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Barbershop: U.S. Strike On Syria, SCOTUS Confirmation And Trump's Administration


Now it's time for the Barbershop. That's where we sit down with a group of interesting folks to talk about the news of the week and what's on their minds. So joining us for a shape-up this week are William Douglas. He covers Congress for McClatchy News here in Washington, D.C. He's here with us in our D.C. studios. Bill, welcome. Thanks for coming.

WILLIAM DOUGLAS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Amy Davidson is a staff writer at The New Yorker. She's in our New York bureau. Amy, thank you so much for coming as well.

AMY DAVIDSON: Thanks for having me here.

MARTIN: And Charlie Sykes is a longtime conservative talk show host. He recently retired from hosting his own show, and he decided to relax by becoming one of the rotating hosts for the public radio show Indivisible that's tracking the first 100 days of the Trump administration. And he had some guy, some little guy - oh speaker of the House Paul Ryan on the program earlier this week. And Charlie is with us from Milwaukee. Thanks so much for joining us, Charlie, as well.

CHARLIE SYKES: Good to talk with you again, Michel.

MARTIN: So you're all news people, and this has been yet another one of these kind of drinking-from-the-firehose news weeks. There are just so many stories that you had to cover, would have liked to have covered. I mean, we heard at the top of the program the latest on Syria, Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch was confirmed - this after the Senate changed the rules to make it easier.

Another story that was getting a lot of buzz earlier this week was this kind of palace intrigue about whether presidential adviser Steve Bannon, late of this alt-right news service was kind of being pushed aside in favor of Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law.

So rather than take these one by one, I'm going to ask each of you to pick one of these and just tell me which of these stories are - which one of these threads tells you something bigger about this administration or something you think it's important for people to note? So, Charlie, do you want to start?

SYKES: Yeah. Let's start with the game of thrones going on inside the White House. You know, a lot of us thought that the palace intrigue pitted Reince Priebus, my fellow Wisconsinite, against Steve Bannon, but apparently it's Bannon versus the family. It's Bannon versus Jared Kushner. So this is more than just a personnel issue. This is really - Bannon is the chief ideologist of the alt-right nationalist wing of Trump-ism. And if in fact he's going to be shoved aside by Jared Kushner and some of these other folks, it might indicate a real page turn in this administration.

I mean, this is a scenario that I don't think anybody saw 70 days ago when this administration began. So that's obviously the story that we're going to be watching. It's hard to imagine a Bannon-dominated White House going along with what happened in in Syria. This is - I mean, he's the - he wanted Donald Trump to be Charles Lindbergh - America first, stay out of all these foreign entanglements. So, again, this is going to be a dramatic change in direction potentially for this White House.

MARTIN: I'm glad you answered that because that was going to be my follow-up which is why should people who don't get paid to talk about this stuff care about that? So thanks, Charlie, for that. Amy, what about you? Which one of these threads do you want to pull out?

DAVIDSON: Well, you know, I was going to mention Syria, but I just want to push back on for a second on the Bannon and Kushner question. I might be a little optimistic to think that the white nationalism of the Trump administration is just, you know, centered around the desk of Steve Bannon. I mean, this is something we were hearing from Trump on the campaign well before Bannon really joined it. And, you know, I wonder if the key phrase - when you use the phrase palace intrigue - the disturbing phrase there is palace. This is all about sort of, you know, is it going to be the family with their financial conflicts of interest or this guy, you know, Steve Bannon who's connected to Breitbart?

None of it sounds really democratic and really respectful of our institutions. You had Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law who has no experience being sent to Iraq to a battle zone last week guarded by U.S. troops who put themselves at risk for that. And none of these options seem really great. So you wonder if there's a slight page-turner, corner turn. Is it from, you know, racist populism towards kleptocracy and where's the plus in that?

And, you know, Syria similarly so important, such a tragic central issue in international relations. But is this, you know - right after the airstrikes, the secretary of state said there wasn't actually a strategy change. There was just a airstrike. So you wonder where you're really headed with that.

MARTIN: Bill Douglas what about you?

DOUGLAS: Well, for me, it's Syria. I mean, from my viewpoint on Capitol Hill, I get to see what the members of Congress are doing and what they're thinking. And, you know, I watched major reversals on airstrikes from Republicans who thought it was a bad idea under Obama to it being a great idea under Donald Trump from Democrats who thought that was an OK idea under Obama to it's an OK idea under Trump.

But we need to see his strategy. And Syria plays out to be a bigger deal, I think, domestically because it's going to be another test for the president in terms of what he can get done through Congress if he decides to go through Congress to seek authorization of military use of force. It's likely that if he does do that, he'll wind up in the same landmines that President Obama did in that he'll meet resistance from Democrats who will think the authorization plan would be too broad from hawks and Republicans who would think it's too narrow.

And, you know, that breeds an interesting coalition of potentially members of the Conservative Freedom Caucus with liberal Democrats who could block that.

MARTIN: You know, Charlie mentioned earlier you had the speaker of the House Paul Ryan on the program. Your program Invisible, one of the - you're one of the co-hosts of this program. It sure would have been great to have had the chance to ask him did he feel that Congress should have been consulted on that question? I don't know whether - it's just - as Bill just pointed out, there have been these interesting threads and changes like, for example, last night on Twitter, the hashtag #firekushner started trending.

It was backed by a lot of Trump's supporters who say they don't want any piece of this in Syria and so forth. So, Charlie, I'm just wondering do you think this is a problem for him, the fact that he did move forward? That - we don't know how much he may have consulted anybody in Congress, but it doesn't appear that he did. Charlie?

