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Shields and Brooks on Trump’s contrasting speeches, GOP ruptured relations

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s political news, including President Trump’s wildly different approaches to his address on Afghanistan strategy and his remarks in Phoenix, his attacks on top Republicans in Congress, and his Pentagon directive to ban transgender people from joining the military.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The week began with the president’s scripted speech on Afghanistan, followed by a raucous rally in Phoenix that helped widen a rift between Mr. Trump and top Republicans in Congress. That’s the backdrop as we turn to the regular Friday analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields, and “New York Times” columnist David Brooks.

    Gentlemen, it’s so good to see you both together. Welcome.

    So, Charlottesville, it’s been almost two weeks since the tragedy there. It has risen in the headlines again this week, David. The president’s in Phoenix, he makes this passionate speech unscripted, defending the way he handled Charlottesville, bringing on even more criticism.

    Are we in the clear now on what this president believes about racism, about white supremacy and all of it?

  • David Brooks,

      The New York Times: I think we’re a little clearer on where the Republican Party is. You know, the Trump campaign began really seriously with the Muslim ban. It continued with a series of racial things about the wall. It continued Charlottesville and the reactions. And what’s happened is the racial winking and content, the identity politics has become a rising motif in the Trump administration, especially as everything else including economic policy and economic populism has fallen away.

    And that’s meant the Republican Party or at least some portion of it, and I don’t know how big, has become more of a white ethnic party, ethnic nationalist party. That has made life impossible for a lot of people who signed up as Republicans but didn’t sign up for this. And we’ve had fights within Republicans on a lot of different issues on taxes, on wars and things like that.

    But this is upon which parties break apart because you can’t Republican — if the Republican Party becomes a party aligned with bigotry in some overt way or in any way, you can’t be a Republican and try to be a decent person and be a part of it. And I’ve watched within my friends here in Washington, friendships ending in a way I never really seen before. And friendship ending I think in the evangelical world, friendships are ending.

    And Senator Danforth had an op-ed today and Gary Cohn is put in this position. And so, what you’re seeing is a hint of a rupture the likes of which I really haven’t seen before.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I was going to ask you both and David brought it up, Mark, this column and today an interview by the former Republican senator from the state of Missouri, John Danforth, saying if the Republican Party doesn’t disassociate itself from Donald Trump over his handling most recently of Charlottesville and the race question, but he lists other issues as well, he said the party sunk,.

  • Mark Shields,

    Syndicated Columnist: Yes. Jack Danforth comes with credentials as a senator, as the Senate sponsor, personal endorser of the only African-American ever nominated to the Supreme Court by any Republican president, Clarence Thomas, who had worked for him. So, he is — he is someone who has certainly street cred on this issue.

    Judy, it’s quite I think obvious at this point that the president does not understand what the job is. I mean, the job of the president of the United States is to be the voice of compassion, is to be, to provide equanimity in spirit, is to provide magnanimity of view. He, in a scripted, teleprompted address, he can give a coherent speech as he did on Afghanistan, a colorless, energy-less but nevertheless coherent speech as he did for veterans.

    But he only thrives, he’s only alive, he’s only authentic when he unleashes his indictive, when he stirs up the basest instincts of his supporters, and he responds only to cheers, cheers and jeers of those whom he opposes, whom he’s still running against some 10 months after the election he’s still running against.

    So, it’s a sad, sad time. It has to be sadder for those who work in this administration to learn as the Quinnipiac University poll, a respected poll, show this week that Americans by two to one believe that Donald Trump is dividing the country rather than writing the country. That solid majority, 3-2, they believe the press, the dreaded media over Donald Trump to tell the truth. And they believe — three out of five Americans believe he is giving aid in comfort to white supremacist and encouragement.

    So, it’s a truly sad — I don’t — I can only say to Republicans, I mean, it is a time you’re going to be asked about this. You’re going to be asked where you stood. And what you did on Donald Trump. And I thought Gary Cohn — it only took him two weeks to come to it and —

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This is the president’s economic adviser, yes.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes, and then he came to the decision of conscience that Janet Yellen made a very candid statement today, recognition statement at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where she announced that she, in fact, the regulations imposed on the big banks after the collapse of 2008, the financial crisis, were necessary, were wise and should not be repealed.

    So, Gary Cohn holding on, slimly, perhaps to the hope of becoming chair of the Federal Reserve swallowed his misgivings, and the odor of anti-Semitism that smacked Donald Trump’s remarks and agreed to continue as a patriotic man to serve and I guess we could only salute him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It’s a zigzag course, David. I mean, as both of you said, when the president is reading from the teleprompter, the message is that we reject racism, we reject white supremacy, neo Nazis, but it’s in these speeches where there’s another message that seems to come out. I was just reading the radio address that the White House is going to put out tomorrow from the president. He’s back to the scripted lines, rejecting everything that smacks of racism.

