David Brooks On Condolence Call: "Trump Is Not Oprah, He Doesn't Speak Empathy Particularly Well"


PBS: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the week’s news, including the fracas over President Trump’s condolence call to a Gold Star widow, two former presidents and Sen. John McCain express critiques of politics in the Trump era, the president’s reversal on a bipartisan plan to shore up health insurance markets and more.

Transcript, via PBS NewsHour:

Hari Sreenivasan: It was another news-packed week in Washington, as President Trump dealt with outcry over his comments to a Gold Star family and the public statements of his presidential predecessors.

It’s time for the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, let’s start with this controversy that sprung from really a tragedy of four soldiers in Niger. And then we have the president, the chief of staff, a widow, and a congresswoman all involved in this.

Mark Shields: Well, first, the reason we have it is the president.

Whenever he’s on the defensive or can’t ask — answer a question, his default position is to attack and criticize. In this case, he criticized his predecessors for the fact that, 12 days, there had been no communication, no statement from the White House on the four fallen Americans in Niger, or what their mission was, how it happened.

And he so tried to absolve himself by attacking, unfairly and inaccurately, President Obama and President Bush.

And it became so bad, the political bleeding, that they felt it necessary to bring out General John Kelly, the chief of staff of the president. General Kelly is a four-star Marine general who served himself, whose son Robert was killed in combat in Afghanistan, Marine lieutenant, and about whom he asks people not to talk, not to speak.

When he’s introduced, he prefers that that not be mentioned. And it became — his chief of staff obligations obviously superseded. And he stepped in to stop the bleeding for Donald Trump. He spoke eloquently. He smoke movingly. He spoke from personal experience and conviction.

And then he went too far. He went on an ad hominem or ad feminam attack upon Congresswoman Wilson of Florida, which was inaccurate. He said that these are private communications.

Probably the third most quoted writing of Abraham Lincoln is his letter to Mrs. Bixby, the mother of five sons who were killed in the Civil War.

So, you know, he defended. He was on the high ground. He’s got a marvelous record. But now he’s in the mix. He’s now a chief of staff, and he’s mixing it up.

David Brooks: Yes, I’m reminded. What did Karl Marx write, that all historical events happen twice. First is tragedy, and next is farce.

And so we had the four soldiers killed. That was the tragedy. And then Trump made the call. And one imagines he made the call and repeated, in clumsy form, what John Kelly said, that the soldier died doing what he loved to do with his best — and with the best among them, that he chose to be among the 1 percent, the best among us.

And Donald Trump is not Oprah. He doesn’t speak empathy particularly well. And I’m sure it was clumsy. And so that happened.

And then it’s off to the circus. And so we then get a political charge against Trump. And then Trump lies and says something about Obama, and then it’s just back and forth.

And these are like the typical pseudo-events of the Trump era, where it’s really about nothing, except we want to have a fight with each other. And so they’re going to have a fight over something, and nobody, to my mind, comes out looking particularly well.

Hari Sreenivasan: Senator McCain earlier this week, when receiving an award at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, he — I want to get his quote right — he spoke out about — quote — “half-baked, spurious nationalism.”

But what was interesting was, later in the week, just yesterday, we had both presidents before Trump, Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama, in separate speeches come out and make statements. They didn’t call Trump out by name.

But let’s take a listen to what they said.

Former President Barack Obama:

Instead of our politics reflecting our values, we have got politics infecting our communities.


Former President Barack Obama: Instead of looking for ways to work together and get things done in a practical way, we have got folks who are deliberately trying to make folks angry, to demonize people who have different ideas.

Former President George W. Bush: Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication. We have seen nationalism distorted into nativism. We have forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America.

Hari Sreenivasan: Mark?

Mark Shields: Yes, there’s no question whom they’re talking about.

They don’t have to say Donald Trump’s name in all three cases. And John McCain — George W. Bush had been quite circumspect, quite silent during the eight years of Barack Obama, even, if we recall, during the debate in South Carolina in 2016 when he accused George W. Bush of knowing that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and yet sending Americans into combat and some to death.

But McCain, I think, speaks from a position that is unassailable. I mean, this is a man that Trump said he is not a hero. He was — he spent five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war being tortured every day. And he said — and the rest of his life has been devoted to public service. He hasn’t closed any big real estate deals, so he doesn’t qualify.

But I thought — I think the challenge has been laid down. I mean, Jeff Flake has picked it up. Bob Corker has picked it up. To some degree, Ben Sasse has. But what are the other Republicans going to do? Are they just going to remain silent?

David Brooks: Yes.

And Steve Bannon has a theory about world history, and among them, that the post-world — post-World War II international order was a mistake and we should get rid of it. And Donald Trump sort of has that theory.

And no one has made the case for what was a bipartisan consensus in favor of that order, and in favor of a certain story of America, that we’re a country of immigrants, that we’re a country of the future, that we’re not a country and blood and soil.

And so Bannon and Trump have had the intellectual field to themselves, at least as far as elected officials have gone. And it’s true that neither Obama, Bush, or probably McCain are ever going to run for office again, but at least they’re making the case.

At least the counterargument is beginning to be made. And I think what’s occurring to a lot of people is that, first, we’re in a 50-year debate about what the 21st century — well, maybe an 83-year debate — about what the 21st century is going to look like, and it’s probably going to debate between some form of populism and some form of openness and diversity.

