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Shields and Brooks on Democrats’ Gorsuch dilemma, refugee ban backlash

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times Columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including President Trump’s pick of Judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court, and the tough choice for Democrats on how to respond in light of GOP obstruction on Merrick Garland, plus the controversial refugee and travel ban and more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Welcome to both of you. So much to talk about.

    David, week two of the Trump administration.

    Let’s start with his pick for the Supreme Court, federal Judge Neil Gorsuch.

    What do you make of him?

  • David Brooks:

    Clearly qualified, first-rate legal scholar, first-rate judge, first-rate mind, apparently a first-rate person. He’s what any — the best any Republican president would have done. So, I thought a very good pick for Donald Trump.

    The Democrats have a challenge. They can either behave the way the Republicans did to Merrick Garland, which would be disgraceful, but that would blow up the system. They have a loyalty either — I think a primary loyalty to the Constitution and basically to the norms of how we have done justice constitutional — or justice confirmations for the past many decades.

    And that is, if the president picks someone who is basically qualified, basically a good person, then you confirm that person even if you don’t agree, because your side lost the election.

    Now, I understand the Democratic thinking. The Republicans didn’t behave this way. But I guess my belief is that two terrible behaviors don’t make a good behavior.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What’s your take on Judge Gorsuch?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, Judy, first of all, I agree with David on the assessment of him.

    He went to Georgetown Prep, which is a rather exclusive local prep school, then on to Columbia College, and then to Harvard Law School, then to Oxford.

    But the vice president made a point when he was interviewed by you in this show, emphasizing he’s a fourth-generation Coloradan, because his resume sounds very much like all the other justices on the Supreme Court.

    And as somebody who said that we ought to have somebody on the court who went to night school or went to public school — but, nevertheless, he does seem by temperament — and I will say this. In an administration that has been marked by total chaos and is unsettling in the way it’s behaved and the impulses it’s shown by its president, this was the exception.

    It was incredibly normal. They did it well. The announcement was done well. He’s being — the Sherpa he has on Capitol Hill is former Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who is well-respected with moderates and Democrats, and Ron Bonjean, who was Trent Lott’s adviser and spokesman.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • Mark Shields:

    So, that’s been well done. And he seems to be a quality product.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you agree with David, a tough call here for Democrats?

  • Mark Shields:

    It’s tough in the sense that, I mean, the Republicans were reprehensible, what they did to Merrick Garland, reprehensible, indefensible. They never even gave the man a hearing, a man with a distinguished career. They ignored the Constitution.

    The temptation is enormous. The pressure is enormous from the Democratic base of the party. And don’t forget, I mean, the Republicans responded to the Tea Party, which was the base of their party. And I can understand that.

    But I think that — you know, I think, unless there’s something hidden about him that nobody seems to know and nobody seems to even be suggesting, I think he’s going to be awfully tough to defeat. And he’s a quality nominee.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we’re going to watch that one unfold.

    I do want to get, David, to the executive orders. They have been coming at us fast and furious just about every day. But the big one I want to ask you about is the immigration order. It’s created a firestorm. We just — we announced — we just reported a few minutes ago a couple of federal judges have ruled on it because of legal challenges.

    There have been protests. You have got State Department employees who have signed a letter of dissent.

    Is the administration getting off on the right foot or not with this statement?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, you know, I have been inundated by 18 inches of orders, like we all have over the last couple of weeks, and some of them are good.

    I think some of them are completely toothless and symbolic. But this one on the refuges is the one that’s truly abominable and reprehensible. We can’t remind people enough that it responds to a problem that does not exist, that refugees in from these countries have killed no one in a terrorist attack. That’s not where the threat has lain.

    It’s from homegrown people. It’s maybe from other countries. The 9/11 people were from Saudi Arabia and some other places. And so it’s a response to nothing.

    And so you have to think that it’s just an outgrowth of nativism. And there has been a whiff of nativism, to put it politely, in a lot of the measures that this administration has done. And it has offended our career people in the State Department. It has offended our allies. It has offended a lot of people around the world, for no good effect.

    Usually, when there’s some policy, there are pros and cons. There are literally no pros to this one.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Any good effect?

  • Mark Shields:

    No good effect.

    And both the president and his vice president made the mistake of referring to it as a ban, then tried to — Muslim ban — then tried to walk it back. No.

    And, Judy, the irony is, in a week where the president says he wants to unleash churches politically from being hobbled, and goes to the National Prayer Breakfast, I mean, forgotten is the message of Christ, that — how you treat the stranger among you. Whatever you do for the least of these, that of Moses, that you shall not oppress an alien, because you yourselves have been aliens.

    This has been the hallmark, this has been the defining value of the United States. We had six Nobel Prize winners American last year. All six were immigrants. Immigrants have been the sustenance and the survival and the treasure of this country.

