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Week In Politics: Oil Tanker Attacks, Trumps Comments On Foreign Election Help


Every Friday we talk about the week in politics. This time, we're going to focus on - I don't know - the last 48 hours because there's lots to unpack, both in terms of our standing in the world and the health of our democracy. President Trump today doubled down on his administration's claim that Iran is to blame for attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They're a nation of terror. And they've changed a lot since I've been president, I can tell you. They were unstoppable. And now they're in deep, deep trouble.

CORNISH: That was the president on "Fox & Friends," and it's the starting point for a political roundup. Today we have Matthew Yglesias of Vox. Welcome to the studio.

MATTHEW YGLESIAS: Good to be here.

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

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Good to be here.

CORNISH: So, Matt, has the Trump administration kind of stuck its neck out too far here with these claims that Iran attacked these tankers?

YGLESIAS: Well, look. I mean, it's hard to know. I've seen this video they put out. It doesn't mean a lot to me. I remember at the very beginning of the Trump administration, when they were claiming that Trump's inaugural crowds were in fact larger than Barack Obama's.

And one thing a lot of people said right then is, you know, you don't want to just lie about obvious things because the time comes when there's national security and you really need to ask the American people to trust you - right? - to take on faith that your government, your intelligence knows something about what's going on.

And I don't think the Trump administration has ever behaved with information in the kind of way that would build confidence. So I hear this stuff from them, and I'm skeptical, and I think a lot of people are.

CORNISH: David, can I have you respond to that? You talk a lot about sort of how this administration projects kind of America's standing in the world.

BROOKS: Yeah. Well, I don't know if we should believe them. I don't quite know about this particular incident. But it's consistent with what Iran has been doing over the last couple months. Far from being back on their heels, as Trump claims, they've turned up the aggression on some of their actions. They've been blowing up Saudi pipelines. There was the missile sent into the Saudi arrivals terminal of an airport, greater attacks on Yemen.

So Iran is testing what they can get away with, and doing this would be entirely consistent with recent behavior. And America's tired of being the world's policeman, and I understand that. But if you're not the world's policeman, there's no policeman. And the bad actors, like the Iranian regime, will test and see what they get away with. And their goal is...

CORNISH: But it doesn't sound like an administration open to diplomacy.

BROOKS: Well, it could be. But, I mean, the first thing you have to do is draw some sort of line so the Iranians have a sense of what they can't get away with. And the problem is if you don't do that in small ways, it's like the broken windows theory. Then you have to do it in big ways later on. And I'm afraid somewhere down the line, we'll get into some sort of more major clash.

CORNISH: We'll keep on reporting that story throughout the night. We're going to turn now to a piece of President Trump's interview with ABC that's been playing on repeat in the last 48 hours. George Stephanopoulos had been asking about Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting in 2016 with Russians who offered kind of political opposition research on Hillary Clinton. And Trump said, just imagine you're a congressman and you get a similar offer.


TRUMP: This is somebody that said, we have information on your opponent. Oh, let me call the FBI. Give me a break. Life doesn't work that way.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: The FBI director says that's what should happen.

TRUMP: The FBI director is wrong.

CORNISH: So he says the FBI director would be wrong. Then, on "Fox & Friends" today, President Trump sort of walks it back on what he'd do with that kind of information. Here he is.


TRUMP: Of course you have to look at it because if you don't look at it, you're not going to know if it's bad. How are you going to know if it's bad? But of course you'd give it to the FBI or report it to the attorney general or somebody like that.

CORNISH: Matt, let me start with you, your reaction to basically how this went down and the president's move to try and kind of - I don't know - clean up on aisle six.

YGLESIAS: I mean, look. You know, we had back in 2000 - during that campaign, Al Gore's team came across what they believed was debate prep information that George W. Bush had, you know, misplaced or something.

CORNISH: Right. We had Congressman Downey on the show this week talking about what he did in that case.

YGLESIAS: Yeah. And they took it to the authorities, I mean, both because there's, you know, such a thing as a right thing to do and fair play, but also out of basic prudence. I mean, you have to wonder - right? - if foreign agents, people are saying, oh, here, I can give you a leg up, right? They're not doing that out of the goodness of their own heart, right? You have to wonder, are you getting played? Are you setting yourself up to be blackmailed?

And, you know, Trump has never taken this whole suite of questions seriously, and I think it's very clear he still doesn't. He doesn't feel he did anything wrong. And he hopes he'll get more help.

CORNISH: David, for you, even allies of the president were saying, oh, that's not a good idea.

BROOKS: Well, Mitt Romney and a few were. But I certainly have spoken to a bunch of Republicans who think it is a good idea. I mean, this whole question was like a disaster of moral philosophy.

He's basically being asked, would you put your grandmother under the bus to make $10? He said, of course I would, everybody does that. And maybe in his world, everybody does do that. But at least he doesn't pretend to be more moral than he actually is.

But the thing that worries me is not only that he does that - we know he's sort of Hobbesian and amoral - is that a lot of Republicans I talked to say, hey, it's a dog's fight right now. They're trying to slit our wrists, we're trying to slit theirs. We need somebody who'll break all the rules to win.

CORNISH: This is a lot of violent talk.


CORNISH: I'm going to play a bit of something from Senator Kamala Harris. She's a Democratic presidential candidate, California Democrat. NPR's Scott Detrow asked her, if she became president, would she want the Justice Department to pursue obstruction charges against Donald Trump?


KAMALA HARRIS: I believe that they would have no choice and that they should, yes. There has to be accountability.

CORNISH: I bring these two things together because after Trump's comments yesterday, there was kind of some Democratic rumbling of, like, see - as you said - this guy is amoral. We should be looking at this. Matt, should they still be talking about it?

YGLESIAS: Look. I mean, I think this is a kind of situation where you don't want to see this downward spiral of politicizing in the Justice Department, right? Kamala Harris is not speaking as just an outside observer saying, you know, I think this is what the statute says. She's running for president. You're not supposed to have the president ordering up investigations out of the Justice Department.

CORNISH: David, for you?

BROOKS: Yeah. I just think the voters don't care. You know, I've been on this little book tour. I've been in for 30 or 40 states. You never get conversations about this. You get a lot of conversations about every other issue.

CORNISH: But people were talking about this clip - tape of the president - right? - talking about what he would do with political dirt. And he obviously felt strong enough to go on Fox and kind of rebut the chatter out there. So obviously there's still kind of a conversation about it.

BROOKS: That's true. Yeah. I would say there is a conversation about the general lowering of norms and the moral corruption he represents. I would not say there's a great desire to rehash the Mueller report. That'd be my experience.

CORNISH: Lightning round. Sarah Sanders, White House press secretary, is leaving. Her legacy in a few words - we'll start with you, David.

BROOKS: She took what had been a circus and she toned everything down by pretending or acting like sort of the board mom who was impatient with all the reporters under her. And so she lied like all the others, but she did it in such a bored way, it wasn't so circus-like.


YGLESIAS: That is true.

CORNISH: I'm glad you didn't bring up blood in that, David. I really appreciate you taking it down for us.

YGLESIAS: I just think, you know, back to the point I was originally making about the Iranians. It's an important function, handling public communications for the White House. And it's important to try to be credible in these situations because it does matter in the world - what you say, what's true, what's not. And she calmed things down, but she didn't rebuild the credibility that comes out of that institution. And I don't think it's going to be rebuilt by her successor.

CORNISH: That's Matt Yglesias of Vox and David Brooks of The New York Times and author of the new book "The Second Mountain." Thanks to you both, and have a good weekend.

BROOKS: You too, thank you.

YGLESIAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.