suitor, around the real alpha male, Putin?

    And why — if you're a — if you're a Republican, in a year where Republicans are very much on the defensive, you're one of four dozen Republicans running in a House district that is up for grabs or trending Democrat from Republican, why can't — you want to talk about the economy.

    You want to talk about that. And why Donald Trump wants to have another — another summit meeting, where it gets nothing but bad press?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, what about that, David?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes. It's the axis of testosterone. They're like same kind of guys.

    Some people think, oh, Trump has — Putin must have something on Trump. There's some blackmail. There's something like that.

    I think — I — maybe that's true. To me, it totally makes sense that Trump admires the cut of Putin's jib, and he has a long history of business ties with Russia. They — ideologically, they have actually some similarities.

    If you look at the European parties that are populist like Trump, they all are pro-Putin. They just think, I like strongmen. That guy is a strongman, my kind of guy.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • David Brooks:

    And bullies can be sycophantic toward better bullies.

    And so I take the psychological, cultural, more than the blackmail theory. But I could be wrong.

  • Mark Shields:

    I'm more base, OK?

    The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll asks, do we have a favorable or unfavorable feelings of voters — voters in July of this year — toward major individuals and institutions?

    Vladimir Putin, 2 percent very favorable among American voters, 3 percent favorable, 65 percent unfavorable, 46 percent very unfavorable.

    So, by a margin of 23-1, his very unfavorables to his very favorables. And why is Donald Trump hanging around with him? I — David, I have been suspicious all the way through. He must have something. There's some reason.

    Donald Trump is not a man given to great loyalty to individuals. His hero worship is finite. Honestly, it does really serious questions about what's going on here?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's the cut of his jib

  • Mark Shields:

    It's the cut of his jib.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    Bad poll numbers.

  • David Brooks:

    Do jibs even have cuts?

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    I have never seen an uncut jib.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We're going to have the answer to that question next Friday.

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.

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