    And Donald Trump is appealing, as he did during the campaign, to the basest, the most selfish and the most literally un-American of instincts.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, I wanted to ask you about foreign policy, but I have to come back to what you were just saying, an outgrowth of nativism.

    You wrote a very tough column this week, saying this is not just a Republican administration; it’s an ethnic nationalist administration. You talked about Republicans making a Faustian bargain to go along with Donald Trump.

    It’s a pretty dark picture, isn’t it, that you have painted?

  • David Brooks:


    And I just think they’re in an untenable position. Listen, I grew up with Ronald Reagan. And he’s one of the reasons I think it was very encouraging to be a conservative back in those days. And he had a refugee crisis when he first came into office from Cambodia and Laos and other parts of the world. And he said, we’re going to welcome them. And he did welcome them.

    And that was a Republican Party that did welcome the refugee because it basically believed in opportunity. It believed in possibility. It was a hopeful party.

    This is not a hopeful party. It doesn’t believe in opportunity and — it does see possibility anywhere around the world. It sees threat and menace.

    And, frankly, it reminds me of some of the reactionaries in Russia who think that the purity of the country is in the dark soul of the people who have been here for centuries, and everything outside is a threat.

    That’s not been the American myth. That’s not the way we have defined our country. And so I do think we’re in the middle of a big argument over how we define the American idea. And what Bannon and Trump have presented us with is an idea of America that’s not been the traditional idea, not the Walt Whitman idea, not the George Washington, Abraham Lincoln idea, which is one of welcoming because we’re the last, best hope of Earth.

    And so we have hit the opposite of Emma Lazarus. And that debate about the American idea, seems to me, the core debate under this whole administration.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark, the opposite of Emma Lazarus.

  • Mark Shields:

    The opposite — yes.

    Now, Americans — Americans have gone through nativist streaks before. The Know-Nothings in the middle of the 19th century were a dominant political influence of many Northern states, held every seat in the Massachusetts legislature, alarmed about the influx of Irish immigrants and Catholics coming into the country.

    But I do think that one major difference between our handling of civil rights in the 1960s, when America rose to one of its most magnificent eras and challenges, and immigration in the 21st century is the economy, I mean, that the measure of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, but whether, as Franklin Roosevelt said, we provide enough for those who have too little.

    And during the ’60s, the median income was doubling of the American household. And we have seen the stagnation. We have seen what has happened. And it comes at a cost. And it comes at a cost in the psyche, that Americans are less welcoming, we’re more fearful.

    And I really think that income inequality is — and the disparity in income and the growing gap has contributed to that political climate that Donald Trump has exploited so brilliantly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, and while we’re watching this immigration ban, or order, however you’re describing it, David, we have also watched a flurry of statements and tweets about foreign policy, and reported angry phone calls between the president and the prime minister of Australia and the president of Mexico.

    Today, the White House issued sanctions, heightened sanctions against Iran. There seems to be a consensus that that’s a good idea.

    But do you see an emerging — what do you see emerging in terms of foreign policy from this White House?

  • David Brooks:

    I have to say it has been an extremely unnerving week on the foreign policy front.

    The fight with the Australian ambassador — or with the Australian prime minister was emblematic. Trump is right at some level. That was a bad deal that the Obama administration cut. I understand why they cut it. But, for the Trump administration, it was a bad deal.

    But that doesn’t mean you get in a fight and get in some temperamental hissy fit, as apparently happened, with probably our most loyal ally in the world, who’s been with us at every fight basically throughout our history.

    And so that’s a sign of characterological problem. And then you switch to the real problems in the world. We’re not going to get in a war with Australia.

    But, as Steve Bannon said, we might get in a war in the South China Sea. And, as Mike Flynn said, we might get in a war in Iran. And we have to be tough with those countries, but you would like to feel there is some control in our toughness, that there’s some strategy, that we’re not at the whim of one person’s pique.

    And so, when we even take what seem to be sensible actions in Iran — or against Iran, I have no confidence, and I don’t think any of us can have confidence, that there is something steady and temperamental and in control about that.

    And, as I had mentioned on the program a few weeks ago, the number of use of force decisions the president has to take is large. And none of us can be sure that the sane choices will be made, let alone reasonable ones.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark, in just a minute, how are you seeing this emerging national security vision from this administration?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, Judy, I mean, we want a president with a steady hand on the tiller. I mean, that’s what we want. We want the captain who is — who is stable, who inspires confidence. And that has not been the case.

    This is the biggest betting week of the year. This is the Super Bowl week. And anybody would have given — would have won a fortune on the over-under that the country you’re going to pick an argument with is Australia.

    It just — it’s incredible. But it’s all personal, because all politics isn’t local, as Tip O’Neill said. All politics is personal with President Trump. And that carries with it great, great problems.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we are just at the beginning. And we thank you both for your insights and we hope you have a good weekend.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.

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