Gorsuch confirmation hearings set to begin

HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: The Senate confirmation hearings for President Trump's first Supreme Court nominee, Judge Neil Gorsuch, begin tomorrow.

Joining me now to look ahead at what to expect is "NewsHour Weekend" special correspondent Jeff Greenfield from Santa Barbara, California.

Jeff, this finally takes the spotlight off of whether or not President Obama illegally wiretapped President Trump, whether or not — I mean, so many other story lines that had been building up in the Trump administration.

JEFF GREENFIELD, NEWSHOUR WEEKEND SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. This has got to be a very welcome event because he's facing resistance from his left and right on health care. Some Republicans have been tough on him for those unfounded accusations. But with the nomination of Neil Gorsuch, the president hit a ten strike among Republicans. Remember, a lot of Republicans are uneasy about Trump as a candidate said, we've got to vote for him because the Supreme Court's at stake. And what he's delivered is a nominee who has not only drawn unanimous praise from the right but grudging praise from the liberals, because of his temperament, he is not an Antonin Scalia-like judge who writes and foments about things like the homosexual agenda.

So, this will be a very welcome series of hearings for the president and the White House, to take the spotlight, as you say, off some of the less pleasant events of the last couple of weeks.

SREENIVASAN: There's a lot of pressure from the left that's building on the Democratic senators to stop at all costs, considering Merrick Garland didn't get a shake.

GREENFIELD: Absolutely. And this poses a real problem, especially for the Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. He's got 48 senators, so you would think — well, that's enough to filibuster. The problem is that if he tries a filibuster, Senate Majority Leader McConnell could say, OK, guess what, we're going to abolish the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, which I have to say is probably what Chuck Schumer would have done had he had a majority and a President Clinton.

But if the Democrats say no, let's hold back on this nominee, he doesn't change the composition of the court, he replaces Scalia, then, as you say, you have tremendous pressure from the left of the Democratic Party who want resistance at all costs, who may even threaten primary challenges against incumbent Democrats running in red states in 2018. So, this is — this is a tight rope that Chuck Schumer is going to have to walk, and it's really, there's no very easy way to figure out what he does.

SREENIVASAN: It seems sometimes the nominees get caught in the middle of all this sort of political level strategy that's happening and building for years before them.

Let's talk a little bit about the hearings themselves. What can we expect?

GREENFIELD: Well, if it's anything like the last 30 years, you can expect this kabuki theater. Ever since Judge Robert Bork in 1987 honestly testified about his political or philosophy and judicial philosophy, and went down to defeat, nominees have been extremely reluctant to give any indication of what they actually think. They abide by what they called the Ginsburg rules, named after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who said, "I can't talk about anything that could conceivably come before the court."

So, you get this a dance. A Democrat will say, do you believe there's a right to privacy? All of them say yes. Well, does that include abortion? I can't talk about that.

What you're also going to see, particularly among Democrats is — they have gone through the judge's whole past with a fine-tooth comb. They're going to ask him about what he did when he worked in the Bush administration, about presidential power, issues like rendition and torture. They're going to look at cases that he's written about, and say, well, aren't you on the side of big business instead of regular people?

And that's the kind of back and forth you can expect because that's what we've seen over and over again and that's why Judge Gorsuch has been spending a lot of time before so-called murder boards. It's kind of mock hearings where he's being confronted with the kind of tough questions from Democrats he can expect.

SREENIVASAN: All right. So, given that backdrop are we likely to see any exchanges that are revealing?

GREENFIELD: It's going to be tough. I've always thought that what the senators ought to do, if they really want to find out what the judge thinks, is to try to make questions, one that they can answer. If you ask the judge, are you an originalist? Do you think the Constitution was frozen in time 200 years ago? You're not going to get a particularly interesting response.

But if you ask, well, does cruel and unusual punishment mean the same thing it did in 1789, you might get a glimpse into how that judge's thinking. But also, I think I suspect some Democrats are going to try to say to him, look, President Trump said he'd only appoint nominees whom will overturn Roe v. Wade. So, on what basis did he have assurance that that's how you would vote?

I'm not optimistic you're going to get a meaningful exchange, but if I can quote the late Chuck Berry, you never can tell.

SREENIVASAN: All right. "NewsHour Weekend" special correspondent Jeff Greenfield — thank you.

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