Feb 20, 2020

Axios AM

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1 big thing ... The new not-normal: The Trump state
Photo illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photos: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Donald Trump changed how to run for president. Next, he changed the Republican Party. Now, he’s changing the presidency and the boundaries of executive power. 

  • What's new: In the past week, Trump has purged internal dissenters, imported loyalists, pardoned political and financial criminals and continued a running commentary on live Justice Department criminal cases — despite an unprecedented public brushback from his attorney general.
  • And in what could prove to be the week's most consequential move, Trump yesterday named Rick Grenell, ambassador to Germany and one of the most dependable Trump family allies, as acting director of national intelligence — a sensitive job overseeing 17 U.S. spy agencies. The DNI has access to all the nation's secrets, and helps shape what a president sees and knows.

Why it matters: Trump does everything bigger and bolder than any predecessor dared — and all nakedly in the open, fearing no consequences from a Republican Party he fully commands.

  • Other presidents lamented disloyal servants, but rarely purged them en masse and in public. Trump told staff after his impeachment acquittal that he felt surrounded by "snakes" and "bad people" he wanted ousted.
  • Other presidents plugged loyalists into key jobs — but rarely made that the prerequisite. To run the powerful presidential personnel office, Trump last week tapped John McEntee, 29, who has no experience in staffing governments, and was fired by his former chief of staff John Kelly — but is a favorite of the family.
  • Other presidents pardoned criminals — but never in a big batch in the middle of a re-election race, after getting lobbied on TV. Trump's 11 pardons and commutations this week included Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat and former Illinois governor whose wife, Patti, had appealed to Trump on Fox News. Blagojevich told cameras that he's now a "Trumpocrat."
  • Other presidents pressured their Justice Department, but never so nakedly and publicly. Trump, asked this week if he agreed with Attorney General Bill Barr that White House tweets made it impossible to do the job, said: "I do agree with that. I think that’s true. ... I'm allowed to be totally involved. I'm actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer of the country."

Between the lines: Rush Limbaugh said Trump called this week with a bit of advice after the radio host mocked the idea of Pete Buttigieg at fall debates — "gay guy kissing his husband on stage, next to Mr. Man, Donald Trump":

  • "Rush, I just got to tell you something. Never apologize."

The bottom line ... One sign of how extraordinary this is: Trump has pushed Barr — who has a maximalist view of presidential power, and is sympathetic to Trump's view that career prosecutors have overreached — to publicly plead with him to stop, and even make it known he's considering resigning.

2. Bloomberg's rough debut
Photo: John Locher/AP

Mike Bloomberg was booed during his debut debate as a Democratic presidential candidate — indicative of a rusty outing where the former New York mayor looked unprepared to respond to obvious lines of attack.

  • Why it matters ... The debate underscored the Bloomberg’s campaign biggest fear: It's hard to hide to his prickly demeanor. Bloomberg had all the time, practice and forewarning money could buy — and still struggled mightily on the public stage. 
  • But it'd be foolish to assume blanket ads can't undo the damage. Sen. Elizabeth Warren said on MSNBC: "I have no doubt that he is about to drop, tonight, another hundred million dollars on his campaign ... in order to try to erase America’s memory of what happened on that debate stage."

Warren drew cheers when she challenged Bloomberg to release women from "nondisclosure agreements both for sexual harassment and for gender discrimination in the workplace."

  • Bloomberg: "We have a very few nondisclosure agreements."
  • Warren: "How many is that?"
  • Bloomberg: "Let me finish."
  • Warren: "How many is that?"
  • Bloomberg: "None of them accuse me of doing anything, other than maybe they didn't like a joke I told. ... They signed the agreements and that's what we're going to live with."

The audience booed when Bloomberg later said: "I've said we're not going ... to end these agreements because they were made consensually, and they have every right to expect that they will stay private."

  • Warren provoked the moment of the debate when she said: "I'd like to talk about who we're running against — a billionaire who calls women 'fat broads' and 'horse-faced lesbians.' And, no, I'm not talking about Donald Trump. I'm talking about Mayor Bloomberg."

Bloomberg replied: "I have no tolerance for the kind of behavior that the #MeToo movement has exposed. And anybody that does anything wrong in our company, we investigate it, and if it's appropriate, they're gone that day."

