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Week In Politics: The Response To Cohen's Guilty Plea And The Manafort Verdict


All right, let's talk some more about President Trump's big week. To do that, we're joined now as we are most weeks by David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Great to see you guys again.

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Good to see you.

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

CHANG: OK, so this first question is for both of you. We just heard Tamara Keith. What do you guys think? Are the remarkable developments this week just the latest chapter in this presidency, or are we seeing a possible tipping point for President Trump right now? What do you think, E.J.?

DIONNE: Well, I have declared seven of the last zero tipping points.

CHANG: (Laughter).

DIONNE: So I am very reluctant to use the phrase tipping point. I would prefer the phrase very big deal because this...

CHANG: Yeah.

DIONNE: ...Clearly was a very big deal. Michael Cohen, his former lawyer and fixer, tied Donald Trump to a potential felony. The Manafort verdict vastly strengthened Robert Mueller's hand. Just imagine the opposite if Manafort had been acquitted. And there's another...

CHANG: Sure.

DIONNE: ...Manafort trial coming up. And I think the Cohen case especially opens the way for multiple new problems for Trump. As my Washington Post colleague Catherine Rampell pointed out, there are a lot of tax issues here with the way they tried to cover up the payment to silence people who have allegedly had affairs with President Trump, women who have allegedly had affairs with President Trump. And that's why Allen Weisselberg, who has the keys to the financial kingdom - his turning is such a big factor. And lastly, when the president starts sounding like a mob boss - flipping should be a crime - you know he faces a very challenging situation. How's that for diplomacy?

CHANG: What do you think, David? How big of a deal has this week been in the context of Trump's entire presidency so far?

BROOKS: I'm going with just another chapter. You know, the Manafort stuff, at least in this trial, doesn't really have much to do with Trump. The Cohen thing - I mean, on a moral level, the idea that the president of the United States paid off two porn stars to hide affairs is, like - on a scale of 1 to 10, that - morally, that's to me a 15. But legally, did Michael Cohen front him a possible campaign donation? That strikes me as a 2 or a 3. It's just, like, a campaign finance violation - arguable. That doesn't strike me as the sort of thing we remove presidents for.

I do agree with E.J. The thing about these investigations is that they wander off into strange places. Russia collusion has now turned into Stormy Daniels, and Stormy Daniels could turn into some tax thing. The Allen Weisselberg thing - that guy knows everything Donald Trump has done. It doesn't strike me that the illegal activities or the immoral activities are limited to just a few things.

CHANG: The story keeps twisting and turning. And as it keeps twisting and turning...

DIONNE: Could I add one point to this?

CHANG: Sure. Go ahead.

DIONNE: The - I would just like to underscore that Manafort I don't think can just be written off as having nothing to do with the Russia investigation. After all, he made his money dealing with pro-Putin people in the Ukraine. He appears to have relationships with oligarchs. I think that the Manafort story could eventually link back up to the Russia probe in ways that are dangerous for Trump, which is why so many people suspect he might like to pardon Manafort.

CHANG: I want to talk about how Republicans on Capitol Hill have been responding this week. They've been either completely silent - in fact, we've been having a really hard time getting any of them on our air this week except one. And some of them, when approached at the Capitol, are just simply downplaying the developments. Here's Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas.


JOHN CORNYN: Nothing that happened yesterday or to this point has indicated any evidence of collusion or any involvement in the campaign. Sure, the Russians did attempt to meddle in the campaign. It's a serious matter, something we need to protect against in the future. But this is not why Mueller was appointed special counsel.

CHANG: David, take us through the calculation here. Explain why Cornyn is responding the way he did.

BROOKS: Well, I was out in rural North and South Carolina this week, and this subject didn't come up in dozens of conversations I had.

CHANG: Yeah.

BROOKS: And if you talk to Republican senators, they say it's weird how the Republican voters have changed. It's not like, defend the party. It's not, you know, like, defend the policy. Now it's, defend Trump. It's become a very sense of personal loyalty to a man who is under assault. And so they feel that going against him is political suicide. And so whatever their private views, they're very loath to do something in public.

CHANG: What would it take though, David, for the president to start losing real Republican support on Capitol Hill, you think?

BROOKS: Well, the one thing we've seen this week - Michael Cohen, Omarosa before that - he's not a guy who engenders a lot of loyalty. And so when it becomes in people's interest to stab him in the front or the back or the side or wherever, they'll do it. And so as soon as it becomes not in people's political interest or even a matter of political survivability, you can expect all of these boats to turn around very quickly.

CHANG: I want to ask you...

DIONNE: I agree with...

CHANG: Actually, if I could just move to voters and have you answer that, E.J., I mean, Democrats are heading into these midterms talking a lot about the culture of corruption on the other side. Of course it was the other side that was all about draining the swamp back in 2016. So, E.J., what do you think? Is the corruption argument by Democrats going to work with the drain-the-swamp constituency?

DIONNE: Well, what I was going to say is I think the Republicans - I agree with what David said, but I think Republicans have deeper ties to Trump. They actually share his approach more and more going back before Trump even was on the scene in terms of doing all kinds of things to hold power and that power is what unites them. And that's why I think corruption is the most powerful theme the Democrats have. It's a kind of umbrella theme that brings together everything having to do with the Trump scandal. All of the individual scandals in the Trump administration start with Scott Pruitt and move on from there.

CHANG: But is the kind of corruption Democrats are talking about the kind of corruption that grabbed the attention of Trump supporters in 2016?

DIONNE: Well, yes, some of them. I think the - look; there's about 30 percent of the electorate that will be loyal to Donald Trump no matter what because they are ideological conservatives, because they identify with his attacks on immigrants or all kinds of people. Those folks will never move. But I think it's clear that a whole lot of independents and some share of the drain-the-swamp voters who sort of thought there was something wrong in Washington - Democrats have an opportunity to go to them and say, look; he hasn't drained the swamp; he's made the swamp more polluted than it was before. And I think there's an opening to such voters. And corruption does not open ideological divisions in the Democratic party. No matter where you stand, you can fight - be fighting against corruption.

CHANG: I'll give you the last word, David. Are we talking about the same swamps here on either side?

BROOKS: Yeah. I wonder - you know, corruption has moved elections in years past, but people may have decided Washington is corrupt in the way it's on the East Coast and that it's just an inevitable part of thing. And the cynicism may be so deep that issue may actually cut less than it has in years past. If I were Democrats, I'd go to more bread-and-butter issues.

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

BROOKS: Thank you.

DIONNE: Great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.