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Week In Politics: Donald Trump's Ailing Campaign

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

And to talk more about that and the larger week in politics, we have E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and The Brookings Institution, also, David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome to both of you.

E J, BYLINE: Good to be here.

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Good to be here.

MCEVERS: As we just heard the really strong jobs report for July, you would think that the specifics of the economy would be front and center in the presidential campaign, but so far not so much. Is that because it is a complicated story to tell as we just heard from Scott Horsley, E.J.?

DIONNE: Well, I think that there are still parts of the country that are hurting. There are still people in the country who are hurting. And that has always complicated the Democrats' message because they want to celebrate their successes...

MCEVERS: Right.

DIONNE: ...But don't want to look out of touch with the people who haven't risen much in the last decade or so really. On the other hand, this is a really good jobs report in the sense that a lot of the jobs created are actually good jobs, not low-paying jobs. Wages are up.

I think the key thing here is Donald Trump desperately needed to pivot to an attack on the Obama economy and an attack on Clinton on the economy. This makes it really hard for him to do that at least for another month. And he really needed to be able to do that now.

MCEVERS: Donald Trump has had, you know, a week of weeks, a challenging week, but here's how he described his campaign at a rally in Florida on Wednesday.

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DONALD TRUMP: I would say right now it's the best in terms of being united that it's been since we began. We're doing incredibly well.

MCEVERS: But many people are saying they're not doing incredibly well. David, if you were Trump's campaign adviser how would you have done this week coming out of the Democratic National Convention?

BROOKS: I would have swapped out Donald Trump's frontal cortex for somebody else's for a little more self-control. And I do think, you know, he's just, I think, his mental state has become a question because he just reacts crazily, unempathetically and in ways that are destructive to his own campaign. It turns out if you have 39 bad weeks in a row, finally on week 39 people begin to notice.

And this is the first week we've really seen the polls turn against him, and we've seen the big national numbers turn against him. So now he's down six, seven, if you take the average of polls. But if you look at the state polls, in a lot of swing states his ratings are just suddenly quite, quite low. In Michigan, he's at 35 percent, Wisconsin 38, New Hampshire 38, Colorado 36. He needs to win these states, and he's well underwater. So this is the week that, A, he had yet another bad week, but, B, and more importantly, some voters seem to start noticing.

DIONNE: You know, Kelly, if Trump really believes what he said there, his capacity for creating a mythical world exceeds that of J. K. Rowling or C. S. Lewis. I mean, you could not have imagined, as David suggested, a worse week than he's had this week, even his leading defenders and apologists - you think of RNC chair Reince Priebus - are enraged and apoplectic.

And I do think - you know, this term has been overused about Trump - but I think it - there really was a tipping point. And I think it was the attack on the mother of a slain veteran where people accepted all kinds of things from Trump, but when he went after her, I think that began to raise all of these questions, both of character and even of his psychological state that David referred to. He's in a big - he's in big trouble now.

MCEVERS: We'll hear from the father of that soldier elsewhere in the program. Another issue that came up this week was Trump and Paul Ryan. Trump said he wouldn't endorse the House speaker in his primary race next week at the beginning of the week. And now there are reports he is endorsing Paul Ryan. What are we to make of that decision?

BROOKS: Well, he didn't do it out of wounded pride because Ryan condemned him for the Khan matter. He's condemned him for some other things, the ban on Muslim immigration and things like that. So there's a sensitive relationship there, and I guess he wanted to do tit for tat or whatever he felt was right. But the general reaction is that he's not a team player. The Republicans are a team, and they should be running as a team.

And I think what this week does is it forces people - like Paul Ryan and a lot of normal Republicans who are not really supporting Trump really, but not really opposing him either - they have to look in the mirror and say, can I get away with this wishy-washy middle ground where I say, well, I don't like what Trump does, but I'm still endorsing him as a man. I think that position is becoming very untenable, and it's becoming much more like they're going to start running their own separate campaign.

MCEVERS: E.J.?

DIONNE: I think that Ryan has been in an awful position here because he's trying on the one hand to say, I uphold certain moral principles, but you can't really believe in those principles and endorse Trump at the same time. And it was striking that, you know, the last straw for many Republicans wasn't his attack on John McCain, all that - all those years ago on Muslims or on Mexicans or even with this family. It was that he didn't endorse Paul Ryan. I think that's something Republicans ought to think about. And I think Trump realized it was time to cut his losses, at least on the Ryan issue.

MCEVERS: Up until this decision to endorse Paul Ryan, I mean, this is one of the areas where Trump differed from his running mate Mike Pence. I mean, E.J., your newspaper has a divergence tracker talking about all the different ways the two, you know, diverge. They differ on free trade, the Iraq War, banning Muslims, abortion, the list goes on and on. How might this help them on the campaign trail, David, to have different views on such things?

BROOKS: Well, I guess there's variety and diversity. I actually don't think variety within a campaign in general is a problem. I think actually in any party whether it's either party - it's a sign of general health to have different views, and especially on the subject of trade. Trade has suddenly become massively unpopular. I think that's massively unjust. I think free trade has been wonderful for this country on balance, but I generally think debates within a party should not be treated as a scandal. They should be treated as a sign of strength, to be honest.

DIONNE: You know, usually the campaign, the vice president is the attack dog and the presidential candidate tries to stay above it. This may be the first campaign in history where those roles are reversed.

MCEVERS: One last thing quickly - Hillary Clinton this week told Fox News the FBI cleared her of misleading the public about her email server. Let's hear her talking about FBI director James Comey on Fox News.

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HILLARY CLINTON: Director Comey said that my answers were truthful and what I've said is consistent with what I have told the American people, that there were decisions discussed and made to classify retroactively certain of the emails.

MCEVERS: But that's not accurate. I mean, Comey said there's no evidence she lied to the FBI, but that's not the same as saying she told the truth to the American people. This seems like something that could have gone away, but it hasn't. Why would Hillary Clinton make this blunder? Quickly, E.J.

DIONNE: Well, I mean, if this is a lie, they are nothing compared to the ones Trump says every day. I think she wants to defend herself so much that she goes into more detail on this than she should. All she needs to say is the FBI investigated. They cleared me. They didn't bring charges. Let's move on. And she's got to learn just to say that.

MCEVERS: David.

BROOKS: Yeah. It may not be as big as Trump lies, though it is a lie. She definitely sent classified emails. Comey said that in congressional testimony, definitely used different servers, things she denied in public. So she's been dishonest about that, and her own wall of suspicion is still her great weakness. But she's had the virtue of being boring this week compared to Mr. Trump.

MCEVERS: That's David Brooks of The New York Times, and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. Thanks to both of you.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

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