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Shields and Brooks on Trump using the press as a punching bag, Michael Flynn’s sacking

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including President Trump’s contentious press conference, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s resignation, as well as the continued scrutiny over other potential contacts with Russia and more.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

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

    Welcome, gentlemen.

    David, to you first.

    That was quite a report from William Brangham, two towns in Texas, two groups of people, both sides of the political aisle. What does it tell you about just how divided this country is?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, welcome to life in America these days.

    For those of us who have been traveling around, that’s reality. And two things strike me. The first is, politics is based on social identity, and so, again, there is going to be differences between rural and urban and between left and right.

    But what’s at the core, why is the chasm so wide between the two and why are the two universes almost non-overlapping? It’s like whether we’re just in-group, out-group, or is there some cultural or ethnic or racial divide that’s at the bottom of this? It’s very hard to figure out what unconsciously is making people so fervently in one universe or the other.

    But whether it’s an identity politics thing, or just we that like to form groups and we like to unify our group by hating some other group, that’s the world we’re in.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Mark, they couldn’t have been more divided than they were.

  • Mark Shields:

    They weren’t. They were characteristically Texan. They were outspoken. They didn’t hide their allegiance or their enmities.

    And I thought a particular act of fraternal love was disabling the FOX News Channel when his brother came to visit over Christmas, not exactly a loving act, it would seem, but something that he boasted about to William on national television.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, what all of them are reacting to is what’s been going on here in Washington, David, certainly during the campaign, but since.

    We heard them saying they love — the ones who like Donald Trump, they love his Cabinet picks. They like his staff. But during this past week, the president’s had a rough go of it, certainly losing his national security adviser, Michael Flynn being forced out, and then the man the president wanted to have replace him announce publicly that he wasn’t going to take the job.

    What do you make of how the president did this week?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, to me, the big chasm of the week is the gap between the circus act and the substance.

    The press conference was its own thing. It’s like some exploding nebula of madness. I thought it was just mildly deranged, just the epitome of nonlinear thinking. Let’s put it that way.

    But what strikes me is, we have got to remember, what is the guy actually doing? And here we have an administration where he’s making a lot of press conferences, but, on the substantive picks, he doesn’t have a national security adviser. There are 691 confirmable positions in the White House.

    The Trump administration has not even come up with names and nominees for 631 out of those 691. So there is nobody there, nobody in the shop, no policy-making being made.

    And so I compare it to, so, you know, Trump is sitting on the control deck of the starship Enterprise, and he can push a lot of pretty buttons, but those buttons aren’t connected to anything. And so nothing is happening.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Mark, what’s getting the attention, though — David may be right, but what is getting the attention is what the president was saying this week, and this very public departure of his national security adviser, one of the — any president’s closest advisers, Michael Flynn.

  • Mark Shields:

    And certainly one of this president’s closest and most loyal supporters, I mean, spoke at the confirmation and was in consideration for vice president. So, this wasn’t just a late connection.

    And the irony to me, Judy, was that Michael Flynn, the reason for his leaving wasn’t that he had misled the vice president about his conversations with the Soviet — the Russian ambassador — excuse me — about sanctions or possibly sanctions and retaliation, but the fact that the president knew about it, had been informed about it, and Mike Pence, the vice president, only learned about being dissembled to, if one can be dissembled to, by the national security adviser through the free press.

    So it wasn’t the act itself. It was the public exposure of the act. So, it was bizarre. He doesn’t have a successor.

    And I just think, more than anything else, what we’re seeing in this administration, Judy, is campaigns are fun. Campaigns are police escorts, they’re airplanes, they’re crowds, they’re balloons, they’re bands, a lot of fun. You speak in vague generalities. You get applause for slogans.

    And then governing comes. And governing is tedious and it’s difficult an it’s time-consuming and it demands your attention. And policy isn’t vague generalities. It’s specifics and it’s based on knowledge.

    And I will say this. This White House is preciously scarce on attention. And I just don’t think the president — I think the president at that press conference you talked about really returned to the campaign station. He wants to do it again Saturday. It’s back to the balloons and the bands and the cheers. That’s fun.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, meanwhile, David ,there all these — this controversy swirl around. What, are there are seven or eight different investigations going on about whether there is a connection between the Trump campaign and Russia, looking at whether it was campaign officials, whether it was Michael Flynn’s talking to the ambassador?

    I mean, there are some very real concerns out there that are hanging over this administration.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, there are three Russia scandals all at once.

    And to me, the most significant is the contacts the administration — or Trump campaign may have had with Russian intelligence during the campaign. And so we know they did have contacts. We don’t know the content of those contacts.

    If there is collaboration, if there is some sort of quotation suggesting they got tipped off about some of the leaks or something else, that would be a cataclysmic scandal, and it would just rock the whole administration.

    My instinct from talking to people in the intelligence community is that there probably is no great quote showing Paul Manafort getting a specific tipoff from the Russians, because we would already have had it by now.

