January 04, 2018

Good Thursday morning. Situational awareness: "President Trump is disbanding his controversial voter fraud commission amid infighting, lawsuits and state officials' refusal to cooperate." (AP) ... "Paul Manafort sued Special Counsel Robert Mueller, alleging that his office's investigation exceeds its legal authority." (Reuters)

1 big thing: Trump may sue Michael Wolff

Amid the firestorm over Michael Wolff's forthcoming book "Fire and Fury," a lawyer for President Trump says legal action against Steve Bannon is "imminent," accusing the former White House aide of breaking a confidentiality and non-disparagement agreement he had signed with the Trump campaign.

  • The five-page cease-and-desist letter, which orders Bannon to retain any relevant texts and emails, says: "You have breached the Agreement by ... communicating with author Michael Wolff about Mr. Trump, his family members, and the Company, disclosing Confidential Information to Mr. Wolff, and making disparaging statements and in some cases outright defamatory statements to Mr. Wolff about Mr. Trump."
  • The lawyer, Charles Harder of Beverly Hills (who brought down Gawker), says in a statement: "[L]egal notice was issued today to Stephen K. Bannon ... that his actions of communicating with author Michael Wolff ... give rise to numerous legal claims including defamation by libel and slander, and breach of his written confidentiality and non-disparagement agreement with our clients. Legal action is imminent."
  • This follows the scorched-earth statement by Trump after excerpts of the book, out next Tuesday, began leaking yesterday: "Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my Presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind." (That line is N.Y. Times Quote of the Day, BTW.)

Axios has learned that, at Trump's direction, his lawyers may go after Wolff as soon as today.

  • Bannon wouldn't comment on the record, but "a source with knowledge of this matter" texted me that "more than a dozen wh staffers or colleagues of potus talked with [wolff] ... because the wh was cooperating with the book."
  • Reached for comment about the lawyer's letter to Bannon, Wolff told me: "I rest my case."

What has Trump so livid? Here are key excerpts from the 322-page book, obtained by Axios:

  • On the the July 8 preparation aboard Air Force One of the initial (and false) explanation about the Trump Tower meeting with Russians during the campaign, made under Trump's personal direction: "Ivanka, according to the later recollection of her team, would shortly leave the meeting, take a pill, and go to sleep. Jared, in the telling of his team, might have been there, but he was 'not taking a pencil to anything.'"
  • "Nearby, in a small conference room watching the movie Fargo, were Dina Powell, Gary Cohn, Stephen Miller, and H. R. McMaster, all of whom would later insist that they were, however physically close to the unfolding crisis, removed from it."
  • "Mark Corallo [former spokesman for Trump's personal legal team] ... privately confiding [to Wolff] that he believed the meeting on Air Force One represented a likely obstruction of justice — quit."
  • Bannon: "The three senior guys in the campaign ... thought it was a good idea to meet with a foreign government inside Trump Tower in the conference room on the twenty-fifth floor — with no lawyers. They didn't have any lawyers. Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad shit, and I happen to think it's all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately."
  • "If [Trump] was not having his six-thirty dinner with Steve Bannon, then, more to his liking, he was in bed by that time with a cheeseburger, watching his three screens and making phone calls — the phone was his true contact point with the world — to a small group of friends, among them most frequently [longtime friend] Tom Barrack, who charted his rising and falling levels of agitation through the evening and then compared notes with one another."
  • "The unique problem here was partly how to get information to someone who did not (or could not or would not) read ... Kellyanne Conway brought him the latest outrages against him. There were his after-dinner calls — the billionaire chorus. And then cable, itself programmed to reach him — to court him or enrage him."
  • Bannon referred to Stephen Miller — Trump's powerful senior adviser for policy, and keeper of the nationalist flame after Bannon's departure — as "my typist."

Go deeper ... New York magazine has a long excerpt/adaptation, "Donald Trump Didn't Want to Be President ... One year ago: the plan to lose, and the administration's shocked first days."

