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Shields and Brooks on Trump’s Syria pullout, impeachment politics

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week's political news, including President Trump’s attitude toward Kurds in Syria and stance toward Turkey's Syria offensive, testimony from the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and how the prospect of impeachment affects the race among 2020 Democrats.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is not easy to keep up with all the twists and turns of another turbulent week in the Trump presidency.

    But to help make sense of it all, joining us are Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Hello to both of you.

  • Mark Shields:

    Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So it's been a tumultuous week.

    We — at the beginning of the week, President Trump, David, basically says to Turkey, we're getting U.S. troops out of the way in Syria.

    The Turks have gone in. They are going after the Kurds, who were American allies. But just in the last day or so, the president has said, but don't go too far to Turkey.

    What are we to make of all this?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, welcome in, but we don't want you there.

    No, it's incoherence. It's complete incoherence. I think Donald Trump — the logical thing is, Donald Trump spoke to somebody on the phone, he made a decision. It was a terrible decision, an immoral decision, and just bad for our foreign policy. I mean, who's going to fight ISIS, or I.S., if we're out?

    Who's going to guard the 10,000 prisoners who the Kurds — we have been relying on the Kurds to guard? And the Kurds are going to turn to Russia or Iran or somebody. And so it will further strengthen Russia and Iran. So it's a terrible decision.

    And then they get a little bad publicity, the administration does, and so then Mnuchin and various other people in the administration come out and say, oh, this is terrible.

    And so it's not a foreign policy. It's a foreign policy by what Donald Trump's latest emotion is.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is it a foreign policy, Mark?

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

    No, Judy, it's absolutely incoherent. What I would add to David's analysis, which is I agree with, is that he did it after being played by Mr. Erdogan, the president of Turkey. He once again succumbed to either the blandishments or the muscles of strongmen.

    He cannot stand up to strongmen. He did it without any warning to the Kurds. The Turks knew about it, but the Kurds didn't, 11,000 of whom gave their lives shoulder to shoulder with the United States and against ISIS.

    And it's rather remarkable. Then the president, in probably a new flight of fatuousness, said, well, the Kurds hadn't been there at Normandy.

    So, today, we sent 3,000 American troops to Saudi Arabia, who, of course, on the beaches of Normandy played such a major part.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    And we find out that…

  • David Brooks:

    "Saving Private Ahmed," I remember that.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    That's exactly — that's exactly right.

    But, I mean, it isn't incoherence. It is foolishness. And it is dangerous. And it's recklessness. And I feel for the country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, David, I mean, in terms of the congressional reaction, it's not just Democrats, but Republicans who are really upset about this.

    How do we read this political reaction?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, pretty much up and down the line.

    And I think that a couple things. First, it's easy to part with Donald Trump on something like Kurds. It's a lot different than impeachment. It doesn't arouse the tribal passions of red vs. blue.

    Second, it may help Donald Trump in the long run. When the time comes whether you're to stand with Trump or not on impeachment, Republican senators say, I'm perfectly independent of Trump. Didn't you hear what I just said about Kurdistan?

    And so, in some sense, it may rebound back and make it a little easier, marginally easier, for some Republicans to side with Trump when it comes to the impeachment.

  • Mark Shields:

    I'm not sure it'll make it easier, because I think, Judy, events are happening so fast right now, that it might be a tough vote to vote against impeachment.

    Certainly, if we have another week like this week, Republicans who are back in their district coming back to Washington next Monday — and I don't think there's any question that the president's position has deteriorated in that week.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I want to ask you about that.

    But just quickly in terms of Turkey and the changing positions…

  • Mark Shields:

    And as far as the Republicans, I agree with David. It doesn't involve his behavior. It doesn't involve his character or his conduct. He — that is off ground.

    I mean, Mitt Romney made a — made a criticism of the president's position as far as China was concerned and asking them to investigate Joe Biden. He called him a pompous ass.

    That's a way of saying that the base will come after you if you criticize me.

