How The Latest Political News Is Being Perceived By Conservatives

May 20, 2017
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now it's time for the Barbershop. That's where we talk with a group of interesting, informed people about the news of the week. Where do we start - with the news that FBI Director James Comey was reportedly nudged by President Trump to back off an FBI investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. elections, the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller to pick up that investigation, not to mention ongoing leaks and the president's Twitter habits.

We're particularly interested in how this news is reverberating in conservative circles. So we called Mona Charen. She's a political analyst and commentator for The National Review. Mona, welcome back. Thanks...

MONA CHAREN: Thanks. Good to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: Sarah Westwood is the White House correspondent for The Washington Examiner. Sarah, it's great to have you with us.

SARAH WESTWOOD: Thank you.

MARTIN: They're both here with me in the studio in Washington, D.C. And joining us from member station - from - sorry - from station WTMJ in Milwaukee, Charlie Sykes. Charlie just signed off from nearly two decades as the host of an influential political talk show in Wisconsin. He just finished a stint with a public radio project looking at the first 100 days of the Trump presidency, and he's still writing books and influential opinion pieces. Charlie, welcome back. Thank you for joining us once again.

CHARLIE SYKES: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Sarah, I'm going to go to you first because I just wanted to get a sense of what it's been like at the White House these past few weeks and even a bit beyond. I mean, I'm thinking about the fact that just after the White House announced that FBI Director James Comey had been fired, you know, The Times published a story reporting that Comey had written up a detailed memo saying that the president had asked him to ease up on the FBI investigation, and, you know, that's just one story. So could you just give us a sense of the flavor there. What's it been like?

WESTWOOD: You know, it was interesting. Right after the removal of FBI Director James Comey, we had White House officials and aides being very responsive with reporters, trying to explain to them sometimes off the record, sometimes on background that this was the result of the deputy attorney general's recommendation to the president.

And about 24 hours later, President Trump came out and directly contradicted that, and it put the White House in a very awkward position. And they didn't have time to recover from it because of the deluge of subsequent leaks. And since then, White House officials have more or less been in a bunker. They have not been willing to come out and freelance or go rogue on a message. And there was a noticeable shift after President Trump had that direct contradiction of their message in terms of their responsiveness and their willingness to explain what was going on beyond the written statements.

MARTIN: Mona, one of the reasons that we called you and Charlie, of course, is that, you know, you pointed to something in one of your pieces. You said that the president has proven to be his own worst enemy which is an amazing feat considering the intensity of feelings against him. And one of the reasons that resonated is that, you know, if you're a Democrat, if you're a progressive, then this is not hard.

CHAREN: Right.

MARTIN: But it seems to me if you're a conservative, this is hard because on the one hand, you have policies that you favor in sight like tax cuts and market-based health care. On the other hand, you have processes that you care about being trashed like civility and a sense of respect for different branches of government, and so I wanted to ask which of these stories is most resonant with you right now and why?

CHAREN: So what we are seeing now after four months of this presidency is that there is a corruption that has taken place in conservative ranks. There are large numbers of people who feel that because the liberal media hates Trump which, of course, they do, and they have been engaging kind of nightly incitement against him, but, nevertheless, there are people on the right who should have the integrity and the devotion principle to be able to look beyond that and say, yes, the left does hate Trump.

But that doesn't mean he's right, and that doesn't mean that he represents what we believe in and that doesn't mean that he should be free of criticism from us. And so, you know, it's been a very, very painful process for those of us on the right who are critics of Trump because we've been attacked as traitors and all the rest of it. But that just is the task that falls to you. Sometimes you just have to sort of suck it up.

MARTIN: I'm going to come back to you in a minute. I'm interested in where - how do you decide where to be in the current moment? Let me hear from Charlie, though, on this. Charlie, what about, you know - I'm particularly interested in what, you know, your network is saying, you know in Wisconsin, where you know everybody.

SYKES: Well, yeah. Not everybody's talking to me anymore, though. You know, it is this painfulness agonizing choice because conservatives, of course, don't want this president to succeed. But, you know, with every single passing news cycle, it gets worse, and it gets harder and harder.

And, you know, as Mona pointed out, you have - you know, some of the conservative media - she has an article where - with Mona - where you're - you describe Fox News as the ministry of truth now for the Trump administration...

CHAREN: Exactly.

SYKES: ...Which I think is true or we're simply trying to deflect anger onto the left. But the reality is that each of these stories is self inflicted by the president. It flows from the president. It's not the liberal media. It's not his staff. And, Michel, you asked the question which story resonated? It was the genuinely jaw-dropping report that we got yesterday that the president of the United States the day after he fires the FBI director is bragging about it to the Russians, calls him a nut job says that it will take pressure off of him.

It is one of those things beyond anything that you would have expected a president to say. His inability to distinguish between our friends and our enemies, the fact that he would, you know, use this as a talking point to ingratiate himself with the Russians in this particular circumstance is shocking even in a year in which it seems like we can't be shocked anymore.

