Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the testimony of former FBI Director James Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.
So, let’s continue the conversation about James Comey.
David, we heard today what the president thinks of it. He said he thought the former FBI director vindicated him, but he also was telling lies. What did you think?
DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times: I thought Trump actually had some points.
I think one of the things we heard on the criminal side, it wasn’t a bad, not a terrible day for Donald Trump. James Comey seemed to suggest that there was no — maybe — cast some doubt at least the idea there was a lot of collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign or even a lot of conversations.
I think what Trump did to James Comey, clearing the room and asking him to lay off on Flynn, was scandalous, I think terrible, but probably not something that would rise to the level of impeachment in any normal presidency.
So, to me, on the criminal front, not a disastrous testimony for Donald Trump. On the cultural front, on the moral front, kind of disastrous. The thought that he lied is pretty strong. We do know, because of what Comey said yesterday, there’s going to be a lot more investigations.
And every time there’s some sort of independent or special investigation into the White House, it can swallow a White House up not only for months, but for years. The Whitewater investigation went on for seven years.
And so I think what’s going to happen is, you are going to have a continued administration that’s dysfunctional, that is under investigation, that is distrustful, and a president who’s obsessed, not with policy, not with anything constructive, but with this sort of warfare.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What did you make of James Comey and what he had to say?
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I thought James Comey was believable.
I thought he was compelling, in large part because, Judy, he admitted his flaws. He did not present himself as Galahad or some profile in courage. He acknowledged the fact that the pressure of being one-on-one with the president just in the White House, that he had not said to the president it was inappropriate. He said he hadn’t been strong enough.
But what was most revealing to me of all the hearings, Republicans — and I do want the say one word to the senators. I mean, they didn’t do soliloquies. They didn’t do seven-minute statements followed by a question, do you agree? I thought — and they didn’t show rank partisanship, I felt, and that there was a seriousness led by Chairman Burr and Co-Chair Warner.
But what impressed me most of all was that, while Republican senators were willing to come to the defense of the president, a point David made, that there wasn’t obstruction of justice on his part or whatever, none of them challenged Director Comey’s direct statements the president lied and that he was a liar, and that that is why he had to memorialize each meeting with the president, each conversation with the president, because he feared that the president would lie.
And nobody said, no, wait a minute, this is George Washington. This is a man, a total — he does have a reputation for exaggeration, hyping, and some would say not a totally consistent relationship with the truth and reality.
And I think that’s a real problem for him. The fact he wasn’t under investigation is significant, but, ironically, nobody asked him, and Director Comey didn’t volunteer, whether, as a consequence of what happened in his meetings at the White House, that he may now have opened himself up to some investigation, he, the president.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes. And, as we reported earlier, David, the president said today he sure — he would be glad to or would be willing to speak under oath to the special counsel, Robert Mueller, about what happened.
But given what you and Mark are saying, does Comey now come out with his credibility intact?
DAVID BROOKS: I think so. I think he’s a careful witness. He was a very believable witness, as Mark said.
And I think what we saw in the Comey testimony was really a clash of cultures. James Comey is an institutional man. He serves the FBI. He believes in a government of laws. He believes in following the procedures and norms that really govern any organization.
We are a nation of laws. Donald Trump lives in an entirely different cultural universe. He is more clannist, believing in clan, believing in family, believing in loyalty, not recognizing objective law, not recognizing the procedures that is really how modern government operates.
So when Paul Ryan and other Republicans say, well, Donald Trump just didn’t know the rules because he’s an innocent at this, he’s a newbie at this, that’s insufficient. It’s not only that he doesn’t know the rules, but at all along and throughout his presidency, he has sort of trampled on the rules almost as a matter of policy, as a matter of character, because he doesn’t believe in that kind of relationships.
It’s all personal loyalty, not about laws and norms and standards. And I do think, eventually, down the road, that is going to be a continual source of problem for him, that he’s continually violating the way we do our government.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mark, what about the — David brought it up.
Speaker Paul Ryan said — essentially gives the president a pass, saying, well, he’s new to Washington, doesn’t know how government works, he’s not a man of government.
MARK SHIELDS: Yes, he’s an enormous child, and we just — we don’t have the same rules for him.
It was less than fatuous. It was dishonest and misleading on the part of the speaker. And you cannot say that. This man has been running for president. He is president. If you have any — he is a graduate of Wharton, although I would like to see the director of admissions at some point come forward and explain his knowledge of American government from his experience at the University of Pennsylvania.
But you can’t use these kind of excuses, Judy.
Just picking up on what David was saying, what is fascinating about the Comey testimony, if you listened to it — I listened to every word of it — is that Donald Trump — David mentions loyalty. Loyalty to Donald Trump is one way. Every one of the co-authors who has worked with him on any of his books has agreed on one thing. He is a man without any friends.
