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Shields and Gerson on Michael Flynn’s Russia probe cooperation, GOP’s tax bill calculation

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including Michael Flynn’s guilty plea in connection with the Russia probe, the Senate GOP’s push for its tax reform bill and what’s next for lawmakers including Rep. John Conyers who have been accused of sexual misconduct.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    From courthouses to Congress, it has been a week crammed full of news, the Michael Flynn guilty plea today, momentum for the Republican tax plan, and increased calls for Congressman John Conyers to resign amid charges of sexual misconduct.

    All that brings us to the analysis of Shields and Gerson. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. David Brooks is away.

    Welcome to both of you.

    So, Mark Shields, what a day here in Washington. The special counsel, Robert Mueller, made news early today with this guilty plea from retired General Michael Flynn, the president’s former national security adviser. What do you make of it?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, Judy, one former federal prosecutor said that Michael Flynn was looking at several score years, potentially, behind bars for the offenses that were listed against him.

    And for Robert Mueller to accept his plea of guilty for this one charge of lying to the FBI, which is a very serious charge, led him and all of his colleagues to conclude that this is big, that what he is delivering, he, Michael Flynn, to Robert Mueller and his office is significant, so significant that they would let his son off and apparently not proceed on the charges that Carrie mentioned in the earlier segment about his not registering work with Turkey and the other charges against him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, again, Michael Gerson, the White House is saying, that’s all well and good, but that’s just what Michael Flynn did and it had nothing to do with anybody in this White House.

  • Michael Gerson:

    It’s not a particularly credible response at this point, I think.

    I mean, it did feel like an historic day. This — when the history of the Trump administration is written, I think Russia will be in the first paragraph. And the reason is exactly what Mark was talking about, is that Mueller got something in order to give a considerable amount here.

    We don’t really know what it is that he got. It’s still, you know, undetermined. But he got something that he felt that he could bring to a grand jury and that would forward a case towards people who are higher.

    And there aren’t too many other people who are higher. The group is small. And many of them have the Trump family connection. And so I think you can’t argue that this is just restricted to him. He was turned in order to turn against others. And I think that Mueller has a good idea of what that testimony will look like.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Mark, there is, though, this drumbeat out there from people who say, wait a minute, there is just too much focus on this Russia investigation, we don’t know where it’s heading, it’s taking up a lot of time and energy, and what does it add up to?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, I think what it adds up to, Judy, is that when — it’s been compared, Michael Flynn today, to John Dean at time of Watergate who — and Richard Nixon — he had been White House counsel.

    And when John Dean came clean, it wasn’t Bob Haldeman, the chief of staff in the White House, or John Ehrlichman, who was domestic policy adviser, the two people closest to President Nixon, they had in sight.

    And I think — I don’t think there’s any question that unspoken is that the president’s in sight. And the speculation all day today in Washington is, what will President Trump do? Will he in fact, as the walls start to close in, or apparently seem to close in on him, will he fire Robert Mueller?

    Lindsey Graham, in anticipation of that, the senator from South Carolina, urged him not to do it, warned him not to do it. What will the Republicans do?

    Paul Ryan has praised him, the speaker of the House, recently as stronger than any president since Ronald Reagan, and realizing that flattery gets you everywhere with this president.

    I don’t know. But that is, quite frankly, where it is. It’s serious, it is real, it’s genuine. And Bob Mueller is not playing games. He’s not a partisan. He was appointed by President George W. Bush at the FBI. And, you know, he’s a guy who’s way above any kind of cheap party politics.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michael, does it inexorably lead to the president?

  • Michael Gerson:

    Well, it leads to a very basic question, is, why has everyone that touched this issue lied, lied to the FBI, lied to the American public?

    You know, if they were just having normal contacts with a normal power — with another power, that’s what transitions do. But when it came down to it — and this is advice for our viewers at home — you don’t lie to the FBI. And that is a dangerous thing, because every lie is leverage for them.

    They use it in order to get more information to make progress in their investigation. And so they are attracting attention to the mystery at the center of this matter by their deceptions. And that — it seems like we’re dealing with something very major.

  • Mark Shields:

    Judy, if I could just pick up on Michael’s point, actually, which I think is a good one, what we do know is this, that after the election, during the interregnum, the transition, when Michael Flynn was out of government, but working in the transition, about to be named national security adviser, he, to really frustrate and overcome, veto American foreign policy legitimately and legally made by the sitting president of the United States, Barack Obama, to impose sanctions upon Russia for Russia’s meddling and sabotaging the American election, got in touch with Ambassador Kislyak, the former — then ambassador to — from Russia, and urged him not to retaliate and not to overreact or whatever to these sanctions.

    And we know that, the next day, Russia didn’t, and the day following that, Donald Trump praised Russia for its restraint in not retaliating.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was known that that was his position, that he wanted better relations.

  • Mark Shields:

    That’s right.

    But the sequence, it’s hard — in other words, it’s impossible to believe that Michael Flynn was acting on his own, that he was a lone ranger, that this wasn’t part of — and the sequence is there, that, it just — you know, you go to sleep at night, and the ground is bare, you wake up in the morning, and there is three inches of snow, you didn’t see it snow, but there’s snow on the ground.

    The circumstantial evidence is pretty persuasive.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The other big story today, Michael Gerson, is what we talked to Lisa Desjardins about, is the — speaking of inexorable, this tax plan is — it moved through the House. It was passed. It’s now about to be passed by every good reporter’s reporting, it’s going to pass the Senate tonight.

