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Shields and Brooks on the politics of impeachment

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s political news, including the details of the phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s decision to open an impeachment inquiry into the matter and potential 2020 political reaction to impeachment.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now back in Washington, fallout from the whistle-blower's complaint, as the formal impeachment inquiry picks up steam.

    And to help analyze this historic week, I'm joined by Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Hello to both of you.

    So much going on this week, but I think we know where to start.

    And that is — David, looking back at this conversation that took place in July between President Trump, the president of Ukraine, the White House continues to say this is perfectly appropriate, the president said perfect, conversation with the leader of another country. Democrats are saying it was a violation of his oath, an impeachable offense.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    I'm a little mystified. I think they're sincere. They thought it was exculpatory. But I don't see how they could actually think that.

    I mean, the crucial thing to do with that transcript is to look at the logic chain of the thing. So Trump says, we have been very generous to you. You haven't always been generous to us. We have been more generous than the others.

    And then — then that follows with, well, maybe you can do us a favor. And that favor is to investigate the Bidens.

    So when you just break down the logic chain, it's a very clear, we did this for you, you owe us, here's what you can do for us.

    And that is — it's not an explicit quid pro quo, but it comes pretty close, I think.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are there shades of questions here about what happened in that conversation, Mark, or is it clear-cut for you?

  • Mark Shields:

    It's clear-cut, Judy.

    I mean, what it puts to rest is the lie about the confidence of the Trump campaign: We're leading in all polls. We're ahead.

    He was so terrified, so intimidated, the president of the United States got on the phone with the leader of Ukraine to get dirt on the one Democrat who in every major poll was beating him and that candidate's son.

    I mean, this shows the terror, the intimidation. And the false bravado is just totally exposed. And it is — David — I think David was more than kind. It is totally explicit.

    This is a country, Judy, that has a smaller army than that of Sri Lanka. I mean, it's sitting on the doorstep of Russia, that has shown nothing but imperial totalitarian impulses toward it, translated into physical action. It's got an economy smaller than that of El Salvador. And we're holding $451 million?

    And the president of the United States — it's a supplicant, mendicant. It's the boss to the lowest employee. I mean, the power is totally disproportionate. And anybody has to acknowledge that who sees it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, David, you still have Republicans, though, saying, highly appropriate for the United States to be saying to the leader of Ukraine, we want you to clean up corruption in your country, that that was what…

  • David Brooks:

    Yes. Well, that is appropriate, I suppose, to say.

    But the Republicans are not going to break on this. And that's, I think, when — as we look at impeachment — I vaguely remember Watergate. I was young. But I remember a sense of gravity, a sense that we're stepping outside our party lines. At least some people did that, Sam Ervin, other people, Howard Baker. And we're going to weigh the evidence. And this is so serious, we can't just play normal politics.

    That's not going to happen this time. To me, this is already feeling like very normal politics, where the Democrats are going to be all here and the Republicans will be all here, and the idea of stepping outside your partisan affiliation for the sake of the truth, that's just not the way the game is played anymore.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I want to ask you both about the role that the whistle-blower played in all this.

    We learned several days ago that this is someone in the intelligence community, in the last few days, Mark, reporting, that it's an analyst at the CIA. We don't have the name. In fact, we're not supposed to have the name. This person is supposed to be — identity is supposed to be protected.

    But the president is calling this individual a spy, in effect, saying, this is somebody who's disloyal to the country.

  • Mark Shields:

    Last week, the president branded the person a partisan hack, you will recall. It's gone now to treachery.

    I mean, the person who did it, Judy, assuming that it's a person of rational — and I think it's an intelligent and comprehensive and well-written complaint — had to know what he or she was putting at risk, in the hothouse in which we live here in Washington, that the identity will eventually be made public.

    And I think it can only be revealed and described as act of great — of great courage to do so.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And pulling in, David, a number of other administration officials, which is what's launching the congressional…

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    That was the big thing I took away from the report, that it was — it's bigger than just one phone call.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    It's partly the cover-up, but he said it was over a series of months. There's a lot of people who were in a panic about this.

    And so it's not just that one phone call, and then he heard about it. But there was a process. There were people who were freaked out about it. And so there's a little more here than just one person who's going to be involved in this.

  • Mark Shields:

    David's right, Judy, that he laid out a blueprint.

    That's what the letter does and the statement does. It's a blueprint to pursue investigation, to interview and expand.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the fact that this person, what, spent four months, collected — talked to a number of different people.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Didn't just rashly set this — set this out there and throw it out.

  • Mark Shields:

    No.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But the question then comes down to is, David, the impeachment inquiry.

    The House is doubling down. We had Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence, on the program last night, saying, this is more serious than the Mueller report, which they spent months and months considering.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    It's certainly narratively cleaner. You can understand it, where Russia was much more complicated. And, to me, the decision to do impeachment is a mistake.

    They — I do agree Trump did something impeachable, but this is a political process, not a legal process. There's no obligation to prosecute.

    And, to me, it's a mistake for a couple reasons. If your object is to get Donald Trump out of the White House, impeachment doesn't get you there, because the chance that you will get 20 senators, 20 Republican senators, to vote to vote Donald Trump out of office seems to me so remote, it's minuscule.

    So the likely outcome of this is that Donald Trump will say, see, I was acquitted in the Senate. I'm vindicated. I beat these people.

    And so he will get a little victory. And then both parties will go into revolt. And so that's the way it likely looks to end up.

    In the meantime, you're trampling over your Democratic primary season. You're not having the debate the voters want, which is about climate change and health care and jobs and stuff like that.

