Dec 28, 2017

Axios AM

Good Thursday morning. Situational awareness: Members of Mueller's team have begun reaching out to former RNC staff who were familiar with the digital operations of the Trump campaign, per Axios' Jonathan Swan, confirming Yahoo's Michael Isikoff.

1 big thing: Zuck's awakening

Two weeks of insight ... Through New Year's Day, Axios CEO Jim VandeHei and I bring AM readers our year-end thoughts on the topics that matter most ...

Mark Zuckerberg started 2017 scoffing at the idea of Russia election manipulation on Facebook, and looked like he was contemplating his own possible run for the presidency.

Facebook's CEO ends 2017 a very changed man: scrambling to curtail (some of) the manipulation he now acknowledges exists, and to save the most powerful platform in human history.

  • A Facebook exec tells us: "This is the year people will see we get that there's real work to do. We have to change."
  • Fake news and Russia get the attention, but Facebook say it also plans "real product fixes" in other areas, including demonstrating how seriously the company takes data privacy. Facebook leaders think that if they fix the substance, the reputation will follow.

In Silicon Valley, you hear frequent comparisons between the tech giants and the old utilities: The companies are quickly becoming the infrastructure across which all information moves. Going forward, they will be scrutinized that way.

Facebook, Google and Twitter are no longer seen as harmless toys and tools. In fact, the political and public swing against these darlings of Silicon Valley is one of the most important non-Trump trends of the year — and one likely to echo for many years to come:

  • Sean Parker and other early Facebook execs went public with concerns about how the company manipulates data and our minds.
  • Democrats have held private briefings on whether Facebook and other companies knowingly and purposely create dangerous addictions to their products.
  • Senate Intelligence Vice Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) and other lawmakers are pushing for tighter regulation, starting with political advertising. Warner also wants Facebook to open data to outside experts so they can see if the full scope of Russian manipulation has been disclosed.
  • Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, alone among top tech execs, confronted the controversy head-on, in a half-hour-plus interview with Axios. Facebook should be applauded for doing what few companies do in crisis: responding to the critiques in real-time.How many companies admit their product can be unhealthy if used the way lots of people use them? Facebook says it knows that addicting people to their detriment doesn't work in the long run.Execs tell us that their mission for 2018 is: Make sure the platform is responsible so people can use it for their "well-being," the platform's new buzzword.

Be smart: Turns out that Zuckerberg, with his high-profile travel through Trump country, was gearing up for a political campaign — just not the one you thought. He knows the worldwide fight for Facebook's reputation will last a lifetime, and will influence how far and fast regulators go.

Be watchful: Facebook is not fighting fake news — it's fighting spam and clickbait. This is a significant and highly substantive differentiation.

  • The bottom line: Facebook wants to use as little editorial judgment as possible in weeding out crap on its platform, to avoid becoming a media company — a business with much smaller margins and greater legal liability.
  • Unless tech companies are regulated to be held accountable for content that crosses their platforms, Facebook will not fundamentally change — something Sheryl Sandberg in her October conversation with Axios.
2. Trump team warms to Flynn attack

In a sharp break from a sympathetic posture toward Michael Flynn, President Trump's legal team is prepared to attack the indicted former national security adviser as a liar, according to the WashPost's Carol Leonnig:

  • What's new: "[T]he administration has been strategizing how to neutralize [Flynn] in case the former national security adviser" makes claims implicating Trump or his aides.
  • "In court filings, the retired lieutenant general admitted that he lied to the FBI about conversations he had with the Russian ambassador to the United States during the December 2016 transition."
  • One person helping craft the strategy: "He's said it himself: He's a liar."

Be smart: Trump's team has still said nothing negative about Flynn in public. But the Post theory gibes with Trump lawyers' belief that Mueller will come up with nothing on collusion. That leaves obstruction as most likely charge. And without Flynn as a credible witness, that could become a stretch.

