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Week In Politics: Trump's Picks For Attorney General And U.N. Ambassador


OK, we're going to keep talking about President Trump's attorney general pick with our week in politics regulars E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. Nice to see you guys.

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Good to see you.

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

CHANG: So we just heard NPR's Ryan Lucas tell us a little bit about William Barr. He's a reputable lawyer in Washington, a lawyer who's already been attorney general before under President George H.W. Bush, someone with an extensive track record. David, does this nomination feel like a different kind of choice for President Trump as compared to several of his other appointments?

BROOKS: I'll say.

CHANG: (Laughter).

BROOKS: He is by far the most respected person in the Trump administration, now, if he joins the administration. He's really, really well-liked, really well-respected. So for Trump, in some sense, this is a really good get. On the other sense, I don't understand it at all because if anybody was perfectly cast to play the Elliot Richardson role, it's Barr. Elliot Richardson was the attorney general during Richard Nixon's day who when asked to fire the special prosecutor resigned instead and herald in the Saturday Night Massacre, which really was part of the key ending of the Nixon administration. And if Trump does something that Barr thinks is illegal or is wrong or is immoral, he will resign. He's the sort of person whose loyalty is much higher than the president.

CHANG: Right. I mean, he has made some comments in recent years that play well with the president. He wrote an op-ed last year in The Washington Post saying that firing former FBI Director James Comey was the right call. And Barr has also said it's fair game to investigate Hillary Clinton and a 2010 uranium deal that was approved when Clinton was secretary of state. E.J., does any of that give you concern?

DIONNE: Yeah, I'm so glad you mentioned those 'cause I was going to myself. I love David's profound optimism about our institutions. I just don't share that at all. I think William Barr is establishment on the outside and Trumpist on the inside. And I don't think Donald Trump would have named Barr if he had seen him the way David described him. Again, when push comes to shove, I pray - if it comes to push comes to shove, I pray David is right. But, you know, in particular, this Uranium One conspiracy...

CHANG: Right.

DIONNE: ...That I won't even go into, that he was engaged in the defense of the firing of Comey, this suggests someone who might very well agree with the Trump line on the independent counsel. He's said some critical things. So I am not at all confident about this, and I think he is going to get a really hard going-over from the Democrats in the Senate. They probably can't stop him, but I think they can raise a lot of questions and should.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about the special counsel's Russia investigation. Barr is someone - as we just heard Ryan Lucas say, someone who's known for having expansive views of executive power. How do you think he might preside over the special counsel's investigation, David?

BROOKS: Yeah, I guess to me, the crucial area of the White House is not the attorney general, but it's the White House counsel's office. I've heard now from three Republicans in the last week who are looking at 2019 and are suddenly completely terrified. And they're terrified for two main reasons. They see that this investigation's coming. They see the Mueller report coming out. And they see a White House counsel that's woefully understaffed and underprepared. And second, they see a president who is losing all the people who protect him from himself. And he might be about to lose John Kelly, the chief of staff, as people have been rumoring now for several years...

CHANG: Right.

BROOKS: ...It seems. But if he loses those people and he has no counsel to defend himself, he's likely to get even more erratic than he has been over the past year. And Republicans - a lot of them are in not panic mode but in deep concern mode that his presidency will last the full term.

CHANG: What do you think, E.J., the prospect of Barr presiding over the special counsel's investigation?

DIONNE: Well, as I say, for - given what he's said so far...

CHANG: Yeah.

DIONNE: ...I have very little confidence in that. I very much agree with David that there's a real danger of the Bush last two years - you know, the endless rumors about Kelly leaving, if they're right this time, a lot of the speculation focuses as his replacement - The Washington Post reported this today - as - that Nick Ayers, the chief of staff to Mike Pence, has been interviewed for that job and as a possible person for that job. Everything is speculative when it comes to John Kelly leaving.

Ayers is 36 years old. And I can't see his standing up to Trump as even Kelly could. I'm no big Kelly fan, but I think there were moments where Trump was a bit intimidated by Kelly. And he could - Kelly could say or could call his friends like Defense Secretary Mattis and say, we've got to stop some of this. I don't see this new staff he is likely to be putting in place as being able to stand up to him. So I think it's a very dangerous time.

CHANG: If I may just return to Barr for a moment, I mean, there are concerns from civil rights groups and criminal justice reform advocates that Barr's hard-line views on criminal justice will be too reminiscent of Jeff Sessions' views on the same. There is support within this White House for criminal justice reform efforts. How might Barr's appointment affect those efforts, you think? David, you want to take a shot?

BROOKS: Yeah, I - a lot of our views of Barr - some are recent op-ed pieces, but a lot of them are 1991 and that era, and especially in incarceration when the Justice Department really was - we need to incarcerate a lot more people.

CHANG: Right.

BROOKS: But frankly, that was not an uncommon view in that time. A lot of people, Republicans and Democrats, thought the incarceration rates were bringing down the crime rate, as indeed they did for a short term. On the other hand, they destroyed a lot of neighborhoods and ruined a lot of lives. So we overdid it. But his views in 1991 could have evolved the way a lot of people's have evolved into...

CHANG: Right.

BROOKS: ...Over incarceration...

CHANG: That's fair.

DIONNE: Here's the paradox. This is the one and only issue I can think of where I hope Barr listens to Donald Trump because it does seem that President Trump wants to do criminal justice reform. And so we'll see if he's serious about it.

CHANG: OK, let's go to some more staffing news from the White House today. Heather Nauert, the current State Department spokesperson, is being tapped to be the next United Nations ambassador. She's had little experience in government or in foreign policy. She's a former Fox and ABC News correspondent. This is not your typical resume for a U.N. ambassador, is it, E.J.?

DIONNE: George H.W. Bush, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Samantha Power - we have had some really heavy-duty people in this job. And with all respect to her, she is not that. And I think it's symptomatic or symbolic that unlike Nikki Haley, she will not have Cabinet status. Now, maybe this is the administration sending a signal of what it really thinks of the U.N. and its importance. But it also goes back to our earlier conversation. Nikki Haley could stand up for - to Trump. She did it in very diplomatic ways, but she did it. I don't see this happening with Ms. Nauert.

CHANG: Well, let me ask David. Do you think that this choice of Heather Nauert says something about how the Trump administration views the importance of the United Nations?

BROOKS: Well, I think they understand that being a media pundit is perfect preparation for every other job on Earth.


BROOKS: Now, I - it - what it...

DIONNE: Why couldn't he have named David Brooks? That would be much better.

BROOKS: It's a view of the United Nations. It's also the final triumph of the America First wing of the Republican foreign policy establishment. Nikki Haley was much more interventionist, much more likely to channel the allies and try to represent global opinion or global partners. That era is clearly coming to an end. And John Bolton and Pompeo have established their reign, which does not believe in those things. And so it says something about the U.N., but really it shows the - basically the reversal of the Republican foreign policy position in the period of about five or 10 years.

CHANG: All right, 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: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.