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Shields and Brooks on White House chaos, gun control polarization

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including a tumultuous week at the White House, President Trump’s surprise announcement of a tariff on imported steel and aluminum and political polarization in Congress over gun control.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's been one more whirlwind week in Washington, another high-profile departure from the White House, fresh scrutiny over the president's son-in-law, and an escalation in the war of words between Mr. Trump and his own attorney general, all this as the president made surprise declarations on trade and gun control.

    That brings us to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Welcome, gentlemen.

    So, so much going on this week, I barely know where to begin.

    At the White House, Mark, the president's closest aide announced she's leaving. He has a son-in-law who is under a lot of scrutiny over alleged conflicts of interest. He has a chief of staff who is raising questions again about his — how he handled the firing of an aide over domestic abuse, and on and on.

    The leaks seem to just be flowing a gusher every day. What matters in all of this?

  • Mark Shields:

    What matters is chaos in the White House is bad for the United States and bad for the world. There's no rational order.

    I mean, for example, what you have described, the morale at the White House, from every report, is just incredibly low. To work in any White House, Judy, is an act of both self-sacrifice and self-interest. You miss birthdays. You miss anniversaries. You miss your children's recitals.

    But there's a sense of mission, a sense of history, a sense also that it's special. You're part of something special. You get status and recognition.

    All that is missing here. This is a civil war in a leper colony. There is no sense of direction. The steel quotas being a perfect example. There was no preparation — tariffs, rather — there was no preparation politically, there was no preparation for making a case, there was no preparation for the press, there was no preparation within the White House.

    There's nothing organization. It's all act on impulse and chaos and sort of the whim of the president himself.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There's almost a temptation, David, to look at this as some kind of sideshow. But there are real consequences, aren't there?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    I'm actually thinking — I'm trying to think of historical parallels, when we have had this much chaos in the American presidency. Richard Nixon had some bad days at the end there, but he had a very high-quality staff around him. Woodrow Wilson had a stroke.

    I'm going through the list. I can't think of anything quite like this, where we have the combination of a semi-competent or a missing staff and an emotionally and intellectually unstable president.

    Reince Priebus, the former chief of staff, said in an interview not long ago that, when you look from the outside, it's actually 50 times worse from the inside. And we're getting a glimpse of that.

    And one thing that leapt out at me — and I think this is the key thing, the most important thing — that it has real-world consequences. We're not just fighting over whether he has a military parade or not.

    The steel tariff thing has real consequences. And the word that leapt out at me that one of his staffers said, one of his allies said, he made the decision because he became unglued.

    And so we have a president makes a decision because he becomes unglued, a decision totally in avoidance of the entire process. And then to combine the chaos of it, he issues a tweet this morning which to me was a topper even by Trump standards that a trade war is good and easily won, a concept that no economist of any stripe and no historian of any stripe could possibly think is anything other than crazy.

    And so it's extremely disorienting right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, how do we process this, Mark?

    It's the headlines. Again, you could go in almost any direction every day over a new controversy or set of controversies at the White House.

  • Mark Shields:

    I honestly don't know, Judy.

    I mean, it's just — it's overload. It really is. The one consolation, the one defense that the president's apologists and supporters say, he doesn't mean what he says. That's supposed to be the consolation. And don't be so concerned.

    One of the more plausible explanations for the impulsive imposition, keeping of a promise he's made for 30 years on steel tariffs, was that the 18th District of Pennsylvania is up in two weeks, the special election for a Republican seat that the Democrats have not even contested in 2014 and 2016, that Donald Trump carried Southwestern Pennsylvania, blue-collar, by 20 points, and the Democrat, Conor Lamb, former Marine, former prosecutor, U.S. prosecutor, is even with the Republican nominee.

    And a defeat here would send such panic. This is Trump territory. And this — was seen as standing up for American jobs. That's the most plausible explanation politically. It's not a defense, but it's an explanation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Panic into the ranks of Republicans worried about the fall midterm elections.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes. Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, David, I mean, if that's what he was trying to do, I think a lot of Republicans didn't get the message, because, right and left, they are today asking — asking him to reconsider, saying this is not a good thing, we don't need a trade war.

    He's gone in exactly the wrong direction, they're saying.

  • David Brooks:

    Well, Republicans have, A, a historical belief in free trade.

    B, a lot more people work for companies that use steel than work for companies that make steel. And so everybody who uses steel is hurt. Those few who make are helped.

    Now, this is not the first time that a Republican president had done this for political reasons. George W. Bush did it. And it was an economic disaster. And they repealed it. And he knew he was doing it for economic reasons.

    But at least George W. Bush did it within the context of trying to expand trade generally. He made this one buckle to give a special interest what it wanted. But he was trying to expand trade.

    The difference with Donald Trump is, he just has a zero sum mind-set. It's very hard for him to understand trade, because it's not a zero sum game. There are winners or losers, but most people win.

    And he just has never thought that way. It's always, if somebody's winning, then I'm losing. And going back to the 1980s, he has always talked about that way in the zero sum mentality.

    And that — I think, ultimately, whenever he got angry at whoever he got angry and made this impromptu decision, that was probably in the back of his mind.

