Jan 10, 2020

Axios AM

Happy Friday. It's 24 days to the Iowa caucuses ... 32 days to the New Hampshire primary ... 298 days to Election Day.

  • Today's Smart Brevity™ count: 1,179 words ... 4½ minutes.
1 big thing: China meddles in Taiwan elections

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Ahead of tomorrow's presidential election in Taiwan, the Chinese government is spreading disinformation and taking coercive political maneuvers aimed at convincing voters Taiwan is helpless without Beijing, Axios China reporter Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian writes.

  • China has largely failed at attempts to build closer mainland ties with Taiwanese citizens, who are functionally independent of Beijing. So China has turned to coercion, co-optation and disinformation.
  • Beijing paid five Taiwanese news outlets to publish articles casting China as a land of opportunity for entrepreneurs, according to Reuters.

Why it matters: China is meddling in numerous countries around the world.

  • "This could be the last meaningful election in Taiwan if we are not careful," a senior Taiwanese government official tells Axios.

The backstory: The Chinese government is deeply opposed to another term for Tsai Ing-wen, the current president of Taiwan.

  • She has rejected the "one country, two systems" model for unification that China has used in Hong Kong.

Analysts expect a Tsai victory.

  • But her opponent, Han Kuo-yu of the China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT), may still have a shot.

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2. Western leaders say Iran shot down airliner
Satellite view of the crash site near Shahedshahr, Iran — southwest of the capital, Tehran. Photo: Maxar Technologies via AP

Iran today denied Western allegations that an Iranian missile downed a Ukrainian jetliner outside Tehran, killing all 176 people, per AP.

  • Western leaders said the plane appeared to have been unintentionally hit by a surface-to-air missile, just hours after Iran launched a series of ballistic missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose country lost at least 63 citizens in the crash, said "intelligence from multiple sources, including our allies," shows "that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile."

3. Team of allies
Situation Room meeting Tuesday about Iran's attack. Photo: The White House via Reuters

The administration's internal debate over the targeted killing of Iran's #2 official showed that some members of President Trump's war cabinet are more reluctant than their predecessors to push back at him.

  • The current lineup is also "less likely to consult in advance with other administration, Pentagon or State Department officials," the Wall Street Journal reports (subscription).

Why it matters, per the Journal: "The group ... backed the president’s decision to kill the top Iranian military commander and moved swiftly to carry it out."

  • These advisers include "new Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and new national security adviser Robert O’Brien, along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo."
4. Focus group: Pennsylvania swing voters with Trump on Iran

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Getty Images

Swing voters at a focus group Axios attended in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., said they back President Trump's decision to kill Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, Axios' Alexi McCammond writes.

  • But if the drone strike leads to all-out war, these voters would question the president's wisdom and handling of national security.

Why it matters: The comments suggest these voters back Trump on Iran more solidly than the public at large. But some are weary of foreign wars, and made it clear they want them to end.

  • The Engagious/FPG focus group, which included 11 people who flipped from Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016, was held on Monday — a day before Iran's retaliatory strikes.
  • While a focus group is not a statistically significant sample like a poll, these responses show how some voters are thinking and talking.

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5. Boeing employees mocked FAA
A 737 Max production line at the Boeing factory in Renton, Wash., in December. Photo: Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

"In an exchange from 2015, a Boeing employee said that a presentation the company gave to the F.A.A. was so complicated that ... 'it was like dogs watching TV,'" the N.Y. Times reports in its account of 150 pages of devastating internal emails and text messages delivered to congressional investigators yesterday:

  • "I still haven't been forgiven by God for the covering up I did last year," an employee wrote in 2018, apparently in reference to the FAA.
  • "Would you put your family on a MAX simulator trained aircraft? I wouldn't," one employee said to another in 2018, before the first crash. "No," the colleague responded.
  • "This airplane is designed by clowns, who are in turn supervised by monkeys," an employee wrote in 2017.

Boeing said in a statement: "We regret the content of these communications, and apologize to the FAA, Congress, our airline customers, and to the flying public."

  • "[T]he company is taking appropriate action in response. This will ultimately include disciplinary or other personnel action."
6. 📉 Mushrooming number of companies in the red

The percentage of U.S. public companies losing money over 12 months is "close to 40%, its highest level since the late 1990s outside of postrecession periods," the Wall Street Journal's James Mackintosh writes (subscription).

  • The Journal points to three causes: 1) investors backing disruptive companies as they build sales ... 2) "companies struggling to make money from traditional businesses" ... 3) "small companies being squeezed by ... giant corporations."
7. Pelosi "at the peak of power"
Photo: Philip Montgomery for TIME

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi began mulling her curveball — declining to immediately transmit the impeachment articles to the Senate — when "she heard former Nixon White House counsel John Dean float the idea on CNN," an aide told Molly Ball for TIME's cover story.

  • "Somebody said to me today that he may not even take up what we send. [But] then [President Trump] will never be vindicated," Pelosi told top caucus members, according to the aide in the room. "He will be impeached forever. Forever. No matter what the Senate does."

Ball writes that Pelosi "established herself as counterweight and constrainer of this divisive president. She outmaneuvered Trump on policy ... She oversaw an unprecedented litigation effort against the executive branch ... And she was the tactician behind the investigation that resulted in Trump’s impeachment."

🥊 The House voted 224-194 yesterday in favor of a symbolic war powers resolution directing Trump to halt the use of military force against Iran unless he obtains approval from Congress. Go deeper.

8. Never mind! Another Clinton probe fizzles
Hillary and Bill Clinton pose backstage at a Broadway musical in December. Photo: Bruce Glikas/WireImage

"A Justice Department inquiry launched more than two years ago to mollify conservatives clamoring for more investigations of Hillary Clinton has effectively ended with no tangible results," the WashPost's Devlin Barrett and  Matt Zapotosky report on A1.

  • Why it matters: "[C]urrent and former law enforcement officials said they never expected the effort to produce much of anything."

The backstory: "John Huber, the U.S. attorney in Utah, was tapped in November 2017 by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to look into concerns raised by President Trump and his allies in Congress," the Post adds.

9. "Latter-day Metternich": MBZ's first Western interview
Photo: Michele Tantussi/Getty Images. Cover courtesy The New York Times

Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan — ruler of the United Arab Emirates, and one of the most powerful men on Earth — had never given an on-the-record interview to a Western journalist when he spoke to Robert F. Worth for the N.Y. Times Magazine's cover story.

  • MBZ, "as he’s mostly known outside his country, ... remains a rare figure in the Middle East: a shrewd, secular-leaning leader with a blueprint of sorts for the region’s future and the resources to implement it."
  • "Despite his country's small size (there are fewer than a million Emirati citizens), he oversees more than $1.3 trillion in sovereign wealth funds, and commands a military that is better equipped and trained than any in the region apart from Israel."

Keep reading.

10. Plug-in school buses

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Utility companies are helping cash-strapped school districts replace diesel buses with electric ones that have a secondary purpose: helping to manage electricity demand, Axios' Joann Muller writes.

  • Why it matters: Electric buses are cleaner, but cost about three times more. Using them for energy storage can help smooth out energy demand on the electric grid.

Less than 1% of America's 480,000 school buses are electric, but that's beginning to change.

  • Communities in California, Massachusetts and a few other states are testing electric school buses and charging infrastructure.

Keep reading.

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