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Week In Politics: President Trump's Surprise Visit To Afghanistan For Thanksgiving


Now let's talk about the state of this country with our Friday Week in Politics segment. Today, we are joined by David Brooks of The New York Times.

Good to have you here.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

SHAPIRO: And Matt Yglesias of Vox - hi.


SHAPIRO: President Trump is back in the U.S. after just a few hours on the ground in Afghanistan, and the trip was not the only surprise. He also unexpectedly announced that peace talks are back on between the U.S. and the Taliban.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The Taliban wants to make a deal. We'll see if they want to make a deal. It's got to be a real deal. But we'll see.

SHAPIRO: It's only been a couple of months since President Trump said peace talks with the Taliban were dead. He is the one who called them off. So, David, what do you make of this turnaround?

BROOKS: Well, we almost had a simple good news story, where Trump went to see some troops, and we could all say, oh, he did the right thing.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

BROOKS: But that didn't really work out. So he's now invented a Taliban turn of mind, where they want to begin renegotiating. Apparently, the Taliban hadn't - was not informed that they had changed their minds.

SHAPIRO: Are you saying it would be bad news if they had?

BROOKS: Well, I think if we're going to pull out - which it seems we are - renegotiating a deal so they can get the violence down and the current government can survive seems like the right thing to do. So I do think talking to the Taliban is the right thing to do.

SHAPIRO: Well, Matt, the Taliban has said, we're ready to get back in where we left off. Do you think it's any more likely to succeed now than it was the last time?

YGLESIAS: I mean, the definition of success at this point is a little bit up for grabs. You know, I think the question with all of this is, you know, is President Trump really engaged in a serious, consistent way in terms of thinking about what our strategy is there, or is this just something he wanted to say because he was on camera?

SHAPIRO: Sounds like you have an answer to that question in mind.


YGLESIAS: Well, I have some skepticism, let's say.

SHAPIRO: I mean, it is almost a holiday tradition for a president to visit troops overseas around the holiday. Do you think this is helpful to him in any way, or does it just make the troops feel good that he shows up?

BROOKS: Well, it - making them feel good is a good thing to do. But it completely undermines the celebration if you're saying, we're just drawing them out. And I do think there's actually no conceptual strategy behind the Trump foreign policy strategy, especially in the Middle East, except for withdrawal, withdrawal, withdrawal. And it could be we can get away with ignoring the Middle East and the Middle East will ignore us; that has not been the historical record.

Usually, the Middle East touches us in some way, often in an unpleasant way, when we're not there to try to stabilize things as best we can. So to me, the overall withdrawal, which has been Trump's policy, is incredibly shortsighted.

SHAPIRO: Matt, I know you're critical of President Trump's policy in the Middle East, but visiting the troops at the holidays can't be a bad thing, can it?

YGLESIAS: Every time he does something normal, I think people like to see it.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

YGLESIAS: And I wish he would do more of it. I mean, this is what presidents do, whereas the thing earlier, where he tweeted a photo of himself superimposed onto an image of Rocky...

SHAPIRO: Right. The muscly, topless - yeah.

YGLESIAS: ...You know, that's - (laughter) Right. That's, I think, what gives people pause about Trump - I mean, beyond policy questions. You know, I...

SHAPIRO: I was going to say, is that what gives people pause?


SHAPIRO: I mean, of all the things, is that it?

YGLESIAS: I will defend President Trump's inclination to get the United States out of some of these wars - against David's attacks. But the question on all this is, you know, is there real thought or strategy, or is there just impulses? He's been picking, you know, fights with the military about this Navy SEAL and these war crimes accusations. And, you know, a president needs to have some focus on something complicated, like disengaging from an 18-year-long war, and that just doesn't seem like the kind of thing President Trump really does.

SHAPIRO: To pivot from Afghanistan, I know you've both missed talking about impeachment every day.


SHAPIRO: We have had a one-week break, and lawmakers are back at it next week. The House Judiciary Committee starts its hearings on Wednesday. Up until now, it's been on the House Intelligence Committee. They've invited President Trump to either testify or send somebody to testify from the White House. He has publicly toyed with that idea. What do each of you think the White House strategy ought to be here? David?

BROOKS: They ought to not send anyone, unless they found Perry Mason or Clarence Darrow or some legal genius that we've never met because they have no case. And so to me, this is - could be a potential win, politically, in the court of public opinion - a slight win.

SHAPIRO: To not send someone?

BROOKS: No, just the whole impeachment thing. But I don't see how they can possibly make a credible case within the process of what is essentially a trial.

SHAPIRO: Except that up until now, they've railed against being shut out and not being allowed to make their case.

BROOKS: Well, they should rail as much as they can on every subject other than the one that's at the core.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

BROOKS: But the railing is doing them some good because they make it seem like a political process rather than a legal process.

SHAPIRO: Matt, what do you think the White House strategy ought to be?

YGLESIAS: You know, I mean, if they really think they have done nothing wrong - and they should send somebody to make that case; I mean, I think David's right - they don't have a real argument on the merits here, and that's why they keep raising process objections and then discarding them as they come about.

I will say I personally feel that it's a little unseemly, the speed with which Democrats are moving here. We've seen that there's actually a fair amount of new information still coming in through the press about Rudy Giuliani and various other aspects of this. And given that Senate Republicans don't seem anyway inclined to convict the president, why not investigate more and try to find out what we can?

SHAPIRO: Well, might it be more unseemly to do it in the heat of a general presidential election campaign?

YGLESIAS: I mean, I guess except, you know, the president's conduct is a legitimate issue for the campaign. This impeachment process is one of the few things that has gotten any kind of witnesses to cooperate, even though a lot of the White House people haven't, and really, that's who should come. I mean, what the president's lawyer does or doesn't is beyond my control. But, you know, John Bolton and other witnesses with material information ought to come forward and do the right thing.

SHAPIRO: All right, well...

BROOKS: Yeah. There's certainly a lot of evidence that Mike Pompeo and even Vice President Pence were much more involved in this when we knew. So I can see doing that. I think it's a political disaster for the Democrats to string this along, though.

YGLESIAS: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Well, you talk about new information coming out, and we did learn some more this week about the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, whose actions in Ukraine are central to the impeachment inquiry. Multiple news outlets reported that Giuliani tried to make money off Ukraine, even as he was pressuring Ukraine to open investigations that would help Trump politically. Here's what President Trump said on a conversation with former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly on a podcast.


TRUMP: Rudy, I don't even know - I know he was going to go to Ukraine, and I think he canceled a trip. But, you know, Rudy has other clients other than me. I'm one.

SHAPIRO: He has other clients; I'm just one of them. Matt, what do you make of this? Does it change your understanding of Giuliani? Just briefly.

YGLESIAS: You know, it doesn't look great. And I would like to know more about exactly what it is he was doing. I mean, this idea that you're working for the president of the United States, but maybe you have other clients, too, I mean, that doesn't make any sense.

SHAPIRO: David, we'll give you the last word here.

BROOKS: I'm psychologically - so when I covered him as mayor, he was interested only in power, and now it's only money. So psychologically, it's interesting to see this transition. He also thrives in a place like Ukraine or Russia, which is a corrupt environment, and that points to the main worry of all this, which is the corruption of our democracy.

SHAPIRO: David Brooks of The New York Times and Matt Yglesias, senior political correspondent at Vox, thanks to both of you. Have a great weekend.

BROOKS: You, too.

YGLESIAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHOENIX'S "FUNKY SQUAREDANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.