Jonathan Swan
Featured

Don't expect House to water down Russia sanctions

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

The New York Times reported Wednesday that the White House has been "quietly lobbying House Republicans to weaken a bill overwhelmingly passed by the Senate last week that would slap tough new sanctions on Russia for its meddling in the 2016 election and allow Congress to block any future move by President Trump to lift any penalties against Moscow."

Meanwhile, Democrats and some sources in the corporate sector are speculating that a procedural delay is merely cover by House leaders to slow-walk and ultimately water down the bill.

Not so fast: three House Republican sources involved in the process tell me the House bill is shaping up to look very similar to the Iran-Russia sanctions bill that passed the Senate. And it's likely to move pretty fast. House Speaker Paul Ryan wants tough sanctions on Russia, as does Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce, who is driving the process.

  • A GOP aide close to issue told me there could be minor technical fixes to the bill that even some Senate staffers who worked on the original privately acknowledge need to be made. The bill would then be sent back to the House and if Chairman Royce gets his way it will proceed quickly to the floor and to the President's desk.
The big question: will President Trump risk using his veto pen on this legislation if it passes as originally written? Most GOP sources I've spoken to doubt it. While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said the administration needs more flexibility to over the Russia-Ukraine conflict — and believes the new sanctions package is unhelpful to that end — Trump can't risk getting his veto overridden by Congress. It looks like there'd be more than enough votes to do so, given the Senate voted 98-2 in favor of the original sanctions package.
Featured

Destroying Jon Ossoff: the adman's view

I've been speaking with Bob Honold, a Republican strategist hired by the NRCC to craft TV and digital ads for the Georgia House special election, in which the GOP's Karen Handel beat Democrat Jon Ossoff.

His key takeaways from the most expensive House race in American history:

  • "The energy on the left was considerable — and the $25 million sent to Ossoff was a product of that energy that posed a huge problem," he says. "That unprecedented amount of money put the race squarely in jeopardy."
  • "Many factors were necessary to win — including a great campaign by Karen Handel and her team...[but] without the enormous amount allotted by the NRCC [more than $7 million], and without the specific and methodical ways we spent it on TV and digital – we would not have won. The same can be said for the incredible work done by CLF (Congressional Leadership Fund)."

The ad-by-ad path to defeating Ossoff:

  1. During the jungle primary they identified him with unpopular party leader Nancy Pelosi, and portrayed him as just another liberal. (The Pelosi branding became a centerpiece of the GOP strategy throughout the race, and is part of the reason her leadership is under new jeopardy.) The Republicans also used Ossoff's own TV ad against him to highlight the fact that he did not support repealing Obamacare, and remind voters that Ossoff does not live in the district.
  2. Also during the jungle primary – Republicans used residents of the district to accuse Ossoff of lying about his credentials, and they again reinforced the branding of him as a Pelosi liberal who'd raise taxes and weaken the military.
  3. Straight after the primary, they ran a contrast ad — framing Ossoff as a carpetbagging Hollywood/Pelosi liberal and Handel as a "proven fighter for Georgia."
  4. National security played a surprisingly heavy role in the messaging given Ossoff had never taken a vote that could be used against him. Republicans used the fact that he'd supported Obama's Iran deal to brand him as "naive" and soft on terrorism.
  5. Doubling down on the "Ossoff is too risky" national security messaging because Republican internal polling showed it was damaging him. Honold believes the issue helped to disqualify Ossoff to many independents and motivated Republicans who were previously considering staying home.
  6. When early voting began, Republicans aired a get-out-the-vote ad on Fox News and History Channel and on targeted digital/mobile destinations. Republican internal polls showed some of the voters who didn't like Trump — and were considering either staying home or voting for Ossoff as a protest vote — also happened to be motivated by a disgust for what they viewed as extreme behavior by liberal protesters. Republicans ran an ad titled "Childish Radicals" that played to that disgust — and used the controversial image of Kathy Griffin holding up Trump's severed head.
  7. The closing argument: Republicans used a formula that had worked earlier in the campaign, filming voters from the district and repeating the key branding words for Ossoff — "childish," "naïve" and "inexperienced." And — of course — there was Nancy Pelosi.

Last word: "The massive investment made by the NRCC and the strategic message progression executed by Honold destroyed Ossoff," says Guy Harrison, another top Republican strategist and former NRCC executive director.

