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August 05, 2017

1 big thing: The risks in Trump's leak war

At an off-camera briefing with Department of Justice officials after Attorney General Sessions announced a jihad against leaks yesterday, a reporter asked: "Longstanding DOJ policy is not to prosecute reporters. Are you willing to say today that you will not prosecute reporters for doing their job?"

  • Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein replied: "I'm not going to comment on any hypotheticals. I'm just not going to talk about it."
  • It was an ominous moment for the press, in an era when journalists are more threatened and less trusted than ever.

Focusing on his audience of one, in the Oval Office, Sessions said: "We are taking a stand. This culture of leaking must stop. ... So, today, I have this message for the intelligence community: The Department of Justice is open for business. And I have this warning for would-be leakers: Don't do it."

  • And the A.G. announced: "[T]he FBI has increased resources devoted to leak cases and created a new counterintelligence unit to manage these cases."

This offensive, despite the appealing politics at first blush, is fraught with risk for Trump. With these investigations in the hands of career FBI agents, they can lead to unexpected places: You could wind up prosecuting a West Wing official, not some deep-state Obama holdover.

  • On The Daily Beast, Betsy Woodruff and Noah Shactman quoted Ron Hosko, former deputy director of the FBI, as saying "these changes could result in prosecution of members of Congress and Hill staffers."
  • Hosko told The Beast that in the past, "the FBI identified members of Congress who leaked classified information, who the Justice Department then declined to prosecute. Agents were often frustrated by this ... Given the attorney general's announcement, ... Congress and Hill staffers may be more likely to face prosecution."
  • When I asked an administration official if the possible ramifications for the Hill had been discussed, the official merely noted that many of the leaks are thought to be coming from there.
  • An Obama leak investigation regarding cyberattacks on Iran led to retired Marine Gen. James "Hoss" Cartwright, a former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who had been called "Obama's favorite general." He pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and prosecutors had asked for two years in prison. Obama pardoned him three days before leaving office.
  • A senior Obama official told Axios' Jonathan Swan that they regretted their aggressive stance on leaks to Fox News' James Rosen and other media cases: The costs at the senior level outweighed the benefits.

Be smart: Administration officials sound convinced that with their all-base-all-the-time strategy, the politics of this is great for them.

But as an Obama alumnus pointed out to Swan: Can you imagine President Obama saying that Eric Holder, his own attorney general, had taken a "very weak" stand and needed to be "much tougher" on something — and 10 days later, Holder announced just such a crackdown?

2. Trump fave eyed for comms director

Stephen Miller, the Trump senior policy adviser who just tangled on-camera with CNN's Jim Acosta, is under consideration for White House communications director, top Trump sources tell me.

The effort to find a Mooch successor is still in the name-gathering process, and Miller is not the top contender, the sources said.

  • But Steve Bannon likes the idea of Miller for the job, and Miller was the hero of the West Wing after he attacked Acosta as a "cosmopolitan" for his views on immigration.
  • When Miller finished that press briefing, his colleagues high-fived him, according to Sebastian Gorka, a national-security aide who's a favorite of the president's for his over-the-top TV hits.
  • The super-key point: Trump cares primarily about how people perform on TV. He's totally uninterested in the behind-the-scenes, unglamorous planning work of a comms director.

Miller is proudly hardline nationalist, and a favorite of the Trump faithful:

  • As a top aide to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, Miller was a central player in ginning up opposition to the "Gang of 8" bipartisan effort at immigration reform.
  • He has a "Rainman" ability to recall immigration statistics.
  • When Miller worked in Sessions' office, he was effectively an adjunct of the Breitbart editorial team. He'd work closely with Julia Hahn — then Breitbart's immigration reporter, and now a White House colleague — on stories favoring nationalist immigration positions. A former colleague of Hahn's said Miller "mentored" Hahn.
  • Miller was famous for bugging reporters at all hours with his story pitches, and seemingly had a direct line to Matt Drudge. The running joke was that the Sessions office had a permanent lease on at least one of the prized top-left Drudge links.

