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Week In Politics: Clinton Foundation, Drone Strikes


Columnists E J Dionne and David Brooks are with us, as they are most Fridays, to talk about this week in political news. E J with The Washington Post; David with The New York Times. Welcome back to you both.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Good to be here.

BLOCK: And let's start with the killing of those two Western hostages in the U.S. drone strike. The White House has called this a tragic, unintended consequence. E J, let's start with you. Should the U.S. be rethinking its heavy use of drones against al-Qaida?

DIONNE: I think we should be rethinking the use of drones. We've almost become addicted to drones. I don't think my colleague Gene Robinson in The Washington Post was far off when he said this is war by assassination. It is clear that drones - the president does not want to commit large numbers of American troops to war again. That's understandable. And there is a precision with the drones, but it's far from perfect, and it's very hard for those operators to know who's in a building. Scott Shane in the New York Times - every independent investigation of the strikes have found far more civilian casualties than administration officials admit. They're a legitimate use - they're a legitimate weapon to use in warfare, but I do think this should encourage a rethinking.

BLOCK: And, David, what's your thought? What would the alternative be?

BROOKS: Yeah, well, that would be one of my questions. What are we going to do? Anybody who is familiar with the awfulness of war is familiar with friendly fire circumstances. In World War II, there was the Allerona train disaster in which American bombers killed 400 American, British and South-African POWs. That just happens. It's not an occasion to rethink. I mean, we should always rethink one thing - are we creating more enemies than we're killing? And that's a legitimate question. But to think that we should be shocked by a tragedy like this one or a friendly fire incident is to be ignorant of the way war is. War is never perfect.

DIONNE: Obviously, war is never perfect and - but I think it is always shocking when two innocent people get killed when you know about it. Again, the issue is not should drones be ruled out entirely - I don't believe that. But we have used drones so much that I think an incident like this should get us to rethink.

BLOCK: Let's move on and talk about a story that's been a lot in the news this week, and it has to do with the Clinton family's finances. A lot of questions being raised in stories this week about millions of dollars in donations to the Clinton family foundation. Also speaking fees paid to Bill Clinton and the overriding question, of course, is whether Hillary Clinton used her position as secretary of state to help those donors. David, how troubled are you by this?

BROOKS: I was surprised by how egregious it is. I do think the amounts of money, especially from this uranium case - the uranium company that was paying into the foundation, into the family, millions of dollars. At the same time, Hillary was on a board with some jurisdiction over the mergers and acquisitions involved in this company from which it was benefiting. That just seems to me a very clear case, especially in cases where they're not reporting all the money that was coming in. So I'm surprised and I'm a little startled by what we're learning and - but it does reveal a central paradox of Hillary Clinton right now, which are in the polls. If you ask Americans is Hillary Clinton a strong leader? They say yes. If they ask do you trust her, only 38 percent say yes. And so people are trying to make a determination. They think she's competent. They don't think she's particularly honest or trustworthy. Is it still worth electing a person like that? But, you know, I think we're just going to accept when we have the Clintons, we're going to have a long series of low-level scandals that are just - go along with the parade.

BLOCK: Well, E J, a Hillary Clinton spokesman has called this a smear project of false attacks by people desperate to tear Hillary Clinton down. Worth pointing out - it's not just the forthcoming book by a conservative author, Peter Schweizer, that's raising these questions. The New York Times, The Washington Post - both of your newspapers - a number of others have also been reporting on this. How far does this go do you think?

DIONNE: Well, I think there are two issues here. The first question is, is it legitimate to ask questions about all the money that was sloshing through the Clinton Foundation? No, that's something the press should look at. I also hope they might look at the interests of all the people - these mega-donors to all the Republican candidates as well. On the other hand, on this specific story, what you've got is a lot of dots and no connections. You know, for example, Hillary Clinton - there's no evidence that she was even involved in this decision involving Uranium One, the mining company. Frank Giustra, a Canadian businessman who donated to the foundation, had sold his stake in the company. So I think with the Clintons there is always a tendency to assume the worst even when it's not there. So yes, ask questions, but also verify what you've got.

BROOKS: I would say there are two levels of scandal here. One is, is there an explicit quid pro quo, as we saw with Governor McDonnell in Virginia there. It was pretty explicit. He was helping a businessman. He was giving him money. The second - I doubt we'll see that and I really would be shocked if the Clintons were that crude. But nonetheless, there is a culture of oligarchy, if you want to put it that way, where you're hanging around a lot of rich people who are giving you a lot of money and they never connect the dots. And sometimes they're giving you money partially for good reasons, partly for selfish reasons, and you're just in the mix. And the Clintons were in the mix with a lot of people and not - some of those people were not particularly nice people. And so they were in the mix. If I were a Democrat, I would just be saying, you know, we need a plan here. I think that's a big lesson from this week. She may be great, she may be nominated, she may be a great president. But if I were Democrats, I'd be asking some hard question about the monopoly status she has now.

DIONNE: Well, first of all, I think David just made an excellent case for campaign finance reform when he's talking about people being in the company of very rich people. And you look at the role of the mega donors in this campaign, which is unprecedented that the primary for their support, as it were. And yes, I think there are some questions about all the money that went into the Clinton Foundation. But again, people have to be careful in saying she did X when she didn't do X. And so again, all these stories should be read almost through to the footnotes.

BLOCK: And they're complicated stories to read all the way through. We did hear Mitt Romney responding to this today, saying at best he considers this an ethical morass. At worst, it looks like bribery. Does that sound much like the tone you would expect to hear for the rest of the presidential campaign, David Brooks?

BROOKS: Yeah. I guess so. I don't think it's bribery. I do think it's the way the network works these days, that you do a favor, you don't ask for a return favor right away. But then you're just - you know, you've planted the seed of goodwill. Money is supposed to buy attention, buys goodwill. And that's - I think that's the case here. But still, accepting the money when she's sitting on board of this company and not reporting it, that's by itself - that's questionable.

DIONNE: On the board of this company - anyway, I don't - I'll leave it at that.

BROOKS: She's on the merger board, not on - she's on this government board.

DIONNE: But she apparently played no role in the decision. The State Department is connected to this board. Anyway, we could go on like this. Let's...

BROOKS: It wouldn't pass muster at either of our newspapers.

DIONNE: Let's talk about the fact that Loretta Lynch got confirmed...

BLOCK: And will be sworn in on Monday. And that - we'll save that as a topic for our future conversation. E J Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times, also author of the new book, "The Road To Character."

Thanks to you both.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.