Feb 5, 2020

Axios AM

Good Wednesday morning. Today's Smart Brevity™ count: 1,480 words ... 5½ minutes.

1 big thing ... Peak Trump: Pageantry and polarization
Speaker Pelosi rips up her copy of President Trump's State of the Union address. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

President Trump, on the eve of his impeachment acquittal, delivered a victory-lap State of the Union address in the very chamber where he had been impeached 48 days before — and just across the Capitol from where he'll be acquitted today.

  • Trump never mentioned impeachment but pounded socialism, setting high-decibel themes for the 2020 campaign at a moment when his potential rivals are in disarray following the Iowa caucus debacle.
  • Hours earlier, Gallup had released polling showing his job approval rating had risen to 49%, his highest since he took office. 50% disapprove and only 1% had no opinion — a nation precisely split.
  • In the same poll, the GOP has a higher favorable rating — 51% — than at any point since 2005!

Why it matters: Trump is getting stronger, not weaker, despite his impeachment. And he's increasingly self-confident about his message of free market accomplishments, versus what he paints as the dark dangers of modern liberalism.

  • Trump gloated and goaded while dour Democrats in the chamber fumed and fidgeted — and wondered how they botched a simple vote in Iowa and improved Trump’s favorables by impeaching him.

Speaker Pelosi denied him the usual honors in her introduction, and he withheld his handshake. 

  • Afterward, she tore up her copy of the speech, right on the podium. Four rips, by the AP's count.
  • Republican lawmakers chanted: "Four more years!"

Between the lines: This address was no olive branch or even nod to bipartisanship, Axios' Margaret Talev points out.

  • It was a highly partisan speech geared toward re-election — and vindication.

Trump included shout-outs to every slice of the GOP base and — as if it were a TV special from his reality-show days — laced the speech with awards and surprises.

  • Trump included shout-outs to school prayer, abortion, protecting gun rights, "radical Islamic terrorism," his Mideast peace plan, killing al-Baghdadi and Qasem Soleimani and destroying the ISIS caliphate, sanctuary cities, and the "long, tall and very powerful wall."

Some Democrats yelled "No!" when Trump announced he was awarding Rush Limbaugh, who told listeners Monday that he has lung cancer, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Axios' Alayna Treene reported from the chamber.

  • Melania hung the ribbon around Limbaugh's neck in the gallery.

The bottom line: Trump was cocky, defiant and unapologetic, and cranked up the TV moments in trying to appeal to African Americans and Latinos, despite a record that left many leaders in those communities agog at the contrast.

  • Trump tossed a "thank you, Mitch," to Senate Majority Leader McConnell, noting the confirmation of 187 federal judges during his administration, including two Supreme Court justices: "And we have many in the pipeline."
Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times (Pool) via AP
2. China-centric 21st century

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

With the U.S. paralyzed by political gridlock and Western institutions stagnating, China is positioning itself as the primary architect of new power structures in the 21st century, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian writes in the debut issue of Axios China, her weekly newsletter.

  • Why it matters: If the U.S. continues to anger allies, withdraw from global institutions, and ignore much of the developing world, in 20 years it may wake up to find itself resigned to a small corner in a world defined and dominated by China.

President Xi Jinping's sweeping vision — the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — puts China at the commanding center of global economic and geopolitical relationships.

  • Individual countries — from Cambodia to Italy to Angola and in between — are now heavily reliant upon China for economic growth through investments in infrastructure, trade, science, technology and military projects.
  • Beijing is using that lever of power to influence their foreign policy and domestic decision-making.
  • The result: Chinese-led, largely opaque alternatives to Western-led institutions and global norms are emerging and drawing country after country into the new global framework.

Between the lines: The BRI is strengthened by Beijing's efforts to co-opt the World Bank and other institutions, and to interfere in the politics of democratic countries like Taiwan and Australia.

  • Its ultimate goal is the "creation of an alternative world order," says Nadège Rolland of the National Bureau of Asian Research.

🇨🇳 Sign up for the relaunched Axios China, debuting later today.

3. Iowa debacle haunts field
The Iowa Democratic Party's caucus-reporting app. Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP

Pete Buttigieg sees a moment to overtake Joe Biden with an electability message after the scrambled Iowa results left some top Biden supporters distraught.

  • If the partial results released yesterday by the Iowa Democratic Party had been trumpeted Monday night instead of being delayed by the app snafu, Buttigieg would have been a national sensation.
  • Instead, Buttigieg's kinda-victory declaration before results were out — which his rivals' surrogates criticized as presumptuous and shady — was drowned out by the macro story of the Democrats' embarrassing disaster.

By the numbers: Iowa Democrats released results from 71% of precincts, showing Buttigieg with the highest percentage of delegates thus far at 26.8%.

