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Shields and Ponnuru on G-7 trade tensions, Trump-Kim summit expectations

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Ramesh Ponnuru of The National Review join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including tensions between the U.S. and allies at the G7 summit, as well as President Trump’s comments that Russia should be welcomed back, the upcoming North Korea summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un and takeaways from the biggest primary night of the year.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, from the words of a former president to news of the current president abroad.

    We get the analysis of Shields and Ponnuru. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Ramesh Ponnuru of "The National Review." David Brooks is away.

    And it's great to see both of you. Thank you for being here.

    I want to ask you about something we just heard from James Patterson, the writer.

    And that is, Mark, he was talking about we need to take the people we elect to office seriously. There is so much criticism of them. They have been run down by all the — just the flood of criticism that they get. He said, when you go to the polls to vote, remember, they're not silly, they're not villains.

    What do you make of that?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, they have been run down in large part by people who have replaced them. That's been a recurring theme, particularly among conservative insurgents, but not exclusively, running against Washington, running against politicians.

    I think Mr. Patterson's exposure to President Clinton is probably, in part — I mean, Bill Clinton, let it be noted, came to office at the time with the steepest budget deficits in the history of the country, and courageously raised taxes on the richest 1.4 percent of Americans, and produced an economy that produced 22 million new jobs, after we had the lowest economic growth in 50 years when he came in.

    So, and then he left at 65 percent approval. And today he's way below that. So there's a certain lack of appreciation, you could say, of certainly…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For Bill Clinton.

  • Mark Shields:

    For Bill Clinton. And I think that may be reflected in Mr. Patterson's exposure to him. And it's certainly expressed in the president's own behavior and speeches.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ramesh, is it possible to get people to think differently about politicians?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    I think it is going to be tricky.

    I think what James Patterson was getting at was the distinction between the job or institution of the presidency and our fixation on the personality and the pageantry of the presidency.

    The presidency has gotten more and more powerful in American government, and we depend much more than we used to on the professionalism and competence of the president fulfilling the job.

    But, at the same time, the cultural footprint's gotten bigger, too, and that has made us more interested in all of the drama of the presidency. That's what presidents are rewarded these days for playing to.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, speaking of presidents and drama and Ramesh's point, President Trump has kicked up a lot of dust going into this G7 summit talking about trade.

    As he was — Mark, as he was leaving the White House — we heard it early in the program — this morning, he said, once again, the U.S. is being essentially taken to the cleaners by its own allies, by other members of the G7, and he cited chapter and verse on how the tariffs these other countries are imposing on the U.S. are unfair.

    Does he have a point?

  • Mark Shields:

    I think he has a point, Judy.

    I mean, there's no question that both — all countries in trade seek competitive advantage. The United States is not lily pure on this at all. View the Sugar Act, to begin with, for example.

    But, no, I think the president, quite frankly, what amazed me today was the announcement that he wanted to invite Russia back into the G7, make it the G8. Russia has been evicted overwhelmingly by the group for its invasion of Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea, neither of which it's apologized for or changed in the least.

    And, you know, the deafening silence by Republicans, with the conspicuous exception of John McCain, Rob Portman, senator from Ohio, and Ben Sasse from Nebraska — I can't imagine if a Democratic president suggested rewarding Putin and dismembering NATO or at least disabling NATO's unity by such an act. It would be unthinkable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ramesh, how serious do you think this what may be a rift over trade and over Russia is?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    Well, I think that we have got a number of fronts which we have opened up now which are tending to isolate the United States around the world. And trade is a big part of that.

    And, sometimes, it works even at odds with our own trade strategies. So, for example, we might have been more successful in getting other countries to work with us on the problems created by Chinese mercantilism if we weren't simultaneously starting a trade war with allies that share our interests vis-a-vis China.

    I do think that that's something that a lot of countries are looking at. And it's not just the hostility from the United States, the unilateralism from the United States, but the unpredictability.

    Unpredictability can be advantage, but it can also make people think, you're not reliable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the president, Mark, does — he's leaving this summit early, we understand, to get to Singapore to get ready for the summit with North Korea.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    … those books, Judy. Got to — got to get them, yes, yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But we're switching very quickly from one part of the world to another. There's a lot riding on that meeting. We don't know what's going to come out of it.

    There's been — we read — we understand there's dissension inside the administration, inside the White House over what ought to come out of it.

    Are there expectations at this point?

  • Mark Shields:

    I'm sure — there are expectations, Judy. I'm not sure exactly what they are.

    I mean, I think, going in, you can say that Kim Jong Un has already got a couple of feathers in his own cap. He's got the summit. We have cut back on our military exercises jointly with South Korea. He's recognized as a major national and international global figure. They have talked about invitations to Mar-a-Lago for him.