  • Michael Gerson:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What does this say about the Republican Party and how it wants to change this economy?

  • Michael Gerson:

    Well, there is some drama to this.

    Last night, when the Joint Tax Committee report came out saying that this would add a trillion dollars to the debt, and Corker essentially said, I can’t support this thing, it looked like it might be a near-run thing.

    But McConnell gave a lot of people what they wanted, like Senator Collins and others, in this process. Ultimately, there weren’t even three true deficit hawks in the entire Republican Caucus. There was one, which was Corker.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Michael Gerson:

    All this talk about deficits really was undermined.

    But the ultimate calculation here that Republicans have made broadly on the Hill is that if they do end up the year with nothing, that they will be politically punished. And their argument is that something is better than nothing, even a flawed product like this one.

    And I don’t know if that’s a correct argument, but that is generally believed on Capitol Hill among Republicans.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are they taking a risk by doing this?

  • Mark Shields:

    They’re taking a risk, Judy, that they’re losing any sense of integrity.

    This is a tax bill that is written solely for the deserving rich. And it also, at the same time, manages to soak the poor. Just the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office indicates that, by 2027, by 2027, Americans earning the princely sum of between $40,000 and $50,000 will, collectively combined, pay $5.3 trillion — trillion — more in taxes. Americans earning over $1 million, by the same study, will receive $5.7 trillion in tax cuts.

    I mean, the Republican Party, for the longest time — and Michael is a card — was a card-carrying member of it — believed in small government, limited government, in balanced budgets.

    And then they drank the Kool-Aid of supply side. And no Republican on Capitol Hill since 1991 has voted, since George W. Bush — H.W. Bush was president, has voted to increase taxes. That is the Holy Grail. That’s the one unifying, galvanizing principle of Republicans.

    It’s not civil rights, as it once in the time of Abraham Lincoln. It’s not even small government. And it’s not certainly balanced budgets. It’s tax cuts. And it’s tax cuts for those best off among us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But to get back to your point, and to build on what Mark just said, Michael, this says that Republicans are not — either they don’t believe the deficits are going to grow or they don’t think it’s going to be the political liability or the liability to the economy.

  • Michael Gerson:

     Yes.

    And they don’t think that it’s a risk to be seen as the plutocratic party going into these elections. That may well be a risk here.

    I mean, one of the examples is that Senator Rubio and Senator Lee had a very good proposal here to allow the child tax credit to be deductible against withholding, not just income taxes, which would really help blue-collar, working-class families in America.

    It was deeply controversial. It’s still up in the air, what’s going to happen. But that’s not where Republicans were. They’re supposed to be now the populist party, the party of blue-collar workers.

    And they were not, at least as of the moment, willing to do something like this. And that, I think, is a test that Republicans are failing. If they want to be seen as populists, in the mode that Trump wants the party to be seen, they need to act like it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it looks, Mark, as if there is no question that the House is going to go along with something. There will be changes, but, in the end, there will be a tax bill.

  • Mark Shields:

    I think there will.

    And I don’t think Democrats ought to skate on this, Judy, because the Democrats have let the debate become about the deficit, which means this. If the Republicans do lose the House in 2018, and if the calculations and calibrations are accurate, then, when the Democrats get back in, they are going to be beset with enormous deficits, and their responsibility is going to cut — do the cuts or raise — and raise taxes.

    And let’s be very honest about this. There is — part of this is the Grover Norquist ideal, the Republican strategist, conservative strategist, and that is, you have to shrink the government. Kevin Brady, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has already said that the next move is on welfare, we have to cut welfare.

    Welfare means one thing. It means three things. It means Medicaid, it means Medicare, and it means disabilities and Social Security. And the Democrats — like the Republicans on health care never had a plan, the Democrats do not have a single organizing principle that they advanced instead of. And I think that was the failure of Democratic leadership.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But it sounds, Michael, as if Republicans are prepared to make that argument.

  • Michael Gerson:

    Yes. No, I agree with that.

    They could even — there’s a possibility that the House might vote on the Senate bill and avoid conference here, which I don’t know if that’s going to happen or not, because some members of the House might not want it to happen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Michael Gerson:

    But I think that they want to move in this direction as fast as they can. And they’re going to tag the Democrats with that type of argument.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Less than a minute.

    John Conyers, longest serving, Mark, member of the House, 88 years old, accused of sexual misconduct, credible charges against him, he’s holding out on saying he’s going to step down, but it now looks like he will.

    What does this say?

  • Mark Shields:

    It says, Judy, it’s a — it knows no partisanship, it knows no occupational — it’s endemic in our society.

    And what had been a high road politically, quite bluntly, for the Democrats ceased to be by the way that this was mishandled by the leader of the Democratic Party on public television — on national television questioning, who are the witnesses, something that obviously has not been the Democrats’ approach in the Roy Moore case in Alabama, where he stands accused of child molestation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is taking longer for those who have been accused in politics than it has been for those in other fields of endeavor, like the news media and other places, where people’s jobs have been taken away immediately.

  • Mark Shields:

    I agree, but they don’t face the collective liability that NBC faces for apparently complicit — or allegedly complicit behavior in the Matt Lauer…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark Shields, Michael Gerson, thank you both.

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