Axios AM

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March 06, 2017

1 big thing: Trump' great gamble

I have learned that some — though definitely not all — members of President Trump's inner circle share his belief that the Obama administration tapped his Trump Tower phones in October. And a White House official told me President Trump not only doesn't regret this weekend's fracas despite the lack of evidence for his astonishing claim, he is "absolutely convinced" he'll be vindicated.

"The president just has a great nose for these things," the official said. "It's the bureaucratic leaks — the deep state — that bother him most. Even if it turns out not to be true that they surveilled Trump Tower, he will have a very good point to make about the level of sabotage coming from Obama holdovers."

Those facts help explain Trump's high-stakes decision to ask Congress to add Obama abuse of "executive branch investigative powers" to its Russia investigation. For Trump spokespeople, it's a handy punt: Now they don't have to defend or explain Trump's tweets, and just refer questioners to Congress.

But the risk is that there'll be a day of reckoning — perhaps after documents are subpoenaed and testimony demanded — when a Republican Congress embarrasses the White House by saying the president was flat wrong when he accused his predecessor of a crime.

Towergate is a fascinating test of Trump's great gamble that he can do the job of president in a totally new way: largely improvisational, driven by whims, moods and obsessessions; thinly staffed, like his campaign, and with poorly enforced process, not taking advantage of the massive safety net available to him; heavily reliant on family; and unconstrained by manners, rituals or precedent.

FBI Director Comey reportedly turned on Trump and asked the Justice Department to reject the tapping claim. And Sen. Marco Rubio expressed skepticism on Sunday shows.

But some well-known Republicans are willing to wage the debate on Trump's terms. One establishment grandee asked in an email: Did Obama Attorney General Loretta Lynch "approve this??? That is the big Q" — skipping over whether "this" is real.

A Democratic theory is that if Trump believes problematic transcripts of recorded calls with Russians may dribble or gush out, why not discredit them in advance as a political dirty trick? Then when they emerge, you can say "Aha!" rather than being on the defensive.

But a Republican close to the White House said that's overthinking it: That "view is quite plausible. But I do not believe they are playing chess. I think they are playing Trivial Pursuit."

2. Liberal groups get ransom demands

"Russian Hackers Said to Seek Hush Money From Liberal U.S. Groups ... Post-election crime wave by attackers demanding bitcoins — Center for American Progress said to be among victims," by Bloomberg's Michael Riley:

  • "At least a dozen groups have faced extortion attempts since the U.S. presidential election."
  • "The ransom demands are accompanied by samples of sensitive data in the hackers' possession. In one case, a non-profit group and a prominent liberal donor discussed how to use grant money to cover some costs for anti-Trump protesters."
  • "At least some groups have paid the ransoms even though there is little guarantee the documents won't be made public anyway. Demands have ranged from about $30,000 to $150,000, payable in untraceable bitcoins."
  • "The Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank with strong links to both the Clinton and Obama administrations, and Arabella Advisors, which guides liberal donors who want to invest in progressive causes, have been asked to pay ransoms."

UPDATE … CAP's Allison Preiss: "CAP has no evidence we have been hacked, no knowledge of it, and no reason to believe it to be true. CAP has never been subject to ransom."

3. Sentence of the day

Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman, in a N.Y. Times front-pager, "Conspiracy Theory's Journey From Talk Radio to Oval Office": "Previous presidents usually measured their words to avoid a media feeding frenzy, but Mr. Trump showed again over the weekend that he feeds off the frenzy."

4. Tidbit of the day

From a WashPost front-pager, "A furious Trump rages at leaks and accusations," by Phi Rucker, Bob Costa and Ashley Parker:

"As reporters began to hear about [Trump's Oval Office tirade about Sessions' decision to cave and recuse himself, which the president thought the White House staff should have fought harder], [White House Chief of Staff Reince ]Priebus interrupted his Friday afternoon schedule to dedicate more than an hour to calling reporters off the record to deny that the outburst had actually happened, according to a senior White House official.

"'Every time there's a palace intrigue story or negative story about Reince, the whole West Wing shuts down,' the official said."

That revelation is further evidence of Politico's headline, "Knives are out for Reince," by Alex Isenstadt and Josh Dawsey:

Trump aides and allies "described a micro-manager who sprints from one West Wing meeting to another, inserting himself into conversations big and small and leaving many staffers feeling as if he's trying to block their access to Trump. They vented about his determination to fill the administration with his political allies.

"And they expressed alarm at what they say are directionless morning staff meetings Priebus oversees that could otherwise be used to rigorously set the day's agenda and counterbalance the president's own unpredictability."

