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Shields and Salam on China tariff tit-for-tat, Scott Pruitt under fire

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and National Review executive editor Reihan Salam join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including President Trump’s escalating calls for tariffs on Chinese imports, the decision to deploy the National Guard to the U.S.-Mexico border, ethics concerns for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years after his death.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    From calling for a National Guard presence at the U.S.-Mexican border, to floating the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, the president's announcements this week raised more questions than answers.

    And that brings us to the analysis of Shields and Salam. That is indicated — syndicated…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … columnist Mark Shields and "National Review" executive editor Reihan.

    Reihan, welcome to the program.

    And, Mark, you are more than indicated. You're syndicated.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    Part of the syndicate.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So let's start, Mark, with the lead tonight, and that is these mixed signals mining from the top of the administration over trade.

    The president putting out the word, the White House, late last night that they were looking seriously at more taxes, more tariffs on China. And then the president's chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, saying — today saying, well, no, no, we're still in negotiations.

    What are we to make of this? The president clearly wants to send some sort of signal to China.

  • Mark Shields:

    No question about it, Judy, and he has, I think it's fair to say. Larry Kudlow is an interesting case.

    I first ran into him, he was working on the anti-war campaign of Senator Gene McCarthy, a Democrat, then worked for Senator Edmund Muskie, a Democrat, and then became a supply-sider, free trader with Ronald Reagan, and is now whatever Donald Trump is economically, and one can't be absolutely sure.

    But I think his time is short, because he's been cast as the interpreter of Donald Trump, and Donald Trump fancies himself the world's greatest communicator, and he doesn't need an interpreter.

    But that having been said, I think it's fair to say that China in the short run — in the long run, is in tougher shape on this than we are, because we're a bigger share of their market. But in the short run, which is where we all live, especially in a November election and the Republican majorities hanging by a thread, I think the pressure will mount on Donald Trump politically from his own base.

    These are red states particularly being felt on the soybeans and the retaliation by the Chinese. So I think that's where it is politically. I mean, if you're a Republican up for reelection this year — and I would just point that more Republicans have retired in the year 2018 than any year since 1930, which was the middle of the first Depression, which tells you something about how they see it.

    You want to talk about tax cuts. That's what you want to talk about. You don't want to talk about trade and immigration and borders, quite frankly. And I think that's where the president's returned.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Reihan, how do you see the calculus?

  • Reihan Salam:

    I disagree politically.

    Mark raises a very good point when he says the Chinese have been shrewd. They are targeting Republican constituencies, rock-ribbed, middle-of-the-country, farm Republican constituencies, et cetera.

    But there is also the fact that Donald Trump presented himself as a different kind of Republican. He was a sort of third-party candidate running under the Republican banner. And protectionism is an idea that is awfully popular with many people.

    Now, when you're talking about the negative impacts here, the thing is that sometimes we have a tendency to overstate them, because a lot of the negative impact is borne by companies that have relied on those supply chains, right?

    But the thing is that, overall, think back to the Soviet grain embargo. You had a lot of farmers who said, yes, this is going to hurt me, but ultimately I support the policy.

    You might wind up having a lot of people rally around the flag and saying that, yes, China, they engage in a lot of trade abuses, and this is something where they need to get clamped down. And so that's why I think that, as opposed to tax cuts, which are a classically orthodox Republican thing to do, here Donald Trump left to his own devices is trying to do something a bit different that might be appealing to people who otherwise don't vote Republican.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you don't see mixed signals coming from the administration, or do you?

  • Reihan Salam:

    Oh, I absolutely see mixed signals.

    So, part of this could be the savviness of, hey, this is my opening bid, and then I try to get something halfway, but there are definitely mixed signals.

  • Mark Shields:

    I respectfully disagree, in the sense that, if you want to go back to the grain embargo, you ask Democrats who lost their seats at that time under Jimmy Carter.

    I do think, quite bluntly, that Donald Trump is playing presidential politics, and he's keeping his promise. He's talking about his constituents. That's why he returns to tariffs. That's why he returns to the border and the hordes of rapists descending upon us, quite contrary to fact and reality.

    But I don't think, Judy, that this is helping Republicans, who are in an increasingly discouraging situation and condition heading into November 2018.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, you mentioned the border. And I do want to ask about that, Reihan, because the president, in the same — around the same 24-hour period that he said we want to bring the U.S. troops home right away from Syria, he said, we need to send U.S. troops to the border.

    Now, that later turned out to be the National Guard. The president is saying 2,000 to 4,000. But we find out later, when he's making these statement, the administration wasn't prepared, the Pentagon wasn't prepared to explain what was going on with the troops in Syria. They say there are no plans, as far as they know, to bring them home immediately.

    So what is the president trying to accomplish?

  • Reihan Salam:

    Well, one way to think about it is that every president has a set of ideas and commitments, and then they wind up being pretty frustrated.

    By the time you get into your administration, you recognize the limits of your authority. And that can be very difficult. If you look at Barack Obama, for example, he really ran as an anti-war candidate. He came into office and found, gosh, the national security establishment has this very different position to me, and I'm feeling this incredible pressure, this responsibility that's weighing on me.

    And then you wind up taking positions that are not necessarily the ones that are your first instinct. Donald Trump, however, he's taking this different tack, where he's actually negotiating in public. So, he may well get this — these arguments from folks who want to take a more restrained, cautious approach.

