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Week In Politics: Trump Makes First Cabinet Appointments


Some big personnel choices for the incoming administration and some grist for our regular Friday politics duo, columnists David Brooks of The New York Times who's with me in Washington today - hello, David...


SIEGEL: ...And joining us from New York this week, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Hello, E.J.

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

SIEGEL: David, we'll start with you. Do the nominations of Jeff Sessions, Congressman Pompeo for CIA and the appointments of Reince Priebus, Stephen Bannon, Michael Flynn to White House jobs, do they give you some clearer sense of what kind of administration this is going to be?

BROOKS: A strong preference for Mikes, if you throw in Mike Pence and Mike Huckabee, who's expected to get something. Actually, I see an animating intelligence behind this. First of all, they all believe what Trump believes. And so he's going to govern as he campaigned, and that's very different from the Democratic Party. It's very different from a conventional GOP, very strong and anti-immigration, closed on trade, closed on foreign policy, super tough.

Second - and I have to say, a little surprised by this - they have good resumes. If you just look at their resume, not just Pompeo was Harvard Law, first in his class at West Point - these are not people that are just out from the wilderness. I expect they're going to be more competent than I expected. And third, they have very sharp elbows with the exception of Sessions, who's a more gentle guy. He has his sharp elbows. These are people who have extremely sharp elbows. He's taken, like, the bad bosses from all around the country and gathered them in one place. Will they be united together, or will they fight with each other?

SIEGEL: E.J., what do you think, a unified group with sharp elbows and good resumes?

DIONNE: I think it's an animating right-wing radicalism. I think Trump seems to feel little obligation to reassure those who are alarmed by his election. You know, Reince Priebus, the chief of staff, in a normal political world, would be seen as very, very conservative. Only in this world could he be seen as a moderating force. Steve Bannon, the white nationalist, Michael Flynn with his close ties to Russia's Putin, Turkey's Erdogan, very radical views on Islam and now Jeff Sessions, who, as we already heard, was rejected as a federal judge and now will be helping to pick judges all over the country.

I think this is going to worry a lot of Americans all about - you know, lots of Americans who didn't vote for Trump. But I think Republicans who were looking for him to be that pragmatist that President Obama described are going to have to think again. These are not pragmatic choices.

SIEGEL: David, late in the day, the New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced a $25 million settlement in his suit against Trump University. Do you get the sense that people are going out of their ways to try to clear all of the biggest potential problems for a President Trump before his inauguration?

BROOKS: I don't know whether it's a favor or not. He's paying with 25 million. Who knows who was holding that up? Trump probably didn't want to settle and admit error during the course of the campaign. But, you know, there are lots of sort of pseudo stories flailing around. And I - you know, I don't approve of the guy. I don't agree with him...


BROOKS: ...But he should have the freedom to operate. I actually think this rule against having his family members in the administration is sort of a bogus rule. If he has a trusted aide or his daughter, I think she might as well have an official post rather than unofficial.

DIONNE: But could I say, Robert, that that is totally unacceptable if Trump sticks with this plan not to put his assets in a blind trust, to put his assets under the control of his family. A couple of ethics lawyers for President George W. Bush and for President Obama said this isn't a blind trust. This is asking Americans to have blind faith in the Trump family. I think this is going to raise a lot of questions and a lot of potential problems for a President Trump.

SIEGEL: I'm curious to hear briefly what both of you make of the meetings between Nikki Haley and tomorrow Mitt Romney with the president elect, both of whom were bitterly critical of Donald Trump as a candidate. Are we actually seeing a genuine team of rivals approach, or are we - are we being shown that the transition team reached out to all kinds of people before it decided on a narrow group of people who all agree with each other?

DIONNE: I hope it's the latter. I've been most struck by the Mitt Romney one. Mitt Romney, obviously, was the starkest critic within the Republican Party to Trump. But if Romney goes in there and gets the sense it will be an administration with some sense of openness, if he can - it will be some functioning administration, if he can go in there with a signed resignation letter to keep in the drawer at all times, then I would hope he would go in and not - rather than not go in. This administration could use someone as stable and as, frankly, professional as Mitt Romney is.

SIEGEL: E.J., what do you make of that?

DIONNE: I actually agree with that. I think the question is will Trump name a secretary of state with some real strength and real foreign policy knowledge, which Mitt Romney has, partly to balance off these at times eccentric views of Michael Flynn, or does he name a secretary of state who does not have a strong views and Flynt is really running the show? So I do hope that there are some people of other views that join this administration. The question, as you suggested, Robert, is whether he is having all these meetings as show and then we'll just go back to naming people like the folks he's named so far.

SIEGEL: Let's turn to the loyal opposition for a couple of minutes. One can read the Democrats results on Election Day in many ways. The centrists had their chance and failed, bring on the Bernie Sanders wing of the party or they won the popular vote and were tripped up by problems that were unique to the candidate Hillary Clinton or they have to do less minority group identity politics, more reconnecting with white working-class voters. This week, the new Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said this.


CHUCK SCHUMER: Some think we need to make a choice and spend all of our energy focused on one group of Americans or another. I believe there does not have to be a division.

SIEGEL: Let's take all of their energy as a straw man and just say does there have to be a choice? E.J., does the Democratic Party have to rethink whom it's talking to?

DIONNE: Well, I think that what Schumer is reflecting in a way is very old Bobby-Kennedy-Democratic-Party thinking, which is it is always a problem for the Democrats when the white working class is split off in large numbers, this time exceptionally large numbers, from African-Americans and Latinos. And so I do think the Democrats have an obligation to make an argument that in standing up for one group, which among other things has been hurt by deindustrialization and economic change, you are also standing up for the other.

I think what's going to be tricky is this talk of trying to work with Trump, to press him to see is he serious about infrastructure. I get why they're doing that. I see the argument for that. But at this point, given some of the threats that Trump seems to pose, just fundamental norms, I think before they do any of that, the Democrats have to send out clear signals and hopefully be joined by some Republicans who care about those norms, too.

SIEGEL: David, what do you think about...

BROOKS: Well...

SIEGEL: ...The Democrats need to make choices and divisions?

BROOKS: Well, in the short term, I think working with Trump is the right thing. They could get some wins on child care, on infrastructure and a bunch of other things. Believe me, there'll be plenty of opportunities to oppose Trump both in style and substance ahead.

My main problem with Schumer is they've got to stop thinking about groups. How can we get this group or that group? Think about problems and which problem - what are the big problems that the country needs to address? Trying to cobble together coalitions is the dumbest way to get to an actual majority. Just say what you actually believe.

I do think the party is going to go in the direction of the Elizabeth Warren-Bernie Sanders party. That's just where the animating energy is. That's where the ideas are. That's where the money is. I think that's not good for the party, but that's where they're going.

SIEGEL: David Brooks of The New York Times. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, thanks to both of you.

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