2. Bannon and Trump: Monsters they can't control

For all their grenades over Michael Wolff's bombshell book, Steve Bannon and President Trump have something stunning in common: Each helped create a monster he can't control.

  • To hear Bannon tell it, there'd be no President Trump without him. That's probably not true, but he did provide some intellectual fabric to Trump's loose ideas. Oh, and coverage by his media company, Breitbart, was an in-kind contribution to Trump Inc.
  • And without Trump, Bannon would still be a colorful but little-known media executive and radio gadfly. Trump not only gave him national prominence and relevance, he smuggled him — for a time — onto the National Security Council.
  • The two men are actually a lot alike: They both have grandiose views of themselves, play to the base instincts of voters, and obsess about reporters — and regularly feed them on the sly.

How's this for palace intrigue? Despite knowing his trashing of President Trump was coming in Wolff's bombshell of a book, Bannon had continued talking to the president, and had even been telling friends he wanted to run Trump's reelection in 2020.

  • Bannon has described himself to friends as a "revolutionary" and not in an ironic way. He genuinely views himself as a transformational figure of history, who belongs in the history books. A source who knows Bannon well — and is mostly sympathetic to him — told us he thinks Bannon is even more narcissistic than Trump.

And how's this for a twist? Bannon has also told friends he'd run for president in 2020 if Trump does not, knowing the same book would include his on-the-record argument that Mueller could topple Trump.

  • He wants to be Trump's heir — and has a plan for positioning himself to pick up the president's unusual coalition. Bannon has been traveling the country, building his own base and name ID with his campaign to support insurgent Republicans who would run in primaries against Mitch McConnell's handpicked candidates.
  • The travel has had the double effect of putting Bannon in all the right places for a future run at office.

It's no secret Bannon is a mischief-maker and fancies himself a Machiavellian operative. But this is some out-there behavior, and arguably the craziest episode of the Trump show:

  • The man who helped elect Trump last year, seemingly trying to destroy all of those around him, including the president's son and son-in-law, 12 months later.
  • Wolff's book was known internally as the Bannon book, because he opened the door to the author's extraordinary access. Jared Kushner, in particular, feared it would be used to settle scores. Damn, was he right.

And, damn: He's a lot like the man who made him.

  • Flashback ... Axios' Jonathan Swan, Aug. 12: "Trump suspects Bannon of leaking, putting job in jeopardy."

3. How Wolff did it

Michael Wolff has tapes to back up quotes in his incendiary book — dozens of hours of them.

  • Among the sources he taped, I'm told, are Bannon and former White House deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh.
  • So that's going to make it harder for officials to deny embarrassing or revealing quotes attributed to them in "Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House," out Tuesday.
  • In some cases, the officials thought they were talking off the record. But what are they going to do now?
  • Although the White House yesterday portrayed Wolff as a poseur, he spent hours at a time in private areas of the West Wing, including the office of Reince Priebus when he was chief of staff.
  • The White House says Wolff was cleared for access to the West Wing fewer than 20 times.
  • Wolff, a New Yorker, stayed at the Hay Adams Hotel when he came down to D.C., and White House sources frequently crossed Lafayette Park to meet him there.

Some reporters and officials are calling the book sloppy, and challenging specific passages.

  • How could Wolff possibly know for sure what Steve Bannon and the late Roger Ailes said at a private dinner?
  • It turns out Wolff hosted the dinner for six at his Manhattan townhouse.

4. Trump's front page

5. What to watch in science this year

Space observatories and probes will be launched. Gene editing is expected to move further into medicine. And immunotherapies for treating cancer need to be evaluated to figure out how they work and whether more people can benefit from them. Axios Science Editor Alison Snyder and her team look ahead:

  • "The search for planets beyond our solar system will be taken up by the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, a new NASA spacecraft scheduled to launch in the first half of the year that will focus on finding exoplanets around bright stars and those close to Earth."
  • See 6 more coming attractions.