Kellyanne Conway took up for Reince, saying that his Hill relationships will pay off in coming negotiations over the agenda: "Reince is doing a great job. He's chief of staff to a president who's taking action and disrupting the bureaucracy in a way that no one's ever seen."

And the N.Y. Times defends Conway, with a front-pager by Susan Chira, "Another Powerful Woman. Same Sexist Attacks": "Ironies abound. Ms. Conway is loathed by many Clinton aides as the architect of a presidential campaign that they felt used overtly and implicitly sexist messages."

5. The Deconstruction Project

Jack Gerard, CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, told Jim VandeHei and me last week that under Trump, the oil and natural-gas industry wants a reexamination of 145 proposed or new regulations from the Obama administration that potentially stymie "the very activity many of them were talking about or taking credit for."

He's not the only one with a wish list. A N.Y. Times front-pager, "Regulatory Leashes Coming Off Wall St., Gun Sellers and More," by Eric Lipton and Binyamin Applebaum, finds that in six weeks of Trump, federal agencies and the Republican-controlled Congress "delayed, suspended or reversed" more than 90 regs:

  • "Social Security Administration data will no longer be used to try to block individuals with disabling mental health issues from buying handguns, nor will hunters be banned from using lead-based bullets."
  • Waste cleanup at mines, drinking-water protection and stream protection.
  • Rules to protect investors and prevent financial collapse.

6. Trending in tech

Trump and tech already had a hot-and-cold relationship. On the day when Trump is expected to unveil his revised executive order on migrant travel, Axios tech editor Kim Hart digs into a hallmark of his immigration policy that may complicate things further:

  • Trump's interest in merit-based green cards is widely seen as a win for the tech industry by putting more emphasis on higher-skilled workers.
  • The twist: Trump has criticized some companies for using the program to undercut American workers and suggested he'll overhaul the program.
  • What to watch: How merit-based green cards play out in Silicon Valley — where many founders and CEOs are immigrants — depends on who is sidelined. A move to cut back family-based visas may clash with Silicon Valley's progressive social values.

7. Two Americas

Workaday stalwarts at the nation's non-profits won't enjoy Wall Street Journal front-pager, "Million-Dollar Paydays Jump For Officials At Charities," by Andrea Fuller:

  • "About 2,700 people had seven-figure pay packages at the nonprofits in 2014, a number that was up a third in three years, newly searchable IRS data show."
  • "Many of the $1 million-or-more packages ... included deferred-compensation contributions or payouts. In about a quarter the base pay was $1 million or more."
  • "About three-fourths of the charities that provided million-dollar compensation packages in 2014 were involved in health care. About 10% were private colleges."
  • "The biggest 2014 package went to Anthony Tersigni, president and chief executive of Missouri-based Ascension, one of the largest hospital operators ... His compensation totaled $17.6 million [including] a $10.2 million bonus."

8. French Trump declares war against "savage globalization"

On "60 Minutes," Marine Le Pen, the nationalist leader running to be the next president of France, tells Anderson Cooper: "Globalization has become an ideology with no constraints. Now nations are forcing themselves back into the debate. Nations with borders that we control with real economies, not Wall Street economies, but rather factories and farmers. This goes against unregulated globalization, a wild, savage globalization. Wild globalization has benefited some, but it's been a catastrophe for most."

Key quotes ... See the CBS News video, transcript.

9. Pence quietly becoming foreign-policy power player

WashPost's Josh Rogin: "Pence's national security team is also in place and humming. ... Pence is seen by many in Washington as a figure who might stand up for the traditionally hawkish views he espoused while in Congress, a proxy of sorts for the GOP national security establishment. But those close to Pence say his stance is more nuanced. Pence is committed to advocating Trump's foreign policy objectives, not his own, and endeavors to stay above the fray of most internal disputes."

10. 1 fun thing

"David Letterman on Life After TV and the Man He Calls Trumpy," by David Marchese ...

On late-night shows becoming vehicles for social media: "I knew it was happening, and I recognized that it was a good idea, but I didn't know how to do it. When people around me would come up with ideas, I felt like, This is exploitation beyond the pale. We're just going to produce some little precious moment here and put it up on the internet? But nobody wants to sit through an eight-minute interview with fill-in-the-blank. So these things are useful.

"But the idea of Twitter: Trumpy — my son, Harry, and I call him 'Trumpy' — has really got something with it. Rather than a laughable expression of ego run amok, it could be a useful tool. ... So — I'm lonely, I can't stop talking."