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Shields and Brooks on Trump’s Syria ‘blunder,’ impeachment outlook

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s political news, including how the impeachment inquiry is affecting President Trump's support among Republicans, fallout from Trump's handling of northern Syria and the military advance by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the changing dynamics of the 2020 presidential race.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Hello to both of you.

    So let's pick up, Mark, with where — with my conversation just then with John Kasich. He said he reluctantly has come to the place, after hearing and following what's gone on in the last couple of days, that President Trump should be impeached.

    Now, he's only one of a very few Republicans. But do you see, given all the events of this week, the testimony before Congress, what Mick Mulvaney said yesterday, that this argument for impeachment is getting stronger?

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes, it most certainly is, Judy.

    I'd say right now that there's two dozen, maybe headed to three dozen House Republicans will end up voting for impeachment at the current velocity.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In the House?

  • Mark Shields:

    In the House.

    And I don't think there's any question about it. I mean, it's — you can feel it.

    Just put yourself in the shoes of trying to be a defender of the president, a supporter of the president. You wake up on an hourly basis — or certainly a daily basis, and almost hourly now, you're hit with another thunderbolt.

    What is it? It's foreign policy. It's Mick Mulvaney in a condescending, antagonistic, stupid — you understood why he's never been the spokesman, why he's never had a press conference before — harmful.

    You can't defend the president. So what Republicans are doing, if you will notice — and led by FOX News — is, they're attacking Democrats, is what they're doing. There's no defense.

    And so I just think you can feel support shrinking.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you — how do you assess this?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    I mean, if your defense was, there was no quid pro quo, it's pretty hard to stand on that ground by now. What we have learned over the last two weeks or three weeks is that the transcript we heard several weeks ago now, it was true.

    We learned on the transcript — for me, if you read the transcript, there was a quid pro quo.

  • Mark Shields:

    That's right.

  • David Brooks:

    And now we have testimony from Fiona Hill, who was the deputy secretary of state for Ukraine, that there was quid pro quo, basically, that it Trump was doing this, there was a separate foreign policy run by Trump and Giuliani, bypassing the normal foreign policy apparatus.

    And there have been a whole series of witnesses that have basically attested to that. Mulvaney puts the exclamation point.

    So, if that was your defense, then it's hard not to vote for impeachment.

    If your defense is, this doesn't rise to the level of impeachment, then you can still wriggle out of it. And I suspect that's where the Senate Republicans will go. I do not see — I see John Kasich, who has been, like, the number one Trump critic in the Republican Party, is here. Congressman Rooney is here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • David Brooks:

    But, so far, there aren't many others. And I'm skeptical that you will see too many Republican senators.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So what is the argument that Republicans are hanging on — hanging there belief to, that — you're just alluding to this — that this is not an impeachable offense?

    Is it what the president is saying, that I'm unconventional? Is it, we're always asking foreign countries to do something for us?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    Well, I think, right now, it's a position in search of an argument. So they know where they are, because they know where their voters are, and they're terrified of their voters. And they have got to find some rationalization to explain why they are. And this seems to be the most rational rationalization. This is what countries do all the time, and the president was defending American interests, and the media is out to get him.

    And that's an argument that sort of makes itself. Whether it's compelling to anybody else doesn't really matter, because it has to — the Republicans are the ones that have to move.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Mark, if David's right — even if it passes in the House, if there's an impeachment vote in the House, but go to the Senate, that there's not the votes in the Senate? What's…

  • Mark Shields:

    There are not the votes today, Judy.

    But think where we were two weeks ago. I mean, this thing is moving at a pace and a velocity that I don't think any of us could have predicted. And after this week, I mean, we haven't even talked about the cave, the capitulation, the total — David mentioned he's doing this in the national interest.

    I mean, we saw a demonstration of the national interest this week. I mean, there's no way anybody could look at that and have confidence in this man, let alone this administration.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You're talking about Syria and Turkey.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes. Talking about Syria. Talking about the abandonment, because just think, think if you were South Korea today, all right?

    You're surrounded. On one side, you got China, a menacing force, not that far off your shore. You have got North Korea and a certified madman on your border. And what have you relied on? The good word, the trust, the honor of the United States of America.

