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Shields and Brooks on Russian intrigue in American politics, Obama’s farewell

PBS NewsHour

Mark Shields and David Brooks are regular weekly political commentators on PBS NewsHour and NPR's All Things Considered.  Here's today's conversation with NewsHour host Judy Woodruff.

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


And welcome to you both. There is so much to talk about, but let’s start with talking about the president-elect and Russia.

We had the news today — on top of all the confirmation that the Russians interfered in the U.S. election, today, we learned — and we talked about earlier it on the show — David, that General Michael Flynn had phone conversations with the Russian ambassador in December, several of them.

Tonight, we’re learning that the Senate Intelligence Committee is going to expand what was already an investigation into the Russian interference into in election to look at any contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians and the Clinton campaign, although the main focus is Donald Trump.

What do we make of all this?

DAVID BROOKS: I was first struck by David Ignatius’ comment earlier in the program that they just could be trying to be destabilize the United States across the board. And that’s a — I hadn’t heard that thought before and it’s a live possibility.

Putin is someone who has been undermining the norms of what we consider the world order since he got into power and in increasing success. What’s interesting about the Trump administration is how bitterly divided they are in their attitudes towards Putin.

Steve Bannon and General Flynn have warm feelings. Putin has been — and with a lot of the groups, the conservative groups, the more extreme conservative groups that underlie Trump, he’s a bit of a hero because he speaks for traditional values, he’s against the global institutions.

They see him as someone who has been on the defensive from an aggressive E.U., an aggressive NATO. And there is a lot of sympathy there, actually.

And then, if you look at the more establishment Republicans, they see him as what I just described, subversive of the world order. And so to me the question will be, will Trump and Bannon control policy toward the foreign policy, or will everyone else basically?

And my money is on everyone else, because I think Trump’s attention span is super low. I don’t think he has the expertise to actually run a foreign policy. And at the end of the day — and I think this is a major story of the Trump administration — he’s going to want the affirmation of the establishment, as he always has.

The reason he had Clintons at his wedding because he wants that affirmation. When he gets the chance to have it, I think he will bend gradually in that direction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How are you looking at all this?

MARK SHIELDS: Donald Trump is to traditional values what I am to marathon running.


MARK SHIELDS: It just doesn’t — it doesn’t fit.

I have to say, Judy, I am perplexed, and I think an increasing number of Republicans are perplexed and actually nervous about Donald Trump and Russia, nervous in the sense that he is gratuitously giving Democrats the national security advantage, that they’re standing up for the country.

We have testimony of General Mattis, the nominee for secretary of defense, asserting that the objective, the stated objective and the mission of Vladimir Putin’s Russia is to destabilize the North Atlantic Alliance, and he, who believes in NATO and believes it’s been one of the great alliances in modern history, that Putin represents a threat to this, that Russia today is nothing but a propaganda arm, that General Flynn went to celebrate its anniversary, sitting at Putin’s table for money, paid to show up.

So, I mean, these questions, essentially, they have just given it to the Democrats to stand up and say, wait a minute, where do you believe in this country, plus the suspicions, and real, about in fact the involvement of Russia in this election.

The question, the real moment of truth is going to arrive very shortly, a couple of weeks, when sanctions arrive on Donald Trump’s — President Donald Trump’s desk passed by a Republican Congress. Is he going to oppose those sanctions? What’s he going to do?

I just think it’s inexplicable and irrational, his policy on Russia.

DAVID BROOKS: I would say it’s a theory. He has got a theory of it, which is the theory of UKIP in the United Kingdom, the theory of Le Pen in France, which is that the global establishment has basically failed people, and that, all around the world — it’s a little like Marxism in reverse — global movement is arising that’s against these institutions which have failed people.

And Putin is part of that movement. And that’s the theory of the case. I don’t think it’s true, but they do have a theory of what is happening. And I don’t know if they will be able to enact it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But David’s argument a moment ago, Mark, is that the establishment is going to win out because Donald Trump, he said, just can’t organize a foreign policy.

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know.

That, of course — you know, the White House, as Warren Harding said, and I think accurately, is an alchemist. We find out the strengths, the weaknesses and the smarts and the dumbs of whoever those occupants are under the pressure of the presidency.

I don’t see — I was encouraged as a citizen by the selection of General Mattis, by the nomination of him, by the command of subject matter he displayed, and his independence, independence of thought. And so…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we saw that from several of the…

MARK SHIELDS: We did. We did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … choices.

MARK SHIELDS: Less convincing from some others. Mike Pompeo, who had been an advocate of waterboarding as a House member, has backed off and said, oh, Donald Trump would never — if he ever heard Donald Trump on the stump, Donald Trump was a champion of water-boarding and more, as he put it.

But, nevertheless, he did establish that rule of law.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, just quickly, you did see a number of these Cabinet choices, and you’re referring to that, put some distance between themselves.


And I think it was — I agree with Mark. It was a good week, I think, for the country and, frankly, for the Trump administration. A lot of us expected a lot of extremely confrontational hearings this week. And that really didn’t happen. They sailed through, by and large.

And that’s because they did distance themselves. They behaved like responsible — even Tillerson, who was probably the weakest, because he just doesn’t know that much about foreign policy.

