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Week In Politics: Cease-Fire In Northern Syria And The Impeachment Inquiry


We begin our show today with our regular Week in Politics segment. And we start with the politics of what's happening in Syria. A five-day cease-fire in northern Syria has gone into effect. In that time, Kurdish fighters are supposed to retreat from a strip of land near the border of Turkey. Today, President Trump spoke with the president of Turkey and reiterated his enthusiasm for the deal.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There was a lot of a lot of pain for a couple of days. And, sometimes, you have to go through some pain before you can get a good solution. But the Kurds are very happy about it. President Erdogan in Turkey is satisfied with it. And we are in a very strong position.

CHANG: That is not a universal view. Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah says the pause in fighting is good news, but it is far from a victory.


MITT ROMNEY: The cease-fire does not change the fact that America has abandoned an ally. Adding insult to dishonor, the administration speaks cavalierly, even flippantly, even as our ally has suffered death and casualty.

CHANG: Well, here in the studio to talk about this divide is E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Georgetown's McCourt School and David Brooks of The New York Times.

Hey to both of you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

E J DIONNE: Good to be with you.

CHANG: All right. So we just heard Romney there. A lot of Republican lawmakers have been extremely vocal about their criticism against Trump for pulling out of Syria. Why do you think it has been easier for Republicans on the Hill to call out President Trump on this issue when, most of the time, we've seen them fall in line with him? David, let's start with you.

BROOKS: Well, first, it's not part of the tribal identity politics that something like impeachment is that voters are going to vote on. Second - and they are just genuinely morally appalled by this. I mean, this was Erdogan 27 and Trump 0. Turkey gets what it wants. We've totally caved in on the sanctions. The Russians have more influence in the Middle East. The Syrians have more influence in the Middle East. It's not only a moral atrocity. It's a repudiation of everything - every foreign policy principle every Republican has stood for for the last 70 years. So they're genuinely upset. And they're uncowed by their own voters on this 'cause their own voters are not going to vote them out of office because of Syria.


DIONNE: I basically agree with that. I mean, first of all, I suppose we can credit Donald Trump for bringing the parties together across this big divide they had. It was really striking that in the House, Republicans voted with the Democrats to condemn Trump. One hundred twenty-nine Republicans...

CHANG: Right.

DIONNE: ...Voted with Democrats. Only 60 stuck with them. I think there is an assumption that hardcore Trump base voters care a lot more about immigration and domestic issues than they do about foreign policy. But as David said, this is an absolute catastrophe. Trump has taken a sledgehammer here to America's trustworthiness and credibility. He is speaking a constant flow of nonsense about what he actually did. And he showed yet again that he doesn't care about the details of foreign policy or any process at all. He wants it leader to leader, preferably with an authoritarian-leaning leader like Erdogan.

CHANG: And beyond that, I mean, this isn't happening in a vacuum. The impeachment inquiry is blazing ahead. More and more witnesses are testifying. Pressure is building on the White House. And yesterday, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney came out and said things that directly contradicted the messaging from the White House about whether there was this quid pro quo between President Trump and Ukraine. I just want to know first, what do you guys think? Why on earth would Mulvaney any say what he said yesterday? Have either of you puzzled that one out yet? David, I'm going to start with you again.

BROOKS: Well, I've watched and read the transcript. I think somehow, he had it in his head that saying that they withheld the aid because Ukraine wasn't investigating the 2016 election was not quid pro quo. But it exactly is what quid pro quo is.

CHANG: Exactly.

BROOKS: And so somehow, he's separated these two concepts in his head. And I think we've learned - I think one of the reasons Republicans are rattled this week is that it's clear that the chief of staff Kelly, General Mattis, a lot of people in the White House who are now gone were withholding Trump from being his worst. And now he is unleashed to be his worst. And the quality and competence of the White House staff, from Mulvaney to everybody else around him, including Rudy Giuliani, is at an all-time low. And that has got to just worry a lot of Republicans and everybody else in the country.

CHANG: E.J., what did you make of Mulvaney's comments yesterday?

DIONNE: Well, Mulvaney not only contradicted the spin. He later contradicted himself. I was struck by a line in a Washington Post editorial that either he or the administration decided that, basically, full-scale confession is not a good defense, which is essentially what he had done. I think something really important is happening. The balance of power has shifted between the Congress and the White House in favor of the Congress. Until Ukraine and until Nancy Pelosi said yes, we're going straight for impeachment, the administration was stonewalling. And, really, there were no witnesses. Congress wasn't really unearthing anything. Now with the impeachment inquiry and with a lot of White House officials starting to think it appears not of the present but of what they might look like down the road, what the consequences are for them down the road, Congress is getting a lot of information, and almost none of it is good for the president.

CHANG: Speaking about consequences down the road, I want to play you a clip of an interview that we're going to hear fully elsewhere on this show. Republican Congressman Francis Rooney of Florida says that at first, he did not believe that President Trump would withhold aid to Ukraine unless that country started corruption probes that might advance Trump's political interests. But now listen to what Rooney is saying at this moment.


FRANCIS ROONEY: I was willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt and say, well, OK, maybe they were not related. But then comes on Mick Mulvaney on the TV yesterday and says they were. So it's like he proved up the case that they've been trying to make.

CHANG: David, we have not been hearing a lot from Republicans in terms of breaking with the president on this impeachment inquiry. What do you make of Rooney's comment there? Is there kind of an inflection point that we're seeing happening at this moment?

BROOKS: I don't think so.


CHANG: Tell me why not.

BROOKS: You know, John Kasich is coming out for impeachment. These are not the people who would actually need to shift. What we've learned in the impeachment process is what we learned on that original transcript when this whole thing started, which was that Trump used the aid as a quid pro quo. And we've heard that from testimony from Fiona Hill, from Gordon Sondland. We've basically now understood there was a private Ukraine foreign policy that was run outside the normal apparatus of the state, run by Giuliani and Trump personally. And the question - so that's pretty much established. It's hard for the Republicans to deny that, especially now the White House said it. The debate will now shift, is that impeachable? And so far, Republican voters say no.


DIONNE: I have very little confidence that Republicans in large numbers will turn on Trump. However, I think the lesson of Watergate is when people turn on their president - the president of their own party - it doesn't happen in dribs and drabs. Something comes out that just changes the whole conversation. And a lot of people shift all at once. And I think the calculation that Republicans may make at some point is that whatever risk they have with their own base, Trump may turn out to be such an albatross for them in the next election that turning on them - turning on him is the only politically wise thing to do. We're not there yet.

CHANG: All right. That's E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Georgetown's McCourt School and David Brooks of The New York Times.

Thanks to both of you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

DIONNE: Great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.