    And I agree. He depersonalizes — depersonalizes the criticism of the Kurds.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, you both are talking about impeachment. It is the — it's the 1,000-pound gorilla in the room right now.

    David, a lot of events this week. Today, you had the behind-closed-doors testimony of the former ambassador, Yovanovitch, who said the president personally was trying to get rid of her.

    You had — you have had a number of subpoenas go out and requests that basically the administration is saying no to. Yesterday, you had two associates of Rudy Giuliani, the president's lawyer, arrested for campaign finance law violations.

    Does this impeachment process, does it look stronger, as Mark is saying, at the end of the week, or what? I mean….

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, for sure. It doesn't look weaker.

    I mean, every day, it's a blizzard of something. The Yovanovitch thing today, it made me think like, how many other people are involved in this? Because, to fire an ambassador, you can't just do it president to ambassador. The whole senior echelon of the State Department has to be involved in some way in the firing of a credible, competent ambassador for political reasons.

    I mean, how often does that happen without — with no resignations? In a normal administration, you get a bunch of resignations when — if that would ever happen, which it wouldn't.

    So, to me — I mean, Mark made a — made the right — directed our attention to the right thing, the blizzard. It's like a blizzard of things.

    And how does that affect the mood? Does it affect the mood? It's clearly solidified Democrats behind impeachment. It's clearly moved independents toward it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • David Brooks:

    Has it cracked the red wall and affected Republicans?

    And so far I don't see that. So far, when you look at the conservative press, the conservative talking, the polls, the Republicans are not moving. And they have to move, because you have to lose 20 Republicans.

    And so you would really have to have a very split Republican Party, 50/50 on impeachment. And so far, I don't see that happening. But that's not to say it couldn't.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, in fact, we can quickly show a couple of polls, Mark.

    A shift in support overall is just within the margin of error, 49-52, over the course of two weeks. But when you look at independent voters, as David was just suggesting, it's a 10-point shift in favor of an inquiry.

    We're still not talking about impeachment, removing the president.

  • Mark Shields:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We're talking about the inquiry.

    But what does it look like to you? I mean, is this significant that we're seeing…

  • Mark Shields:

    I think the poll — the polls can't keep up with the events. Events are very much in the saddle.

    I mean, we started — the call — what the defense was of the president's call to the president of Ukraine, the president, it turned out, was — we didn't know, was a closet reformer. He was just out to dig out corruption.

    Well, the corruption that's turned up now are two of Rudy Giuliani's associates in this whole imbroglio, which I think is significant, because the indictment was announced by the U.S. attorney, and a Trump appointee, a Republican, Geoffrey Berman, Southern District of New York, and the director of the FBI, William Sweeney, in the New York office.

    And the U.S. attorney went out of his way to congratulate and thank each of the FBI agents.

    Why is that significant? Because one of the criticisms from stalwarts of the president off and on like Ron Johnson, the senator from Wisconsin, is that somehow the FBI and the CIA are faulty in this whole thing.

    Judy, I don't think there's any question that we have gone from that to the president was just kidding about China. We know him. He's renowned for his one-liners, which you could write on the back of a first-class stamp, the totality of them.

    I mean, every — it's a tissue of lies, all of which is collapsing. And as one leading Republican said to me just before the show, there is nothing in here that's good news, and what I'm worried about now are retirements.

    You will start to see retirements among Republicans as they come back from the break.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And there have already been a number of…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … Republicans.

  • Mark Shields:

    That's right.

  • David Brooks:

    But that doesn't mean they're breaking.

    Even Lamar Alexander, who's retiring, senator from Tennessee, is not — not breaking…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    On the question of the inquiry.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    And I will bet — I will be willing to bet you a number of Republicans in the House will vote for it.

  • David Brooks:

    That could be, in the House, yes.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes. Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, that could be.

    But you have got to have mass defection. And you have got to have basically two things. One, it's got to really penetrate into the popular mind. A lot of these things are very little things that are in D.C.