He could not name a friend. The one person that he’s shown any sense of loyalty to — he shows none to the people around him — is General Mike Flynn. And it’s curious. What is it about that relationship? What was it that Mike Flynn did or was doing or that Donald Trump is concerned that he might say?
And he said, in the course of the conversation, other satellites, referring to people who worked with him on his campaign other satellites, if they were involved, go after them. You know, that’s OK. But could you go easy on Mike?
And the idea of clearing out the room, clearing out the — the attorney general of the United States walking out. I mean, Jeff Sessions had a terrible day yesterday, and so did Reince Priebus, the chief of staff of the White House, when it was revealed that they left the president alone, left the FBI director one-on-one with the president and, for, obviously, purpose that the president wanted special favors.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, he was saying go easy on — lay off of Mike Flynn and tell the world that I’m in the clear.
MARK SHIELDS: I’m in the clear. That’s right.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But, David, so it comes down to he said vs. he said, and you were saying a minute ago, this could drag on for years.
How much damage has been done? You’re talking — I hear you referring to the culture. How much damage is being done to this president?
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think modest damage around the country. As we just heard, around the country, it wasn’t as big a story as it was in Washington.
I was at O’Hare Airport trying to watch it on TV. I couldn’t find any TVs that had the hearings on. They were all on sports channels. So, I’m not sure, politically, immediately.
But I do think the scandal here, the fact Trump will probably be investigated for obstruction, and maybe Sessions will be investigated, and once these investigations started, they go on forever. The Whitewater started as a land deal. And then, when it started, Monica Lewinsky was an unknown person in college.
And then it turned into the Monica Lewinsky scandal. They go on for years and they spread out. And what happens within the administration is, nobody knows who’s being investigated. Nobody knows who is saying what under oath.
And if Donald Trump is really willing 100 percent to testify under oath, he’s very naive about what that process means, about what happens when you start shifting your stories, what happens when you start talking the way Donald Trump normally talks, which is imprecise, at best.
And that sort of thing is bound to get an administration in trouble. And I think that will become the rising tide that will not destroy this administration, but it’s going to be a long, slow entanglement in the culture of crisis and the culture of scandal.
MARK SHIELDS: Let me give you an immediate problem that they have, Judy.
There’s a gubernatorial race in Virginia. Virginia, New Jersey have off-year elections. And Tuesday is the primary in Virginia. And the lieutenant governor, a rather mild-mannered pediatric doctor, surgeon, is running on a slogan and a TV ad that says, do not let this narcissistic maniac, Donald Trump, which tells you two things.
One, sort of where — we have debased the dialogue and debate in America. Why is he doing it, though? He’s running it because he’s challenged by a former congressman, Tom Perriello, who is backed by an awful lot of Obama people, in Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren.
And why is he running this way? Because, in Virginia, among Democratic voters, according to the Quinnipiac poll, Donald Trump is 95 percent unfavorable and 3 percent favorable. So that’s what Republicans are facing right now. They cannot embrace him, because he’s going to be Typhoid Mary in November of 2018.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But, David, as you and Mark just heard in Hari’s interview with those reporters from Nevada and Indiana and West Virginia, they’re saying, you know, a lot of people are going about their lives and a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump are just not paying much attention.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think that’s generally true.
There has been slippage among Republicans since he was inaugurated. Republican support is down 7 percent. Among those who are really strongly supporting him, it’s down a little more. And so there’s been some slippage. It’s a slow erosion.
I think, right now, he can only — he is at 39, or whatever it is, percent approval rating.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.
That is bad, but it’s not cataclysmic, especially among his base. So the problem is right now not a mass public erosion of support. Right now, the problem is in Washington, where he actually has to govern. The senators, as Mark said, did a very good job. But there is a huge wall of difference between a lot of those Republican senators and the Trump administration. And they are not going to be getting any closer.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Just, Judy, one point David made about the interest.
The Nielsen ratings just came out. There were 19.5 million people who watched that daytime. It began 7:00 on the West Coast. All right? That’s a big audience, Judy. Compare it, there were 20 million who watched Sunday night’s NBA final between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. That’s a turnout.
And a lot more people obviously saw the news and the clips and the reports and this show. And so I think, you know, it’s not the same thing as, you know, war coverage or whatever, but there is real interest in this.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, David, I hear — just quickly, I hear both of you saying it’s right now mainly in Washington, but that’s going to filter down, that’s going to have an eventual effect on how people view this.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes.
We could have had a day where the Trump administration really was in like Titanic-like peril, if there had been some testimony about collusion, if there had been some really strong, repeated push for him to obstruct justice. But we didn’t have that. And so we’re looking more long-term now.
JUDY WOODRUFF: David Brooks, Mark Shields, see you next Friday. Have a great weekend.