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Week In Politics: Trump's Stormy Daniels Settlement And The House Chaplain

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

To talk more about this, we begin our weekly political conversation with E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. Hey there, E.J.

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

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

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Thank you.

CORNISH: All right, so Scott Horsley just walked us through this debate over the timeline. And, again - Cliff Notes (ph) version - this is all over the idea the payment of $130,000 made on the eve of the 2016 election to adult film actress Stormy Daniels was made by Trump's attorney Michael Cohen. Since then, there are many more attorneys (laughter). I think America met one of them, Rudy Giuliani, this week. And by this afternoon, Rudy Giuliani had put out a statement saying, among other things, that, number one, there was no campaign violation; two, that the payment was made to resolve a personal and false allegation to protect the president's family and, three, that the payment would have been made campaign or no campaign. David, is that the end of this?

BROOKS: I'm stuck on the headline. The president of the United States paid - allegedly paid hush money to a porn star. I can't get beyond the headline. Whether this payment constitute a campaign donation, that strikes me as, like, angels dancing on the head of a pin kind of stuff. When exactly he knew what Giuliani said - this all strikes me as commentary. The core issue to me is the character issue of a guy committing adultery and paying hush money to a porn star. Why do we need to go any further?

CORNISH: E.J., does does the morality part bother you, or is there really a question about campaign finance law, which David says is about dancing on the head of a pin?

DIONNE: Well, it's not dancing on the head of a pin if it's something you can go to jail for. And so I think the campaign violation is serious, and that's why Giuliani kind of had to contradict himself. If you work for Trump, you always have to change your own story. You always get rebuked by him, and you always get soiled.

I was trying to think of an analogy of Donald Trump hiring Rudy Giuliani as his lawyer, and all I can think of is, like, the Flying Wallendas hiring P.T. Barnum. I mean, this is a crazy combination. And I know that I have predicted 22 of the last two Trump crises, so I don't always trust myself on this. But I think something has broken this week. Their language about the Mueller investigation is sharp, and Rod Rosenstein gave what seemed like a long goodbye basically saying, I am not going to violate my oath.

And my colleague Dan Balz at The Washington Post, who's one of the most respected people in journalism - right, left, Republican, Democrat - began a piece by saying, does it bother anyone that President Trump has been caught lying? And he goes on from there. Something is happening now that I think takes us to a new place. And I say that as someone skeptical myself.

CORNISH: Yeah, David...

BROOKS: I'm skeptical.

CORNISH: Get in a - a word in edgewise here.

BROOKS: You know, I agree. I mean, but if people were objecting to President Trump lying, that would have hit a long time ago. I think that this moment is probably benefiting Trump. You know, the three most important thing happening to the United States' politics right now are the U.S.-China trade talks, the North Korea situation and the growth of the economy. A lot of voters have decided, hey, this guy's kind of a sleazy, kind of a whatever. But he's producing something for us. And to me, the - a lot of our obsession on the Giuliani stuff will strike a lot of people as sort of cartoonish TV yakking.

CORNISH: And...

DIONNE: Just very quickly, I think that the - these economic numbers, for example, on the one hand are very good. Three-point-nine percent unemployment is great. On the other side, there is no income growth. And what's going to be interesting is how Americans interpret that because Trump's constituency were people who were often working but were very frustrated at how low their income was or that they had been falling behind. So we're going to see how they parse this kind of news.

CORNISH: It's also been the case for a long time - right, David? - this lack of wage growth. So do people look at 3.9 unemployment and say, you know what; I don't care what anybody said when at what time?

BROOKS: Yeah, I mean, there has been some wage growth. Eventually, if you tighten labor markets, you're going to see a lot of benefits. And we're beginning to see that, though I agree there are structural problems in the economy. The question is, what does Trump have anything to do with this? Presidents generally have little short-term impact on the economy.

On the other hand, the Trump tax cut, which a lot of - which I opposed and a lot of people said, oh, it's just going to make corporations richer - it's turned out to be working a lot better than we thought. The early indications are that capital expenditures, investments in new things are up 39 percent. Stock buybacks are up at a much slower rate. And that's exactly what the Trump economists claimed, and it's exactly what a lot of us doubted. But the first evidence supports the Trump people.

CORNISH: I want to bring our discussion finally to something that played out in Congress this week, a tiny story about Reverend Patrick Conroy. He's the House chaplain. He resigned, he wrote in his resignation letter, at the request of Speaker of House Paul Ryan. And then he actually got his job back or didn't have to resign. It's, like, a little bit confusing. Either way, he says it all led back to this prayer and this moment back in November.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATRICK CONROY: May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.

CORNISH: So this has to be the least-political position in Congress, right?

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Like, you get up, and you pray that they don't screw it up. And somehow...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: This week, this became a controversial position. E.J., Father Conroy rescinded his resignation. Paul Ryan walked all this back. What did you make of this?

DIONNE: Well, rule number one, never mess with a Jesuit. And I think number two is that was the mildest prayer for justice I think I have ever heard a Jesuit give. The third thing that really struck me is, Paul Ryan was saying, oh, it wasn't the prayer; it was his failure to provide pastoral services properly to all members. I think that phrase, pastoral services, makes it sound a bit...

CORNISH: And we should say that the - they administer to the lawmakers, right? I mean, they - prayer groups and Bible study. You know, it's a whole thing.

DIONNE: Right. And Conroy graciously said, all right, I'll quit. And if Ryan hadn't put out this negative stuff on him or said negative things, he might not have rescinded it. But he said, wait a minute. If you told me that my pastoral services were inadequate, I would have fixed it. And then obviously a lot of Catholic Democrats saw an opportunity here. And there were evangelical Republicans who said things that suggested they were tired of having Catholics there. And there were a lot of Catholics in the electorate, and that all came together here.

CORNISH: David, you talk a lot about morality and character.

BROOKS: (Laughter).

CORNISH: I figured this might be up your alley.

BROOKS: Blah, blah, blah.

CORNISH: Well, I mean, what happened here?

BROOKS: I know. I mean, somebody in Paul Ryan's office - when he said - somebody just said, he said there should be no losers, but we need losers. So somehow they were offended by this. To me, it's the pastor's job to prick the consciences of the members, and he should be doing it a lot more aggressively than that. But anything is good, so I'm totally on his side.

As for the pastoral care, there was some ugly sentiment that was voiced that we needed somebody with a family, which is to say a Protestant, and that, you know, being - maybe there were some issue with being a Catholic; we need more Protestants. And there were some ugly undertones of something we thought had gone away.

And by the way, if anybody doubts that celibate priest can't do pastoral care, look at Pope Francis. Look at Fulton Sheen. There's a lot of built-up wisdom that any Jesuit has advantage to. And so a lot of ugliness, but I give Paul Ryan finally some credit 'cause how often do you see somebody reverse himself in this town? And so at least he said, OK, this was a mistake. And he went back on a really dumb move.

CORNISH: OK, faint praise...

DIONNE: Amen.

CORNISH: ...Yeah, from...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...From David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Thank you both. Have a good weekend.

BROOKS: You, too.

DIONNE: You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.