    But then when he makes these statements in public, then it actually forces folks into his administration who might want to push against those tendencies to align with him to the extent possible. And that is kind of a negotiating with his own administration happening in public.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So he's trying the move the bureaucracy, Mark? What do you think?

  • Mark Shields:

    I'm not sure. I'm not sure what — because, if he were, I think he would invest some time in private meetings in trying to persuade, rather than bombastically make these pronouncements, from which he does return: I'm going to sign the bill, the spending bill. I'm not going to sign it. Oh, I did sign it.

    Jeff Sessions has gone. No, Jeff Sessions is still here.

    I think that unpredictability can be an asset in international relations to keep your adversaries off-balance. Uncertainty and anxiety are not healthy in any administration, Republican or Democrat, because what it basically means is that people are uncertain about their own position, their own longevity, and their relationship with each other.

    And I just — I think it's just pernicious over a period of time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is there a danger of too much uncertainty?

  • Reihan Salam:

    Oh, I absolutely think there is a lot of danger of uncertainty.

    There is another way to look at it, though, which is that with a lot of presidents, you eventually have a divorce with the base out of that sense that this person has gone native, let's say. This person made a series of promises and commitments.

    And Donald Trump is particularly vulnerable to that, because he is the candidate of authenticity. He is the candidate who gained this enormous following because the sense that he was genuine and not like other conventional politicians.

    But conventional politicians are conventional politicians because that kind of discipline and careful planning and not letting things blow up in your face works, right? But he senses that vulnerability, and he's speaking to it at a time when there isn't much of a Republican agenda in Congress.

    So then the deck is cleared, and he gets to fill that vacuum with his own instincts.

  • Mark Shields:

    There is no Republican agenda. That's it. And that's one of the problems going forward. What you're going the fight about are Cabinet confirmations and matters like that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, you bring up the Cabinet.

    I want to ask you both about Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator.

    Mark, he's in some hot water, some questions…

  • Mark Shields:

    Deserved, deserved hot water.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … about some ethical decisions he's made.

    The president has said both he's doing a fantastic job, and then the press secretary at the White House says they're considering carefully — they're doing an ethical review.

    What is going on?

  • Mark Shields:

    An ethical review could take a while, Judy. This is man with illusions, if not delusions, of grandeur.

    I mean, Gina McCarthy, his predecessor at EPA, got by with a driver. He wants a three-car cavalcade wherever he goes. He wants sirens blaring to get through traffic. He got a deal that Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma state official, could not get. And that is a $50-a-night bedroom and total access to the home on Capitol Hill in a nice townhouse, only paid $50, when, in fact, you sleep there.

    Not a bad deal for a mortgage, if you could get that possibly. And so I really do think that this is a man, whether it's looking at $70,000 desks, flying first class, checking out $100,000-a-month charters for aircraft, I just think this is man who has gone to the swamp. He's a creature of the swamp at this point.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Reihan, we have learned in reporting that the president — the chief of staff at the White House has urged the president to fire Scott Pruitt. But the president so far disagrees.

  • Reihan Salam:

    Well, I will make two observations about Scott Pruitt.

    The first is that this is someone who really is a political talent, and my sense is that, regardless of the outcome of what happens here, we have not heard the last from him. He's enormously charismatic and he's an inveterate self-promoter, and a very effective one, at that.

    With regard to this, these ethical considerations, the truth is, we don't know the whole story yet. We will find out. But one thing I can say is that many senior officials in the Trump administration really have faced security concerns that their predecessors haven't. Scott Pruitt has had to cancel various public events in light of various security threats.

    And that sadly seems to be something that is baked into Washington right now. So, some of the concerns about having a cavalcade and what have you, this is stuff that's absolutely embarrassing, but I do want to give him the benefit of the doubt to gauge how much of this reflects legitimate concerns.

  • Mark Shields:

    The one reference to security that I have seen documented was that somebody shouted out to him on an airplane about his policies. I mean, it wasn't…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Reihan Salam:

    There have also been events that have been canceled out of security concerns.

    And, again, this is not the kind of thing we necessarily are keen to talk about publicly, but it's the kind of thing where I don't know the whole story, so I'm willing to suggest that there is something else there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Want to end on a different note.

    And that is — we have only got about — I think a minute, a little more than a minute.

    But, Mark, this week, we mark 50 years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. We spent a lot of this week talking about his legacy.

    As someone — you were here during the civil rights movement, lived through it, watched it, what are you thinking?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, 50 years ago this Monday, Judy, I was in Ebenezer Baptist Church, a little bitty church where Dr. King's funeral was held.

    Richard Nixon, Robert Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Jacqueline Kennedy, Chuck Percy, Nelson Rockefeller, it was just — Gene McCarthy — it was just a — but what struck me most of all is, the crowd of 50,000-plus marched from there to Morehouse College, where he was to be laid to rest, on a very hot day.

    Walked by the City Hall of Atlanta and the Statehouse, the Statehouse with less dramatics, with armed guards, with the rifles, and the City Hall, a city too busy to hate, a city of Ivan Allen at that point, draped in black crape. And I just said, what a remarkable man, that he had this reaction and this legacy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just in a few seconds?

  • Reihan Salam:

    There are millions of Americans, myself very much among them, whose lives wouldn't be nearly as rich and full and complete and full of opportunity as they are without Martin Luther King Jr.

    So, we all owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    No question about it.

    Reihan Salam, Mark Shields, thank you both very much.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you. Thank you.

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