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Week In Politics: Russia Investigation, Coalition Building In Congress


Now it's time for our Friday regulars, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and The Brookings Institution. Hi there, E.J.

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

MCEVERS: And David Brooks of The New York Times. Hi.

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Hi. How are you?

MCEVERS: So we just heard - I'm good - from Tam how Russia and various investigations about Russia and its possible involvement in the Trump campaign are topping the news. So let's start with former national security adviser Michael Flynn and this offer to testify before Congress in return for immunity. Ranking House Intelligence member Adam Schiff called the request a grave and momentous step. Is it that, E.J.?

DIONNE: I think this is a very big deal. There's a very odd series of things happening. Flynn has said that he needs immunity and that this investigation is a witch hunt. Well, as Ed Morrissey, the conservative writer, asked, why do you exactly need immunity if the investigation is the witch hunt - is a witch hunt?

Flynn knows a lot of stuff. There are a lot of questions about him. One question that everyone wants to answer is when the acting attorney general Sally Yates told the Trump administration that Flynn wasn't telling him - them the truth about his meeting with the Russian ambassador, they waited two weeks until The Washington Post blew the whistle on what that meeting was about before they fired him. Why the delay? That's just one of many questions.

The Senate isn't ready to make a deal yet with Flynn because they want to know more, and they want to know more about what his story is about. But this was a very dangerous step. And President Trump sent out this tweet today sort of saying, yeah, we want him to testify, and he needs immunity. It sort of sounded, yet again, like I really don't want this thing to go forward. I really don't want to deal with this. It's a very problematic situation for the administration.

MCEVERS: David, do you think it's a big deal?

BROOKS: I don't know because I don't know what he's going to say. And I've sort of lost faith in the idea that what's happening is linear. My...


BROOKS: My reaction to...

DIONNE: (Laughter) That I agree with wholeheartedly.


BROOKS: My reaction to this whole event is that the human imagination is not capacious enough to predict how incompetent people can mess up a government action. And we've had this sort of this layer cake of incompetence. First, the president saying this odd stuff about being wiretapped. Then this young man Ezra Cohen-Mitnick (ph) inside the NSC who his own boss would like to get rid, but Steve Bannon saved his job.

Then Devin Nunes who's misleading people about where he's getting information and who is breaking all the norms of how you lead an investigation. Adam Schiff I would include, who is taking this as an occasion for his own star moment. And so what Flynn says if he - he's probably going to try to defend Donald Trump. That's where his percentage is.

But I do - would like to know - and this is where I'm focusing my attention is Paul Manafort. Where did Paul Manafort come for - come from in March that he became chairman of the Trump campaign - a guy with all these ties throughout Russia?

DIONNE: I completely agree with that on Manafort. I think that's a huge deal. But there's - Nunes is sort of in another dimension here. Lindsey Graham - Senator Lindsey Graham said he looked like Inspector Clouseau in all of this, but at least Clouseau seemed to have goodwill. He seemed to want to sabotage his own committee's investigation. And if that was his goal, it appears that he succeeded in that.

MCEVERS: We're talking about the House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes. Do you guys think that the Senate Intelligence Committee will do a better job of investigating this?

BROOKS: I actually do. I do think the House has pushed the Senate toward respectability. And you've got a bipartisan group there who are publicly saying how chaotic the House is and what a calamity that it's turned into. And so their percentage is to be the foil and to be the opposite. And I'm a lot more hopeful about - that the House - the Senate may actually accomplish something.

DIONNE: There's an old saying in Washington that the opposition is the other party, and the enemy is the other house of Congress. And I think the Senate is taking great pride right now that this does seem to be an investigation on the level.

Senator Burr and Senator Warner - Republican and Democrat - seemed determined to look like what government is supposed to look like. And their first hearing was very revealing. The notion that Marco Rubio was targeted, for example, which came out there, shows how this scandal threatens all kinds of people and not just Democrats.

MCEVERS: Want to talk now about the failure of President Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan to even get a replacement to Obamacare to a vote in the House. The president is now pretty vocal that the blame falls on the Freedom Caucus. That's the group of ardently conservative members of the house. Is that a good move on his part? I mean, doesn't he need to work with them at some point, David?

BROOKS: Well, no, it's not a good move because - A - he can't defeat them in their own districts. B - he's not going to even try. Franklin Roosevelt tried to defeat some of his own members, and he was humiliated. It will happen.

But the underlying problem for Trump is he doesn't have a basic theory of how he's going to govern. If he's a populist, he could be a very right-wing populist in which case he really needs them. Or he could be a sort of central-left populist in which case he can cut them off and work with some Democrats. But he has no coherent theory.

And so he's not even serving his own people who elected him. Every single piece of legislation, including the budget he's proposed, goes after working-class voters in places like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin - his very base. And so there's no coherent theory of how to organize a coalition here.

MCEVERS: E.J., do you think that this means that Paul Ryan will now be chastened into having to cut deals with the Democrats?

DIONNE: Well, no. In fact, it was striking that Paul Ryan warned his members that if we don't come together, then Trump will make deals with the Democrats and what a horrible thing that would be. And Senator Bob Corker immediately tweeted saying, what kind of approach to legislating is that, going after Ryan. So you had kind of a four-way fight going inside the Republican Party.

That tweet from Trump was fascinating because he went after all the Democrats and all the members of the Freedom Caucus. If you add those two groups together, you don't have a majority of the house anymore...

MCEVERS: Right. You don't have the votes.

DIONNE: ...So I don't know how many - I don't know where Trump is going. And as David said, he doesn't have any coherent idea of what he actually wants to do on health care.

MCEVERS: What a coalition could look like moving forward?

DIONNE: Yes, exactly.

MCEVERS: I mean, when we talk about what the president's agenda could be going forward - I mean, right after this failure of the health care bill, there was all this talk about, you know, a change in the tax laws. I mean, do we think that's realistic? And what are his - yeah, what are his chances of getting that done, David?

BROOKS: Realistic, but not likely. There is a strong case, which both Democrats and Republicans accept, that we need a simpler code. We need fewer loopholes, maybe some lower rates. We also need to stop test - taxing investment so much and start taxing consumption a little more.

And so there's a basic intellectual agreement. Whether they can work out a deal would require a lot more legislative skill than I see around Washington. When we did in '86, you had some real pros - Dan Rostenkowski and others. And it took them two years. And it was super hard because closing every loophole - every loophole has arch defenders.

MCEVERS: E.J., do you think they should turn to something else?

DIONNE: Right, I'm not - I don't think there is that consensus. I think Democrats are still quite suspicious of taxing consumption because that'll tax everybody not the well-to-do. And I think the Republicans are split. I don't know where they turn other than taxes.

You know, cutting taxes is a theology for the Republican Party. You would think in principle this is something they could agree on, but so far there have been real divides even on reforming corporate taxes, for example, between companies that depend on imports and companies that would be helped if imports were taxed. So I don't see - even taxes, for the Republicans, are not a magic bullet. And that shows, I think, how much disarray they're in right now.

MCEVERS: That's E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institute and David Brooks of The New York Times. Thanks to both of you.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.