    So I don't know. He's keeping his weapons. And after the Iranian example…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Keeping his weapons, you mean…

  • Mark Shields:

    His nuclear weapons. I don't see anybody who thinks he's going to surrender them. If that's the breakthrough, then that would be an accomplishment of great significant and would accrue to not only the world's benefit, but to Donald Trump's political benefit.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    Yes, and I don't think anyone would begrudge him that under those circumstances.

  • Mark Shields:

    No.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    But I think the realistic view of this is the pessimistic one.

    We are — we want North Korea to give up a weapons program that is its lifeblood economically, strategically. Its very identity is tied up in this nuclear program.

    When you add to the fact that this administration doesn't seem to have negotiated internally what its position is on all of these issues, it makes it even harder for you to get to a positive outcome in these talks.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, I mean, as we watch what is going on, Mark, what do we watch for? I mean, clearly, we watch to see if they reach any kind of an agreement and they keep talking, but what are we looking for?

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

    I don't know anybody who's expecting a major agreement or breakthrough. Probably another meeting. And, you know, we have seen already this week, Judy, with the Chinese on the ZTE, there is no question.

    NBC had a story today about the Chinese, with the identification badges that international visitors wear to meetings there and their room keys that they are given. There are microphones which enable them to listen, in to establish where you are.

    So I don't know what we're going to achieve with the North Koreans. Ninety percent of North Korean trade is with the Chinese. So, if anybody thinks that this is — that we're dealing with an independent actor, I think we're delusional.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    That's right. These are absolutely intertwined issues.

    But all of the struggles we have had with North Korea and with China, we still don't have unified positions in this administration. We're constantly reading about sparring between different members of this administration. It all seems to be an ad hoc process.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    National Security Adviser John Bolton is said to be completely against these talks in the first place.

    All right, bringing it back home, a number of primaries this week, Mark, in, what, half-a-dozen or so states.

    What was each party — well, let me put it this way. Did each party do what it needed to do? And what do these results in California, and Iowa, New Jersey, and other places tell us, if anything, about the fall, the midterms?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, the Republicans had a major achievement. They will have a Republican candidate for governor of California on the ballot in November. That was in doubt until Tuesday night, whether there would be two Democrats.

    So they're hoping that will serve as a get-out-the-vote effort for — and energizer for other Republicans.

    This election, Judy, is turning out to be, just like this administration itself, this presidency, it's all about Donald Trump. And while voters give him credit for the improving economy and recognize that, the reality is, he drives — he's driving turnout. And he drives turnout on both sides, but, sadly for the Republicans, he's energized more Democrats than he has Republicans heading into the fall of 2018.

    I would say Republicans in New Jersey are so far on the defensive, having voted for that tax bill, the president's, which increases local and state taxes for every person of any middle or upper income, same thing in California.

    So, Republicans are very much on the — I think, on the disadvantage, with the intensity and enthusiasm being on the Democratic side.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you see it?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    For a few months now, the polling has been improving for the Republicans.

    President Trump's approval rating has been going up. The poll question about whether people prefer a Democratic or Republican Congress has been tightening. There's still a Democratic advantage on average in those things.

    I think that the results we saw in primaries suggests that that polling is picking up something real, that this has become a pretty tight race. In a lot of those California districts, Republicans actually had reasonably good vote totals.

    Of course, they're Republican districts. But there had been a thought that there was going to be a Democratic wave that was going to sweep away a lot of these incumbents. Incumbents are right now think — the Republican-held seats right now, looks like the Republicans are holding their own.

    Plenty of time for that to change.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … California too.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    Right. Yes, that's right.

  • Mark Shields:

    I couldn't disagree more. All right?

    There's a great measurement that Wall Street Journal/NBC poll used in 2010, for example, and is used every midterm. And that is, are you following the election with great intensity or great interest?

    And with people who do so, nine or 10 on the scale, it was 63 percent of Republicans in 2010 and 47 percent of Democrats. And Republicans picked up 63 House seats. Right now, it's 63 percent of Democrats bringing passion and intensity and 47 percent of Republicans, a total reversal.

    And that, quite frankly — there are more people who want to vote for somebody to check President Trump than to support President Trump. And he will — it's a referendum on him. And I just — right now, it's going to be bad for the Republicans.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very quickly, Ramesh, do you agree this is going to end up being about Donald Trump in November?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    I think that Trump has managed to make himself the center of every conversation in America, practically speaking, so probably the election is going to be a referendum on how he's performing.

    That's the way midterms usually work. And midterm elections usually go badly for the party in the White House. The question is, are they go badly enough to lose the House? And, right now, I think that is very much in question.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right. We have a little bit…

  • Mark Shields:

    We have a bet.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What did you say?

  • Mark Shields:

    We have a bet. We have a wager. OK.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right. You have a bet. We are going to remember that.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    It's now legal in New Jersey. That's right.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark Shields, Ramesh Ponnuru, thank you both.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    You're welcome.

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