Apr 19, 2019

Axios AM

⚠️ After a frantic week, it's Good Friday, and Passover begins at sundown. It's a chance to reflect, reminisce, recharge — and express appreciation to the people around us.

1 big thing ... Mueller report star: The other Don

Illustration: Eli Sinkus/Axios

Late in Don McGahn's tenure as White House counsel, President Trump became so suspicious that he wondered aloud whether McGahn was wearing a wire, a source familiar with the president's private conversations told Jonathan Swan.

  • Why it matters: We have no evidence that Trump's suspicions have any basis in reality. But they reveal the depth of his paranoia about his former counsel, who sat for many hours with Robert Mueller's team of prosecutors. 

Anger at McGahn after the report came out was shared among a number of Trump allies, both inside the White House and close to the president.

  • Defenders of the former counsel said he just did what he had to do: Answer questions under oath.
  • "Don had an unenviable job of trying to school the first outsider president in the legal ways of Washington," a source close to McGahn told Swan.

The big picture: McGahn, as the N.Y. Times foreshadowed in great detail last summer, plays a starring role in the Mueller report.

  • Going by the details McGahn provided to the special counsel's team, the president badly wanted to obstruct justice.
  • And it may have only been because McGahn refused to obey presidential orders that Trump wasn't charged with obstructing justice.
  • McGahn appears on 66 pages of the 448-page report.

Behind the scenes: Going by the rich scenes recorded in the Mueller report, McGahn apparently took extensive notes of his conversations with the president. 

  • In one scene that McGahn recounted to the Mueller team, Trump takes issue with McGahn's note-taking: "The President then asked, 'What-about these notes? Why do you take notes? Lawyers don't take notes. I never had a lawyer who took notes.'"
  • "McGahn responded that he keeps notes because he is a 'real lawyer' and explained that notes create a record and are not a bad thing."
  • "The President said, 'I've had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn. He did not take notes.'"

The backstory: Roy Cohn, a Mafia lawyer and political fixer, was a mentor and personal lawyer to Trump during his early career. Trump often privately laments that his current lawyers don't measure up to Cohn.

Go deeper:

2. Trump's salvation: Disobedient staff
Screenshot: CNN

The Mueller report portrays President Trump as repeatedly trying to commit obstruction, only to have his staff ignore him, saving him from himself.

  • "The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful," says the 448-page report, released yesterday, on the 701st day of the special counsel's investigation.
  • "[B]ut that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests."

Why it matters: Trump often acted like a bystander during the special counsel's investigation, venting his frustration on Twitter and with reporters.

  • But a striking theme of the report is what an active player he was in the behind-the-scenes drama.
  • Trump often tried to orchestrate outcomes, then found himself thwarted by a system that was beyond his direct control.
  • "In early summer 2017," the report says, "the President called [then-Attorney General Jeff] Sessions at home and again asked him to reverse his recusal from the Russia investigation. Sessions did not reverse his recusal."

The report lists rat-a-tat examples of times that aides and advisers slow-walked or rebuffed Trump suggestions and orders, insulating him from obstruction:

  • Former FBI Director Jim Comey "did not end the investigation of [national security adviser Michael] Flynn, which ultimately resulted in Flynn’s prosecution and conviction for lying to the FBI."
  • White House counsel Don McGahn "did not tell the Acting Attorney General that the Special Counsel must be removed, but was instead prepared to resign over the President’s order."
  • Corey Lewandowski and Rick Dearborn "did not deliver the President’s message to Sessions that he should confine the Russia investigation to future election meddling only."
  • "And McGahn refused to recede from his recollections about events surrounding the President’s direction to have the Special Counsel removed, despite the President’s multiple demands that he do so."

Here's a previously unknown episode, with the sort of colorful detail that peppers the report:

  • "In early July 2017, the President asked Staff Secretary Rob Porter what he thought of Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand. Porter recalled that the President asked him if Brand was ... 'on the team.'"
  • "Contemporaneous notes taken by Porter show that the President told Porter to 'Keep in touch with your friend.'"
  • "Porter did not contact Brand because he was sensitive to the implications ... and did not want to be involved in ... an effort to end the investigation or fire the Special Counsel."

Axios' Zach Basu contributed reporting.

3. Drip-drip helped Trump: "Imagine reading this report cold"
Cover of a 16-page special section, Section F, in today's New York Times

Mueller's report has lots of new color and detail, but no revelations stunning enough to change anyone's mind — pro or con — about President Trump.

  • The main thrust of many of the events outlined in the report — in both its obstruction and collusion facets — had already been revealed by diligent reporters, Axios' Shane Savitsky points out.
  • The N.Y. Times' Maggie Haberman tweeted that the report "affirms most of the real-time reporting that the NYT and other outlets did, reporting the White House sought to undermine at the time."

The long view, from the WashPost's Dan Balz: Mueller examined "basic questions about political campaigns, political operatives, presidential candidates and presidents, along with the overriding issue of foreign interference in America’s democracy and the president's reaction to it."

