May 12, 2017
Syndicated Columnist Mark Shields and the National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including the stunning firing of FBI Director James Comey and what that means for the stability of the Trump administration and the independence of the Russia investigations, plus the political risks facing Republicans.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And now back to the dominant story of the week, the FBI director’s firing and the fallout from it, with the analysis of Shields and Ramesh Ponnuru. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru. David Brooks is away.
And welcome, gentlemen. Welcome to both of you.
So, Mark, any question that the president was within his authority to fire James Comey?
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: No. It was within his authority, Judy.
But this wasn’t amateur hour. This was an incomprehensibly incompetent, inept amateur week, beginning and ending with the president. Other people came out with eggs of all sorts on their faces. Everybody associated with them is diminished, sullied, stained in some way.
But this was Donald Trump’s total miscalculation. The man who made a national reputation by saying “You’re fired” didn’t have the decency to call the FBI director in person, and publicly humiliated him and embarrassed him by severing him, announcing it on cable television as he was speaking to FBI colleagues in Los Angeles.
And he has thus insured that this will be, with this Russian investigation, is now a permanent part of our political landscape. It will affect and influence and be an outline of the 2018 election, and perhaps even beyond.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Total miscalculation, Ramesh?
RAMESH PONNURU, National Review: The administration combined two of its hallmarks, reacting to these events with disorganized dishonesty.
They began by saying that the firing was a response to the FBI director’s handling of the Clinton e-mail story and the analysis of that handling by the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. But, by the end of the week, President Trump himself was saying it really wasn’t about those things. He had made his decision before the memo, and the decision was really motivated by the fact that Comey wasn’t shutting down the Russia investigation, the investigation into the administration and the campaign’s ties to Russia, and thus exploded everything that people had been saying in the administration’s defense earlier in the week.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And so, Mark, they have given several different explanations over the course of a few days. What do you believe was behind this?
MARK SHIELDS: Donald Trump.
Judy, think about this. Robert Mueller was the predecessor at the FBI before James Comey. He was there from 2001 to 2013 under President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama. I don’t know how often they had dinner or how often they met privately.
But can you imagine Robert Mueller being asked by George W. Bush or Barack Obama, not once, not twice, but three times, am I the subject of a criminal investigation by your department, by your agency? It’s unthinkable.
And this is — obviously, he wants this to go away. He, the president, wants this whole investigation to go away. And he has guaranteed — he has guaranteed the following. James Comey was enormously popular among the FBI workers. He was somebody who was thoughtful and supportive of his employees and colleagues.
And they liked him. And he was would take one for a team. He was willing to take criticism for the FBI, and in spite of the decision he made on Hillary Clinton and the handling of that, which a lot of people disagreed it.
He’s guaranteed, Donald Trump has, that everybody associated with the FBI is going to make one more call, follow up on one more lead, and work one hour harder every day on the pursuit of this case. It’s not going to go away. He has guaranteed that it’s going to be more pursued even more arduously, intently, passionately, and professionally by the bureau.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you see as a fallout, Ramesh?
RAMESH PONNURU: Well, I think that this may be the beginning of an effort by the administration to push a lot of congressional Republicans somewhere they don’t want to go.
The prevailing line from Republicans, even those who are well-disposed towards President Trump, has been, of course the FBI and of course the congressional Intelligence Committee investigations need to continue.
What is coming out of Trump world right now is, no, these investigations are an attempt to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency. It’s a taxpayer-funded charade. If you believe that, these things need to end.
Is that something that congressional Republicans are really going to accept? That’s not something that I think they’re going to want to try to sell to the American people.
JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see Congress moving on this?
MARK SHIELDS: I think Congress is under tremendous pressure now. The committees have to perform, because any foot-dragging on this at this point, at any point, the administration, the White House will be seen as somehow hiding something, that there is something here to hide.
I mean, the president boasting that, three times, you exculpated me in the letter that says I’m firing you, I think it puts pressure there. I think it guarantees that any appropriations by an investigating agency will be fast-lined and will be available. Nobody wants to be seen on that other side.
Judy, there are 241 Republican House seats right now. In 2018, they’re all on the ballot; 175 of those members of the 241 have never run for reelection with a Republican president in the White House. They’re used to being on the offensive in midterm elections, running against — or for repeal Obamacare, or against the administration.
They’re going to have to decide, and a lot of them. They’re looking right now at losing three dozen House seats, by historical standards. They have to decide right now, are they going to establish daylight and independence from this toxic administration?
This administration this week was so absolutely misleading, dishonest in its handling of this, that the White House right now at this point doesn’t even believe its own leaks. It is that bad. It’s really reached that point.
So, if you are a Republican, you cannot be seen on the side of trying to slow this down, cover it up, hide things.
RAMESH PONNURU: You do have to wonder whether the Senate is capable of confirming anybody to the FBI director position.
If that person doesn’t have a demonstrated record of independence and integrity, I think it’s going to be very hard for them to get the requisite votes.
