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Week In Politics: Michael Cohen's Testimony And The Second U.S.-North Korea Summit

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Two years and nearly two months into Donald Trump's tenure as president, this week proved once again his ability both to dominate a news cycle and to be buffeted by it. The president landed just after 8 o'clock last night fresh from Vietnam and a summit that yielded no winds. He stepped back into the night air of the capital city consumed by investigations, riveted by testimony from a man who once promised to take a bullet for him who now calls the president a racist, a con man and a cheat. Here's a taste of the week the president and all of us just lived through.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The joint resolution has passed without...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The House has just voted to reject President Trump's declaration of a...

MICHAEL COHEN: My name is Michael Dean Cohen. I am here under oath to correct the record.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Would cooperate or collude with a foreign power...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: He's going to prison for lying to Congress, and he's the start witness to Congress.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: We have got to get back to normal.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: President Trump pulls the plug on his summit with Kim Jong Un.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Some really bad things happened to Otto, some really, really bad things.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Why are you...

TRUMP: But he tells me that he didn't know about it, and I will take him at his word.

KELLY: With me in the studio for our Friday week in politics conversation are Susan Glasser of The New Yorker and David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome back, both of you.

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Good to be here.

SUSAN GLASSER: Thanks so much.

KELLY: Start where that tape ended, the president being asked if he had pushed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un about the death of American college student Otto Warmbier. Trump said he did push, that Kim denied knowing about it and that he takes him at his word. David, I'm going to start with you because this speaks to the one-on-one relationship that the president prides himself on forging with other leaders, a one-on-one relationship that - is it fair to say - did not yield results this week.

BROOKS: Well, the Warmbier part is appalling. It's basically walking away for - our ideals, who we are as a country, for the sake of some realpolitik gambit. But I have to say, on the whole, on the North Korea deal, I take sort of a sunny side. Two years ago, we were in a very scary place with North Korea. Now we're in a sort of rotten place but not totally scary. So if you've got a horrible regime, at least we're talking to them.

At least the administration is pressuring the more reactionary parts of the regime versus the less reactionary. There are some parts of the regime that apparently want to make some sort of deal. So at least we're kicking the can down the road, at least jaw-jaw being better than war-war. And so I think Trump is right to engage, and frankly he was right to walk away. And so I can't give him too low marks on this. I think it's better than where we were.

KELLY: Susan, Trump did seem to manage the seemingly impossible - bipartisan consensus that, A, the summit flopped and, B, that might not be a bad thing.

GLASSER: Right, that sound of relief here in the Beltway was palpable. And it really was pretty bipartisan. I think...

KELLY: Relief that no bad deal was cut...

GLASSER: Correct, that no deal...

KELLY: ...That that would be worse than...

GLASSER: ...Is better than bad deal. That being said, I do think that analytically we're capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. And just because President Trump didn't make a bad deal with North Korea, just because I think most people in both parties do agree that talking even fruitlessly is better than threatening nuclear war, that doesn't mean that this wasn't an enormous embarrassment for the Trump administration and, I think, for the United States.

The president has reinterpreted realpolitik to mean humbling the United States before a tyrannical young dictator who, by the way, ordered the killing of his uncle and his half-brother. And to hear the president of the United States speak in such terms, such glowing personal endorsement terms about one of the world's worst violators of...

KELLY: As a friend.

GLASSER: ...Human rights of all kinds, I just don't - I don't see that as a win for the United States.

KELLY: Let me turn you both to Michael Cohen and the testimony that really dominated the agenda here in Washington this week. Susan, years from now, will we remember this testimony as a footnote or the moment that winds shifted or as neither of the above? What do you think?

GLASSER: You know, it's interesting. I started out the morning of the Cohen testimony rereading the coverage of the John Dean testimony in 1973, and a couple of thoughts - one, that testimony was - in many ways is correctly remembered as the beginning of the end for Richard Nixon. However, it took a really long time between June of 1973 and August of 1974 when Nixon left. Number two, there was a memorable single moment associated with this, the Dean testimony, the cancer on the presidency. I don't see any one particular moment associated with it. However...

KELLY: 'Cause there were so many...

GLASSER: Well, exactly.

KELLY: ...Memorable moments to the testimony.

GLASSER: That's the thing. It's, like, five administrations worth of scandals all in one seven-hour period of testimony. And the overall portrait portrayed of life inside Donald Trump's world by someone who spent the last 10 years at his side is so toxic.

KELLY: Yeah.

GLASSER: It's so filled with lies and scandals and cover-ups.

KELLY: David, you came at the testimony this week - your writing in The Times about it - from a moral perspective. And you had some harsh words for House Republicans who were during the questioning.

BROOKS: Yeah. I mean, if there's no legal cancer, there's certainly a moral cancer that the whole Trump administration represents. And I just would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at the Republican strategy meeting where they said how to handle this meeting. And they apparently decided, we're going to be completely incurious about the fact that our leader - our party leader, our national leader - could be a moral cretin, and we're just going to rip the skin off Michael Cohen.

And to me, that's a perfect example how moral numbing happens. If you're defending the Trump administration, you have to morally distance every single day and not have a moral reaction, to shut down any spiritual or moral sense that you have within yourself. And eventually you just get numb to everything. And even North Korea - Trump was morally numb about North Korea. Republicans are morally numb about Donald Trump. And this is the way norms shift. This is the way cultures corrode.

KELLY: Elijah Cummings, the congressman, the Democrat who was chairing the big hearing on Wednesday, is not morally numb, whatever else you want to say about him. In the minute or so we have left, I just want to get reaction from both of you to a comment with which he closed the hearing. He said, we have got to get back to normal. We just heard a little bit of that tape at the very top. David Brooks, what does normal even look like in 2019, and are we ever going to get back there?

BROOKS: Yeah, the moral atmosphere is something we all share, whether we're red or blue, urban or rural. It's something we all create together and we all live in together. And with every action we take, we either weave that atmosphere, or we rip at it. And every time you stereotype someone, you're ripping at it. Every time you make someone feel deeply known and listen to them, you're weaving it. And so we all do this together. And at the top of our society, we have a lot of ripping.

KELLY: Susan - last word.

GLASSER: You know, Mary Louise, when we lived in Russia for four years at the beginning of Vladimir Putin's presidency, the aspiration of Russians was often expressed to us in the simplest of terms that always struck me. They said, do we think Russia could finally become an - civilized, normal country. And I never thought that the United States - we would hear this this lament. You know, we were almost the definition of normalcy. And yet I'll tell you. Every single week in my New Yorker column, there's someone who I'm tempted to quote saying, this is not normal; this is not normal.

KELLY: Words to close the week from The New Yorker's Susan Glasser and The New York Times' David Brooks. Thanks to you both.

BROOKS: Thank you.

GLASSER: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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