    That's — low-information voters, normal people, normal human beings are not paying this close attention.

  • Mark Shields:

    I agree.

  • David Brooks:

    And then you have got to undo the basic bargain that a lot of Republicans did. This guy's a snake, but my life is going bad. My community is going bad. He was a snake when I signed on. He's still a snake. But my essential bargain still holds.

    And, so far, I don't see a lot of Republicans saying, I'm going to undo that bargain.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, meanwhile, there is a race for the Democratic nomination for president, Mark.

    You still have almost 20 Democrats in the race. There's going to be another debate next week.

  • Mark Shields:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We have learned in the last week Bernie Sanders still not out on the campaign trail, after the heart attack that he had. And he is starting to talk to the press a little bit.

    But does all of this focus on impeachment, does it work to the Democrats' benefit or not? Because we still don't know who the Democratic nominee is going to be.

  • Mark Shields:

    No, we don't know. And we don't know what influence this will have upon it, Judy.

    I mean, the Democrats better just confront the reality that they're about defeating Donald Trump. And they — the old aphorism is, Republicans fall in line, Democrats fall in love. That's necessary for the candidates.

    So it's, historically, Republicans have dominated the next in line, next whose turn it was. And Democrats can't afford just a flight of passion in 2020. They better pick somebody, if they're really interested in defeating Donald Trump, someone who is not going to become the issue himself or herself in that campaign.

    And I think that's — I think that's a concern for Democrats at this point, especially as impeachment becomes larger.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And who would that be who you're referring to?

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    Who would I refer to?

    No, far be it for me to say. I'd say Bennet or Bullock right now, if you're picking — looking for people who have good records and have won in purple or red states.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    I think it overshadows the — impeachment overshadows the campaign in the extreme. I mean, we're barely talking about the campaign in the last few weeks. And this impeachment is going to go on through New Hampshire and Iowa and South Carolina and maybe California.

    So it's going to overshadow the campaign. And I think that benefits the front-runners, the Bidens and the Warrens, because it's super hard, let alone — it's hard for the front-runners to get attention now. If you're in the middle pack, if you're in Cory Booker or Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg, it's super hard to get attention.

    And it seems to me it makes it just much, much harder to shake up the race.

  • Mark Shields:

    I would remind that the only nominees have either finished in the top three in Iowa or the top two in New Hampshire.

    That's how important those two states are. I don't think there's any question about it. And I think — I think that's central to this choice as far as going — those are political universes unto themselves.

    And I don't think — it really does freeze the race there. I think it dominates the dialogue and the debate certainly nationally.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But in just less than a minute that we have left, how do these Democrats distinguish themselves from one another when…

  • David Brooks:

    Well, think of what we were talking about three weeks ago. We were talking about single-payer vs. other plans.

  • Mark Shields:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • David Brooks:

    We were having the debates that Republican — the Democrats were having on policy. And now that's all been sucked up by Adam Schiff, Nancy Pelosi, the congressional Democrats.

    And so I think it does deteriorate the quality of the presidential debate. They can't distinguish themselves on impeachment. It's like, yes, I'm against that, too. I mean, I'm for that too.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And they're all for that.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

    And I would say that Biden has been given the greatest gift, I mean, because Biden can make the case that, lookit, Donald Trump put at risk his own presidency, he's risked impeachment because he was so worried, so concerned and so scared of me that he went to the president of the Ukraine.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You think it helps Biden?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, if Biden plays it right.

    I mean, who does Donald Trump — you have got the evidence right there. Donald Trump was terrified of Joe Biden, because he wants to find information. He's trying to go to China. He's sending Bill Barr around the world.

    He's got Rudy Giuliani talking to everybody, out of "Goodfellas," I mean, really. I mean, so that's the case he ought to be making.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Biden is helped?

  • David Brooks:

    I think it's also in the way that it freezes the race. I think it does freeze the race, and he's on top with Warren right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, we're going to leave it there.

    David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you.

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