  • David Brooks:

    To his credit, he’s incapable of insincerity and hypocrisy. He can — he can keep up for an hour, for a day, for 24 hours, he’ll say what they want him to say, but then within 24 hours, he’s got to come back to be himself and he’s going to explode beyond those barriers. We’ve seen that again and again and again.

    I just think the Trump administration is going to wander into these fields more and more in the months and years ahead, simply because they don’t have an economic agenda, there’s very small chance of tax reform, they don’t have the populist thing they can bring to people. And so, what they have is this ethnic nationalism. And they are frankly going to be helped sometimes by Democrats or by radicals on the left who are going to deface the Thomas Jefferson statute or do something like that. And then that’s it for Donald Trump. He can say they’re defacing Thomas Jefferson.

    So, then the identity politics of the left and identity politics play off each other and you get this war of people who think that white and black are the only two categories in life and they should have some sort of political war over this and it begins to look like the Sunnis and Shiites. And as I say, that’s a Republican Party that decent people don’t want to be a part of, frankly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Mark, the president meantime is firing tweets against fellow Republicans. I mea, today, Senator Bob Corker. It’s been the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan. You go down the list, five, or six or seven different Republicans he’s going after. What’s the strategy, the rationale?

  • Mark Shields:

    I’m glad to be able to explain it.

    It was deemed — prior this week, it was deemed impossible to make Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell into a sympathetic public figure. And Donald Trump has achieved that.

    He — it makes no sense. Politic is a matter of addition not subtraction. And I’m sorry, Mr. President, you cannot distance yourself from your own administration. I mean, saying, oh he’s going to blame the Republican Congress for the stalled programs, the non-programs as David’s pointed out and the non-achievements is their fault. It just won’t wash.

    I mean, no president has ever attempted to do that before. To say I wasn’t involved in my own administration. It’s these guys in my own party up on the Hill who have done it to me.

    So, it makes absolutely no sense politically. One explanation offered by some people in the White House in “The Washington Post” today that he sees looming disaster and so, he’s going to distance himself.

    You cannot distance yourself as a president from your own administration.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, but again, I’m referring to this “Washington Post” story, David, the theory is that the president’s going to be able to point the finger at those Republicans who messed this up, didn’t get the job done.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I don’t think theory or strategy would be worse (ph). I think it makes him feel good to get into a shouting match with Mitch McConnell over the investigation of Russia. There’s no strategy here.

    The biggest — aside from the legislative agenda, the biggest event looming in Washington these days is the Mueller investigation. And if there’s some sort of bringing impeachment of the U.S. Senate who he’s working really hard to offend, they are the jury at the end of the day. And so, it’s just craziness to offend those people. And — but yet he’s doing it a short term. It’s a matter of not strategy but psychology.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In the meantime, his administration is moving in a conservative direction. Lisa Desjardins had a report, Mark, this week on these many steps that Jeff Sessions is taking —

  • Mark Shields:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    — at the Justice Department to roll back what we saw during the Obama administration. Just tonight, the president has finally signed an order telling the Pentagon not to admit anyone, any individuals who are transgender, not to pay for the surgery that some of them choose to have. So, there are steps being taken to carry out the conservative agenda.

  • Mark Sheilds:

    Conservative agenda, Judy, I don’t — you know, among issues I haven’t heard pollsters report or volunteered by those interviewed was statutes being removed which the president greatly moved after are transgender service members. I mean, the Navy SEAL who served 20 years did 13 overseas deployments, seven combat deployments and earned one Bronze Star and one Purple Heart and is transgender, is now a woman had more deployments and more days in uniform than Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Secretary Tillerson or Secretary Mnuchin, Secretary Price, Secretary Carson, go right through it. I mean, he proved his patriotism, she proved her patriotism, that they’re 100 percent American.

    I don’t understand this. I commend chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joe Dunford, for as soon as it comes out today, came out originally in his tweet that those who serve honorably in this service will be respected and continue to be so.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just 20 seconds.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes. As I understand that, the important thing here was when he made the order, the generals decided that’s Trump being Trump, let’s just ignore it. And so, that was the right thing to do. What’s disturbing here is he actually followed through on his own statement. And so, a lot of people in the administration are saying let’s just let it pass, let it pass, let it pass, in a lot of ranges. If he’s going to now start following through and actually behaving, that puts them in a much tougher decision.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And this is after saying in the campaign, he was going to be supportive of those LGBTQ.

    David, Mark, we thank you both.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

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