    And we saw that just absolutely trashed and abandoned this week in the Middle East by the president.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, David, let's talk about that.

    I mean, this decision, it came sort of out of the blue. People didn't know about it. And then we learned the president had given — the administration said it wasn't a green light. But the Turks have gone in, and they are — they have now been given permission basically by the U.S. to control that so-called safe zone.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    Fareed Zakaria mentioned there's never been a moment that he could think of where a bad decision was made, and the blunder came immediately, the results and the catastrophe came right away.

    And it was a total win for Erdogan and the Turks, a total win for Syria, and a total win for Russia, because the Turks get to do their ethnic cleansing. The Syrians get to go into the region. The Russians have been trying to get into the region. Now they get to walk into the region. The Russians have — or the Iranians have a proxy.

    So it was a — the score was 56 Erdogan, zero for Trump, and zero for the United States.

    And I think this is — what's shocking is just the moral — not only the incompetence. I mean, the letter Trump wrote to Erdogan could have been written by a kindergartner. It was — it didn't look like an official government letter.

    And then the — just the moral callousness of having no remorse about the deaths and the cleansing. I think it's — I think this, combined with impeachment, is what shakes people. This is a more shocking event.

    And it goes against a generation of Republican and American foreign policy to be a stabilizing force in that region. And it was also a sign — and I think this is where — the way — the only way I can see that you really get to some erasure — some erosion from the Republican side — is a lot of Republicans think, well, we had Kelly there for a little.

    Mattis was there for a little while. We had some sane people controlling him. The controls are gone. And this guy's spinning wildly out of control.

    And I think that could be a conclusion that people would reach.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, in fact, Mark, just — we just reported tonight that we learned that Mitch McConnell, Senate Republican leader, has written a piece — opinion piece for The Washington Post, saying it was a grave mistake, what the president did.

    It's not every day that Mitch McConnell separates himself from the president like this.

  • Mark Shields:

    No, it certainly isn't.

    And I just think — I think it's quite serious. I think Republicans I talk to are, frankly, nervous. They're nervous about the governorship in Mitch McConnell's home state, losing that, about losing both houses of the Virginia legislature.

    These elections, Judy, are just basically 10 days away. And it's a — it's really — and they're concerned that they lose again in Louisiana, the Democrats elected there. Those are red states, purple states that they're losing.

    And if Donald Trump is there, they're going to go into 2020 just blissfully, having sustained enormous losses in red states in November of 2019, and watching this happen.

    I mean, this is — this is truly — when — the Turks said, we got everything we wanted, the easiest negotiation we have ever had. Erdogan took the president's letter, put it in the trash can, but he's not forgetting what was in it, was, don't be a fool.

    I mean, I don't know how, at any point, you could defend, explain, apologize or say, let's go forward. Let's get four more years of this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You mentioned 2020.

    And once again, David, it looks as if the Democrats are being overshadowed, but they did have a debate this week, all 12 of them on the stage.

    What's the shape of that race after this?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, I mean, this is why Republicans hang with Trump, because they look at the Democratic debates and say, anything but that.

    And so I think we're writing off Biden too fast. If you still look at the polls — the media is sort of saying, Elizabeth Warren is the front-runner. I think there are at least two front-runners. Biden is still doing very well in the polls. He still has a solid base of support.

    Warren has got to have an answer for how she's going to pay for her health care plan. There was an Urban Institute report that came out this week suggesting it will cost $32 trillion. That would mean the federal government would grow by 60 percent with this one program alone.

    That was a bigger growth than all of World War II. Taxes would go up by 50 percent. You have got find a way to pay for that. And if you don't do that, you don't look serious. And people like Pete Buttigieg and all the rest have a very easy lane to go after you for having plans that don't make any sense.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is she vulnerable, Mark? How vulnerable is she on this health care, Medicare for all?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, I think she is.

    I think, when you run as the, I'm tell it like it is, keep the big boys honest, theme, and then you dudge and dock — dodge and duck, rather, as she did, adroitly or adroitly, to what's the cost going to be, and she stands in contrast, in a strange way — Bernie Sanders indicts her, because Bernie Sanders says, yes, it's going to cost more, and I will tell you that.

