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Shields and Ponnuru on Brett Kavanaugh allegations, Russia probe declassification delay

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Ramesh Ponnuru of The National Review join Amna Nawaz to discuss the week’s news, including the controversy surrounding the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the decision by President Trump to push back his order to declassify Russia probe documents, and how the president could influence the midterm elections.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now we turn back to the controversy surrounding the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

    And to the analysis of Shields and Ponnuru. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Ramesh Ponnuru of The National Review. David Brooks is away.

    Gentlemen, welcome.

    Let's jump right in.

    The biggest story of the week, obviously, here in Washington, Judge Kavanaugh, right? We're having this conversation at the unfortunate intersection of high-stakes politics and how we handle sexual violence in America.

    Ramesh, the Republicans are in charge here, though, kind of running the show. How are they handling it?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    Well, I would say that things took a marked turn for the worse when President Trump decided that he was tired of being responsible and sober-minded, which must have chafed, and instead decided to attack Dr. or Professor Blasey Ford, saying that, if this was a real thing, she should have come forward decades ago, which anybody who's familiar with these cases understands is not the way these things work.

    So I think that's a real black mark on the Republicans. And I know a lot of Republicans, including Senator Collins, were really smarting over that remark and wanting to distance themselves from it.

    On the other hand, you look at the Democrats, and they haven't been covering themselves in glory either. Senator Feinstein's handling of the allegation, sitting on it for two months, essentially, was almost inexplicable. And you have got various Senate Democrats who are pre-judging the case, saying that they — as Senate Republicans, some are, too — saying that they already believe the allegations without having heard anything.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Mark, what do you make of all this?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, let me agree with Ramesh, especially on President Trump.

    If you're a Republican in 2018, and on the eve of an election that is increasingly looking pessimistic, by numbers and outlook, for the Republicans, the last thing you want to be talking about is women and sexual abuse and recalling of the Anita Hill hearings, and having as your spokesman a man who has been 19 times accused of sexual abuse or sexual harassment, the president of the United States, Donald Trump.

    It's not a message you want, and it's not a messenger. This is more than about Brett Kavanaugh. This hearing that's coming up is essentially about David against Goliath, against — we're going to hear from Professor Ford for the first time. And that will determine how the country responds.

    But between — before then, I think the one indicator that has hit me is polls that suggests that women are more upset about the charges and the response of the Republicans than any other group.

    And you will recall, in the 2016 election, Donald Trump carried women who had not been to college by a 61 to 34 margin, decisively. Hillary Clinton carried a majority of women who had gone to college. If women in — the non-college-educated women are responding to this charge and the sense that something is wrong and that — that this is a society that is indifferent and intolerant of women and the abuse they have suffered, this is nothing but bad news for the Republicans.

    It's not where they want to be.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, how do they handle this? Part of this is about optics, right? I mean, and we're talking there could be a hearing next week. We don't know where this stands.

    You have got three men who could be questioning Dr. Ford who were there back in 1991, right, questioning Anita Hill, and didn't handle it well back then. How do they move forward? How did they have the hearing that everyone says they're going to be moving towards to some degree and not alienate this group that Mark was just talking about?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    Well, I think one thing we all have to remember is, the optics actually have to take a backseat to the facts.

    And it's going to be very hard to determine the facts. But the senators need to go in and be seen to be going in, yes, but mostly to actually go in, trying to determine the facts.

    We have got sworn statements now from Judge Kavanaugh, from Mark Judge, from an unnamed third party. We will presumably get a third — get a sworn statement from the accuser as well, Professor Blasey Ford. And then we're going to have to actually try to do what we can to figure out who's telling the truth.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Do you think that the way they have presented it so far enforces that message that we take this seriously, we have an intention to get to the bottom of this?

    You're hearing some folks, like Mitch McConnell earlier today, we heard him in the show saying, Judge Kavanaugh is going to be confirmed.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    Right.

    So I think it's one thing to say that, based on the evidence that you have heard so far, you are inclined to go with one or the other. But I think it's a real mistake to close your mind to the possibility that you're going to get new information. If that's the case, then you do have to ask, why are we having any hearings at all?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I want to bring up a poll too. We have got some numbers to look at, Mark, and get your take on these.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes. Sure.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This shows publicly, look, there has been an actual increase in opposition to Judge Kavanaugh over the last month, up nine points.

    At some point, does he become a political liability?

  • Mark Shields:

    I'm not sure he's a political liability.

    I think that the subject is a political liability for Republicans. And, obviously, if he's stayed with and sullied with it, yes, he becomes a political liability.

    I think the hearing is — Ramesh is right. The Republicans and the Democrats have basically taken their position, put on their uniforms, or at least the partisans have. The group that has yet to make a decision on this will look at the hearings. And the hearings will be determinate.

    And it really isn't about Judge Kavanaugh as much as it's about Professor Ford. I mean, is she believable? Is she sympathetic? Is she convincing?

