Week In Politics: Trump's Press Conference And Conflicts Of Interests

Jan 13, 2017
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

There was a lot of news this week, and we're going to talk about as much of it as we can with our regular Friday commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome to both of you.

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

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Good to be here.

MCEVERS: So we had the first confirmation hearings for President-elect Donald Trump's Cabinet nominees as well as Trump's first press conference in a long time, but many people would say the most important thing this week was the question of conflicts of interest. Let's hear a clip from that press conference where Trump addressed this. This is his lawyer, Sheri Dillon, talking about Trump's plans to turn over his business to his two sons.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHERI DILLON: The president-elect will have no role in deciding whether the Trump organization engages in any new deal, and he will only know of a deal if he reads it in the paper or sees it on TV.

MCEVERS: Dillon also said there will be no new foreign deals, that they'd have an ethics adviser at the Trump organization. But Trump is not selling his business, and there will be no blind trust. What do you make of this, E.J.?

DIONNE: I think this gives the idea of the fig leaf a bad name. I think that he is asking for a lot of trouble for himself. Walter Shaub, the director of the Office of Government Ethics, said that this was wholly inadequate to prevent him from conflicts of interest because he's going to know where his businesses are. He's going to know what's going on, and the money still accrues to him. He talked about not taking profits from certain enterprises, but that still means taking revenue from them.

And by the way, for his labors, Mr. Shaub is being called before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee by Representative Jason Chaffetz. And this is very odd. A committee that's supposed to guarantee government ethics is going...

MCEVERS: Right.

DIONNE: ...After the government ethics person for having too tough a line on Donald Trump. This is not a promising development I think.

MCEVERS: David, what do you think - fig leaf or earnest effort here?

BROOKS: Earnest fig leaf.

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: You know...

DIONNE: What a centrist you are.

BROOKS: I'm totally distancing myself and giving my business to my sons. No, it's clearly does not fit in the normal role of what - where we consider - when we consider public service, you axe your ties to the private sector and then you go off and serve the country.

Trump doesn't think that way. He is running sort of a family monarchy. His business is not like a normal modern corporation. It's a premodern business organized around the family. And frankly, his administration is sort of a premodern business organized around the family. So he's operating by a different set of rules. I do think he'll probably get into trouble. I have to say. This is about ninth or 10th down my list of concerns about the Trump administration.

MCEVERS: OK.

BROOKS: I think we all know what we're getting with him.

MCEVERS: OK, well, let's talk about some of the confirmation hearings then this week, Trump's pick for Cabinet. I mean many of his nominees differed with him in these hearings on a lot of things - about Russian hacking in the election, how tough to be on Russia in general, whether or not to use waterboarding, the status of our, you know, participation with NATO. What does this tell us about how this administration is going to work, David?

BROOKS: Well, the first thing to be said is those of us who are Trump critics have to admit when he's had a good week, and this is the best week he's had since the election. His nominees, which a lot of us thought were going to get into really contentious hearings, are basically sailing through. And second, he's been telling the world that the media is lying about him, and this week, the media did lie about him. So he was sort of indicating his worldview.

I do think Russia is the crucial issue here, and it's really a contest within the administration between Steve Bannon and maybe Trump who really see Russia as an ally in the populous revolt against the elites and the rest of the administration, which are part of the elites.

And so I don't know how that'll shake out. I suspect the elites will win because at the end of the day, Trump will want to cozy up to the elites for the same reason he wanted the Clintons at his wedding - because he seeks their affirmation.

DIONNE: If this is the best week that Trump has had, God save Trump and the country. First of all, the media did not lie about him. CNN reported that the president and Trump were briefed on the fact that there is talk that the Russians have information on him. That turned out to be absolutely true. Then BuzzFeed put out - published this memo that has had a...

MCEVERS: You're talking about this unsubstantiated dossier.

DIONNE: Correct.

MCEVERS: We should be really, really clear.

DIONNE: Well, I was going to say that, - this unsubstantiated dossier, which, by the way, BuzzFeed said was unsubstantiated, that is floating around out there. We don't know what's true and what's not true in that dossier. And so - and I think that Trump's news conference gave an awful lot of people pause.

I was, you know - the notion that he could sort of shout down a reporter - Jim Acosta from CNN - and not let him ask questions is a real sign of a kind of autocratic tendency in Trump. I don't think anyone who is not a Trump supporter was in any way reassured by that news conference. If anything, I think people are more worried than they were before unless they are utter Trump devotees.

And on your question, there is this vast gulf between what his - many of his nominees are saying on the Hill and what Trump believes. And I think what we're finding is on many issues, it's really not clear what Donald Trump believes. It's not clear that Donald Trump himself is sure what he believes.

MCEVERS: Let's talk about another issue that is of importance this week, and that is Republicans in Congress taking their first steps toward dismantling Obamacare. David, this is something you wrote about in your column today. How are Republicans going to come up with a workable replacement plan? I mean, what will be the same as Obamacare, and what will be different, do you think?

BROOKS: Well, they claim the amount of people covered will be the same, which grants the Democrats the argument that health care is a right. The level of coverage may not be the same, and the method will be different. They're going to try to use refundable tax credits to allow people to shop for insurance like it's a private market. I happen to more or less sympathize with the general approach the Republicans are taking.

I have to say. I do not see any political upsurge of support or call for it. And I think it's going to be politically super tough because a lot of people are going to see this as another burden - shopping for insurance - another burden they're going to have to take, another risk that's going to come into their lives. And unless I see some sort of popular support for that, it's going to be a politically - an extremely tough road even though I may generally sympathize with the overall approach.

MCEVERS: So even though there is some political will - I mean you hear Trump talking about it himself - to pass some sort of replacement, you think it'll be difficult for them to actually do it?

BROOKS: It reminds me a little of the Social Security reform President Bush tried to do several years ago where in theory a good idea and politically tough.

DIONNE: And in this case, I think the fact that they had - they rushed to repeal without having any replacement to offer tells us something important. They don't really have a fundamental replacement plan. And if they want to cover as many people as Obamacare currently covers, they're going to have to come up with a whole lot of money that they do not seem prepared to come up with.

And it's hard actually to think of a much more market-oriented approach than the one Obama came up with because the whole point of all these insurance markets is to keep most people in a private insurance market. So I think the Republicans are in a lot of substantive trouble on this, and their goal is to...

MCEVERS: OK.

DIONNE: ...Blame any problems created on Obamacare in the past. But they still - I'm waiting for that replacement.

MCEVERS: Thank you, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times. Thanks to both of you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

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