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October 20, 2023

Hello, Friday. Smart Brevity™ count: 1,497 words ... 5½ mins. Edited by Emma Loop and Bryan McBournie.

1 big thing — Behind the Curtain: A rattled U.S. government

Illustration of a hand pulling back a blue curtain with a recurring Axios logo across it

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

"Behind the Curtain" is a new column by Axios CEO Jim VandeHei and co-founder Mike Allen, based on regular conversations with White House and congressional leaders, CEOs, and top technologists.

Never before have we talked to so many top government officials who, in private, are so worried about so many overseas conflicts at once.

Why it matters: We don't like to sound dire. But to sound a siren of clinical, clear-eyed realism: U.S. officials say this confluence of crises poses epic concern and historic danger.

Behind the scenes: Officials tell us that inside the White House, this was the heaviest, most chilling week since President Biden took office just over 1,000 days ago.

  • Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates tells us America is facing the most crises since World War II ended 78 years ago.

Not one of the crises can be solved and checked off. All five could spiral into something much bigger:

1. Israel's response to the Hamas terrorist attack, and growing fear of a spreading war that reaches to Iran and beyond. Officials point to the protests, threats and deadly, anti-American warnings of Arab nations after they thought — incorrectly — Israel struck a hospital in Gaza, killing hundreds. This is a preview of what they fully expect will be a worldwide response to the expected Israeli invasion of Gaza.

2. Vladimir Putin meeting in China this week with Xi Jinping to further strengthen their anti-America alliance. In a new Foreign Affairs article that top officials are sharing, Gates argues that both leaders believe America and other big democracies "are past their prime and have entered an irreversible decline." Putin and Xi sniff weakness and are activating on many fronts, top administration officials tell us.

  • This Reuters headline says it all: "Russia says it is coordinating Middle East policy with China."

3. A malicious Iran. It's unclear how involved Iran was in orchestrating or assisting the Hamas terrorist attack — but officials seem certain there are ties. More worrisome: U.S. officials fear Hezbollah — a much bigger terrorist group than Hamas, funded by Iran — will strike the moment Israel gets stuck in Gaza.

  • Biden said last night in his Oval Office address: "Iran is supporting Russia in Ukraine, and it's supporting Hamas and other terrorist groups in the region."

4. Then there's the unhinged leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, and his frequent testing of long-range, nuclear-capable missiles. As Gates points out, Russia, China, Iran and North Korea combined will have twice as many nuclear weapons as America in two years.

5. A new weapon is being deployed in all these conflicts: a massive spread of doctored or wholly fake videos to manipulate what people see and think in real time. The architects of these new technologies, in background conversations with us after demonstrating new capabilities soon to be released, say even the sharpest eyes looking for fake videos will have an impossible time detecting what's real. (We'll have a column coming soon to Go Deeper on this topic).

  • Fake video, on top of bots (fake people) and fake written content, is being used aggressively by all anti-American actors, intelligence officials say. Some experts estimate that more than 90% of content on the internet will soon be fake or manipulated.
First Lady Jill Biden and counselor Steve Ricchetti watch as President Biden speaks from the Oval Office last night. Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

What scares officials is how all five threats could fuse into one.

  • The State Department yesterday issued a rare "Worldwide Caution," warning U.S. travelers abroad of "increased tensions in various locations around the world" that raise "the potential for terrorist attacks, demonstrations or violent actions against U.S. citizens and interests."

These simultaneous threats are hitting at the very moment the American political system seems — and sometimes is — literally broken.

  • It's not just that Republicans don't have a House speaker and can't seem to elect one, or that we might shut down the government in the middle of this mess, or that we're hurtling toward another toxic presidential election in which big chunks of both parties want different candidates.
  • Former top intelligence officials tell us domestic unrest is one of their biggest fears — whether it's triggered by court rulings against former President Trump or protests over war in the Middle East. Biden allies frame these flare-ups as a reminder that global chaos requires calm and experience. "With age comes wisdom," Ron Klain, Biden's first chief of staff, told us.

But there has been a total collapse of people's trust in the opposing party, the media, what they see or share on social platforms, and even the top-secret intelligence the government relies on to measure these threats.