  • That was followed by Bernie Sanders at 25.2%, Elizabeth Warren at 18.4% and Biden at 15.5%.
  • Sanders led the popular vote with 31,428 votes, followed by Buttigieg at 27,515, Warren at 24,175 and Biden at 18,902.
  • AP said the results weren't enough to call a winner.

The big picture: Sanders did well in Iowa and is best-positioned to win New Hampshire, Axios' Jonathan Swan points out.

  • The bigger question is what happens to the other candidates, including the under-performing Biden.
  • Biden now needs to convince donors to float him despite the disappointing showing in Iowa.
  • If Buttigieg's lead holds through the final tally, will he get the meaningful benefits in fundraising, media and voting momentum that an Iowa winner could expect?

Between the lines: The Democratic field has spent stunningly little time campaigning in New Hampshire.

  • Some candidates figured it was a waste of time to campaign because Sanders and Warren appeared so strong there.
  • The whiteness of the state doesn't help Biden. Nor does the fact that Biden redirected planned advertising from New Hampshire into Iowa, where he camped out.

What to watch: The ABC News debate in Manchester on Friday night could change the dynamics heading into next Tuesday's vote.

  • Think back to 2016's Republican primary debate in New Hampshire when Chris Christie destroyed Marco Rubio's once-promising campaign with a brutal takedown. 
4. About last night

President Trump ignores Speaker Pelosi's outstretched hand ...

Photos: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images
Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP

... and Rush Limbaugh gets the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

See more photos.

5. Reality check

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Trump claimed during the State of the Union that he will "always protect patients with pre-existing conditions" — a statement that's misleading at best, writes Axios' Caitlin Owens.

  • Why it matters: Pre-existing conditions protections are popular, and both parties are trying to claim credit for them. But only one of the parties has a track record of defending those protections, and it's not the GOP.

Reality check: Republicans' repeal and replace efforts in 2017 wouldn't have preserved the same level of protections the Affordable Care Act provides, nor would any of the plans they've put forward since.

6. Decision day

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) walks through the Senate subway this week with a book that had been sent to each Senate office. Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

The Senate's renders its verdict in President Trump's impeachment trial with a vote on each article, beginning at 4 p.m. ET.

7. Boston Globe calls for end of first-in-the-nation tradition
A snow-covered yard in Concord, N.H. Photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters

The Boston Globe, a local paper in New Hampshire, today posted a surprising editorial headlined ... "Kill the tradition: NH and Iowa should not vote first — Some customs must die. Like the first-in-the-nation primary and caucuses."

A hundred years ago, New Hampshire blazed a trail as the first among 20 states to hold a 1920 presidential primary election. It is a tradition that has endured for the century since, and will repeat [next Tuesday] — a fact owed not just to custom, but to the state’s leaders and voters clinging to their power to shape elections, and thus, the nation. ...
[W]e are holding our endorsement of a Democratic presidential candidate until after the New Hampshire primary. ... More important than wielding our influence on a single small state’s primary, we believe, is to call for the end of an antiquated system that gives outsized influence on choosing presidents to two states that, demographically, more resemble 19th century America than the America of today.
8. Tesla's historic week
Expand chart
Data: Money.net; Chart: Axios Visuals

Tesla is in the midst of what might be the most lucrative one-week run in stock market history, gaining another $19.3 billion in market value yesterday before falling around $80 per share in the last five minutes of trading.

  • What's happening, via Axios' Dan Primack: No one is really sure. No amount of product announcements, analyst upgrades or bullish investor predictions can satisfactorily explain this sort of meteoric rise — or the plummet into market close.
9. What Deutsche Bank knows about Trump
Left: Photo illustration by Paul Sahre for The New York Times. Right: Custom House

Deutsche Bank's relationship with Donald Trump "extended well beyond making simple loans" — worth more than $2 billion — to wealth management and introductions to Russians interested in Western investments, according to an excerpt of David Enrich's forthcoming "Dark Towers" in The New York Times Magazine.

  • Why it matters: "If Trump cheated on his taxes, ­Deutsche Bank would probably know. If his net worth is measured in millions, not billions, ­Deutsche Bank would probably know. If he secretly got money from the Kremlin, ­Deutsche Bank would probably know."
10. 1 stream thing: Huge Disney+ launch

Baby Yoda is the breakout star of Disney+'s "The Mandalorian." Credit: Disney

Disney revealed that its new streaming service, Disney+, has 26.5 million paid subscribers, a huge number for a service that launched in November, writes Axios' Sara Fischer.

  • Why it matters: The strong showing proves the service, still only available in a handful of countries around the globe, will be a formidable competitor to Netflix in the streaming wars.