SYKES: No, I mean - yeah. I mean, this is part of the question of any time you're trying to impose some sort of a coherent philosophy on Donald Trump. I mean, this was - it appears to be impulsive. It appears to be the - it may be one-off. No, I would have loved to have talked to Speaker Ryan about this because all Republicans interestingly enough were absolutely clear that the president needed to get congressional authorization for this kind of action.

And it's - I suppose maybe this is the new normal to watch the party switch positions on all of this. But I hope that Republicans are consistent on this. I hope that they go to Congress and try to get the authorization because that would be the forum in which we would get an answer to the question what now? Where does this go? OK, we bombed an airfield, apparently didn't even put it out of commission for 24 hours.

I mean, I'm old enough to remember when Republicans and conservatives made fun of symbolic pinprick attacks. And there's no indication that this is going to lead to some sort of a coherent sustained change in policy.

MARTIN: Amy, you want to talk about this, too? You were mentioning earlier that you feel some of the - also the ethical questions here around who is involved in this decision-making? Those don't end with Steve Bannon not being on the National Security Council and things of that sort.


MARTIN: Tell like a little bit more about that if you would.

DAVIDSON: And it's fascinating that, you know, this shorthand now is that Obama decided not to act against Syria in 2013. But the form that that decision took was asking Congress to speak and that effectively meant doing nothing because Congress was unable to come up with a consistent answer. And it's fascinating to think of what Congress might do now.

But what has Donald Trump done now? He's bombed someplace, and he's not - doesn't seem really sure of - you know, other people get a voice afterwards. And the phrase, you know, bomb now, plan later - I think more encapsulates the doubts about Donald Trump rather than alleviates them.

You know, the idea that he's now - that Syria, a country that, again, has, you know, incredible, you know - pictures from there were horrific that we think of this as a growth experience for our president. It's not taking the actual situation of the people there quite as seriously as we might. So we need to think about what happens next there.

MARTIN: So I know this is going to be a hard turn to a totally different topic, and I know that we should probably talk about the Supreme Court - the Senate changing its rules to make the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch easier, moving from a super majority to a simple majority. And I know that that's important.

But I'm going to ask if we could talk about one thing else for the rest of our couple of minutes together. And I know this isn't everybody's cup of tea, but we do like to take a sports break on - in the Barbershop. And I wanted to talk about this week's decision by the National Hockey League that they won't be participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics, as people know that the league takes a break from their regular season so that their players who come from all over the world can attend the Olympic Games.

But the NHL said that they leave the door open for somebody to make a case to participate, but no meaningful dialogue materialized. And so, Bill, I'm going to go to you on this because you're not only an avid hockey fan, you continue to play despite, I'm sure, the entreaties of your spouse and you cover the Olympics and you write a blog about hockey. And I just wanted to ask, you know, this is - a number of players who come from places - other places around the world say they're not going to - they don't care. They're going to go anyway, and I just wanted to ask you does this - what do you think this says?

DOUGLAS: Well, here's a couple of things. One, it says that the NHL and the NHL Players Association need to talk in terms of collective bargaining because that's one of the issues at play here. The second, it also shows how patriotic the players are.

I mean, you have a lot of players from a lot of European countries. Alex Ovechkin, a Russian who plays here for the Washington Capitals. He says he's going. The NHL doesn't go, he's packing his bags, and he is going. And he is serious. It says that the players want to play. Those players who are Olympic-worthy want to go. The league says it's not in their financial interests which is sort of an interesting argument because these Olympics are in South Korea.

But the Olympics after that are in China - 2 billion people who would spend lots of money in hockey jerseys. They're rapidly building a hockey program - a men's and women's hockey program - in preparation for the Olympics. The NBA has a foothold in China now and is making a lot of money in China. I'm sure the NHL sees that as well. So it says that maybe this isn't quite done yet. You know, the Commission's all about a compelling case.


MARTIN: Go ahead, Amy.

DAVIDSON: I think it actually...

MARTIN: I don't know if you're a fan, so I didn't want to put you on the spot there, but go ahead.

DAVIDSON: I actually think it ties into a lot of what we were talking about earlier. The NHL's thinking of this in an incredibly short-term way. They're not thinking it through in terms of, you know, actual desires of their employees, the actual potential for future revenue, they're potentially, again, smashing up labor relations. And they're also doing it in a way that's only going to end up benefiting Russia because their professional hockey league is - it's an opening for them...


DAVIDSON: ...To come forward at the Olympics...


DAVIDSON: ...And also to attract players who will say I want to have the chance. You know, I'm not Russian, I'm not American, I want a chance to play at the Olympics...

MARTIN: OK. All right.

DAVIDSON: ...So there are some parallels there to the behavior.

MARTIN: I did not see that coming. So thanks for that. Charlie, final thought on this? We only have about 20 seconds. Do you care?

SYKES: Yeah, no. I'm a traditionalist on this. I would like to see them go back to the Olympics, go back to being an amateur event completely, get rid of the NBA, get rid of the NHL. But I don't think that's going to happen any time soon.

MARTIN: That was Charlie Sykes, radio host, Amy Davidson of The New Yorker and Bill Douglas of McClatchy News. Thank you all so much for joining us. Say bye (laughter).




SYKES: Thank you.

DOUGLAS: Thank you.

DAVIDSON: Thank you so much for having us.

MARTIN: OK (laughter). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.