Many in the GOP establishment think Miller has been unpersuasive in his few trips to the TV cameras and the briefing room.

  • But Trump has dug the performances, and West Wing insiders thought Acosta looked like a jackass — boosting Miller's stock at a crucial moment.
  • Trump loves nothing more than watching his people berate the "fake news" media on live TV. Gorka was effectively a non-entity, sitting in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and working for Bannon (who had to argue hard to save Gorka's job) until he began tearing shreds of CNN anchors.
  • Now Gorka is a Trump favorite — effectively protected while national security adviser H.R. McMaster purges others.

3. The threat within

For Sunday papers ... "Dozens of convicts serving time in U.S. prisons for terrorism-related offenses are due to be released in the next several years," AP's Deb Riechmann writes:

  • "Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States ... has imprisoned hundreds of people who joined or helped militant groups. Experts say less attention has been paid to what happens once those prisoners complete their sentences."
  • "Among the incarcerated ... are 380 linked to international terrorism and 83 tied to domestic terrorism. A Congressional Research Service report said 50 'homegrown violent jihadists' were to be released between last January and the end of 2026."
  • Why it matters: Some of those convicted of terrorism-related crimes "are in for life, but the average sentence is 13 years. That means most will walk out of prison with years of freedom ahead."

Bonus: Data du jour

From CNN's Brian Stelter in his "Reliable Sources" newsletter ... # of solo press conferences by presidents after 200 days in office (today is Trump Day 198):

  • Jimmy Carter: 12
  • Ronald Reagan: 3
  • George H.W. Bush: 18
  • Bill Clinton: 8
  • George W. Bush: 3
  • Barack Obama: 9
  • Donald Trump: 1

P.S. Things Trump doesn't want to answer questions about ... N.Y. Times, top of col. 1, "Mueller Pursues Flynn Documents At White House": "Investigators ... asked the White House for documents related to the former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn, and have questioned witnesses about whether he was secretly paid by the Turkish government during the final months of the presidential campaign."

4. GOP firm: "Trump's Shrinking Base"

Automated phone polling by the rising GOP public-affairs firm Firehouse Strategies, along with the data analytics team at 0ptimus, finds Trump's base shrinking among likely midterm voters in the key swing states of Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio (2,901 interviews).

Partner Alex Conant tells me:

  • "Our data shows Trump losing support inside the Republican Party and a noticeable drop in his perceived honesty."
  • "Just 6 months in office, Trump is getting into dangerously low territory in key swing states. Trump's base of support has shrunk from 35.3% of voters who have a 'strongly favorable' view of him in April to only 28.6%."
  • "Notably, much of that erosion is among Republicans: Strongly favorable views among GOP voters dropped from 54.1% to 44.9%, while unfavorable views increased from 20.5% to 27.9%."
  • Why it matters: "Trump cannot take continued GOP support for granted in swing states."

See the memo.

5. Backseat driver for new Uber CEO

Amid an internally convulsive search for his replacement, Ousted Uber CEO Travis Kalanick "is looking to stay closely involved in strategic and operational decision-making," per a Financial Times front-pager by Leslie Hook in S.F. (subscription):

  • "Kalanick ... sees himself as a potential partner and regular adviser to the new CEO."
  • "Kalanick has remained involved in Uber since his removal, sitting on the search committee for the new chief executive and keeping close tabs on the business."
  • Why it matters: "That approach could present a challenge for the incoming CEO, who will also have the job of filling a number of vacant positions, including chief financial officer and chief operating officer, and working with new investors."

6. Mike Bloomberg's "My 6 Big Things"

Once a month, as a weekend thought-starter, Axios checks in with the world's most interesting and influential people on their passions, quirks and life hacks.

Today's participant is former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, whose Bloomberg Philanthropies has the ambitious mission of ensuring "better, longer lives for the greatest number of people."

See Mayor Mike's "My 6 Big Things," including Spanish lessons, sleeping, tech — and his bucket list.