And so it’s occurring to people that they have to get involved in that debate.

And second, I think, as Steve Bannon has gone to pick off other Republicans, it’s become clear to a lot of people in the Republican Party, there’s no escaping this debate, that you can’t hide and hope you will get ignored and that Bannon will pass you over.
Mark Shields:

Even in Wyoming.

David Brooks: Even in Wyoming.

They’re coming after you.

Mark Shields: Yes.

David Brooks: And so you might as well take a side. And so I think we’re finally beginning to see some two-sided debate out of this.

Hari Sreenivasan: All right, let’s talk a little bit about health care.

There was a bit of confusion on that front, too, on where the White House stood, where the legislative agenda stood.

Two senators, Senator Alexander and Senator Murray, have been working together, reached what in other Congresses would be something pretty normal, a bipartisan approach to this. Yet there’s still a lot of tension on whether this is going to move forward or not.

Mark Shields: Yes.

No, and I think the jury is very much out, but both parties — it’s what legislating used to be about. Both — you give up something, in hopes of getting something. The Democrats see this as a way of sustaining and strengthening the Affordable Care Act. Republicans realize that they can’t go into 2018 just having eliminated health care for 18 to 20 million Americans.

So if they have any hope of any ever block-granting it or sending it — in some form of repeal and replace. I think there is. But the president was for it, before he was against it. And then he was for Lamar Alexander, the Republican senator from Tennessee, and Patty Murray, the senator from Washington, who were the grownups in the room, who actually legislated.
Hari Sreenivasan:

At this point, with 12 Republicans, that’s the 60 votes you need to get it through the Senate, right?

David Brooks: Through the Senate. Yes, it looks that way.

If you have got 12 Republicans and 12 Democratic co-sponsors, it looks pretty good in the Senate. And, as Mark said, it’s just an outbreak of normalcy.

It’s in nobody’s interest for the insurance markets to crater.

Mark Shields: No.

David Brooks: And so you have got some people responding to a genuine problem.

Whether it can get through the House is another question. I think the senators are realistic about that. Paul Ryan has not been super enthusiastic about it. But I think they will defer to the White House.

And we will see whether the White House, as Mark said, changes their minds. But at least you’re beginning to see people behave like senators. And if you can get 12 and 12 co-sponsors on this, why can’t they do some other things? Why can’t they begin to actually get some legislation, at least in the Senate, and put the House on the defensive for a little while?

Mark Shields: Senator McConnell has yet to take a position.

David Brooks: Bravely.


Hari Sreenivasan: Yes.

Paul Ryan was at the Al Smith Dinner last night, one of the few times of year that people seem to put down their swords, walk into a place to raise some funds.

Let’s take a listen to a couple of the jokes that he had here.

Mark Shields: OK.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) .: And when you read the papers tomorrow, everyone is going to report this thing differently.

Breitbart is going to lead with, Ryan slams the president amongst liberal elites.



Rep. Paul Ryan: New York Times is going to report, Ryan defends the president in a state Hillary won.


Rep. Paul Ryan: And the president will tweet, 300,000 at Al Smith Dinner cheer mention of my name.


Hari Sreenivasan: Now, the reason jokes are often funnier is, well, there’s some truth to them. Right?

And there were several other very good one-liners in another videotape of, but how much of this is stuff that has to sort of be cleared by the White House? How much of this is a pressure release, an opportunity for Paul Ryan to say the things that otherwise he doesn’t say?

Mark Shields: Well, I mean, it was a side of Paul Ryan that has been kept, I would say, out of the public eye. David could tell us whether that’s what Republicans wear when they’re alone in private, that white tie deal.


Mark Shields: But, I mean, it’s good to laugh. He showed an ability to laugh both at himself, as well as the president.

And, as he said, he wakes up every morning, the first thing he does is troll through his tweets to see which one of the president’s tweets he’s going to have to deny that he read that day.

So, he did show a certain awareness. And I think humor — whatever you say about this administration, it is humor-free. I mean, self-deprecating humor and Donald Trump are mutually exclusive.
David Brooks:

Republicans wear riding jackets to dinner.


David Brooks: It was a Catholic dinner, so I thought it was…

David Brooks: You go to dinner every night.

Mark Shields: It was a Catholic dinner for Al Smith, the first Catholic nominee. And we have elected a Catholics since then, John Kennedy, and then John Kennedy, and then Jack Kennedy.


Mark Shields: Yes.

David Brooks: It’s always a great dinner, not that I have been. But I watch on C-SPAN.


David Brooks: But it’s always funny, with one exception, and that was Donald Trump last year.

Mark Shields: That’s exactly right.

David Brooks: He turned it into what usually is quite a funny dinner into just a bitter diatribe.

And that — you know, you can tell a lot about a person by whether they laugh, how they laugh, and what they tell their jokes about.

Hari Sreenivasan: Yes.

David Brooks: And Paul Ryan is a genuinely — he’s a good guy. He’s stuck in a miserable circumstance, but he’s a good guy. And he can be quite funny.
Hari Sreenivasan:

All right, David Brooks, Mark Shields, both funny men.

Mark Shields: Thank you.


Hari Sreenivasan:Thank you.

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