    So — and I think it was an acknowledgement that she is a front-runner, if not the co-front-runner, a front-runner, the front-runner, by the fact that everybody went after her.

    There was a fear that she was going to run away with the race. And I think, whether it was Buttigieg, or Klobuchar, or Beto O'Rourke, or Tulsi Gabbard, they all — Joe Biden himself — they all tried to bring her back to earth.

    But, no, I think it is quite serious. And I think it's central to — she thinks that she's going to get away with that in the fall — or any Democrat does in 2020, that's not going to be the case.

    As far as Joe Biden is concerned, I don't think he's had a really good debate. And he almost had an advantage that she became the lightning rod, she, Elizabeth Warren. And I think other Democrats went a little bit easy on him because of Hunter Biden, which is this allegation about his son.

    It was absolutely inappropriate and wrong for the vice president's son to be involved in a company he had no knowledge of in a country he knew no knowledge of, simply because his father was vice president.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about Bernie Sanders, David?

    I mean, he's still on the stage. He did have a health issue, the heart attack, a few weeks ago. He came back. He looked pretty vigorous standing there.

    He's still in this contest.

  • David Brooks:

    He's still in this race.

    He has a core of support. Whether it can grow beyond what he had last time, it doesn't seem clear. It seems more of the energy and more of the growth and more of the interest is on the Warren side.

    One of the things I'm interested in is how volatile this race could be. Usually, in the last few months, the last month, you see a lot of ups and downs, a lot of people rising out of nowhere.

    I wonder if the people are paying such close attention, unprecedented levels of attention this year, that things are much more baked in. So far, we have only seen gradual rises and falls.

    The final thing I have observed this week is, in the Iowa polls, if not the national polls, Pete Buttigieg is doing pretty well. He's — the two leaders are around 22, and he's around 17. So he's right in there.

    And if he comes on strong in Iowa, that could set him up for some sort of momentum ride for the ensuing weeks.

  • Mark Shields:

    He's definitely a threat. I mean, he's going after the Biden vote.

    I thought he had a good debate. I thought there were two missed moments. Elizabeth Warren, when Joe Biden raised the point about, I sponsored and fought to get your financial advisory board committee passed by the Senate, she just says, thank you, Joe — said, thank you, President Obama.

    And I thought Pete Buttigieg looked like he was spoiling for a fight in going after Beto O'Rourke, I mean, sort of a, don't go after my honor, my integrity.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You mean in addition to Warren, yes.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes, I mean, it was like he had a line he was going to deliver.

    Amy Klobuchar, again, was the most organically humorous, naturally humorous person in the debate, which means something to me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Before we go, I do want to raise the passing of Elijah Cummings, Mark, David, somebody who served a long time in the Congress, part of the House leadership, had been in the civil rights movement before then.

    I — we just learned tonight that Speaker Pelosi will have his remains lying in state at the Capitol next week.

  • Mark Shields:

    A remarkable man, a truly remarkable man, I'd say a giant, some would say a gentle giant, eloquent.

    But just a quick little anecdote about Elijah Cummings. Trey Gowdy is a white Republican from South Carolina, a fierce conservative, on the same committee. They crossed swords.

    They spent time together. And Trey Gowdy said — found out that he'd grown up in the same area of South Carolina as Cummings' family. And he said, why did they leave? And he said, so our children, myself could get an education.

    And the conversation ended up with them both in tears.

    Now, that doesn't happen in Washington. That doesn't happen, where you have caricature and have cartoon cutouts of your adversaries and just sneer at them. I mean, he was that strong a man, that he could show the weakness and the gentleness of him.

    And he will be missed. He was truly the North Star.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    And then, when Freddie Gray died in Baltimore a few years ago…

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    … he was at — spoke at the funeral, very impassioned, very righteous about the wrongs that have been done.

    But then, when the riots started in the area near where he was living, he went out there with a bullhorn and tried to calm things down, so both strong, but also respecting order and law.

  • Mark Shields:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Remembering Elijah Cummings.

    David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you. Thank you, Judy.

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