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Week In Politics: Turnover In Trump's Cabinet Continues As Tensions With Russia Escalate


Now from domestic to foreign affairs - this week, North Korea's president made a trip to China. Russia expelled U.S. diplomats. And to talk about these stories and more from the week in politics, our Friday regulars are here in the studio, David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Hi, guys.

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Good to be here.

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

SHAPIRO: Let's start with the Russian expulsions. More than two dozen countries including the U.S. kicked out Russian diplomats in retaliation for the nerve agent attack on a Russian ex-spy and his daughter. Russia's retaliating by expelling Western diplomats, including 60 from the U.S., closing the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg. Some Russia watchers are calling this the worst moment for Russia's relations with the West since the Cold War. E.J., do you think they're right?

DIONNE: Yes. And it's a truly strange moment. Here you have Trump under legitimate attack for being so eager to praise Putin. He won't say a cross word about him. He has promised better relations with Russia. And we probably have worse relations with Russia than we ever have. And, you know, some could ask to use the old Reaganite slogan, peace through strength. Perhaps Trump's approach to Putin doesn't help us.

But there's a second level here, which is, Trump does not want the White House to announce all of the tough things the United States government is actually doing against Russia. NBC had a story about his saying, you know, we are doing these things against Russia. He just doesn't want us to talk about them. So it's very hard to discern what American policy is. It seems there is a kind of verbal Trump policy and an actual policy that's much tougher.

SHAPIRO: David, you've been critical of President Trump's reluctance to criticize Putin, and yet the actions of the United States in this case seem to be pretty tough on Russia.

BROOKS: Yeah, I think the actions are pretty good. We worked multilaterally. We reacted. And it seemed like a pretty normal American administration doing the normal, right American thing. I think what - I think I still say it's insufficient. My thinking on all this is that their Trump is better than our Trump, that Putin, like Trump...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

BROOKS: ...Succeeds by blowing up the system and by threatening to blow up the system, in this case the nation state system. He did that in Crimea. He did that in Ukraine. He did that in Syria. And he's done it here. I mean, poisoning people on an English - British territory is a complete violation of norms of how you do statecraft. And he's willing to do that. And then we do our expulsions, but he ups the ante. I'm really struck by how he wants this. He wants to go higher and higher. And so he's pretty good at using his power as a disrupter to really mess with the world.

SHAPIRO: Although...


SHAPIRO: If his goal has been to undermine NATO and the European Union and these other Western alliances, his actions sure seem to have brought those countries together in this case.

DIONNE: Right. I mean, some of his actions - the interference with the elections has actually weakened NATO, and you've had victories or strong votes for parties that Putin seemed to be helping that hurt the cause of NATO solidarity. And yet this poisoning has really brought people together. And the other striking thing about Trump is he absolutely does not want to say or even do anything about Russian disruption of our election, whereas the Europeans have actually done much more about this in their cases.

BROOKS: Yeah, I'm struck by the fact that he's picked on Theresa May and Trump particularly and how he's - Putin has responded. And there could be an attempt just to humiliate people. And so in the short term, we have - as West, have united and acted in common. But in the long term, if we can't force Putin to stop doing this kind of behavior, it'll be a humiliating setback for the...

SHAPIRO: All right, from one powerful adversary to another worrying scenario, North Korea - really interesting situation where Kim Jong Un in his first-known international trip visited China and met with China's leader and was feted by the Chinese. All of this is a prelude to a potential Trump-Kim meeting. Where do you think this is going?

DIONNE: Well, I think that the Chinese and the North Koreans have had a very close and strong alliance. And on the one hand, China did not want any talks going forward without their having a strong role. And so this is clearly China asserting itself. But it's also a real warning to the United States that China right now is in a mood to really start pushing American influence out of Asia. They don't want any deal that will weaken their position. They certainly don't want a united Korea. And so I think this shows what the United States is up against and how complicated and difficult these talks with President Trump are going to be.

SHAPIRO: David, do you think this China-North Korea meeting is helpful or harmful to American interests with North Korea?

BROOKS: Probably harmful. I guess I'm mostly struck by the fact that we don't seem to be taking the initiative, that in each case, North Korea takes the initiative. They decide to build the missiles. We react. They decide to offer talks. We react. They decide to go to China. We react. And so they seem to have a - an aggressive - an assertive strategy.

The final thing I'd say is when I get the chance to have off-the-record conversations with foreign policymakers, I sometimes ask them, like, you know more than we know. Is it scarier with your base of knowledge the North Korea situation, or is it less scary? And without exception, they always say, oh, it's much scarier.


DIONNE: God help us. And by the way, when North Korea isn't taking the initiative, South Korea is taking the initiative, and it's, again, a sign of what appears to be the relative weakness of our position.

SHAPIRO: All right, well, every week, we ask you about the latest prominent departure from the Trump administration.


SHAPIRO: This week, it was the secretary for Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin. He'd been criticized by the VA inspector general. He suggested he was fired because he was against privatizing VA services. David, what do you think is going on here?

BROOKS: Well, I think Shulkin wasn't seen as a team player like everyone else in the administration. And Trump wants to get people he really feels comfortable involved. The larger issue is the issue of populism. It is a tenet of populism, whether of right or left - is that experience isn't that important, and having some purity of soul or having some good relationship with the president is important. I happen to think experience is extremely important, especially in an administration. And to pick someone who, no matter - everyone says this guy Jackson is a wonderful human being.

SHAPIRO: This is Ronny Jackson, the president's doctor.

BROOKS: Who was - who is now nominated. And but to run the second-largest bureaucracy in the U.S. government without any administrative experience or health care administrative experience strikes me as putting him in an impossible position.


DIONNE: Right. I'd never seen in Washington such unanimity on two propositions. One, he's a really nice guy. Two, he's utterly unprepared to run this sprawling agency. Shulkin had some real problems on this travel. He reimbursed the government. But if travel is a big problem, then there were a lot of other Cabinet secretaries, including the head of EPA, who might - Scott Pruitt, who had faced these problems.

I do think there is politics here. Shulkin approved some contracting out at the VA, but he was resolutely opposed to wholesale privatization or huge steps in that direction. And with Rear Admiral Jackson, there's no sense that he has any strong views on this. But there is a fear and a suspicion among opponents of privatization that this is a step in that direction. And we will see. I think Jackson's going to have a really rough time on Capitol Hill because of his lack of experience 'cause veterans are a group with a lot of supporters in both parties on Capitol Hill.

BROOKS: Can you imagine working in a workplace where senior executives were fired every single week - would be tough.

SHAPIRO: A lot of people in Washington don't have to imagine it.


SHAPIRO: David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, thanks for coming in.

DIONNE: Thank you.

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

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