What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Shields and Brooks on Veterans Affairs ouster, census citizenship question

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including the firing of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, questions about EPA administrator Scott Pruitt’s Washington living arrangements, the Trump administration’s addition of a citizenship question on the 2020 census and the March for Our Lives.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was the third week in a row where President Trump fired a member of his administration. This week, it David Shulkin of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

    That and other news brings us to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Gentlemen, more turnover. This time, it was the head of the Veterans Affairs Department.

    David, it looked as if he and the president were getting along well, but then there was a dispute over how fast they should privatize, what the Veterans Affairs, what the VA does, and then there were questions about a trip he took to Europe with his wife last week. But he's out.

  • David Brooks:


    Can you imagine working at a place where every week somebody goes? And this was a quiet week, but they still lost a Cabinet member. And it just speaks to how little sense of camaraderie and trust there is, because you never know who going to be there day to day and no assurance that so-and-so is staying is a real assurance.

    I guess, to me, the most interesting thing is the replacement with Rear Admiral Jackson. And that's sort of part of the key belief of populism, which Donald Trump I guess stands for, is that experience is more corrupting than it is educational, and that you need clean people from outside who are pure from partisan interests and from rotting in the swamp.

    And we're about to test that proposition, because, apparently, an extremely good man, but with no administrative ability, is being asked to run the second largest bureaucracy in the U.S. government. And as someone who has no administrative ability, but who hangs around people who do, it's just a different style of thought.

    And I have — I feel great sympathy for that guy coming into what's going to be an extremely difficult job.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, in fact, we read that Dr. Ronny Jackson, the president's personal — the White House physician, was reluctant, apparently, when this was first raised with him to take over the VA.

  • Mark Shields:

    That's exactly it. He does come with very high, as David mentioned, personal recommendations.

    Lisa Monaco, who was the deputy chief of staff in the Obama White House, called him not only a patriot, but a saint. And Dan Pfeiffer went on the record, Obama people did, about — and he had been there for under three presidents.

    So I think the personal credentials are pretty solid, and he — and the president likes him. And he did very well on television presenting the president's medical report and telling with a straight face the president weighed 239 pounds.


  • Mark Shields:

    So that endeared him.

    But I come back to the firing. And this is quite a unique administration in the terms of public service. I can recall, when Donald Trump was running, he said — and I looked it up again today — I know the best people, I know the best managers, I know the best steel makers, we're going to have the best Cabinet.

    I don't know how many more it's going to take. We're on our third national security adviser at this point. But what really is so bizarre to me is that I have been around so long that I can remember when the Peace Corps was created. And there was one young man who put his career on hold.

    And they said, why are you doing this? And he says, I have never done anything that was political or patriotic or unselfish, because nobody never asked me. And he said, President Kennedy asked me.

    And, you know, that sense of public service, that it's a high calling, that it's for the common good, is totally absent from this president, from his lexicon, from his frame of reference.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, and, you know, while we're talking about personnel, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, David, appears to be in some hot water this week, because it turns out he was living in a room or renting a room near Capitol Hill last year and paying an unusually small rent, $50 a night, in an area where it's more expensive than that.

    And then there's a story in The Washington Post today about unusually inexperienced and not — people who didn't do a great job in the White House Personnel Office. So, just more questions.

  • David Brooks:


    And this goes to the point Mark made and to the notion of norms. I have been talking to a lot of people who like the president — the president's approval ratings are up again. He's up to about 42 percent. And people are saying, I forget — I ignore all that tweeting. I just know the economy is doing well, and so I give him credit for that.

    And there's a validity to that argument. But there's been a damage to the norms by which we govern ourselves, by the capacity of state, why we think about our government. He appoints people who he's personally linked to, as if we're in a royal system where a personal relationship to the king is all that matters.

    And then with Pruitt, he takes this apartment which has some ties to the wife of a lobbyist. And it's not that it's the biggest corruption scandal in the history of the republic. It's just that somebody who goes in with a mentality, I'm here to serve the people, I'm here to serve the country, it just doesn't feel right to do that.

    Alarm bells go off in your head of any normal person, oh, that's going to look bad, that's going to hurt my capacity to do my work.

    And so the fact that the alarm bells suddenly didn't go off suggests to me that the shift in capacity from private sector to public sector has not happened. They haven't crossed the mental leap that Mark described, that you can be a corporate lawyer, you can do all that, and it's perfectly fine, but when you do the public service, you're entering a different realm.

    You're probably not going to get fly first class, which you're already used to. There is just going to be sacrifices you're going to have to make, but you do it because you feel it's the right thing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's a different realm, Mark. And, typically, the vetting is tough to get these jobs in the administration.

  • Mark Shields:

    It is.

    And the piece you mentioned in The Post pointed out that they started with a far smaller pool of talent. Most administrations start with 300,000 names. They had, I think, one-fourth of that when they came in.

