HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: Today, the chairman of the House of Representatives’ Intelligence Committee, Congressman Devin Nunes, said as part of its probe into Russian meddling with the presidential election, quote, “The committee will make inquiries into whether the government was conducting surveillance activities on any political party’s campaign officials or surrogates.”
Joining me now to discuss these political developments is “NewsHour Weekend” special correspondent Jeff Greenfield.
Jeff — the news does not stop on Saturday and Sunday. This is partly a justification of why our program exists. But is it possible to step back from this flood, find a little bit of common ground in the parties here?
JEFF GREENFIELD, NEWSHOUR WEEKEND SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: I can try.
Here’s what’s interesting to me — as soon as the story broke about Jeff Sessions and his lack of complete forthcoming-ness to Al Franken, as soon as that happened, a number of Republicans suggested maybe he should step out of the picture — the former and present chair of the House Oversight Committee who were very tough on Hillary Clinton, a couple of very conservative Republicans.
And the reason that this is so significant, it’s a basic political rule that I call the “be your own man says so” rule. I learned this in the streets of New York playing unorganized stick ball. We always get in arguments and the way that argument ended was when a guy on your team said, “You know what? Yes, my guy was out.”
And particularly in this polarized environment, the idea that a number of Republicans felt the need to step away from Sessions, I think, was not only a significance but it’s going to play out on some of the other things that are on the horizon.
SREENIVASAN: All right. So, how does that play into what’s been happening in the past couple of days, the president’s latest accusation for which there seems to be no evidence?
GREENFIELD: Well, let — I think it’s a critical part of it because what you’ve got now is, and this is nothing new for the president, is an attempt to shift the focus, to say, no, no, it’s not me, it’s them. And you’ve got a number of people on his side — I mean, Chairman Nunes is a good example — people like Sean Hannity, who will simply embrace what the president has to say.
But what’s interesting, the two Republicans who have never warmed to Trump, Senators Graham and Ben Sasse, have said something else. They said, if this is just repeating some conservative website’s notion, or if, in fact, intelligence agencies got a court order to look into the relationship between some of Trump’s associates and Russia, that raises very, very serious questions.
And to the extent that information like that surfaces, I think that has the potential to push more Republicans away from a kind of “we’re defending our president come hell or high water”.
SREENIVASAN: So, how does that play into Republicans kind of toning the party line and standing by their leader that’s in the White House?
GREENFIELD: I think when we move to policy, you can see where the whole notion of the potential Republican fissures or cracks becomes critical. A lot of Republicans who had problems with Donald Trump’s behavior and temperament said, we’re going to stick with you because you will deliver us the agenda we’ve been dreaming of for 20 years, from the court, to health care, to taxes, to regulations.
Now, the first of those, health care is right for decision. And what you’re seeing are a number of free market Republicans, as they call themselves, in Congress, having very serious doubts about what their leader, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, and what the president have in mind.
These free market Republicans are not repeal and replace. They want it repealed. They don’t want tax credits. They don’t want expanded Medicaid. They don’t want subsidies, that this is their idea.
You’ve got Republican governors in something like 16 states who were saying, you can’t take away Medicaid. That’s going to destroy our budget.
If those Republicans see Donald Trump as siding with the Paul Ryan wing, in this argument, I think it’s going to make them less willing to defend Donald Trump on the areas that we’re now talking about, you know, Russian influence and the like. So, that’s where policy and politics I think have a real connection in the weeks and months ahead.
SREENIVASAN: And there’s a lot coming up in the weeks and months ahead. You mentioned the Supreme Court hearings where Gorsuch will be coming up. More pressing will be the executive order, the refined executive order on immigration. And then you’ve got health care.
Does this take the president off message? It seems so long ago that there was this brief window after his joint session or address to Congress where people said he stuck to the prompter, it seems OK.
GREENFIELD: I think the best thing the president has going for him in the coming period is the Gorsuch nomination for Supreme Court, because that was a tenth strike in terms of his party and the whole conservative base. Whatever you thought about Trump, whatever your doubts, the fact that he was going to remake the Supreme Courted in a conservative image appeal to Republicans and conservatives across the board. And he picked somebody who even Democrats say, well, we have a problem maybe with his beliefs but he is early qualified. That’s the one I think that’s most likely to put him back message.
SREENIVASAN: All right. Jeff Greenfield, thanks so much.