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Week In Politics: Sessions Recuses Himself From Campaign Investigations


All right we're going to get past the media strategy and into some substance with our Friday regulars, columnist David Brooks of The New York Times. Hey there, David.


CORNISH: And E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Welcome back to the studio.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

CORNISH: So I want to go back to the issue of Jeff Sessions, the attorney general. Here's what he said yesterday about why he had to recuse himself from any ongoing or future investigations.


JEFF SESSIONS: When you evaluate the rules, I feel like I should not be involved investigating a campaign I had role in.

CORNISH: And this is over the issue of contacts with Russia in the Trump campaign. But this is not the take that the administration had at the start of the day. So here's what Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in the morning on "Fox & Friends."


SEAN SPICER: There's nothing to recuse himself. He is 100 percent straight with the committee. And I think that people who are choosing to play partisan politics with this should be ashamed of themselves.

CORNISH: So even now, even as Sessions has recused himself, you still hear the president, through his tweets, basically saying, this is sour grapes, basically saying, this is a witch hunt. David Brooks, for you, what's the problem with that strategy? Like, how long can you keep saying there's no there there?

BROOKS: Well, you know, I don't know if there's a there there. Never underestimate the possibility for Washington people to have pointless meetings. And it could be Jeff Sessions had a pointless meeting with Cislyak (ph) the Russian ambassador - or Kislyak. And it could've just been one of those get-togethers that happens all the time. On the other hand, there are so many points of contact between Trump - various Trump persona and the Russians that it's like a Seurat painting - the points are beginning to look like something.

And, to me, the crucial - two crucial questions, which are completely unanswered at this point - there's, one, did the Trump people know something about the Russian campaign - the WikiLeaks campaign - during the campaign? Two, do the Russians have something on Trump, whether in the form of some blackmail information, or are they so heavily invested in his companies that he has reason to pay attention to Russia? Those are the two open questions in my mind.

CORNISH: And later in the program, we're actually going to hear from Congressman Adam Schiff from the Intel Committee in the House about that. But E.J., you talked about this episode essentially showing the first cracks in the wall of like kind of congressional Republican support because it's been a wall of support, right? Like, whatever he does, it's like we're going to back it.

DIONNE: Well, as soon as this Session's news broke, you had Republican members of Congress saying, OK, now he has to recuse himself. You just didn't see that before. Jason Chaffetz was one of them. And to have Chaffetz...

CORNISH: And he's head of the House Oversight Committee.

DIONNE: Right. And he's been so loyal. That would be like - I don't know - Bill Belichick turning on Tom Brady for a moment. I mean, it was just very...

CORNISH: All gets back to football.

DIONNE: I can't resist. The, you know - and so that's striking. But I think the problem the Trump people have is they cannot talk straight about Russia. If Jeff Sessions had had a couple of meetings with the ambassador and hadn't gone out of his way to tell Al Franken on the committee in response to a question that didn't even ask him whether he had had any meetings that in fact he had had no meetings, this wouldn't be nearly as big a story.

If Michael Flynn had not lied about exactly what had gone on, I'm not sure he would have survived, but they just can't seem to talk straight about this. And so they create a strong sense that they're hiding something. And Trump contributes to that by blowing up every time that the Russia story comes up. He had actually maintained a Lenten fast on Twitter, and it just blew apart with this story.

CORNISH: Now I want to turn back to the speech earlier this week. Here's a clip of the president addressing Congress.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed. Every problem can be solved, and every hurting family can find healing and hope.

CORNISH: Every problem can be solved. So David Brooks, you looked at this through the lens of Trumpism. Who can solve those problems? What's the role of government in that?

BROOKS: Yeah, I thought it was interesting because you got to see Trumpism the thing without Trump the clownish behavior. So it was like a straight-on view - our first sort of straight-on view. What struck me first was how un-Republican it was. The Republican Party has had three big units, all of whom were repudiated by the speech. Social conservatives got nary a mention. Fiscal hawks - he's spending a lot of money. Foreign policy hawks - he does not believe in a lot of our alliances. But what he believes in is a strong government. He's - it's for a lot of big government. But it's very forceful father figure, very rough government against their enemies.

And the way I put it in the - one of my columns today was that he's privatized compassion and nationalized intimidation. And what I mean by that is all the compassionate realms of government that help people in trouble - he's cutting them. All that tough - he got tough-man type parts of government - he's spending a lot more money on. So we're going to get a lot stronger government but maybe a little rougher one.

CORNISH: E.J. you disagreed with people who were painting this as some kind of sunny turn by the president (laughter). Though, you noted that he was - you said he was throwing bones of optimism to his party.

DIONNE: Yeah, I shuddered at the thought of Trump as a father figure wondering, what kind of father is that with this roughness? I thought this was the old vinegar in a new bottle. He got a lot of credit he didn't deserve just because he showed he could spend one disciplined hour in relationship - in a relationship with the teleprompter, that what he was trying to do here is continue to scare the daylights out of the country to justify strong leadership and aggrandizing power. He talks about wide-open borders, gang members, drug dealers, criminals. We cannot allow a beachhead of terrorism to form inside America.

And his own aids were surprised at the good reviews, according to my colleague Robert Costa, because they thought this was purer Trumpism than the establishment media suggested. And I actually for one time agree with them on that.

CORNISH: I want to mention one quick thing. We just have a little time left. But he did throw a bone behind the idea of tax credits being swapped out for the current subsidies used for Obamacare. But you already have Republican critics saying, wait a second, what's going on? Is this entitlement? Is this Obamacare-lite? David Brooks, is this thing still on the rails - this replacement plan?

BROOKS: Yeah. I mean, we have the comic prospect of people looking for the actual bill around the Capitol building this week.

CORNISH: (Laughter) Yeah.

BROOKS: And so like nobody - it's ludicrous they're going to mark it up next week in a couple of committees, and it's somewhere hiding in a closet somewhere. That part is ludicrous.

CORNISH: Well, reports are it's in a dedicated reading room where people may look at it (laughter) - OK? - one at a time.

DIONNE: A bunker (laughter).

BROOKS: But whether they're going to actually get these tax credit plan, which I think substantively is a good plan - I just think a guy who is offering a lot of security and order is not going to pass a health care bill that would increase a lot of risk for a lot of people.

DIONNE: People react the most when they are about to lose something. And the - a lot of people are worried that what the Republicans have in mind will take health care coverage away. And I don't think they have reassured those people yet. And that's why there's a split in the party.

CORNISH: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, thank you so much.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

CORNISH: David Brooks of The New York Times, have a good weekend.

BROOKS: You too.