    And many have been shot down because they didn't meet the loyalty test at one point or another. And, of course, the whole personnel staffing was absolutely blown up. It was done by Chris Christie. They had done, according to independent observers, a pretty darn good job, and then they just burned that. So they have been behind.

    And most administrations, Republican and Democrat, at the Office of Personnel Management, put in professionals, I mean, really talented people. I have known a number of them myself. And, you know, that's — because they recognize that personnel is policy in any administration.

    You could have the greatest ideas and policy in the making, but unless you have able, committed people to execute those policies, it's for naught. And that's exactly what's been the problem here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, change of subject, but related in a, way because it's administration policy, David.

    As we learned from the Census Bureau, from the administration, the Trump administration, that what the census folks are going to do in 2020 is add a question about people's citizenship, raising all kinds of questions about whether this is going to be a deterrent to people participating who are living here without all the proper documents.

  • David Brooks:


    In normal times, frankly, it doesn't strike me as an odd question to ask, are you a citizen? And, historically, the census has asked that question.

    But in the atmosphere of fear that surrounds immigration these days, with ICE behaving as they are, and with the administration really threatening in some occasions to kick citizens out or kick noncitizens out, what you're doing, you're — this comes at the end of that — in this climate.

    And given that climate, asking this question, making this policy shift now can only be interpreted as a way to get people not to answer the question. There is an important shift of political power, because money goes to the — depends on how many people you are representing in each jurisdiction. Federal money follows those numbers.

    And if you're scaring people away from participating in the census, then that jurisdiction will get less money. And so given the climate, it strikes me as a menacing question and probably a counterproductive one.

    It's already clear that if you have a government person coming to somebody's door and asking that same question and a private person, people answer the private person more, because there's no fear there. But the government implies force. And so they already get a higher turndown rate.

    If you then make it even more menacing, because they're going to ask this question that could get you thrown out, people are going to close the door.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, of course, the government, Mark, the government is trying — Mark, the administration is saying they think they're going to get a more accurate count.

    But I guess the skeptics are saying, no, they are going to hide.

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, you can put me down on the side of the skeptics, because there's 132 government programs based on need. And so you have to get — whether it's food stamps or whatever it might be, school lunches, that are based — the apportionment to the states is based upon the need.

    And if the poorer people, the less affluent people who oftentimes are those who are recent immigrants to this country, are silenced out of timidity, fear, and we don't get an accurate count, that means people who need it most are not going to get it, are going to be deprived.

    It is going to mean less political power to states like California, but, ironically, probably to a state like Texas, too, if it's enforced, because they're — the large Latino population.

    But just the motives are — the hands are not clean coming to this question. It didn't — something that came up out of a think tank. It was announced by Wilbur Ross, the secretary of commerce, who you don't think had spent a Ph.D.'s research on looking at this. It did have a certain appeal to the president and the White House.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Different subject, the event that really took over Washington last Saturday, and that was the big March For Our Lives, David, led by those young people at Parkland High School, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

    Is this — are we seeing — it was a huge turnout around the country. Is this something that's going to last? What is your sense of it? Is it going to make a difference in the argument over gun control?

  • David Brooks:

    I'm still skeptical it will make a difference, frankly. I think they have not done a good job of winning over anybody who has blocked legislation in the past.

    But it was instructive to me. I went to watch. And I went to be with the marchers as a journalistic observer, of course. And it shocked me as a very moderate march.

    It was focused on the issues, specific issues of banning assault weapons, a few specific moderate pieces of legislation. And I was greatly heartened by it, frankly, because sometimes it seems like the extreme on this side feeds the extreme on this side, and our entire political system is gyrating, without any sense of moderation.

    But this was a moderate march. And the people were good-hearted. There was a good spirit. There was no culture war fighting. There was no radicalization. It struck me as democracy the way it's supposed to work.

    And then I followed the feedback on the march on Twitter, frankly, and it's like I was at a different march. It's as if it was, they were all radicals, and one set of radicals was shouting at another.

    So it was revelatory to me that the world you see on Twitter is not the real world, and that there are a lot of decent people who have positions, this or that, you can agree with or not, but there's a — it gave me a much more hopeful sense about our democracy, frankly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It says something about social media.

    Mark, 30 seconds.

  • Mark Shields:

    It does say — I think it does say an awful lot about social media.

    Judy, no arrests here in Washington. Very little refuse left behind. They were a clean, respectful group of people.

    And I think David's absolutely right, that the good will, good nature was pervasive, that there weren't taunts or any really hostile activity.

    And, you know, I am more hopeful, quite frankly, having lived through it and seen it, and that there may be some hope, that they have sustained it, they have kept it going.

    I do think that the NRA national headquarters is very much on the defensive right now. And gun sales are down, you may have noticed, which is — Remington went into Chapter 11 this week, after 202 years.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ah, well, we will watch it. Congress was away. They're coming back. Maybe we will get a sense next week.

  • Mark Shields:

    We will.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, happy Passover, happy Easter to both of you.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment