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Week In Politics: Fallout Continues Over Firing Of FBI Director Comey

May 19, 2017
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now we're going to try to take stock of this jaw-dropping, eye-popping superlative-defying week in politics. Here in the studio with us are our Friday regulars, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and The Brookings Institution. How you doing?

E J DIONNE: Good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: And David Brooks of The New York Times. Hi there.

DAVID BROOKS: How are you?

SHAPIRO: Well, I don't know where to begin, from Trump disclosing secrets to Russia, to his asking the FBI director to drop an investigation, to the Justice Department naming a special counsel and the president calling it a witch hunt, and then just today as we heard reports that Trump called Comey a nut job. I think I have to ask whether either of you has ever seen a week in politics quite like this one. David?

BROOKS: You know, one volcano would have been enough, but we get like 14 every day about mid-afternoon, another explosion. To me, the story of today, you know, we used to have a better class of criminal. When a president obstructed justice, he didn't brag about it. He would try to hide it, cover it up a little. But Donald Trump not only went on national TV and said he was trying to quash this investigation, he's apparently told our adversaries, the Russians. And so I really don't know if he's obstructed justice, but he is certainly bragging about it as if he did.

SHAPIRO: I mean, you use the phrase better class of criminal almost jokingly, but, E.J., do you believe there's criminality here? Is that what the signs are pointing to?

DIONNE: I think we're getting close to that. I mean, it is really striking, this story that came out just now a few - a little while ago from The New York Times has Trump very explicitly saying that he got rid of Comey because he regarded him as a, quote, "nut job" and because he was getting in the way of his rapprochement with Russia.

And what's so striking is that the White House statement from Sean Spicer specifically supports that. It said, as Scott reported earlier, it created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia. So this is - this story is getting more and more dangerous. And I think the pressure is going to build to get this over with sooner rather than later.

I was really struck this week - Wall Street Journal editorial page, conservative page, they've tried to be sympathetic with Trump. They wrote, presidencies can withstand only so much turbulence before they come apart. If I were Trump, I'd start worrying when places like The Wall Street Journal editorial page writes stuff like that.

SHAPIRO: You know, when I ask have we ever seen a week like this, it sounds rhetorical, but I actually am curious. In a way, the Trump administration has almost started desensitizing us to a certain level of chaos. How extraordinary are the developments that we've seen this week?

BROOKS: I'd say what's extraordinary to me is that the White House staff has turned on the president in a big way. Not only dozens and dozens of anonymous attacks on the president for being clueless, for being sloppy, for being narcissistic from the staff, but The New York Times story today - and I have not talked to the reporters about it - is based on a series of leaks from the White House staff, from papers that were spread around the senior levels of the White House.

And so that means you not only have some Deep Throat deep in the administration somewhere as happened in Watergate, it seems like there are squads of Deep Throats. And so that's something we've just not seen before.

SHAPIRO: And that seems likely to accelerate as things look worse and worse for the president, right?

DIONNE: Well, what you seem to have are people in the White House who are worried for the Republic, who worry about Trump. I mean, there have been reports that sometimes White House officials and others around the government go to the press not simply to dump on Trump but actually to send him messages because they can't really get him to listen to advice unless they put it out there in the press somewhere, which is very useful for readers, but it really shows a dysfunctional White House.

And I think you have a lot of people who may have been loyal to Trump who are already looking around and saying, how do I get out of here? That's what the report suggested this week.

SHAPIRO: And let's remember, we are only four months into the presidency. And however Robert Mueller's investigation may conclude, it probably won't conclude quickly. How does this level of intensity sustain?

DIONNE: One of the things that I've been thinking about - I'm - unfortunately I'm one of the only people sitting at this table old enough to have a good memory of Watergate. And what's striking about this is how swiftly everything has moved. He's been in office - I'll get the count wrong - about 120 days, and we are already at a point where we were - what it feels like is almost near the end of Watergate.

Now, independent counsels take their time. We may have more time in all of this, but the acceleration is like nothing that I can remember in my lifetime.

BROOKS: But he could linger for a long time. The investigation could go on for months. And to me, what's significant is that we've never had a White House implode before it's staffed up before. And so this is so new, they haven't had time to hire people.

Nixon actually had quite a good administrative staff by the time Watergate hit, so the government could sort of go on and function, but nobody in their right mind is now going to want to join the crew of vipers over there in the Trump administration. So that's going to be an empty, dysfunctional administration no matter what else happens with the investigation.

SHAPIRO: What does that mean for the myriad functions that government is supposed to serve every day, not just in the White House but in the departments and agencies throughout the government?

DIONNE: Well, fortunately we do have civil servants and - who actually do their jobs. And a lot will depend on what the leadership in Cabinet departments decides. Trump seems to want a government that does a whole lot less. They - he may well succeed in that, although not through means that he would have chosen. But the other question is, what can Congress do?

Now, a lot of Republicans seem to be hoping that because there is now an independent counsel, they can compartmentalize all this and say, well, let's move on to the agenda, but it becomes a lot harder to pass an agenda when the president who's supposed to be fighting with you is under this kind of pressure.

SHAPIRO: The conservative writer Charles Krauthammer wrote in the National Review describing these last 10 days, saying chaos reigns, no guard rails can hold, nothing can escape the black hole of a three-part presidential meltdown. Now, although Krauthammer is conservative, he's not a fan of Trump, but do you both think the situation is really that dire?

BROOKS: We've entered Jean-Paul Sartre's "No Exits." We're in - we're locked in the cell.

DIONNE: Or Samuel Beckett.

BROOKS: Yes. You know, I think it can last. You know, I don't think Trump is the kind of guy who's going to get sick and tired of this. The wheels of justice turn very slowly. I can't imagine having this set of blows, this level of blows and just sustaining as a country.

And the other thing that has to be worried about is that we as sort of inside the Beltway types turn on Trump and the rest of the country decides that he's not being given a fair shake. If there - he is going to be removed from office, it has to be some - through pretty gradual and pretty legalistic means.

DIONNE: I've been looking pretty carefully at the polls. And I think that when you're talking about a quarter of the country, 25 percent, who are true hardcore Trump holdouts, I think a vast majority of the country might be ready to see this end. You're going to need the evidence to push him out so you don't have that kind of backlash, but I think Republicans are going to have to start thinking about, can we govern this way? Can we go on like this much longer?

And now you have a new question which we never asked before, what did the vice president know, and when did he know it? Because now there's focus on what Mike Pence knew about Michael Flynn and all that.

SHAPIRO: Well, I'll have to save that conversation for next week. E.J. Dionne, great having you here.

DIONNE: Good to be here.

SHAPIRO: And David Brooks, thank you as always.

BROOKS: Thank you.

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