  • Warren jabbed back: "I hope you heard what his defense was: I've been nice to some women. That just doesn't cut it."

Between the lines: The debate left Sen. Bernie Sanders firmly in control of the race headed into Super Tuesday on March 3.

  • Bloomberg's campaign has warned — and other top Democrats agree — that with no disruption in the race, Sanders could quickly accumulate an insurmountable delegate lead.  
  • Robert Gibbs, who was White House press secretary under President Obama, said on MSNBC's postgame show: "A lot of the candidates were focused on Bloomberg. And if they do that too much, the polls will close in California in a little less than two weeks, and they’ll see Bernie with a lead that's ultimately insurmountable — something they can’t catch."

The bottom line ... Kevin Sheekey, Bloomberg's top strategist, said in a post-debate statement: "He was just warming up tonight."

Photo: John Locher/AP
3. 2020 Attention Tracker: Sanders keeps lead in online conversation
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Data: NewsWhip. Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

Despite massive ad spending, Michael Bloomberg is still getting lapped by Bernie Sanders in non-paid online conversation, Neal Rothschild writes from NewsWhip data provided exclusively to Axios.

  • Why it matters: Bloomberg has spent his way into the national conversation, while lagging behind in organic interest.

Bloomberg has begun converting his commercials into significant organic interest in his campaign, but his state-of-the-art operation is still struggling against the Sanders grassroots army.

  • Sanders' 18.5 million interactions (likes, shares, comments) last week were higher than any Democratic candidate has generated throughout the entire election cycle. That compared to 9.4 million for Bloomberg.
  • Over the last four weeks, Sanders' 50 million interactions are 20 million more than Joe Biden, who has the second most.

Where Bloomberg is winning: Bloomberg passed Biden in social media interactions last week.

  • And Bloomberg eclipsed Biden for the second-most cable news and nightly network news mentions last week, according to the Internet Archive Television News Archive.

See past editions of the 2020 Attention Tracker.

4. Pic du jour
Photo: Andrew Medichini/AP

Well-wishers at Pope Francis' weekly audience have thrust soccer T-shirts, flowers and many a wailing baby into his arms.

  • At the end of his audience yesterday, the pope seemed to thoroughly enjoy a long, tender kiss planted on his forehead by a man in one of the front-row seats reserved for ailing or disabled people. (AP)
5. Fed may be setting table for 2020 rate cuts

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Fed looks to be laying the groundwork to lower U.S. interest rates this year, following a pattern set in April 2019, before rate cuts in July, September and October, Axios Markets editor Dion Rabouin writes.

  • Why it matters: A Fed rate cut makes taking on debt more attractive for U.S. consumers and businesses, helping to juice the economy, but puts the central bank in a weaker position to fight off a potential recession.
  • A rate cut or cuts would likely improve President Trump's chances of re-election, and he'll likely be pushing for them.

What's happening: In the minutes of its latest policy meeting, the Fed's Open Market Committee highlighted its desire for higher inflation, Bob Miller, BlackRock’s head of Americas fundamental fixed income, says in a note.

  • San Francisco Fed president Mary Daly asserted in a speech last week that "the new economic environment requires that monetary policymakers push inflation up to target."
  • Minneapolis Fed president Neel Kashkari, now a voter on the Fed's rate setting committee, has been banging the table over too-low inflation for years.

What it means: The Fed is refocusing attention from solid U.S. economic data to fears about coronavirus and underwhelming inflation, much like with the U.S.-China trade war and global growth concerns last year.

  • Sign up here for Dion Rabouin's daily Axios Markets newsletter.
6. Remembering Pop Smoke, 20

Pop Smoke performs at a listening party in New York on Feb. 6. Photo: Johnny Nunez/WireImage via Getty Images

"A group of people, including one wearing a mask and armed with a handgun, burst into a posh Hollywood Hills home early [yesterday] and fatally shot up-and-coming rapper Pop Smoke," age 20, the L.A. Times reports.

Pop Smoke (born Bashar Barakah Jackson), was helping remake the sound of hip-hop, with a distinctly Brooklyn variant of drill music, per the L.A. Times:

  • "Unlike the melodic, hazy styles that often dominate streaming today, drill music indeed sounds like a power tool: fast clips of kicks and hi-hats and gothic synthesizers, trap music played with the ferocity and precision of metal."

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