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Week In Politics: U.S. Trades Threats With North Korea


Joining us now to discuss this and other stories from the Week in Politics is E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Hey there, E.J.

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

CORNISH: And David Brooks, columnist with The New York Times. Welcome back, David.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.

CORNISH: All right. We're going to talk about the power of words this week. And here is Donald Trump defending himself against criticism that the president's talk is rash or bellicose or any of the words we heard in Scott's piece.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, you know, my critics are only saying that because it's me. If somebody else uttered the exact same words that I uttered, they'd say, what a great statement, what a wonderful statement.

CORNISH: David Brooks, I feel like people who during the campaign were constantly raising the question of Donald Trump's words and the nuclear threat, I mean, this was like a big kind of Clinton campaign talking point. So now that we're here, how are you feeling as you're hearing this language?

BROOKS: Yeah. It's not just personal, President Trump. One of the reasons nobody's reacted this way is because no president has ever said anything like this in regards to North Korea. The North Korean regime, especially in public, is extremely unstable. And they're screaming - they scream crazy things like they're going to turn Seoul into a lake of fire. And every other president - of both parties - before has decided if someone extremely unstable is screaming crazy things at you, you don't scream crazy things back at them because it only raises the atmosphere. What you do is you tend to ignore it.

The second conclusion every other administration has had is that even though they are crazy and insecure on the surface, they do tend to respond to normal self-interest down below. And deterrence probably works. And so that has been the governing philosophy of every other administration and seems to be in this one with the exception of Donald Trump, who thinks they are basically the Cuban missile crisis.

CORNISH: But E.J., the president has made some diplomatic gains - right? - with the sanctions out of the U.N. People are talking about these back-channel negotiations. And he's meeting with Tillerson and Nikki Haley in the coming day - so progress?

DIONNE: Well, I'd like to hope there's progress. I think the most devastating comment on what Trump has been saying does not come from his critics but from Secretary Mattis. In the clip we just heard, Mattis was basically saying, don't listen to what this guy - meaning the president - is saying. We're doing diplomacy out there. And I think the language he's using - locked and loaded, fire and fury - sounds more like a Clint Eastwood or Gary Cooper movie than reality.

The best defense of Trump is that he's pursuing Richard Nixon's mad man theory, make the other side back down because they think you'll do something crazy. But I don't think that's a very wise or prudent thing to do in dealing with North Korea. I'd like to hope that the diplomats will continue to work. And the U.N. vote is something we should all be happy about. And if Trump had not said all these things, we might all just be able to chair that.

CORNISH: Now, members of Congress are back in their home districts. They're having to answer questions about their performance so far this year. And the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, who has taken some hits from the president, defended Congress against the criticism that they hadn't accomplished very much.


MITCH MCCONNELL: Our new president has, of course, not been in this line of work before and I think had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process.

CORNISH: So after seven years of hearing repeal and replace, were the president's expectations excessive? Who wants to jump in on this?

BROOKS: I guess I'll go.

DIONNE: Well, I think - go ahead, David.

BROOKS: Well, you know, they were excessive. The Republicans should have had - there are two problems here. The first is that Republicans really don't have a coherent replace strategy. The second is that Donald Trump was completely unhelpful. And the third - to add another - is that attacking your own majority leader is suicidal politics. You know, this is a team sport.

And to me, the interesting thing is what does McConnell do in response? He obviously doesn't want to get in a Twitter war with Donald Trump. But he needs to do something to defend himself, to defend his party and to defend the Republican Party and the Republican Congress. I try extortion. I think that's the only thing that works with Trump. Whatever Putin has on Trump, McConnell should try to get.

CORNISH: OK, E.J., David suggesting a felony. You?

DIONNE: I'm against felonies if at all possible.

CORNISH: (Laughter) OK.

DIONNE: Trump taking responsibility for any failure is something he's constitutionally incapable of, so it's always someone else's fault. We're accustomed to him saying that everything is Obama's fault or Hillary Clinton's fault. And with this failure, he wants to blame it on Mitch McConnell. But as David says, this is a very dangerous game. Lord knows I'm perfectly happy to see Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump fight each other. But all this is doing is pushing a Republican Congress that would like to move away from Trump in many ways.

I think there are a lot of members there who would like to go away for a minute. It makes it much easier for them. The Republicans' problem on health care is they were never willing to spend the money that it took to provide all the coverage that Obamacare provided. And they were going to run into trouble on this with or without Donald Trump or Mitch McConnell.

CORNISH: One last idea that came out of Silicon Valley, and this is a debate over a viral memo from a Google engineer who argued, among other things, that Google had a left bias that created a politically correct mono culture that shamed dissenters into silence. Also made some comments about men and women and biological differences. David, you argue that the person who should have been fired is Google's CEO. How come?

BROOKS: Well, you know, all of this starts with a long debate we've been having for decades about evolutionary psychology and the differences between men and women. And there's this vast body of research out there on this subject. And it shows, first, mostly, there are no real significant differences between men and women on abilities, on the ability to do math, on IQ - pretty much the same. There are some minor differences between populations, mostly in levels of interest, not in levels of ability. And - but these are all about populations. You can't tell anything about a person, about an individual from any of these studies. Who should work at Google? Who should not work at Google? Who's good at tech? And James Damore...

CORNISH: But just to stop you there, like, if you say something bad about your...

DIONNE: That sounds like a critique of James Damore.

BROOKS: No, that's exactly what James Damore...

CORNISH: This is the name of the engineer.

BROOKS: And this is exactly what James Damore wrote in his memo. And now a whole series of evolutionary psychologists have come out - I quoted a couple in my column today - saying that he was a pretty accurate summary of the body of research. And so someone at a scientific company should not be fired for sort of accurately summarizing the science. Now, I understand why - go ahead, E.J.

DIONNE: Oh, go ahead, David.

BROOKS: I understand why some of the people who are there, who are - especially some of the women who are in a hostile work environment being silenced in meetings are upset because they're living in one reality, which is the reality that we live out every day as individuals. And they're absolutely right. But James Damore, his - the research he summarized is talking about populations. And he, too, is right. And Pichai should have done a much better job of, A, not firing him and, B, explaining the differences.

CORNISH: E.J., last word to you.

DIONNE: Where I disagree is I don't think the research is anywhere near as good as David is suggesting it is. And some of what he said were pure stereotypes. Women generally have a stronger interest in people, rather than things relative to men. And I thought Anna Wiener in The New Yorker really had it right that this memo was a kind of smack in the face for plenty of tech workers and executives - for plenty of women who are used to tech workers and executives considering hiring women as lowering the bar. I mean, there was something just terribly wrong with this memo. I'm a pro-labor guy. I don't like people getting fired, but I think this memo had a lot of problems in it.

CORNISH: That's E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. Thank you, E.J.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

CORNISH: And David Brooks, columnist with The New York Times. Have a good weekend.

BROOKS: You, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNARKY PUPPY'S "WHAT ABOUT ME?") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.