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Week In Politics: Russia Investigation, Senate Health Bill


With the political news cycle churning at high speed, our Friday regulars are here to slow it down and sort it out for us. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and The Brookings Institution, hi there.

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

SHAPIRO: David Brooks of The New York Times, welcome back.


SHAPIRO: You have both been in Washington when other presidents were under investigation, and this inquiry seems to be moving much faster than in the past. Just in the last few days, the developments include reports that Trump is being investigated for obstruction, Trump attacking the prosecutors, Vice President Pence hiring a private lawyer, reports the investigation is now looking into Jared Kushner's business dealings. I could keep going. What are the most important elements here that people should be paying attention to right now, David?

BROOKS: Well, first, if Trump would just shut up, this would go away, but he can't do that. You know, I'm becoming of the mind that the underlying allegation that there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia is maybe a nothing burger or maybe the least important thing going on here.

Two things we know about investigations which are happening at, as you say, warp speed in this one. The first is, they go on forever, and they go off in unexpected directions. The Whitewater investigation - when that cut started, Monica Lewinsky was in college and unknown. And it turned to be all about her. And that's 'cause they go off on tangents.

And the second thing is, within the White House, they create a rising tide of paranoia because nobody knows who's being investigated, who's testifying against who. And you can't do your job because you're just enveloped. And that seems to be happening here with the president. It's his own Captain Ahab tendencies that seem to be driving much of the news.

SHAPIRO: E.J., if we're trying to keep our eye on the ball, where is the ball right now?

DIONNE: Well, this is getting more intricate in plot than a John le Carre novel - wheels within wheels within wheels. I mean you had yesterday. Last night, you had Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein send out that weird tweet saying, pay no attention to these anonymous leaks. And he said...

SHAPIRO: It was actually a statement, too.


SHAPIRO: It was, like, a long Justice Department statement on letterhead.

DIONNE: Yeah. And one of the things he said is, when we don't know what countries the leaks are from, what is he implying there? And then as we were talking before the show, the Justice Department let it be known through an anonymous leak that Rosenstein had not been ordered to make that statement by Donald Trump.

I don't - the only area I disagree a little bit with David on is I don't know if we have any idea yet that the Russia story goes nowhere. Where I do agree with him is this investigation seems to be going in many other directions as well. Mr. Mueller has hired sort of forensic accountants people like that. You wonder if an investigation into Russia will turn into a money laundering investigation, as many have suggested. And you wonder if President Trump is more worried about the ancillary effects, the collateral damage to him rather than the damage from the original allegation.

SHAPIRO: David, you argued that this investigation is preventing the White House from pursuing its agenda. But I've also heard people say that the investigation is effectively acting as a smokescreen, where we are all paying attention to the Russia story, and other things actually are happening that we're not paying attention to.

BROOKS: Yeah, I wouldn't say they're happening at the White House. I don't think the White House has been involved, whether it's health care, whether it's Afghanistan. I don't notice too much White House involvement. What I noticed in the White House is everybody worrying what the president's going to tweet about the Russian investigation and then everybody lawyering up. And we saw Vice President Pence lawyering up. Everybody's lawyering up. And that is not just going to be at the top levels.

To another Whitewater peril, Betty Currie was Bill Clinton's secretary - stopped naming junior people to the investigators 'cause every time she'd, remember, mention a junior White House staffer, the investigators would subpoena that person. And suddenly they're hit with tens of thousands of dollars' worth of legal fees. So that's the reality they're all in the White House working with.

DIONNE: But I agree with your premise, Ari, that President Trump is in an odd way providing cover for some of what's going on on Capitol Hill. For example, there is a health care bill, a repeal of Obamacare that's being written entirely in secret. And it's only in the last couple of days where this secret effort to create a bill that members themselves don't know what's in it has really started getting the attention it should have gotten quite a while ago.

So I think it is true that certain things may be happening elsewhere in government. And who is paying attention to all of the regulatory rollbacks that the administration is carrying out when all the news is about Russia and all these other related stories?

SHAPIRO: This health care bill that you're referring to is being worked on by the Senate after the House passed a version of it. And there has been pushback not only from Democrats but also Republicans about the secrecy, the fact that there have been no public hearings, no debate. Let's listen to Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska speaking about this with Alaska Public Radio.

LISA MURKOWSKI: Yeah, I've got a problem with it. If I'm not going to see a bill before we have a vote on it, that's just not a good way to handle something that is as significant as - and important as health care.

SHAPIRO: David, this doesn't seem like a good strategy to hold the Republican caucus together if Republican senators are upset about it.

BROOKS: Well, I understand why Mitch McConnell is doing this. He's got a bunch of, like - imagine a bunch of dials, and he's trying to adjust them to get 51 votes - sort of the preexisting condition dial, the tax credit dial, all the other dials. And it's super hard to get 51 votes for this thing, so I understand. Just keep it close. Don't have a big debate.

But as a matter of public policy, it's craziness. I've never seen a bill of this significance be passed in this way. It's craziness because public debate actually does inform the health of the bill. And second, people are going to find out eventually (laughter). It's like you're debating whether to hit somebody. You know, I won't debate it, but if you hit them, they will find out.

DIONNE: And I think the fear is that there is - you can't cut taxes as much as they want to cut them with this bill without taking health care away from an awful lot of people. And he seems not to want that out there to create the kind of mass movement you saw when the bill came up in the House. I think if these Republican senators are upset, any three of them can walk into Mitch McConnell's office and say, you're not going to get my vote, period, unless you carry this process out in public. And we'll see if three of them are willing to do that.

SHAPIRO: I want to end with a moment of unity and civility that Washington saw this week tragically created by a gunman who shot Congressman Steve Scalise and three others at a Republican baseball practice. Last night at the Congressional Baseball Game, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi spoke with CNN about ways to bridge partisan divides.


PAUL RYAN: We need to find more opportunities for Republicans and Democrats to break bread. I mean literally just go have meals with one another.

NANCY PELOSI: I thought you were going to brag about how much my grandchildren are your big fans.

RYAN: That's right, yeah. Her grandkids actually like me.


RYAN: Go figure.

SHAPIRO: David, do you think this is likely to last?

BROOKS: No. You know, I - they have to, A - at the leadership level, they have to do projects together. It's not enough to break bread. They have to do stuff together. Secondly, this is a deep polarization in the country. What struck me is the study when they asked people, would you mind if your son or daughter married somebody of the opposing party, it used to be very few people would mind. Now, like, 40 percent would mind, and that's - shows how our politics has become our ethnic identity. And we've got to create some new ethnic identities that transcend politics.

SHAPIRO: E.J., if you were to write a prescription for solving this problem, what would it include?

DIONNE: Start all over again. I mean first of all, I would credit - Ryan and Pelosi have been - gave very powerful speeches when this first happened. Now, you could say, well, for goodness sake, one of - a member of Congress was shot, and all these other folks were shot. At least they - can't they come together around that? Still, they showed us something there that I think we should admire.

But the - you can't have the kind of political disagreement you have now on issues ranging from taxes and health care to how to deal with Donald Trump and a disagreement that is as deep in the country as it is in Washington and expect this to change overnight. But I do think more meals together are a good idea. I just don't think that'll solve the problem. But they might have a little fun for a change.

SHAPIRO: E.J. Dionne and David Brooks, thanks for coming in. Have a great weekend.

BROOKS: You too.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAVELIN'S "WE AH WI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.