Week In Politics: Obama In Brussels And A Bridge Scandal Report
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And we pick up there with our Friday regulars E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Hey there, E.J.
E.J. DIONNE: Hey.
CORNISH: And David Brooks of The New York Times. Hey David.
DAVID BROOKS: How are you?
CORNISH: So I want to continue the conversation about President Obama and go back to a speech he gave in Brussels on Wednesday. In it, he spoke about Russia, about NATO, about bigger ideas about the U.S. role in the world.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Russia's leadership is challenging truths that only a few weeks ago seemed self evident, that in the 21st century the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn with force.
CORNISH: David, over the last few weeks we talked quite a bit about Vladimir Putin and speeches he gave. What did you make of these comments from President Obama?
BROOKS: Well, he understands the problem. That's a very good encapsulation of what we're facing here, that Putin really does threaten what's left of the post-Cold War era where we don't have spheres of influence, where countries don't bend the borders of others, and so he really did a very nice job of asserting that point.
And they have ratcheted up the sanctions pretty well. If I would fault him, it would be on two things. One, they're not hitting Putin and his inner circle hard enough with the sanctions, and second, the president has been too quick to take all military deterrents off the table, even to the extent of arming the Ukrainians, whatever it would be. He said military deterrence does not work. But, of course, military deterrence does work, especially if the Russians amass troops on the Ukrainian border.
DIONNE: Well, just on that point, it's clear that we have a commitment to defending NATO and he was right. He said it explicitly that he didn't want to make a promise that we couldn't keep, and I don't think anybody believes we would send troops to Ukraine. But there is an upside to this crisis that we saw this week in the president's speech.
Relations with Europe had kind of frayed. They weren't terrible and President Obama's still quite popular in Europe, but there's been a feeling throughout his administration that he didn't care very much about Europe or think very much about them. And this speech was a very strong assertion of our common values, our common interests.
He took some pokes at Putin. Instead of targeting our gay brothers and sisters, he said, we can use our laws, meaning the West, to protect their rights. The Financial Times had a good editorial suggesting this may actually, Putin's actions may be a very good thing for the Western alliance, and I think that may turn out to be the case.
CORNISH: I want to mention one more noted meeting and that was between the president and the pope. You know, the White House said their conversation was about inequality and the poor. The Vatican had these kind of veiled comments about - that seemed to be read as a commentary on abortion and contraception. E.J.?
DIONNE: What seems to have happened is the Vatican always is deferential to local bishops and so they were going to bring that up somehow. What the president said, and I understand this is the case, that this was brought up by the Vatican secretary of state and that the talk with the pope himself focused much more on the economic and the social justice issues that they had in common.
I think in American terms what may have some real impact is their talk about immigration. And the pope is very committed to immigrants and refugees, and I think you may see some more ratcheting up of Catholic support, which is already strong for immigration reform.
CORNISH: David, a wide-ranging talk with a very popular cultural figure in the world right now. What did you make of the president's meeting?
BROOKS: Yeah, I wish he had treated the pope as the pope - that is to say, not exchanging a series of banal talking points as if they were some global summit between national leaders, but treat the pope as a spiritual personality and take it as an opportunity, first to learn how the pope has really changed the narrative of the Catholic Church by going back to the beatitudes, going back to the basics, and really, as a style of leadership I think the pope has a lot to offer any world leader.
And secondly, I always want the president to go in and say - for personal counseling. Here's a deeply spiritual man, deeply skilled at personal counseling. I'm a world leader. How am I not corrupted by this kind sort of power? How do I lead my life? I always think that's how you should treat the pope, not as a national figure.
CORNISH: E.J., I see you jumping in here.
DIONNE: Well, first of all, the pope is an important political figure whether you like it or not, and second - and I'm not saying David dislikes it - but the second is, I think Obama did do a little of that. We don't know what they actually said, but at the end of their visit, the pope gave him his letter - his apostolic exhortation, "The Joy of the Gospel." That is a very serious document and a spiritual document and Obama said he would turn to it when he was down.
And so I think he may have gotten a little of that pastoral counseling that David hopes he got.
CORNISH: Well, I want to turn now to some domestic politics. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, yesterday, his office released results of an internal investigation that essentially cleared the governor of wrongdoing in connection with the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge last year. Now, today Christie announced that another of his top allies is resigning and I want to talk to you guys about this.
But let's get more detail from NPR's Joel Rose. He has the latest on this story. Stay where you are.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The Christie administration's internal investigation was billed as objective and thorough, but critics say it's neither. Today, Governor Christie faced a skeptical press corps in Trenton and tried to downplay concerns about the report.
GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: We gave them unfettered, complete access to everyone in this government, and allowed them to interview people multiple times if they so desired, on multiple occasions, in order to try to get to the bottom of things.
ROSE: Christie says the report confirms that he had nothing to do with the plan to close the lanes. Investigators did not get to interview some key players in the scandal, including David Samson, he's a mentor to Governor Christie, and he was the governor's top appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the Gorge Washington bridge, until today, when Christie announces Samson's resignation.
CHRISTIE: He believes that the best way to start a new year at the Port Authority is with new leadership. In line with that belief, David tendered his resignation to me this afternoon, effective immediately.
ROSE: Christie says Samson's resignation had been in the works for a year, but internal Port Authority email suggests that Samson knew about the lane closures while they were happening. The internal investigation puts the blame squarely on former Christie staffers and appointees who have since resigned or been fired, but it does not offer any explanation as to why the lanes were closed in the first place. For that we may have to wait for separate investigations by the U.S. attorney for New Jersey and the state legislature to play out. Joel Rose, NPR News.
CORNISH: And back to our political observers David Brooks and E.J. Dionne. David, I'm going to let you start here. We hear the governor, you know, defending this independent review, but these resignations, do they help, or is this a sign of more bad news?
BROOKS: Well, I think there's - this doesn't clear him. It was an internal review. We've got two other reviews, which will have more credibility. But I think it seems unlikely there's a smoking gun. There's probably not an email sitting out there to prove that Christie knew about what was going on. I can't imagine the law firm would've buried that.
Having watched Governor Christie perform in front of some Republican donors groups, though, I will say I'm struck by how little they care about this. The questions are never on this; they're on other national issues. So I'm not sure it'll hurt him as much in the Republican primary field, to the extent that we care about that, as much as some people think.
DIONNE: Well so far this has hurt him if you look at the polls not only in the general population, the general public, but also among Republicans. And I'm not sure this report will - it may have hurt more than it helps because a million taxpayer dollars went into this. The New York Times editorialized that it was an expensive whitewash. It really reads much more like a brief for Christie than it does like an investigation.
And there's one thing they did in there that I think is going to offend a lot of people. The two key figures in this whom they didn't interview, Bridget Kelly, a top aide to Governor Christie, and Bill Stepien, the report talked about a relationship they had, a personal relationship. And they brought it up again and again. I don't think most voters or citizens like bringing up personal relationships in the context of this. There was no predicate for why it was in there.
So I think that David's right for there are a lot of Republicans who won't care about it, but I think this is going to hang around for a while. You could hear Christie in his news conference hoping this would draw a line under the thing, but I'm not - I don't think it will.
CORNISH: Yes, David, you're saying this now, but we've got two more investigations to go, right?
BROOKS: Right. But the fact is we still don't have evidence that he did know. So until there's evidence, it's sort of a cloud, but it's not a wound, let's put it that way.
CORNISH: All right, we're going to leave it there. David Brooks of The New York Times, thanks so much for speaking with us.
BROOKS: Thank you.
CORNISH: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Thanks, E.J.
DIONNE: Thank you.
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