    And the president saying, why didn't she come forward, why didn't she go the FBI when she was 15 years old, first of all, it's not a — it's not a — I'm not sure that we're talking about a federal offense. But, secondly, I mean, if anything we have learned, through the pain and torment of the Catholic clergy sexual abuse, is that people, out of pain, embarrassment, humiliation, a sense of fear, don't come forward.

    I mean, the Department of Justice own numbers say that 22 percent of rape victims ever come forward. And so that — but, really, it is David against Goliath. And the focus is on her. The question, is she believable? Is she convincing?

    I wasn't sure that Mark Judge had signed a sworn statement.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    He made a statement to the Judiciary Committee. So, that is a potentially legally actionable document that is…

  • Mark Shields:

    OK, because he showed no willingness to…

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    He doesn't — but he doesn't want — yes, right.

  • Mark Shields:

    He wrote a book on the subject, but he didn't want to — he doesn't want to talk about it.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    He doesn't want to talk about it anymore.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This is the other individual that Dr. Ford says was there in the room that day.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    And his not testifying, seems to me, absolutely irrational.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Go ahead, Ramesh, yes.

  • Mark Shields:

    Sure.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    One of the things that's most dismaying about this entire debate is that almost everybody's views about what did or didn't happen 36 years ago lines up perfectly with what they think ought to happen to Roe v. Wade now.

    And that's not the way it ought to be.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You're saying it's too political now for anyone to have a real discussion about it.

    But it is an important discussion, one we're going to continue to have.

    I want to move on to another story that moved very quickly this week.

  • Mark Shields:

    OK.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    On Monday, President Trump announced he's going to be declassifying a trove of documents and text messages related to the Russia probe.

    Today, he backtracked, right? He tweeted a couple of tweets, basically punting to the Department of Justice, say they're going to review before we take any action here.

    Ramesh, what happened over the last week?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    Well, there was a lot of pushback against the idea of declassification, particularly the idea of a kind of thorough and unselective and undiscriminate — indiscriminate declassification.

    But, look, the president has a dysfunctional relationship with his Justice Department. We know that. We have known that for some time. And I think this is just one more instance of that happening, and another instance of his making a grand statement, and then not following through.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Mark, what is your take?

  • Mark Shields:

    We're reviewing publicly the education or limited education of Donald Trump.

    I mean, he learned this week from allies, from very important sources within his — the United States government who he has to trust that this is bad — bad policy, that what you're doing is, you're not simply revealing secrets. You're compromising sources, and that collection of intelligence is dependent upon a network of relationships, of trust, of belief, of confidence that you're not going to be made public.

    And allies just — among others, just told Donald Trump, this is just an absolute reckless risk. And sources within his own administration, important figures, stood up on this. And I think that's — that that's what happened.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, President Trump is going to loom large over the midterms, right, just a few weeks away right now.

  • Mark Shields:

    He is.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Things have shifted dramatically over the last few weeks.

    Where are we now? What's it looking like for Republicans?

  • Mark Shields:

    I think — I think it's the — it's bleaker for Republicans than it was a week ago.

    And this is in spite of the fact that the stock market is an all-time high, that, among other factors, the lowest number of people in America applied for unemployment benefits in any year since 1968, when the economy was one-half its size and number of jobs.

    But Donald Trump is toxic. He — American voters do not like him. When asked a very simple question, I like blank and agree with most of his policies, I would like and don't agree with the policy, I dislike blank and agree with policies, dislike him and agree with his policies, 70 percent of Americans say they do not like Donald Trump.

    I contrast this with Ronald Reagan, who had far worse economic conditions in 1982, when the prime interest rate was at 21.5 percent, unemployment was the highest since the Great Depression. And Ronald Reagan, 70 percent of Americans liked him.

    And that is what they're finding. This is a referendum, the midterm election is a referendum on the president, on his performance, but on the man himself. And that's why Reagan kept Republican losses low that year. And that's why Trump is really a problem for Republicans this year.

    They have to defend him or alienate him. And three-quarters of the Republican candidates who are running for reelection have never run with a Republican in the White House. They have always run against Barack Obama, all right? Three-quarters were elected since Barack Obama.

    And that's a liberating thing. It's very defensive when you're trying to defend what Donald Trump did, for example, on tweets.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ramesh, very quickly, less than a minute left. Is it as bad as he says for Republicans?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    Look, midterm elections usually go badly for the party that has the White House, because the opposition is revved up and your side is complacent.

    Trump's making both of those problems worse. He's revved up the opposition and he's telling his side, this is all propaganda. The elections are going swimmingly. Don't worry about it.

    The combination is one that is very damaging. And if they abandon — if they allow Kavanaugh to go down to defeat with uncorroborated allegations, the demoralization could get worse.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So is this the choice, as Mark said, alienate him or support him, say you're with him?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    Well, if I were a Republican running for office, what I would want to do is talk about the economic conditions, talk about other kinds of — talk about controversies that play to you, and try to keep Trump out of the conversation as much as possible, because you face that constant problem, which, he's still an unpopular president.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ramesh Ponnuru, Mark Shields, good to talk to you.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you, Amna.

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