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Week In Politics: The Kavanaugh Hearings, An Anonymous 'NYT' Op-Ed And Obama's Speech


So that's how the week played out for President Trump. We're going to begin our week in politics with E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Hey there, E.J.

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

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


CORNISH: OK, so I want to jump into that growing bookshelf. Obviously as Scott mentioned - mentions, Bob Woodward's new book, "Fear," and this anonymous op-ed published by The New York Times that made headlines this week - they allege all the same thing - right? - that members of the Trump administration are trying to moderate in some ways what they consider his worst impulses by ignoring him or acting in ways that are against his wishes. David Brooks, I'm going to start with you because this - you share space on the op-ed page (laughter) with this...

BROOKS: With anonymous.

CORNISH: ...With anonymous. Was this a heroic act or a cowardly one?

BROOKS: I wish some of my columns were anonymous. It would be good. It was a stupid act (laughter). You know, if you're going to be protecting the president from himself, don't tell him. And so, you know, it's going to make him be much more erratic and much more willful in the face of White House aides.

The larger issue is we have basically a running crisis in the White House, just a chaotic situation with the seat of power of the world's greatest superpower. And the question is, does it ever really spill out of control into something truly and immediately dangerous? Norms are being eroded. Alliances are being weakened. But so far we haven't had a complete crackup on the rocks where the whole nation is suddenly in danger.

CORNISH: Although according to this person, they believe it's due to their fine work in the White House anonymously.

BROOKS: (Laughter).

CORNISH: E.J. Dionne, what do you make of Trump's response - because he's calling for the Justice Department to investigate.

DIONNE: Well, you know, if it's illegal for a presidential aide to criticize their president off the record or without naming themselves, then hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of news stories over the last decades have been illegal acts because of course news stories are full of people who work for the White House who take issue with the president to reporters in order to send a signal perhaps to the president and sometimes to the outside.

So the notion that he's calling in the Justice Department to investigate something that is clearly not a crime is yet another crime on the part of the president. I'm not somebody who believes in hastening impeachment. I want to wait for Mueller, and I want more of a consensus. But this is going to be on that list. I think that this warning is useful that this aide put out there. I think this person should come out and put their name on it.

CORNISH: President Obama had something to say about this. In a speech today before - a speech in Illinois, he was calling out President Trump by name. President Obama said, look; this idea that everything will turn out OK because there are people inside the White House who secretly aren't following the president's orders - it's not how democracy is supposed to work. He also accused President Trump of capitalizing on resentment that politicians have been fanning for years.


BARACK OBAMA: It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause.

CORNISH: David, this is a speech that a lot of people were saying kind of kicks off midterms or kicks off President Obama's return to politics. What did you read of it?

BROOKS: Well, I - wouldn't be the line of attack I'd use I think. Saying he kicks off resentment, saying he's radical, saying this is not conservative - these are the same arguments that Democrats tried to use against Donald Trump in 2016. It seems to me the weakness is in corruption. That is something that I think swing voters do actually move and get votes on. And the second is what he's doing to the world our children inherit. Those are the two things that I think actually could swing voters a little more effectively than the line that Donald Trump - that Barack Obama gave, which is pretty much the conventional line we've been hearing from Democrats for two years.

CORNISH: E.J., was this necessary? There are a lot of Democratic voices out there, a lot of people who are kind of vying to be the leading voice of the party. What do you make of Barack Obama's return, so to speak?

DIONNE: Oh, I think it is necessary. And I just note that his speech had a lot of elements, including, by the way, the corruption issue. He specifically went at the Republicans and implicitly the Trump administration. And he had a whole list of issues that he threw at the Republicans - killing campaign finance laws, making it harder to vote, handing out tax cuts without regard for deficits and the like.

Barack Obama is still the spokesman for the Democratic Party because no obvious other spokesperson has emerged yet. You saw in the Kavanaugh hearings, which we're going to hear about, some new voices. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris were very prominent. But no one dominates the scene like Barack Obama. No one can turn out Democratic voters like Barack Obama. So he's going to be very important. And I think this is the first draft of a pretty good argument that he's going to make. I did like the line, we're supposed to stand up to bullies, not follow them.

CORNISH: I want to talk about that hearing. It's Day 4 of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings. There have been many pointed questions from Democrats.


KAMALA HARRIS: Can you think of any laws that give government the power to make decisions about the male body?


SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: Is it still true that you can give no assurance that you would uphold a statute requiring insurance companies to cover pre-existing medical conditions?


MAZIE HIRONO: Why do you think the NRA is spending so much money to ensure that you get confirmed as a Supreme Court justice?

CORNISH: So, E.J., did you learn anything new about this nominee?

DIONNE: He was so cautious. There were times when he was even almost squirrelly in his answers. He wouldn't go out there even and criticize some of the things that Trump said about judges which a lot of other conservative judges have. What we saw is how furious progressives are over what's happening on the court - first the blocking of Merrick Garland, which no one has forgotten, and now this effort to push through Kavanaugh before the elections, holding back tens of thousands of documents. And there was an explosion of frustration.

I don't think this will move Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, who are the two votes the Democrats need to block Kavanaugh. But I think that it will increase pressure on them. I just don't think they're willing to buck their party. Although I believe they should be.

CORNISH: And, David, what do you think was the most important or significant moment to come out of the hearings this week?

BROOKS: Well, the Democrats have had several months to find something to make - to embarrass Kavanaugh, and they've basically come up with nothing. The guy's life seems to have been amazingly squeaky clean. Most of us would have some embarrassing thing, but they've found nothing.

The only potential landmine for him is these Miranda memos, these memos early 2000s. The Republican - a Republican staffer stole some Democratic memos, and the question is, did Kavanaugh ever see them? He's claimed he didn't. Some emails suggest maybe he didn't. That's the only landmine. Other than that, he's - he evaded the way all justices do now, so we learned nothing about him. And there seems to be nothing in his past except for an extensive and highly respected legal career.

CORNISH: That's David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Thank you both.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

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