    There are so many intelligence officials to my newspaper and The Washington Post, they probably would have leaked it. I don’t have any inside New York Times information about that. But that would be just a momentous scandal.

    And that is just like — that was four days ago, and we have almost forgotten it. But there is a whole series of scandals ratcheting it up on the administration.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is it possible, Mark, the press, all of us are making too much of all this Russia concern?

  • Mark Shields:

    It is, Judy, but the only two entities and news sources that deny Russia’s involvement and malicious involvement in the election of a United States president and attempt to influence the outcome appear to be Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Donald Trump, who calls this a Russian ruse.

    And I don’t have inside information on what went on. But there was — there is enough at this point that I think it puts the Republicans in Congress in a terribly defensive crouch.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, you started out with some pretty strong language describing the news conference. I wrote down. And you said he came across — the president came across as mildly deranged.

    Did you really mean that?

  • David Brooks:

    I will walk that back a little.

    Unmoored. Is that walking it back? I don’t know.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    It was — if we were not — it’s just he’s not coherently speaking as a president should who’s going to be carefully giving orders, who’s going to be uniting the American people.

    He is speaking as someone who’s involved in a junior high school gladiatorial attack on the press. And parts were bizarre and somewhat offensive, picking on an African-American reporter and assuming she knew people in the Congressional Black Caucus, because I guess all African-American people are supposed to know each other. That’s offensive.

    But then the attack on the press, highlighted by the tweets today saying that my newspaper, NBC, all these organizations are enemies of the people.

    Well, if you want to draw rhetoric straight out of the fascist playbook, we’re enemies of the vote, the people, that is like — that has so many historical echoes. It’s illiberal and offensive to the way democracy is supposed to work and how one is supposed to just act within the institutions of democracy.

    So, within that context, I think some strong language, to me, is merited.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, Mark, Donald Trump was critical of the press throughout the campaign, and he won.

    So, the American people — and we heard William Brangham talking to voters in Texas who have completely different views of which parts of the news media they listen to. Could this be a winning strategy on the president’s part?

  • Mark Shields:

    I don’t think so, Judy.

    He ran against Hillary Clinton. He ran — that was his opponent. And the tough thing about a campaign being over is, you lose your enemy. President Barack Obama, at this point in his presidency in 2009 was on his way already to having passed the bailout, the economic bailout. He passed the equal pay. He was on the way to health care.

    This is the time you build coalitions. Donald Trump is spending his time, his energy, precious time, really, and just creating these new enemies or trying to look for a villain like Hillary Clinton was that he could run against. He just — he needs that as an organizing principle.

    Without an organizing principle of an enemy, the press is a punching bag, it’s unpopular, yes. It doesn’t approach the sense of villainy that he’s looking for. And I just don’t think it will wash long-term as a political strategy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, do you think that’s what he’s doing? And do you agree with Mark, it’s not going to work in the long run?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, I think it offends 65 percent or 70 percent of the American people, but, as we just saw from Texas, it pleases 35 percent of the people.

    And so I think he can hang along with that 35 percent of the people for a good long time. And I have been asking around Republicans on the Hill, are they worried? And, personally, they are worried, but there will be no distance between Republicans on the Hill and Donald Trump any time soon.

    Among Republicans, according to a Pew poll, 82 percent of Republicans right now support Donald Trump, which is higher than supported Ronald Reagan at this time in his administration. And so Republicans like the guy; 35 percent of Americans see this and they say, yes, way to go.

    So, it will not be a majority coalition. It will not be a governing coalition, but he will retain, if he continues it this way, some solid base of support.

  • Mark Shields:

    Let me disagree just a little with David.

    What Republicans have going against them is history. Judy, when a president, a sitting president, has his job rating in the Gallup poll, his approval rating, drop below 50 percent, that president’s party loses an average of 37 seats in the House of Representatives in the next midterm election.

    When a president is above 50 percent, they lose an average of 14 seats. All right? By the end of this year, the 1st of January, Republicans are going to be looking, Donald Trump is 35. This is his honeymoon.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A new Gallup poll has him in the mid-30s.

  • Mark Shields:

    Gallup poll has it at 38.

    He’s at that point now. And it’s hard to see how he goes higher without some international crisis that galvanized totally, national unanimity.

    So, January, his window of opportunity to pass something big — and these are difficult, tricky, complicated issues he’s trying to write legislation for — is between now and December. By the 1st of January, members of the party on the Hill start thinking about themselves and they have to establish independence from an unpopular person in the White House.

    They have got to think about getting reelected.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ten seconds, David. It sounds like the clock is ticking.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, but they’re living in a hermetically sealed Republican universe, just as Democrats are. And so they’re responding to their own universe, even if it leads to electoral downfall, as Mark suggests.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    OK.

    David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you both.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you, Judy.

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