6. Get smart fast: massive chip security flaw

A nasty series of vulnerabilities affecting decades of chip processors from Intel and others is the root of the broadest security hole to date, affecting nearly all computers, smartphones and servers, Axios chief tech correspondent Ina Fried writes from S.F.:

  • Companies including Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Google are scrambling to provide software updates to their operating systems and cloud services — but researchers said the software makers can't fully address the holes the chips left open.
  • The bottom line: While one vulnerability is potentially limited to just Intel chips, a related flaw affects the chips used in nearly every modern device.
  • That means you'll want to be sure to install the latest updates for your computers, phones and tablets and even your browser.
  • Go deeper.

7. Data du jour

For a quick gander across the 2018 political terrain, Bruce Mehlman of Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas has put together a PowerPoint, "Why 2018 Will Make 2017 Seem Tame."

8. Deep read

"America's Worst Graveyard Shift Is Grinding Up Workers" — Bloomberg Businessweek cover story:

  • "Cleanup at the slaughterhouse is as dangerous as it is repulsive, and the immigrants who do the work are under pressure to complete it faster than ever."
  • Why it matters: "In an era of heightened concern about food safety, meat and poultry producers are happy to pay sanitation companies for their expertise. The sanitation companies also assume the headaches and risk of staffing positions that only the destitute or desperate will take — very often undocumented immigrants."
  • "And they relieve the big producers, including household names such as Tyson and Pilgrim's Pride Corp., of responsibility for one of the most dangerous factory jobs in America."
  • Worthy of your time.

9. Tracking power

MSNBC President Phil Griffin announces the promotion of Colleen King and Tina Urbanski to executive producer:

  • "Colleen now helms 'The 11th Hour' [with Brian Williams] as executive producer. A key member of the 11th Hour family since the program's inception, she helped grow the broadcast with Pat Burkey from a 30-minute 'pop-up' to the #1 cable news program at 11 o'clock. ... With Colleen managing The 11th Hour, Pat will be focusing on 'Deadline: White House,' and will continue working with Brian Williams on breaking news."
  • "Tina takes on the role of co-executive producer at 'Hardball,' continuing ... alongside fellow co-EP Court Harson. She first joined us here at MSNBC in 2002 as an assistant to Chris Matthews."
  • "Tina and Court take the reins at Hardball as current co-executive producer Ann Klenk retires after 19 years with NBC family."

The Washington Post promotes Tracy Grant to managing editor in charge of staff development and standards, per The Post's Paul Farhi:

  • "Grant, 53, has managed The Post's recruiting efforts, a vital role as the news organization has expanded rapidly since the purchase of the paper by Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos in 2013."
  • "Since being named senior editor by Baron in 2013, and later as deputy managing editor, Grant has overseen the hiring of about 200 journalists, with a major expansion into video and social media."
  • "She is the second woman in the history of the newspaper to achieve managing editor rank, which is a step just below executive editor. The first was Elizabeth Spayd," now at Facebook.
  • "Grant joins two other managing editors — Cameron Barr, who oversees the paper's news and features sections, and Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, who supervises digital and video operations."

10. 1 cash(less) thing

"The Cashless Society Has Arrived — Only It's in China ... Mobile payments have surged to some $9 trillion a year, way ahead of the U.S., changing how people shop, borrow—and even panhandle," per a Wall Street Journal front-pager (subscription):

  • "Payment via mobile-phone services such as WeChat is sweeping the country."
  • "Behind the trend are internet titans Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd., which are elbowing aside banks to take a growing role in daily commerce.
  • Why it matters: "Their success offers a glimpse of a future where technology firms drive innovations in finance just as they have in retailing, autos and the media."
  • "Though the U.S. saw $112 billion of mobile payments in 2016 ... such payments in China totaled $9 trillion."
  • "For Alibaba and Tencent, the payoff isn't just the transaction fees they make from merchants, typically 0.6%. It's also the consumer data collected, which can transform their apps into marketing platforms for an expanding array of services, from bike sharing to travel."