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Week In Politics: Trump Signs Spending Bill And Names New Security Adviser

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right, it has been a another busy week in Washington, particularly at the White House, as we just heard from Tamara Keith. And we're going to talk about all of it 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 again.

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Good to be here.

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

CHANG: We'll get to the spending bill in a moment, but let's just start off with some of the staff changes at the White House. It seems so many of these Friday conversations begin with another shakeup at the White House. And last week, President Trump had told reporters he was getting very close to having the Cabinet he wants.

What do you think? Does this departure of H.R. McMaster and the arrival of John Bolton to become the new national security adviser - does that finally give Trump the Cabinet he wants, and what does it mean for foreign policy? Let's start with you, E.J.

DIONNE: Well, I don't think Trump really knows - has ever known the Cabinet he wants. I think the very striking thing is to look at who he's brought in. He's brought in Bolton. He's brought in Larry Kudlow. He's brought in, as a new lawyer, Joe DiGenova. What do all these people have in common? It's not ideology. It's not policy. It's these are all people who offered staunchly pro-Trump soundbites on cable television. And Trump seems to want to be surrounded by people who offer soundbites, and that's rather alarming.

Bolton's - the choice of Bolton's narrows the range of advice that President Trump is going to be getting. He's more hawkish than your average neoconservative because he's a real conservative, not simply with a prefix on him. And I think the Iran deal is likely to be in a lot of trouble. And who knows what's going to happen with these negotiations with North Korea. But it doesn't sound like Bolton wants to do anything except disarm or else and have Trump walk out of any negotiations.

CHANG: What do you think, David? Do you think Bolton as a choice will have that kind of effect both on North Korea and our policy towards Iran?

BROOKS: Yeah, I actually think Trump should have picked Bolton in the first place (laughter). Of all the Republican foreign policy gurus, Bolton is the most Trumpy.

CHANG: (Laughter).

BROOKS: You know, he came on the national consciousness back in 2000 during the Florida recount. He was sort of the ruthless enforcer that was sent down there to represent the Republicans. He went into the State Department, where he was famously rude and made his staff stand up during meetings. And then he became a pretty vicious but pretty effective infighter in the State Department, opposing both the neoconservatives, who he's always been the enemy of, and the sort of Colin Powell establishment Republicans.

And he came up with America First I think back in around 2005, so he was America First before Donald Trump was. And so if a president's supposed to pick somebody who represents his worldview, Bolton's pretty much it. And I think it makes the world a more dangerous place, and it certainly increases the idea - the likelihood of military conflict with Iran and North Korea. But it is Trumpy.

CHANG: Let's turn to what was supposed to be the easy part of the week, the government spending bill. It passed early this morning. It looked like it was a done deal until the president tweeted he was considering vetoing the bill. And then in the end, he signed it anyway. As we just heard from Tamara Keith, the president said he was not happy about what was in the bill. He seemed to distance himself from much of what was in it. David, why is the president distancing himself from a bill that passed so overwhelmingly in Congress?

BROOKS: Well, for the stated reasons. It doesn't give him his wall funding and because he heard something bad on Fox News. There's not a lot of thought that goes into a lot of these tweets. But even by the intellectual standards of most tweets, this was sub-minimal.

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: And so this was sort of a brain spasm of, I'm unhappy, so I'm going to tweet. But there was never a real veto threat on the table.

DIONNE: What's ironic is that Trump acted as if his staff had nothing to do with this bill when in fact they were in on the discussions. He issued a really strong partisan attack on the Democrats. When this is what everybody says who are supposed to do this is bipartisan legislation, he tried to say, I'm for the DACA folks, and the Democrats are against him, which - against them, which is not true. It was an irrational act. And again, I think it just shows how responsive Trump is to the moment, to what's said on television and how little he has really thought through almost any of his positions.

CHANG: And E.J., I mean, he did say - you heard in Tamara Keith's piece that he will never again sign a bill like this. He is not going to do it again. He probably will do it again, right?

DIONNE: Well, he would do it again if he had to. He also called for the line-item veto, which isn't going to happen. And it was - you know, if he had wanted to oppose this bill from the right as people like Rand Paul did, he could have done that. He chose not to do that because he didn't want to have a government shutdown. And his comments were - suggested he didn't really pay attention until the moment that that story appeared on Fox News.

CHANG: I want to turn briefly also to the tariffs the administration announced this week on Chinese imports. And as a counter-move, China announced tariffs on U.S. exports like pork, which would be a big blow to U.S. agriculture in regions where there was huge support for Trump in 2016. Could these tariffs hurt the president and other Republicans as we head into the midterms? What do you think, David?

BROOKS: I think both in the affected industries and in non-affected industries like autos. It turns out, despite Trump's tweet, trade wars are not easily won, especially against China. They're really well-positioned right now to do very well in a trade war. But mostly, we're seeing the unraveling of the American-led international order, both in economic policy, trade policy but also in foreign policy. And that just has the chilling effect as we've seen in the markets this week, and it has perverse negative effects because we are so interdependent. And so that - if there's anything likely to sour the economy right now, it's - this trade war is the thing.

DIONNE: If there is any group in the country that's been pretty solidly Republican, it's farmers, and they are more worried about a trade war than anything. There are good reasons to challenge China, particularly in their stealing of intellectual property. But as David's colleague Paul Krugman said this morning, to challenge them on that, we need allies. And Trump's unilateral action on tariffs will make it less likely that we'll get allies to fight the fights we should fight with China.

CHANG: One final thing before I let you guys go. One of the people leaving the Trump administration this week had some parting words yesterday. Outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addressed State Department staff. Let's take a listen to what he said at the end of his remarks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REX TILLERSON: In closing, I'd like to ask that each of you undertake to ensure one act of kindness each day towards another person. This can be a very mean-spirited town.

(APPLAUSE)

TILLERSON: But you don't have to choose to participate in that.

CHANG: You don't have to choose to participate in that. E.J., who do you think the intended audience was for those remarks?

DIONNE: I suppose I should say amen at the end of that statement. Donald Trump, all the people who - whom he was worried about losing respect for him because he went to work for Trump. And the sad thing is if that's how he really feels, he went to work for the wrong president. And he clearly knows that now.

CHANG: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times, thank you both so much for coming in today.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATE SMITH'S "BOUNCE: PTS I AND II") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.