AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
I want to continue this conversation about the Trump administration's foreign policy and other political news this week with E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Welcome back.
E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.
CORNISH: And David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome back, as well.
DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Good to be here.
CORNISH: So we also heard directly from the secretary of state in a rare sit-down interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep. And at one point, Tillerson articulated what he saw as the Trump vision for diplomacy.
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REX TILLERSON: We will lead. We will be the first out there to lead, but this is in the interest of so many other countries, as well. And we expect you and we're going to hold you accountable to stepping in and doing your part in stabilizing these regions, as well.
CORNISH: David, you've written this week that in the end, the Trump foreign policy has seemed, quote, "kind of normal," (laughter) which you seem somewhat surprised to be saying. What did you mean by that?
BROOKS: Well, we've reason to be level. No, I think their approach to North Korea is pretty, pretty much what every administration would do. On the one hand, they're trying to scare them with the madman theory. You never know what this guy, Donald Trump, is going to do. On the other hand, they're trying to reassure them that without nuclear weapons, their regime will be safe, and we - we're not going to try to change their regime.
The two problems are when you do the madman theory, you have to know that you're faking - that you're not really a madman. And we're not quite sure about Donald Trump. And the second - and this is the key - is, does North Korea think it needs nuclear weapons to survive? They look at people like Muammar Gaddafi's experience, and they have to draw a lesson - yes, we need them. And that would be the thing that would propel us towards some sort of military conflict.
CORNISH: E.J., for you, what did you hear in the comments today?
DIONNE: Well the madman theory can work, but it only works if it's strategic. And I think one of the problems that President Trump faces is people don't really know how much strategy is here and how much is he just sort of talking off the top of his head. And I think North Korea is a really classic case of a potentially insoluble problem, a problem that you have to manage.
I've talked to some really smart people about this over the last couple of weeks who say there's no good military solution. So you better not threaten the military solution when you probably can't use it because it could result in the destruction of Seoul. So I think they got to be very careful about their language about this.
CORNISH: Thinking more broadly, we're on day 99 of the Trump administration, and the president had a rather candid description of what it's been like for him in general during an interview with Reuters.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I loved my previous life. I had so many things going. I actually - this is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier. I thought it was more of a - I'm a details-oriented person. I think you would say that. But I do miss my old life. This - I like to work, so that's not a problem. But this is actually more work.
CORNISH: People have really seized on that phrase, I thought it would be easier. You're both smiling. David, you want to take it first?
BROOKS: Who could have predicted this, that the presidency is kind of a hard job? Nobody knew that. I also like the fact that he's a detail-oriented person. I find his interviews amazing. He's actually kind of remarkably candid. He had an interview - fascinating interview I recommend - with the Associated Press, where mostly he talked about his TV-viewing habits and how hard it is to not watch anything about himself. And you got to see a person who's sort of self-absorbed trying hard not to be a narcissist. And it's sort of transparent about the way he's struggling to fit into this new role.
DIONNE: You know, I think a very large number of Americans believed on Inauguration Day that Donald Trump had no business being president. And I think the first 99 days have not changed their minds. And I think comments like this just reinforce the question, what is this person doing there? You feel like saying, do work, son.
I mean, the notion that he was shocked by the amount of work this job requires is really quite astonishing. And I think we let him get off the hook on this because we've already - all adopted, well, this is just Trump, and that's the way Trump speaks. But there were - there's a reason why we never had a president who spoke like this.
BROOKS: Though, to his credit, I would say he's trying to do the job. He's trying to learn. And I, personally, think he's improved pretty dramatically and certainly changed pretty dramatically over the last hundred days. He's less of the populist. He's more of the corporatist. He's less incompetent. He's trying to at least turn toward people who can put a decision-making process. And he's trying to adjust to the job. And so whatever one thinks of him, he is certainly a learning creature.
CORNISH: And, well...
DIONNE: Except, I'd say, abandoning populism on a broad front is really breaking faith with a whole lot of people who voted for him - supporting a health care bill that's going to knock hundreds of thousands, maybe several million of his own supporters off health care, a tax plan or a tax one-page summary that seems to be breaking the promise that, no, he'd be tough in the tax code on the rich. So yeah, he's going in line with the establishment, but I think that's a real problem, too.
CORNISH: I want to look ahead a little bit. What do you see as like the policy sandpits - the, like, scandals that won't go away. Like, when you look ahead, what do you think this administration will be wrestling with in the next few months, E.J.?
DIONNE: Russia, Russia and Russia. I think the Russia story will not go away until it's settled. And, you know, I've argued that Trump's biggest success in his first 100 days was to keep the Russia story at bay, toss out whatever it takes to push the story back, including those false charges that Obama had his wires tapped.
But this is fundamental. And you've got Mike Flynn sort of floating around there. An influential senator said that, you know, it's pretty clear that, to him, that Flynn is cooperating with the FBI. We'll find out about that. I think that story has a lot of life and that a lot of people in the country won't be satisfied until they know exactly what went on between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
BROOKS: Yeah. I'm not so sure about that. I think we've gotten out in front of the Russia story. It could be very alarming if there's coordination between the Russians and somebody in the Trump campaign, but there really hasn't been much evidence of it so far. So I think there's been a little more hyperventilating so far than is merited. I would say what happens after the tax reform effort fails, which is almost certainly going to do.
CORNISH: I'm going to pause right there because that is a straight prediction. You believe there will be a tax reform bill, and you believe it will fail.
BROOKS: I do not believe that anything like what Donald Trump just proposed is going to get through Congress. Those deductions have a lot of defenders. The idea that they're going to completely explode the deficit is just a party killer for the Republican parties.
It's - tax reform is the hardest thing you can possibly do because everything in there has ferocious defenders. And they have not put in entry-level work onto this. So then what does Donald Trump do after health care and tax reform both fall apart? How does he react? He'll react in some radically unpredictable way I think.
DIONNE: I think the problem on taxes is that - what Republicans in Congress may do because they're deficit hawks when Democrats want to spend money and they're deficit pacifists when they want to cut taxes. And so I think that this tax reform effort will turn into a tax cut. And they'll pass some kind of tax cut and declare it a victory. I think that - there's a decent chance of that. Although, Democrats could muck it up in the senate.
CORNISH: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, thank you for your predictions.
DIONNE: Good to be with you.
CORNISH: And David Brooks of The New York Times on the record, thanks so much.
BROOKS: I'm stuck.
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