MARTIN: So, you know, what I was curious about is - do you see a difference between how different groups of conservatives are reacting to this? I mean, do you see elected officials sort of in one place...

SYKES: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Maybe that - what we would - people call it the permanent Republican establishment, and I don't mean that in a negative way. I just mean people whose job it is to keep the party going, you know, party officials and then the public. Do you see them in different places? Or are they gravitating toward a point of view on this?

SYKES: Oh, I do. I do see a distinction. I do think that Republicans in Washington are getting increasingly rattled by this. They understand what this could possibly mean. But on the other hand, they will not break with Trump until the Republican base moves. And if the Republican base right now is still, you know, hardened in its support in part because of the alternative reality conservative media, the willingness of the conservative media to rationalize and defend and deflect everything. But I do think that the disillusionment of elected Republicans and their political fear, perhaps, more importantly is obviously on the rise.

MARTIN: Sarah, what are you seeing?

WESTWOOD: I think that the reaction this week reminded me a lot of the reaction we saw after the "Access Hollywood" tape leaked. There were a handful of Republicans on Capitol Hill after the "Access Hollywood" tape leaked during the campaign that remained staunchly with then-candidate Trump. But most Republicans at that time chose to distance themselves, chose to issue statements that were critical of their own GOP candidate at the time.

And that's kind of what we saw this week before the appointment of the special counsel when it didn't appear that the White House was willing or able to save itself from these controversies. Then you saw more senior Republicans in the Senate, in the House start to come out and issue statements that looked like they were positioning themselves to distance from the president if they needed to do so. And the special counsel, I think, lifted a lot of the pressure and gave themselves the room to just take a wait-and-see approach.

MARTIN: Mona, what do you think? Particularly because, you know, people have - National Review took a very strong anti-Trump stance during the campaign.

CHAREN: Indeed.

MARTIN: A lot of your readers were not in love with that, did not love that.

CHAREN: No, they...

MARTIN: And...

CHAREN: They had some criticisms.

MARTIN: ...And are not pleased. And so, you know, what's the breaking point? What's the breaking point for the supporters? Is it still the, you know, grassroots support is there and that is dispositive? Or what?

CHAREN: Look, right after the election in a podcast that I do called Need to Know, if anybody wants to subscribe, I said that the prospect of this president being impeached by a Republican Congress would only happen if he committed an act that was so egregious that impeachment would not even be a remedy. So we are where we are - the Republican Party is locked in an embrace, maybe a slightly reluctant one, with this president.

And you have a lot of people continuing to say, well, here's what he should do. Here's what he would do if he were rational, sensible and so on. So far, he hasn't shown an ability to change his nature, take good advice and behave in a reasonable and rational fashion. And I don't expect - so some people are saying the appointment of the special counsel takes the pressure off, though, you know, he'll be able to then just deflect everything say, well, there's an investigation, can't talk about that. But does anybody really think that the crazy tweeting and the inappropriate comments and so forth are going to stop because there's been a special counsel appointed? No.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I just have to ask for a quick word about Roger Ailes, the former head of Fox News. He died unexpectedly suddenly this week. We're told that he died of complications from an unexpected fall, and I just wanted to ask about the footprint that was left on conservative media. Maybe, Charlie, I'll give this one to you. How's that?

SYKES: Well, obviously he transformed conservative media probably certainly the most consequential figure of the last several decades. On the other hand, to the extent that the conservative movement also went off the rails, you know, became this - the angry voice dominated by shrill, you know, celebrity talkers. He was the impresario of all of that. He is the one who brought the circus to town.

MARTIN: Mona, what do you think?

CHAREN: Yeah. I was a fan of Roger Ailes' early on, and I thought he had a very sharp sense of humor. I've met him a couple of times, and certainly he did build up a network when no one else thought that that was possible, and the - you know, the joke was that he found a niche which was half the population, so good for him.

But I do think it was the platform for this kind of populist conservatism and an almost, you know - I'm as patriotic as they come. I tear up, you know, whenever I see the flag, but I found it almost exploitative the way they used patriotism as a way to sell products. And it just - it felt a little cheesy to me...

MARTIN: And not to mention the very serious allegations of a very toxic environment, particularly directed at women which...

CHAREN: Exactly. Yes.

MARTIN: Did you know about this, Mona? I have to ask you because you have a lot of women and friends in the media. Very quickly, did you know about that?

CHAREN: So I heard rumors, but let me just say this. If - even if you didn't know anybody on the inside, all you had to do is look at the way the network presented itself, the way it presented women, and you wouldn't have been surprised to find that there was that kind of a culture.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. Sarah, sorry we had to skip you on that one. I bet you don't mind, though.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That's - Mona Charen is a political analyst and commentator for The National Review and host of the podcast which she told you about. Sarah Westwood is the White House correspondent for The Washington Examiner. They were both here with me in Washington, D.C. And with us from WTMJ in Milwaukee, radio talk show host Charlie Sykes. Sarah, Mona, Charlie, thanks so much for joining us.

SYKES: Thank you.

CHAREN: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.