Featured

Cruz can't support health bill, but wants to make a deal

AP file photo

Sen. Ted Cruz says he hasn't given up on the Senate health care bill. He already released a statement with three other Republicans saying they're "not ready to vote for" the draft bill. But in a separate statement, Cruz says he wants to help make "real improvements" so it "provides the relief from Obamacare that Republicans have repeatedly promised the last seven years" — especially in reducing health insurance premiums.

What he wants: He'd give consumers "the freedom to choose among more affordable plans that are tailored for their individual healthcare needs." He also wants more flexibility for Medicaid, the ability to buy health insurance across state lines, expanded health savings accounts, and medical liability reform.

Between the lines: Cruz is hinting that he wants to be a dealmaker: "I want to get to yes, but this first draft doesn't get the job done." And Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's allies consider him an easier negotiating partner than the other conservatives, including Sens. Mike Lee and Rand Paul. The catch is that even though most of his ideas have broad support among Republicans, not all of it can be done under Senate budget rules.

Featured

Senate health bill faces 3 potential defections in current form

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Based on my conversations in the past hour since the text of the Senate GOP's health bill came out, I can expect that enough senators will come out against the bill this afternoon and ask for further negotiations.
  • I've spoken to three offices so far who say they won't support the bill in its current form.
  • An aide to a conservative Republican senator: "Conservatives most upset that basic structure of Obamacare left intact, with a huge insurer bailout added on."
  • Important caveats: Republicans who've been through this process before say that it's too early to tell until next week, and they want to see a CBO score, while sources close to leadership have long viewed the time from the release of the bill until floor votes as a giant working session.
Featured

Kushner's Israel itinerary

Susan Walsh / AP

A quick update on Jared Kushner's Israel trip, courtesy of a source familiar with the arrangements:

  1. Don't expect breakthroughs. They're methodically working through issues, and don't expect any grand announcements about any deals.
  2. They visited with the family of Hadas Malka, the Israeli border police officer who was killed Friday while responding to a Palestinian terror attack.
  3. Kushner is currently meeting with Israeli PM Netanyahu, and is joined by U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and special envoy to Israel Jason Greenblatt.
  4. Kushner will be meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, later in the day.
Featured

How to read Trump's China tweet

Alex Brandon / AP

Another Trump tweet is making the rounds this afternoon: "While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!" My sense of what's going on:

  1. Readers shouldn't view this as Trump making a definitive China break, or an immediate end to his strategy of using China to exert pressure on North Korea. It MAY mean that the US hits some Chinese companies with sanctions for helping North Korea. The WSJ reported last week that the U.S. gave China a list of companies to target.
  2. The more useful way to interpret this tweet is Trump publicly shaming Chinese Premier Xi Jinping for failing to change Kim Jong-Un's deranged behavior and giving him one last chance to fix it, and signaling to the Chinese that they've run out of time.
  3. This can also be seen as a classic Trump negotiating tactic: as he wrote in The Art of the Deal, the worst thing you can do in a deal is seem desperate to make it. Lots of people have written off Trump as a sucker for the Chinese, but he's written: "I protect myself by being flexible. I never get too attached to one approach."
  4. Administration officials are horrified by what happened to Otto Warmbier. It's being taken seriously at the highest level, and reinforced to Trump and his top aides that they're dealing with a very crazy person who will do whatever it takes to survive.
  5. The White House believes Xi has made unprecedented efforts to help, but they don't believe it's enough, and they're running out of time.
Featured

Sean Spicer is back on TV

Evan Vucci / AP

News outlets have published stories over the past 24 hours about the Trump administration's lack of transparency — and avoidance of the scrutiny that comes with televised press briefings. Now an updated White House schedule says Sean Spicer will do an "on camera" briefing at 1:30pm ET. That's the jargon term for a briefing you can watch on TV.

  • Trump has directed his communications team to stop doing daily televised press briefings, which are traditional in recent White House history.
  • The White House didn't allow news outlets to use either audio or video of Monday's briefing, which resulted in CNN's Jim Acosta expressing outrage live on air.
  • News outlets reported yesterday that Spicer would likely be playing a more behind-the-scenes role as a communications strategist rather than as the administration's TV face.
Featured

Chinese government invites Jared and Ivanka for visit

Andrew Harnik / AP

The Chinese Communist Party has invited Jared and Ivanka to visit China. The development was first reported by Bloomberg, and Axios has confirmed with a source familiar with the arrangements.