But he apparently in the private meetings with the senators has made a good impression on people. He’s a professional. He’s obviously a very intelligent, polished man. And so the other — I hate to praise Trump so much, but I have always wanted administrations to admit, yes, we have differences.

There’s always been this locked uniformity, oh, we all think alike and that, if we disagree, it’s somehow a scandal. But, yes, people have differences. And Donald Trump didn’t emerge from the orthodoxy of the Republican Party. And so there’s going to be bigger differences than normal.

And if they can have those differences out in the open, I actually think it would be kind of a good thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re right. He tweeted today, this morning, early, that he thought it was a good thing if they spoke for themselves.

But back on Russia, quickly, Mark, the civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis of Georgia in an interview today with Chuck Todd at NBC said that Donald Trump is not — he doesn’t view Donald Trump as a legitimate president, he said, because the Russians interfered with the U.S. election. He said the results don’t represent legitimacy.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s a legitimate argument, that Russia’s involvement in our election, it’s open to question whether, in fact, it was influential, determinate.

The fact that they tried and were involved and tried to influence and subvert our democratic processes is indisputable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying it’s not settled?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t — no, but I do think that there is a certain irony and perhaps a little payback in the fact that John Lewis, a certified icon of the civil rights movement, questions the legitimacy of the man who questioned the legitimacy and led the fight, falsely, unfairly, and repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of Barack Obama as president.

There is perhaps a little sense of getting even here.


DAVID BROOKS: Whatever happened to when we — they go low, we go high?

No, I think if you’re going to question the legitimacy of somebody, you better have some evidence. And John Lewis is obviously a hero. But the bias that, when we have an election result, has to be that the election results is legitimate.

And whatever the Russians did, it didn’t probably affect the outcome. If we actually have some evidence to counter that, then you can say it’s a legitimate — but the bias has always got to be to respect the process, to respect the voters and to assume, if they make a call, that some deference has to be paid, unless there is evidence.

And as I understand it, John Lewis, none of us know whether the Russian activity, which was malevolent, had any huge significant determining effect.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Two more major things I want to ask both of you about.

The first one is what Donald Trump said, Mark, this week about his business interests. He said he’s basically turning everything over to his sons, that it will be a kind of a blind trust. Did he go far enough?

MARK SHIELDS: Of course he didn’t, Judy.

He said after eight years, he will grade his sons, and if they didn’t perform well, they’re fired, sort of an offhand line, but showing that he did have a continuing interest.

There’s never been a sense of public service about this man. And I don’t think there is in this alleged arrangement. It’s anything but a blind trust. It’s a seeing-eye trust.


It’s a blind trust. I’m giving it to my closest relatives.


DAVID BROOKS: It’s not really serious.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He said he’s not going to talk to them about it.

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, right.


DAVID BROOKS: He has a different model.

I mean, most — the way the laws are envisioned, they are for people who work in the government — or work in a private sector, and then they cut it offer and they go to public service. And that’s how you’re supposed to do it.

But he has a pre-modern monarchic family structure. His business is a monarchy with family members all around. His administration is a monarchy with family members all around. So the laws are just not going to apply to him. And he will wind up with some corruption problems, probably.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last question is about the man who Donald Trump is succeeding as president, Mark, and that’s President Obama. He gave a farewell address in his hometown of Chicago this week. It was a call to citizens to pick up their, I think, clipboards, he said, and get involved.

MARK SHIELDS: And get out of their bubbles. I thought that was one of the more — that, in fact, we have become bubbles, whether, as David has pointed out in the past, sorting ourselves into neighborhoods, or places of worship, or campuses, or occupations.

And the venue just amazed me, why he would do a speech of this seriousness and importance in a crowd of 18,000. I understand it was Chicago and all the rest of it.

But it is a reminder that the difference today from eight years ago, the sense of hope and pride in the nation, an unrealistic hope, and perhaps unrealistic self-congratulations on his election. But he leaves at close to 60 percent approval, at a time when confidence in public institutions is at its lowest, in private institutions.

So he is a major figure going forward. And he’s 15 years younger than the man who succeeds him, and he promises to be engaged, far more than going to write his book or just go into a paint lesson.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What did he leave you with?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think we saw in the speech an outstanding man.

And he leaves this presidency with the respect of almost everybody as a human being. I think he will get very high marks, as he mentioned in the speech, for the handling of the financial crisis, the auto bailout, all that stuff. We’re in much better shape than we were. I think his foreign policy will be regarded more failure than success, in part because of reasons we heard earlier.

And I think, from a progressive point of view, to have a Democratic Congress and a Democratic White House, and to have spent the time on Obamacare, which had real benefits, 20 million insured, but not on inequality, was a major cost to the Democratic Party, costing them their majorities, but also a bit of a cost to the country, because it didn’t address the fundamental issues that led to Donald Trump and that led to a lot of unhappiness, just the continued widening inequality.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And inequality, you’re referring to?

DAVID BROOKS: Income inequality, social inequality, all the things that really have shaped this whole election year. It is a fact that these problems, this sense of fragmentation and segmentation happened and were exacerbated, got worse under President Obama’s…

JUDY WOODRUFF: He has seven more days in office.

And we thank both of you, David Brooks, Mark Shields.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.

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