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Bill Clinton’s tarmac talk with Attorney General Loretta Lynch gave the GOP more ammo in their portrayal of Democrat Hillary Clinton as playing outside the rules, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru tell Judy Woodruff. It comes as the FBI decides whether to push for an indictment in the email probe. Also, a look at Donald Trump’s trade policies.
And now to our wrap of the week's political news, from the new cloud hanging over an investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mail practices to Donald Trump's latest take on trade.
We turn to the analysis of Shields and Ponnuru. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields, and "National Review" senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru. David Brooks is away.
And welcome to you both.
Let's start out, though, with what happened today, the attorney general of the United States, Loretta Lynch, saying that she wouldn't do it again, wouldn't have a meeting like the one she had earlier in the week with former President Bill Clinton.
Mark, Loretta Lynch said, wouldn't do it again. And she said now she accepts the recommendation, she will accept the recommendation of the FBI director, won't make any changes.
How much damage to Hillary Clinton from this?
Well, we will find out. That's to be determined, but the damage to Bill Clinton's judgment, to Loretta Lynch's judgment, the attorney general, is considerable.
Just — you know, Ben Bradlee, the legendary editor of The Washington Post, said never do anything that you can't imagine being reported the next day in The Washington Post on the front page above the fold. And this is a perfect example of that.
Bill Clinton, yes, he's gregarious. His unlimited self-confidence in his ability to charm people is deserved. He's one of the probably — most charming people ever to walk the planet. But the misjudgment of his having a meeting, a private meeting with the attorney general while the Justice Department is investigating his wife on these charges is just unthinkable.
And where was her judgment in saying, no, Mr. President?
The attorney general.
But you're saying it doesn't hurt Hillary Clinton?
Well, it will be determined.
You have given the decision now to James Comey, the FBI director, completely. If I'm not mistaken, Judy, at the time of David Petraeus, the recommendation was to prosecute him for felony, and the attorney general of the United States then, Eric Holder, intervened and said, no, this is a misdemeanor, it shouldn't be a felony.
Now, James Comey, his independence, his integrity has been firmly established in practice by standing up to the White House of George W. Bush that appointed him. So it gives to him, and that's it. And I don't think anybody questions his — that he's a partisan.
Ramesh, how do you see this affecting Hillary Clinton at this point?
Well, Attorney General Lynch has said that she expects to accept the FBI recommendations.
But a source close to her told journalist Mark Halperin that she still has a chance of overriding that recommendation. I think it would be very hard in these political circumstances for her to actually overrule it.
If there's no indictment of Hillary Clinton following this investigation, I think this incident makes it easier for Republicans to say, well, that's because the fix was in.
But in terms of Loretta Lynch saying today, I wouldn't do it again, I'm not going to let — you're saying Loretta — somebody close to Loretta Lynch is saying something different. She said she's going to accept the recommendation of the FBI. You're saying, despite that…
There are conflicting reports about how ironclad that assurance is.
But, at the end of the day, the damage has already been done to Hillary Clinton. Assuming that there is no indictment, the damage is that most Americans don't regard her as honest and trustworthy, and that's been something that has been an anchor on her poll numbers.
You're saying just no matter what comes out of this FBI investigation?
I think that, even if there are not formal legal charge, people have concluded that she was not forthcoming.
Well, the other — go ahead.
Just one quick thing, Judy, in that it reinforces the narrative, the unflattering narrative about the Clintons, that they don't play by the same rules as anybody else and everybody else.
And I think that's a problem for both the president, but particularly for Secretary Clinton.
And this happens the same week that the House Republicans come out with their report on the Benghazi attack. This is the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya.
They spent months looking into this, Ramesh. And it was thought that the object of all this was Hillary Clinton. The report essentially doesn't bring a lot of new information about her. It does harshly criticize the administration for not providing better security there, though.
If people go into the report looking for a smoking gun about Hillary Clinton, they're going to be disappointed. But it does provide new detail on two things, first, the security failures in Benghazi and how repeated warnings about those failures and those risks were ignored, and, second, how the administration early on after the attacks put out a public narrative about the relationship of those attacks to an anti-Muslim video that it had reason to believe wasn't true.
What does it add up to, Mark?
It adds up, Judy, to a personal tragedy.
Anne Stevens, the ambassador's sister, had an interview with "The New Yorker" this week in which she essentially said her brother took the risk knowing the security circumstances himself in Benghazi when he went there.
But I think this is a story that died on two earlier occasions. The first was when Hillary Clinton appeared before the committee. I mean, in a marathon session, she absolutely dominated them. She was far superior to her interrogators. She exposed them as shallow and partisan. And she showed great command of the facts.
The second that was reinforced by a then House Majority — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's boast on FOX News that the Benghazi committee had knocked down her poll numbers, and that the Republican House Caucus deserved credit for having created this committee for that purpose.
So, this — I just don't — I think the story is over.
It's a wash?
Yes, I don't think there is going to be a huge political impact, except on this.
This is one reason, this whole Benghazi story is one reason that Hillary Clinton can't run on her accomplishment in Libya when she was secretary of state, which at one point that they had wanted to do.