  • Mark Shields:

    But can I dissent?

    And with all due respect, trade, Judy, is a political issue. When a plant closes in a city, it takes away the payroll, it takes away the life, it takes away the dignity of people who work there. It takes away their futures.

    And that has happened all over the middle of the United States. When trade works to our advantage, it means you get cheaper T-shirts at Wal-Mart, because the T-shirts can no longer be made in the United States profitably.

    So there is specific hurt, and there is specific help. And I think that there is a political argument that could be made.

    Certainly, when Sherrod Brown, the Democrat who is running for reelection in Ohio, supported the president, and Rob Portman, his Republican colleague in Ohio, was less than lukewarm. He was critical.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it's the Democratic Party's position.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    Democratic Party's position that we have been — that the big picture, while it's worked and increased trade, that there have been casualties and an indifference to the casualties sustained in the trade wars.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I should say we're seeing that on trade.

    David, we're also seeing it to some extent on the question of guns. Here we are, what, a little over two weeks since that terrible school shooting in Florida. Those students went back to school this week.

    There's continued discussion here in Washington about what to do. No sign that anything is going to happen, and yet those students are saying, we're going to make these politicians pay if they don't do something about guns.

    The president, it seems to me, has sent some mixed signals. He's talked about wanting to do something, but there's still no clear direction.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    From the president, it's whoever's in the room with him. He's pro-gun with the NRA, anti-gun with Dianne Feinstein sitting next to him. So, that's just weather vane stuff.

    I think that what has happened with the gun issue, it's bifurcated. Legislatively, it's pretty clear nothing is going to happen. It's gone through the Congress, and they have made it clear, we're not doing anything.

    For people to get some actual realistic gun legislation, you had to pick off a few Republicans, get them away from the NRA position, and say let's work practically. And you have to take the temperature down to do that. That has not happened.

    The temperature has ramped up. And so what happened, legislatively, I would be very surprised if anything happened, because we're back in our polarized tribal war. But it's become a culture issue.

    Is the NRA stigmatized? Are gun owners stigmatized, so we sort of read them out of polite society? That's what sort of happening this week, with all these companies saying, we don't want you on our affiliation plans.

    And that's about legislation. It's not even about gun control. It's about stigmatizing a certain belief system.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's really moved in a way, Mark, into the private sector, into people — companies saying, we're putting our values on the line here.

  • Mark Shields:

    It has, Judy.

    And, in a way, I was surprised. I thought Newtown would do it. I thought the slaughter of the innocents in Newtown, and — but Parkland has had an impact.

    And I have to say social media has really felt — had its impact felt, I think by American corporations as well, that they cannot be morally neutral.

    It's one thing to get a letter from a consumer who's upset with your position. But when your Web site, all of a sudden, there's criticism raining down upon it, I think — and I give the corporations credit for taking a moral stand, in this case, Dick's Sporting Goods in particular, that it's always easier to be neutral in a situation so you don't offend anybody.

    And I think it's different. I think the real test will be the march here in Washington. If, in fact, the social media is supportive…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Coming up this month.

  • Mark Shields:

    March 24.

    By hundreds of thousands of people really turning out, I think then we — there is a hope for a sea change on this issue, because it demands it.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    The only caution I would issue — and I think corporations should be citizens of the country, and they should follow a set of values.

    I am suspicious of concentrated power. Economic power is concentrated on the right, and we should be suspicious of it. Corporations want to take over and use their power to oppress.

    Cultural power is concentrated on the left. And concentrated cultural power can do great damage, if a lot of people feel they are culturally intimidated. And many people have argued that the Trump presidency is a political reaction to a sense of a lot of people feeling they're trying to culturally silence me.

    And if it turns into that sort of cultural stigma across gun owners or against a culture, rather than simply against an NRA policy, then that really ramps up the culture war another level. And it would have bad consequences.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Even if you're talking about relatively modest steps, raising the age when you can buy an assault weapon, hardening up background checks?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, that's the careful line that has to be walked.

    If we say it's about raising the age or creating this program or banning the specific bump stocks or whatever, I think that's a perfectly legitimate thing. But if you're saying — someone said to Marco Rubio, I look at you and I see a mass murderer, then you're crossing the line.

    And then a whole group of people are saying, hey, wait a second. They're impugning my own character, my own values, my way of life. And that's when it begins to get dangerous.

    So, to me, keeping the temperature down and talking about the semantics of what the legislation is trying to do, to me, that's the better way to actually go about this, rather than ramp up the cultural war and the tribal war another level.

  • Mark Shields:

    I hear David, and I think…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Twenty seconds.

  • Mark Shields:

    Twenty seconds.

    I think there is a legitimacy, and a real legitimacy, in taking on the National Rifle Association and corporations and institutions, whether it's Amazon, whether it's — whoever the — FedEx, who give them special benefits and special prices. I think that's fair.

    The National Rifle Association is not the Second Amendment, and it is not sportsmen. It is a special interest. And it's a vile influence in the country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And echoing in our years the voices of those students saying they want to hold people to account if they don't do anything.

  • Mark Shields:

    Absolutely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you both.

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