MARK SHIELDS: You think Rudy Giuliani is a good choice at this point?
RAMESH PONNURU: There is a narrow Senate margin. And I think you are going to be not looking for political figures.
MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely.
RAMESH PONNURU: I think you’re going to be looking for people like Judge Silberman, people like Michael Chertoff, people who are respected across the aisle.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Ramesh, what about Mark’s larger point here that this is really a turning point for this administration, a turning point in terms of how Congress sees the administration?
We don’t know yet about the public. We haven’t seen any public opinion polls yet, significant ones. But what about the Congress?
RAMESH PONNURU: Well, look, I do think that this story right now is a topic of consuming interest in Washington, D.C. I don’t know that it is in the country at large.
But I do think this is running the risk of isolating this president politically. There’s a reason why congressional Republicans have not felt it was in their interest to just say, these investigations are all legitimate.
There’s a reason why the administration’s first instinct was to come up with a pretext for dismissing Comey and not tie it to the Russia investigation. And so I think it’s going to be really hard for them to sustain this, particularly when you consider that President Trump remains somebody who, for this early in his presidency, is pretty unpopular.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean because now it’s out in the open that the rationale was the Russia investigation?
RAMESH PONNURU: That’s right, and because Trump seems inclined to want to push this argument further, and he seems to want his surrogates to be making this argument.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, have we learned something new about the president in all of this? Is this the coming together of everything that we already believed? I mean, how do you see this moment?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, you see that the president thinks and acts in very short time frames.
Judy, if you wanted to get rid of the FBI director, there is an established way of doing these things. You get a mutual friend to go to him and say, the president wants your resignation, and we will do it on your terms, and we will exchange letters, and there will be a Rose Garden ceremony, and we will introduce your successor, and you will leave with a great tribute and great — and it’s not Donald Trump.
Either he’s scared, or anxious or whatever, but he had to do it in a hurry. And he did it in his way. He did it to the point where he’s totally discredited, if not disabled, his own press secretary. And he’s totally discredited or partially discredited Mike Pence, his vice president, who his reputation is based on his earnestness and his decency, not on his great imagination or great vision, but he’s a solid guy. He is a guy you can trust.
He got caught in a total lie, pretending that Rod Rosenstein, two weeks on the job as deputy attorney general, somehow barreled into the White House and said, take this, Mr. President, you have got to do it.
Now think about Rod Rosenstein. What does he do? He is a man who has earned a reputation, a deserved reputation, bipartisan respect as being a straight shooter. He’s been used as a pawn in this thing. He was advanced as the reason, when he knew he wasn’t the reason. And now he’s got to prove his independence, if he’s going to be in charge of this investigation.
So, he’s not going to be — no pressure can be applied to him. If it appears to be, again, it’s going to be redound to the detriment of the White House and the president.
JUDY WOODRUFF: I have seen some analysis this week, Ramesh, that people are watching moderate Republicans, especially in the Senate, to see how they react.
What is their calculus? What do they look for as they decide how to respond to this and what to do?
RAMESH PONNURU: Well, I think that they are going to be nervous.
They’re not going to want to go out on a limb and defend the administration, particularly when the line for the administration keeps changing. And you go out on the limb, the administration might saw that limb out right from behind you.
The political pressures on them are going to be intense. They’re going to want to look for ways to get out from those political pressures. And it could be that the end result of this is that it has strengthened the case for a special prosecutor, an independent commission or a select committee of Congress.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And Mark said — I want to ask you about — I think, Mark, you said, what, three — you think three dozen Republican …
MARK SHIELDS: House seats that right now …
JUDY WOODRUFF: … are in jeopardy.
MARK SHIELDS: Historically, presidents under 50 — this president is going to be under 40 percent favorable.
Just Ramesh’s point is, I think, a very good one that bears — it bears reflection on, that the idea, Judy, that The Wall Street Journal editorial page leads its endorsement of firing Comey by quoting, the president had reacted to the deputy attorney general’s initiative in doing it.
So, they’re supporting Donald Trump, and they have got egg all over there. They have got a poultry farm on their face.
MARK SHIELDS: I mean, let’s be honest about it.
And to be — have him say, have — how about being accused of being a showboat by Donald Trump? Now, that is tantamount to being called ugly by a frog. I mean, Donald Trump has never been a shrinking violet before. I didn’t know grandstanding was a mortal sin in his lexicon.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you look for in the days to come to see where this goes, Ramesh?
RAMESH PONNURU: I think I would start looking for the congressional Republican reactions.
I don’t think that a lot of people today have been very vocal in response to President Trump’s tweeting about tapes of …
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, by the way, we don’t know whether there is a recording system in the White House.
RAMESH PONNURU: Right.
But I think — but the question is, do they just try to ride this out, or do they start criticizing the president?
JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I think, Judy, I think that it’s going to be every man and woman for him or her self, and they’re going to realize that their fate, fortune and future is not going to be well-served being tied to this president.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, a week that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
Mark Shields, Ramesh Ponnuru, thank you.