3. Wrecking Iraq

The Iraqi military and U.S.-led coalition succeeded in uprooting the Islamic State group across the country, but the damage is nearly incalculable, AP reports from Mosul:

  • "For nearly 2½ miles along the western bank of the Tigris River, hardly a single building is intact. The warren of narrow streets of Mosul's Old City is a crumpled landscape of broken concrete and metal. Every acre is weighed down by more than 3,000 tons of rubble, much of it laced with explosives and unexploded ordnance."
  • Adding it up: "Baghdad estimates $100 billion is needed nationwide to rebuild. Local leaders in Mosul, the biggest city held by IS, say that amount is needed to rehabilitate their city alone."
  • Why it matters: "So far no one is offering to foot the bill. The Trump administration has told the Iraqis it won't pay for a massive reconstruction drive."
Bonus: Pic du jour

A surfer waits for a wave as the sun sets over the horizon yesterday in Pacific Palisades, Calif.

4. The year's wild ride, in 1 chart

The Google News Lab captures the biggest news events of Trump's presidency.

  • Axios' Stef Kight points out that we've all jumped from one four-alarm news fire to another.
  • Share the chart.

Search spikes:

  1. The Virginia election, Nov. 8
  2. Trump and the NFL, Sept. 24
  3. Trump and the NFL, Sept. 25
  4. George Papadopoulos, Oct. 30
  5. Affordable Care Act repeal vote, May 4
5. An encouraging trend

"Crime in New York City Plunges to a Level Not Seen Since the 1950s," the N.Y. Times reports in its lead story:

  • In 1990, there were 2,245 killings in New York City. As of yesterday, there had been just 286 this year — "the lowest since reliable records have been kept."
  • "If the trend holds just a few more days, this year's homicide total will be under the city's previous low of 333 in 2014, and crime will have declined for 27 straight years."
  • Why it matters: "The numbers, when taken together, portray a city of 8.5 million people growing safer even as the police, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, use less deadly force, make fewer arrests and scale back controversial practices like stopping and frisking thousands of people on the streets."
6. Data du jour

From "17 striking findings from 2017," by Pew Research Center.

7. Not taking the hint

Republican Roy Moore filed a lawsuit to try to stop Alabama from certifying Democrat Doug Jones as the winner of the U.S. Senate race, AP reports from Montgomery:

  • The court filing occurred 14 hours ahead of today's meeting of a state canvassing board to officially declare Jones the winner of the Dec. 12 special election. Jones defeated Moore by about 20,000 votes.
8. Spotted

Bill and Hillary Clinton pose backstage yesterday at the hit musical "The Band's Visit," at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theater, with stars Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk.

9. An epic year: 26 of 30

Reliving 2017 in 30 images ... Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), in "Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir," written with Mark Salter, has this thought for the ages: "Nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself, something that encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone."

  • McCain, 81, has spent his remarkable life fighting for causes larger than himself. Faced with a grim brain cancer diagnosis and realizing that every vote was a legacy vote, he killed Republicans' repeal plan for health care, yet ensured life for the tax cut that gave President Trump his biggest win.
  • Here, McCain speaks during a special Twilight Tattoo in November at Fort Myer in Arlington, Va., honoring him for more than 63 years of dedicated service to the nation and the U.S. Navy. He was presented with the Outstanding Civilian Service Medal, the highest award the Army Chief of Staff can bestow upon a civilian.
10. 1 movie thing: Banner era for villains

"Quite a year for bad guys on the screen: Villains reflect a growing social divide" — L.A. Times front-pager by Jeffrey Fleishman: In movies and on TV, a "recent group of tormented villains embodies a cultural war in an America anxious over its direction amid restive populations of women and people of color, and widening divides between liberals and conservatives and rich and poor.""Literature and film reach into our recesses to summon outsize and eerily accurate depictions of our world, which these days is a hyperdrive of suspicion and recrimination.Why it matters: "The flaw is what we most often remember in our malefactors. It makes their acts more heinous because they are in so many ways like us, the poison in our well."