  • "The details in the report buttress the earlier findings by the U.S. intelligence community of Russian meddling with the intent of helping Trump defeat Hillary Clinton."
  • "It is a finding the president has never fully embraced, repeatedly equivocating as to whether Russians were responsible, for reasons that remain unclear."

"Imagine reading this report cold," the N.Y. Times' Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman write in their takeaways.

  • "If the American public or members of Congress were learning these things for the first time, the political fallout would normally be devastating."
  • "Trump may have benefited by the steady drip of news stories he has so loudly criticized."

The president's pinned tweet:

4. For history: How it's playing
5. Publishers rush to sell something that's free online
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Two Mueller report books are in the top 15 on Amazon even though free PDFs are available online, AP's Hillel Italie reports:

  • Scribner, Melville House and Skyhorse Publishing are among those planning to have paperbacks out before the end of the month, with prices ranging from $15 for the Scribner book to $9.99 for the Melville House one.
  • Skyhorse editorial director Mark Gompertz said celebrity attorney Alan Dershowitz, a Trump defender, was "the fastest reader and writer we have ever worked with," and was expected to finish an introduction by last night.
  • The Scribner book, expected to exceed 700 pages, is being prepared in conjunction with The Washington Post. A combination of Post reporters and professional narrators will work on an audio edition.

The long view: The Warren Commission report on the JFK assassination and the 9/11 Commission Report became best sellers.

  • The 9/11 report was nominated for a National Book Award.
6. Many tech stars lack path to profit
Courtesy The Economist

"Investors often describe the world of business in terms of animals, such as bears, bulls, hawks, doves and dogs," The Economist writes in its lead story. (And don't forget black swans and minotaurs.)

  • "Right now, mere ponies are being presented as unicorns: privately held tech firms worth over $1bn that are supposedly strong and world-beating."
  • "There is, however, a problem with the unicorns: their business models."

A dozen unicorns that have gone public, "or are likely to, posted combined losses of $14bn last year. Their cumulative losses are $47bn."

  • "Their services, from ride-hailing to office rental, are often deeply discounted in order to supercharge revenue growth."
  • See a chart.
7. 4/20 gets respectable

Potheads have for decades celebrated their love of marijuana on April 20. But the counter-culture celebration, once all about getting stoned, now is so mainstream that Corporate America is starting to embrace it, AP's Alex Veiga reports:

  • What's new: Many businesses inside and outside the multibillion-dollar cannabis industry are using tomorrow, 4/20, to roll out marketing and social media messaging.
  • Lyft is offering a $4.20 credit on a single ride in Colorado and in select cities in the U.S. and Canada.
  • Carl's Jr. is using a Denver restaurant to market a hamburger infused with CBD, a non-intoxicating molecule found in cannabis.

Why it matters, from Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist at Golden Gate University: "[B]rands that associate themselves with cannabis kind of get that contact high ... cooler by association."

  • Marijuana normalization has snowballed since 2012, when Colorado and Washington were the first states to legalize recreational use.
  • Eight more followed, including California, Oregon and Michigan.
  • Medical marijuana is legal in two-thirds of states.
8. "Secrecy, Self-Dealing, and Greed at the N.R.A."

"The N.R.A. is now mainly a media company, promoting a life style built around loving guns and hating anyone who might take them away," writes Mike Spies in a deep dive for The New Yorker.

  • Spokesperson Dana Loesch and activist Colion Noir are the organization's most famous faces, but they "are not technically employed by the N.R.A. Instead, they are paid by Ackerman McQueen, a public-relations firm based in Oklahoma."
  • "For more than three decades, Ackerman has shaped the N.R.A.’s public identity, helping to build it from a niche activist organization into a ubiquitous presence in American popular culture."

Why it matters: This relationship seems "to be largely responsible for the N.R.A.’s dire financial state. ... [A] small group of N.R.A. executives, contractors, and vendors has extracted hundreds of millions of dollars from the nonprofit’s budget, through gratuitous payments, sweetheart deals, and opaque financial arrangements."

9. 🎧 What we're listening to

Next month, David Rothkopf’s Deep State Radio launches "Unredacted," a podcast co-hosted by former CIA officer and comedian Emily Brandwin, author and Bulwark columnist Molly Jong-Fast, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State (and Trump stand-in for HRC debate prep) Philippe Reines.

  • All have built strong social media voices as part of "the resistance" — along with Reines' growing presence on old-fashioned media.
  • Given their diverse Rolodexes, look for big name guests off the bat.
10. 🍪 1 fun thing

"The Logistics of Girl Scout Cookies ... It takes a village to sell a Thin Mint. Parents and girls manage a feat to distribute 200 million boxes as sale moves into its frenzied closing days," writes the Wall Street Journal's Jennifer Smith in an A-hed (subscription):

  • "In the cookie sale’s final weeks, scout leaders and parents hustling to move product are flying suitcases of cookies across Alaska and orchestrating cross-state handoffs outside Yellowstone National Park."
  • "One council serving parts of Indiana and Michigan outfitted its Fort Wayne office with a concrete-floored 1,500-square-foot space with a receiving dock. The council said it distributed an average of 5,265 boxes a day out of that site this season."

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