Pretty tough to run on Libya, yes.
Well, let's talk about Donald Trump for a minute. He's been speaking all over the country this week, Mark, on trade, and talking about American workers, and saying that Democrats — singling out Hillary Clinton, but saying Democrats across the board, and he also singled out the Chamber of Commerce, which is typically a friend of Republicans, and saying they're in the tank, too, to this whole idea of free trade.
Is this a smart strategy on Donald Trump's part?
Democrats ought to be grateful that Donald Trump has not been doing this for the past two months, that he's been squandering his time and goodwill by attacking a federal judge's heritage and things of that importance, of his personal — or explaining Trump institute or Trump University or whatever else.
It is, Judy — actually, it's been a cornerstone of Republican ideology a belief in free trade. And the reality is that Republican voters now are more skeptical, as seen in exit polls this year, of free trade's benefits, the liabilities, the loss of jobs, rather than creation of jobs, even more so than Democratic voters.
So Donald Trump is going into areas where the manufacturing jobs have been lost, where there is stagnation, where there is very little optimism about the future, where people are underemployed, and he has an explanation for it, and he stands as the anti-establishment figure.
He's critical of Washington. He's critical of both parties. He's critical of the Chamber of Commerce. So, I think it's — and, plus, it was a real speech. I mean, he did it with footnotes. He did with it a press release.
It was actually a couple of speeches.
That's right. But it was like a real campaign all of a sudden, instead of Donald Trump talking off the cuff.
Do you see him getting some mileage out of this, Ramesh?
I am a little bit more skeptical about the political utility of this line of attack on trade that he has taken, because, if you look at the polling, even though we have been hearing a lot of skepticism about trade from politicians over the last year, public opinion doesn't seem to have shifted that much.
And Americans seem to regard trade more as a source of opportunity than as a source of danger. Those numbers have not really budged, at least the Gallup numbers, over the last decade. And I think there is an opportunity for Hillary Clinton to take a more balanced look at trade and in that fashion to win some of the voters that have voted Republican in the past.
So there's not more motivation, though, on the part of workers who feel aggrieved by trade perhaps?
I do. It's a disagreement.
I think you go to Pennsylvania, and go to Ohio, go to Michigan, go to Indiana, go to Wisconsin, and you will find, I mean, a sense of disenchantment and alienation. And I think Donald Trump taps into that. And it's certainly far superior to what he's been wasting his time on in this campaign.
And you see, in fact, some poll numbers in some of these battleground states coming out, the states like Pennsylvania, where we have white blue-collar workers who are apparently, a number of them, gravitating to Donald Trump.
That's right. No, that's exactly true.
You have got the white-collar workers going the other ways in a lot of these polls as well, a lot of white-collar Republicans, college-educated Republicans…
… are more supportive of Hillary than they have been of past Democrats.
The map and the demographics are shifting in all kinds of ways.
OK, finally, this Supreme Court decision this week, Ramesh, on abortion, the court basically ruled that Texas tightening the definition of what an abortion clinic has to be, has to do at these Texas clinics, that that's unconstitutional. Is this — do you see this becoming a political issue, abortion?
Abortion is always a political issue to some degree in a presidential election.
Most voters don't think of it as their top issue, but there are a lot of voters out there who do. What's interesting this year, what's unusual is that you have got a Republican nominee who doesn't seem to care that much about the abortion issue or about the pro-life element of the Republican coalition.
So on the day that the Supreme Court made its decision, usually, the nominee would put out a statement. Donald Trump didn't have anything to say about it. What he had to talk about instead was Senator Elizabeth Warren's attacks on the hats that the Trump campaign has been selling. That's what he decided to talk about instead.
How do you see the effect…
I think, Judy, abortion remains a constant in American politics.
Americans have grown dramatically more tolerant, more accepting of gay and lesbian rights, of all sorts of — having a child out of wedlock, sex outside of marriage, Americans. But abortion remains a divide and a division within this country. A majority of Americans believe it should be legal in most or all circumstances.
A substantial minority, over 40 percent, believe it shouldn't be. And what you have is really a moral cleavage in the country. Americans, even 50 percent of women, according to Gallup, believe that abortion is morally wrong, even though they are accepting of it.
So it's this terrible dilemma. And the Democrats, and especially Secretary Clinton has become probably the most aggressively pro-choice nominee of any party in our history. I mean, her position used to be that abortion should be safe, legal and rare. And the rare has been dropped. It's now just safe and legal.
And she accepted the nomination by going to Planned Parenthood, not by going to the AFL-CIO, not by going to a school, not by going to a women's shelter, by going to Planned Parenthood and say, this is where I want to be, this is where I'm most comfortable.
And I think it probably indicates where she feels — I mean, it's her conviction, and I think it's where she sees this election.
And Trump has been all over the lot. I mean, he was for late-term abortion legally. And now he — and this campaign, he has been for prosecuting and incarcerating a woman who had a legal abortion. But he's now revamped both positions and still — I think he's still supporting Planned Parenthood, if I'm not mistaken.
We are going to have to leave it there on this issue, as you say, perpetual in American political life and moral life.
Mark Shields, Ramesh Ponnuru, thank you very much.
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