    You're focusing all the attention on the Democratic side, or the bulk of it, to the Congress, not to the presidential candidates. And, to me, so what Pelosi has done, I think, here is taken a decision that has a very low chance of succeeding, to get him out of office, but has huge risks in ways we can't even imagine.

    And so I'm a little nervous about where impeachment is going to get us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You think the Democrats are doing the right thing, or not?

  • Mark Shields:

    The Democrats are doing the only thing they can do.

    I mean, what this president has done is not outrageous. It's not indefensible. It's criminal. And that's what he's done. He has totally abdicated, abrogated and corrupted his oath of office.

    So when it comes to making this decision, I think the preeminent national American political leader of the 21st century is the speaker of the House, more so than any president. She single-handedly passed the Affordable Care Act.

    She is the one major figure in the national firmament of any presidential candidate who opposed the folly and the debacle and the tragedy of the war in Iraq. She put at risk her majority to pass the Affordable Care Act, covering 17 million Americans, two million of whom have lost their coverage as a result of Donald Trump's policies in the last year alone.

    And she knew she was losing the majority. And she came back. She has not — she has avoided the rush to join the pound-of-flesh club, let's get — get him for double-parking outside an orphanage on the Capitol — on Christmas Eve.

    This is just too serious. You can't turn your back on it. I agree with David it may not be politically good timing, expedient. It would be an act of total irresponsibility not to act when you have the evidence given to the Democrats.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you…

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, there's this thing called the ethical responsibility. What's the actual outcome of the decision?

    And maybe she couldn't act, but she said, I will not do impeachment unless there's a bipartisan upswell of support for this.

    And there's not that. And that will never happen right now.

    And so I think she was — she was forced into it by the pressure in her own party, their own caucus. But the House is not the central question here. The Senate is the central question here. And it's the Senate that's going to give Trump this victory.

    And, in the meantime, I just think she's given Trump the fight he wants, which is the fight against the congressional Democrats, not about policy, not about things that actually affect people's lives, but just a personality, reality TV role with inside the Beltway.

    And, to me, that's the fight he wants. I don't know where it'll go. It'll spin wildly out of control over the next several months. But it's — to me, it's not — the ethical responsibility is, what can I do to get Donald Trump out of the White House? And this is not the right path, in my view.

  • Mark Shields:

    I would say this, Judy, that, unlike David and perhaps Secretary Clinton, I do not believe people on the other side are irredeemable.

    I really do believe that, when confronted with the evidence and the reality, and that this — we have seen just the beginning. This is the tip of the camel's nose that we have seen.

    I think…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You means in terms of…

  • Mark Shields:

    Of what's gone on.

    And I think, when people come and are under oath and are sworn to testify, I think we will find more. And I think Republicans, at the core, are Americans before they're Republicans. And, yes, there's a herd mentality and a silo attitude right now, but I do think that, when the — when the evidence becomes overwhelming, which I think it will be, I think they will act.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do you think, David? If not an impeachment inquiry, what should the — what should Democrats do?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, they could have censured him and then say, let's have an election. We're in an election year. Let's have an election about this.

    And then they can investigate and lay before the American people everything that's happened. I think the inquiry is totally fine. But let's not have this process swallow up an election year.

    We have elections for a reason. We happen to be in the middle one. And let's do that. And I think this election was a — it's a good moment for the Democratic Party. It's an exciting election, a lot of ideas.

    And to overshadow that, to me, a lot of people are going to take a look at this and say, well, we could have settled this with 100 million voters around the country or 100 millionaires in the Senate. Who should have the power here?

  • Mark Shields:

    He — this is question, Judy, of, he is asking, if not demanding and coercing, an ally, a subservient ally, let's be very frank about it — I mean, in the relationship between the United States and Ukraine, Ukraine is subservient to the United States on — in all candor.

    He's asking them to interfere in an American election, to spill dirt on an opponent.

    I mean, we can't have that. I mean, we can't pretend that that's tolerable at all and, oh, we will just wait until the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

    It's — I'm sorry. It's just too grave.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is there — is there something, David, that would make an impeachment inquiry the right thing to do, or is it — I mean, is there anything this president can do?

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, are you saying there's nothing that…

  • David Brooks:

    No, I'm not saying that.

    But I agree with Mark on the severity of what he did. I'm not saying that he — I think he did an impeachable offense. I'm just saying, look at our context. And our context is, we're in the middle of an election year. And we should not walk down a path that will lead ultimately to failure in 99 percent.

    I really do not think — and Mark and I may disagree on this — that the Republican senators who hung with Donald Trump through Charlottesville, through three years of moral turpitude, of 1,000 outrages which we speak about on every Friday, I just don't think they're going to break with him.

    And I don't think the Republican voters are going to break with him. They will find some way.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Mark, what about that?

  • Mark Shields:

    I guess I have more confidence in the Republicans than David does.

    But I'd say — and I don't argue.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, Mark — but let me just…

  • Mark Shields:

    This is totally disruptive. I mean, it's totally disruptive to the process.

    David's right. It totally intrudes and puts everything else aside. But I will say this. If you're picking sides in the Democrats, you want the Intelligence Committee. You want it to be Adam Schiff against Devin Nunes. I mean, that's a mismatch in talent.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And in just five seconds, you're saying it's worth it to go through with this even if the Senate does not vote to convict? You're saying it's worth it?

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes, it is.

    I mean, we have — we cannot sit here and pretend that this didn't happen and that it's not serious, what this president has done. And it should be disqualifying.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.

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