  • This, as much as the five individual threats above, is what worries officials. They know things could get worse — fast — and require tough actions — fast. And no one knows whether Congress or the public could unite in an emergency.

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2. 📺 Biden's prime-time warning

Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

"If we don't stop Putin's appetite for power and control in Ukraine, he won't limit himself just to Ukraine," President Biden said in an Oval Office address last night making the case for more U.S. aid for Ukraine and Israel.

  • "And if we walk away and let Putin erase Ukraine's independence, would-be aggressors around the world would be emboldened to try the same."

Why it matters: Biden today will send Congress an "urgent budget request," expected to be $105 billion, for Israel, Ukraine and other crises. Biden was trying to convince Americans it's "a smart investment that's going to pay dividends for American security for generations."

🥊 Reality check: The package faces big hurdles, Axios' Hans Nichols tells me.

  • Many House Republicans are ideologically opposed to more money for Ukraine. And without a House speaker, it's practically impossible to pass anything — let alone a funding package with this kind of price tag.

Go deeper: More on the package ... Axios speech coverage.

3. 🌡️ Warm winter for New England, Midwest, NW

Winter 2023-24 temperature outlook
Data: NOAA. Map: Erin Davis/Axios

There are higher than average odds for unusually mild conditions across much of the Lower 48 states, particularly along the northern tier and into the Northeast, Axios' Andrew Freedman writes from a NOAA outlook out yesterday.

  • Why it matters: A strong El Niño in the tropical Pacific Ocean, plus record-high global ocean temperatures, will shape our winter.

Keep reading ... Go deeper: Explore Axios Visuals' in-depth project on El Nino's global impact.

4. 📷 = 1,000 words

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The White House is lit in pink last night for Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October) and National Mammography Day (today).

5. Scoop: GSA boss works mostly from Missouri

Robin Carnahan speaks in August at Department of Homeland Security headquarters. Photo: Nathan Howard/AP

The leader of the D.C.-based General Services Administration worked remotely from Missouri most of the time in the year after the agency's "full re-entry" plan called employees back to their offices, according to a GSA letter to Congress obtained by Axios' Alex Thompson.

  • Why it matters: Calendar records of GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan show how remote work has continued after the pandemic for many federal workers — even at top levels of the Biden administration — despite the president's 17-month push for more in-office work.

Carnahan, whose agency manages about 1,500 federally owned buildings, is scheduled to testify to the House Oversight Committee soon. A hearing yesterday was postponed.

  • House Oversight Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) began investigating Carnahan's remote work arrangement in January. In a letter to her then, Comer said his panel had "received whistleblower reports you have spent most of your time working in a location other than Washington."

🧮 By the numbers: From March 2022 to March 2023, Carnahan worked 121 weekdays in Missouri and 64 weekdays at her office in Washington, GSA Associate Administrator Gianelle E. Rivera wrote to Comer on March 31.

  • Carnahan also spent 34 weekdays on official travel, Rivera wrote.

A GSA spokesperson told Axios that Carnahan "supports workforce flexibility, which has helped GSA reduce its footprint by 43% and save taxpayers more than $300 million in real estate costs."

  • Carnahan has "modeled that flexibility in her own schedule," the spokesperson continued, "spending roughly half her time in calendar year 2023 working from GSA headquarters in D.C. and visiting job sites and federal facilities that the agency oversees nationwide, with the rest of her time teleworking."

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6. 🔮 1 for the road: Air taxis for New York, L.A.

Lounge at Joby's Marina, Calif., testing site shows what a future vertiport might look like. Image: Joby

Gleaming new Delta terminals at LaGuardia, JFK and LAX could add a futuristic feature as soon as 2025: "vertiports" for passengers commuting by electric air taxi, Axios transportation correspondent Joann Muller writes.

  • Why it matters: Once seemingly far-fetched, flying taxis are only a year or two from reality, as aircraft get closer to FAA certification.

The CEOs of Delta and Joby Aviation, which is developing the aircraft, appeared together this week at a fireside chat in New York City to lay out their vision for air-taxi service.

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