The source told Axios that "nothing has been set yet," including the timing, the itinerary or the reasoning behind the invitation. Jared and Ivanka — both senior presidential advisors — haven't yet accepted the invitation.

Context: the visit would build on relationship between President Trump and Xi, initially forged over a weekend at Mar-a-Lago. Jared, who has a close working relationship with the Chinese ambassador to the U.S., played a key role in setting up the Mar-a-Lago visit.

Featured

The prosecutor Trumpworld fears and loathes

AP

Reuters is out with an interesting piece on Andrew Weissmann, the veteran federal prosecutor who's now working on Bob Mueller's investigative team:

"Weissmann, who headed the U.S. Justice Department's criminal fraud section before joining Mueller's team last month, is best known for two assignments — the investigation of now-defunct energy company Enron and organized crime cases in Brooklyn, New York — that depended heavily on gaining witness cooperation."

Behind-the-scenes: Trumpworld has been worried about Weissmann since they first got wind that Mueller added him to his team. I started getting phone calls from Trump associates about two weeks ago suggesting I look into his background.

Per Reuters, Weissmann is known for his skill at "flipping" witnesses — persuading them through high-stakes pressure to turn on friends, colleagues and superiors.

  • Example 1: "Kathryn Ruemmler, who served as White House counsel under former President Barack Obama ... recalled that Weissmann had a hunch that former Enron treasurer Ben Glisan would be willing to talk despite already having pleaded guilty without agreeing to cooperate. So Weissmann had U.S. marshals bring Glisan before the grand jury from prison...Other prosecutors might have feared Glisan's testimony could contradict their theory of the case, Ruemmler said, but Weissmann's gamble paid off when the former executive became a key witness.
  • Example 2: "Before his work relating to Enron, Weissmann served as a federal prosecutor in the organized crime bureau in Brooklyn. In 1997, he and trial partner George Stamboulidis brought down one of the country's most powerful mob bosses, Vincent "the Chin" Gigante, with the help of turncoat witnesses.

The top concern: Weissmann had a history of donating to Democrats. Shortly after that conversation Kellyanne Conway tweeted a CNN story that reported Weissmann "gave $2,300 to Obama's first presidential campaign in 2008 and $2,000 to the Democratic National Committee in 2006, the same year Democrats won control of Congress."

More insight into Trumpworld suspicions: A source close to the White House raised another aspect of Weissmann's past. "He is a very troubling guy," he said. "The New York Observer went after Weissmann...As you may remember that is a paper that Jared owned...so is Weissmann going to have it out for this guy [Jared] and is this payback?"

To be clear: none of these concerns have been voiced to me by Jared Kushner or anyone who works for him.

Featured

Scoop: Jeff Holmstead expected to be #2 at EPA

Jeff Holmstead, a former top EPA official under President George W. Bush, is expected to be appointed as the No. 2 official at the EPA, according to two sources familiar with the decision-making process.

Holmstead, now a partner at law and lobbying firm Bracewell, is the last man standing for the deputy administrator post. EPA chief Scott Pruitt has met with him and likes him, and the White House recommended him so he's an easy pass from that end. No final decision has been made, but there is no other serious contender for the job at this moment. Other contenders, including coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, have been cast aside, according to a source with direct knowledge.

Why it matters: If Holmstead is nominated, it would represent a moderating tilt inside the agency's leadership. Holmstead is a veteran Washington insider and considered a more moderate official compared to many elected Republicans today, and compared to some top advisers in EPA now.

The EPA had no comment, and an email to Holmstead seeking comment late Sunday wasn't immediately returned. An automatic reply indicated he's out of the office until June 25.

The other side: A source in the conservative environmental movement tells Axios that Holmstead's nomination could provoke open opposition from conservative groups. During the Bush administration, he pursued regulatory reforms some in conservative circles thought weren't big enough and since leaving he's worked on issues that run counter to certain issues important to right-leaning advocacy groups on climate change and ethanol.

Two more things to know:

  1. Until recently, Mr. Holmstead was a registered lobbyist on EPA and Energy Department issues, and his firm Bracewell lobbies for oil refineries urging EPA to change the types of companies that must comply with a federal ethanol mandate.
  2. Holmstead has said EPA shouldn't review a scientific finding the Obama EPA issued in 2009 that concluded carbon emissions endanger public health, arguing it wouldn't stand up in court. That finding is the legal underpinning of the Obama-era carbon regulations Pruitt is now working to undo. This will be one of the arguments put forth by conservative groups should Holmstead get the nod.