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Week In Politics: Trump's Cabinet Picks, Election Hacking Review

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We are 41 days out from inauguration, and Donald Trump has wrapped up another week of Cabinet picks, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Labor Department. And as the Trump transition looks forward, the Obama administration is also looking back. President Obama has ordered a full review of hacking during the election.

We're going to talk about all of this with our regular political commentators, David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Good to have you both here in the studio.

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

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Good to be here.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with Donald Trump's choices for Cabinet. He has leaned heavily on generals, chosen at least a couple of billionaires. One choice that really stands out is Scott Pruitt for the EPA. He's the Oklahoma attorney general. He does not accept the scientific consensus on climate change - strong ally of the oil and gas industries. Here he was testifying on Capitol Hill last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT PRUITT: There are clearly air and water quality issues that cross state lines, and sometimes that can require federal intervention. At the same time, the EPA was never intended to be our nation's foremost environmental regulator.

SHAPIRO: E.J., what do you make of this appointment?

DIONNE: Well, I think you've got Trump naming a lot of people who don't particularly seem to believe in the missions of their department. Scott Pruitt has been a great critic of the EPA, wants states to take over their work. The new labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, is from Hardee's and Carl's Jr. They employ a lot of low-wage labor. He's had regulatory issues with the Labor Department.

This led to Andy Borowitz, the wonderful humor writer of The New Yorker, to write a mock news story saying that Trump had named Joaquin Guzman - the drug dealer, the drug kingpin El Chapo - to head the Drug Enforcement Administration. Now, yes, it's funny, but it does speak to the kinds of people that Trump is naming. This is an extremely conservative administration, way more conservative so far than George W.'s was.

SHAPIRO: So David, how do you think Democrats, who have the minority in the Senate and yet are part of the confirmation process - how do you think they should approach these picks?

BROOKS: Well, I always think presidents should get their picks (laughter). And whatever you say about these men and women who Trump is naming, they are consistent with his campaign - extremely consistent with the campaign, extremely coherent with the campaign. They may not be my cup of tea, but you know, it's not like they're against the mission of their agencies.

All of the - all of these issues, whether it's labor issues, like the minimum wage or wage levels or environmental issues - there are tradeoffs. There are tradeoffs, say, between environmental costs and business costs.

And Trump is clearly worried about growth, and he's picking people who are aggressively on the business costs and may be insensitive to the environmental costs. But it's not like they're against the agency - against the mission. It's just a different set of priorities.

DIONNE: But I think the labor secretary poses a real problem. Here was a man who ran for president as the paladin of the working class. He was going to improve their wages. A, he couldn't even pick somebody at least from the manufacturing sector where he promised a revival. It's from the fast food sector. And so I think that one is a sort of a bigger problem for the long run given who voted for Donald Trump.

BROOKS: Yeah, I don't agree with that. You know, if he picked - populists don't mind billionaires. They don't like professionals. If he picked a bunch of people from Harvard and Yale Law School who are journalists and academics, then I think his people would be upset. But they're not going to be upset with a bunch of CEOs. And all we know of Puzder is that he didn't - he doesn't agree with the universal $15 minimum wage, which I think is entirely, in some parts of the country, a very responsible position.

DIONNE: And so...

SHAPIRO: Well, we also learned today that President Obama has asked the intelligence agencies to look into hacking in the 2016 election. Malicious cyber activity was the term. This includes Russian meddling. What do you think this means for American confidence in our elections, David?

BROOKS: You know, I think he's absolutely right to do this. The world order is decayed. And as it's decayed, the wolves like Putin have gotten more and more aggressive. And this hacking of the DNC computers allegedly was an example of that. And somehow, something has to be done about this. I also like the way it sort of pins the Trump administration down to be a little tougher on Russia than they might be otherwise inclined.

SHAPIRO: Well, this is pretty remarkable. The Trump position on Russia is contrary to all of the U.S. intelligence agencies which said Russia played a role in the hacking. Donald Trump says he doesn't think Russia had anything to do with it. He's also been opting out of his daily intelligence briefings we're told.

DIONNE: No, it's truly remarkable. Both of those facts are truly remarkable. I mean here you had a high-tech Watergate by a foreign power. And President Obama had been pressed by Democrats in Congress to do something like this precisely because they want to get it done before Trump takes over and might bury any inquiry of this sort. So I think this does put Trump on the spot. And I'm just glad it's being done.

SHAPIRO: But what plausibly comes out of something like this? I mean if we're told that Russia played a role in hacking and at the end of this they say, yes, in fact Russia did play a role in hacking, I mean what do we learn, David?

BROOKS: Then we retaliate against their elections, and Putin only gets 98 percent.

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: No, I don't know. I don't know what happens, you know? But presumably, we have some leverage against Russia. We haven't frankly used it very much in the Ukraine, a little - not much in Crimea. There must be something (laughter) we can do to them - just a tougher policy. But let's not look for that in the Trump...

DIONNE: And we ask ourselves, did we allow ourselves to be taken by Vladimir Putin? The campaign was dominated for day after day after day by those WikiLeaks leaks that were coming out day after day. This is something that we really ought to look into ourselves about and how we allowed ourselves to be taken advantage like this - of like this.

SHAPIRO: Finally, Capitol Hill this week said goodbye to a major figure in the Democratic Party - Vice President Joe Biden, former senator, a Washington presence for decades. Let's listen to part of a tribute from Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: We've also negotiated in good faith when the country needed bipartisan leadership. We got results that would not have been possible without a negotiating partner like Joe Biden. Obviously I don't always agree with him, but I do trust him implicitly.

SHAPIRO: David, what do you think Biden's legacy will be?

BROOKS: Well, people are skeptical and disgusted by Washington. But there are a lot of people like Joe Biden in it who - he was a genuinely good person. One of the things I find most remarkable about him is that so many politicians lose their inner voice, their sense of vocation. They become sort of public personas who are empty within. But Biden never lost the capacity for genuine emotion, which he showed, and genuine conscience, which he showed. And he remained a real person no matter how famous he got.

SHAPIRO: E.J., what will you remember most about him?

DIONNE: Well, Joe Biden loves to say literally. And (laughter) he literally was a good guy.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

DIONNE: He was somebody who was very proud of his roots in Scranton, Pa., as a working-class Democrat. And he constantly spoke about those who had been left out in the economy. He kind of predicted, in a way, what we saw in the course of this election. And you know, I love the fact that he kind of floated the idea that he might run for president in 2020 when he would be 78 years old.

SHAPIRO: Right.

DIONNE: I don't know if he will, but I hope he uses that to stay in the public debate because we tend to cover people if they claim they're going to run for president.

SHAPIRO: E.J. Dionne, thanks a lot.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: And, David Brooks, thanks as always.

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