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May 23, 2018

Axios AM

Good Wednesday morning from Atlanta.

Situational awareness ... N.Y. Times front page: "Ryan’s Hold on Speaker’s Job Is Tested by G.O.P. Infighting" ... WashPost front page: "Ryan’s grip on House is growing weaker" ... Axios on Sunday: "Paul Ryan's House is collapsing."

1 big thing: The anti-Mueller brigade

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

It’s not just President Trump and his tweeter anymore. The anti-Robert Mueller chorus is growing slightly larger, and significantly louder, in an effort to discredit the Russia probe and its origin. 

  • A motley crew of Clinton-era political stars — including Rudy Giuliani, Alan Dershowitz and Mark Penn — and a gaggle of pro-Trump House Republicans are hitting Capitol Hill, cable and the web to trash Mueller, the FBI and the media. 

Why it matters: Hour by hour, these voices try to chip away at the case against Trump and the justification for it all.

  • Polls show it works — wonderfully, among Rs. 
  • This powerful echo chamber is one of the few parts of Trumpworld that’s perfectly in sync.

Inside the sabotage strategy ... Jonathan Swan points out that the White House legal strategy hasn’t visibly changed:

  • The legal team's newest member — Emmet Flood, who represented Bill Clinton during his impeachment — is a top-flight, serious lawyer who's going about his business with complete discretion.
  • What has changed is the P.R./media strategy. We suddenly see this concerted effort — orchestrated by Trump, and conducted outside of the White House — to smear Mueller, muddy the waters, and make the investigation a red vs. blue issue.
  • We’re already seeing public opinion polarize and harden. And if that happens, Trump wins.
  • This echoes the late '90s strategy of the Clinton White House against Ken Starr. 

A key victory for the chorus: The Justice Department tomorrow will hold a classified briefing about an FBI informant in the Russia probe, yielding to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, who had threatened to hold Attorney General Jeff Sessions in contempt over a committee subpoena.

  • Sarah Sanders announced that in addition to Nunes and House Oversight Committee Chair Trey Gowdy, attendees will include FBI Director Christopher Wray, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and the Justice Department's Ed O’Callaghan.
  • "No one from the White House staff will attend," she said. And she said she doesn't expect any Dems.

Among the players:

  • At least 19 House Republicans backed yesterday's announcement of a resolution calling for a second special counsel to investigate "misconduct at the highest levels" of the Justice Department and FBI "with regards to FISA Abuse, how and why the Hillary Clinton email probe ended, and how and why the Donald Trump-Russia probe began."
  • Mark Penn, a former top strategist for the Clintons who is now president of the Stagwell Group, wrote in The Hill this week: "[T]he Mueller investigation became a partisan, open-ended inquisition that ... is a threat to all those who ever want to participate in a national campaign or an administration again."
  • Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush's first press secretary, tweeted yesterday that he agrees with a National Review column arguing: "The Mueller investigation should be allowed to reach its natural conclusion, as should the DOJ's investigation of the FBI’s conduct."
  • The Fox prime-time gang, especially Sean Hannity.

Be smart ... David Ignatius column in WashPost: "Trump is running a circus of distraction. But at the center of the ring remains Mueller, silent and unblinking."

2. Making history in Georgia ...

Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

In Georgia last night, Stacey Abrams (D), 44, a former state legislative leader, became the nation's first black woman to be a gubernatorial nominee of a major party, and Georgia's first female nominee for governor by a major party.

  • What's next, from Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Greg Bluestein: "She will face one of two Republicans [from a July runoff] in November in the race to succeed Gov. Nathan Deal [R], a competition that will test whether the state is truly competitive after more than a decade of GOP rule."

Why it matters, from Axios' Alexi McCammond: Abrams' 76%-24% victory gives Democrats a new playbook for what successful candidates can look like in deep-red states like Georgia.

  • She didn't cater to moderate, white working-class voters; instead, she ran a progressive campaign appealing to left-leaning voters. She even had the backing of both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
  • Journal-Constitution: "Abrams attracted national attention, big-name endorsements and millions of dollars in outside spending with her 'unapologetic progressive' platform to flip the Georgia governor’s office for the first time since 2002."
3. ... and Texas
Ashley Landis/The Dallas Morning News via AP

In a Democratic Texas governor's runoff, Lupe Valdez, "the former Dallas County sheriff, became the first Hispanic female and first openly gay person to win a major party's gubernatorial nomination in Texas," per the Dallas Morning News:

  • "Valdez will now face the vastly better-known and more experienced Republican incumbent, Gov. Greg Abbott, in November."

Alexi has these takeaways after last night's voting in Georgia, Kentucky, Arkansas and Texas:

  • Republican voters played it safe, while Democrats advanced fresh faces and diverse candidates.
  • These races were all in the South, but left-leaning voters in these reliably red states showed they're ready for change.
4. Exclusive poll: Pruitt's tipping point
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Data: HarrisX online survey of 2,000 U.S. adults age 18+, May 4-5. Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

A HarrisX poll for Axios finds that 80% of Americans believe EPA Administrator Pruitt should be fired if EPA's inspector general finds that he misused his position — meaning that even some Trump backers agree.

  • The big picture, from Axios' Ben Geman: The poll suggests that Pruitt isn't hugely well-known outside the Beltway, despite all the negative press and his aggressive campaign to unwind environmental rules.
  • Go deeper.
5. Trump 101

At the Deadline Club of New York this week, Lesley Stahl of "60 Minutes" recalled an off-camera conversation with Donald Trump at Trump Tower in July 2016 [date corrected] (via CNBC):

"[H]e started to attack the press ... I said, ... 'You've won ... Why do you keep hammering at this?' And he said: 'You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all. So when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.'"

"Flack Ops" ... Mark Leibovich in Sunday's N.Y. Times Magazine, "The Risky Business of Speaking for President Trump ... Flacks in this White House press office are getting enormous exposure — but potentially at a long-term cost to their credibility":

  • "[L]eakiness in a White House can reflect [an] undisciplined and paranoid environment where self-preservation can outweigh loyalty, including (or especially) to the president himself."
  • Sarah Sanders: "I will always do everything I can to give the best and most accurate information at the time that I can. ... What’s true on Monday in terms of a process decision may change by Friday ... And I can’t always know that things will be different."
  • Worthy of your time.
6. Rare bipartisan deal on banking rules

Following bipartisan votes from both chambers of Congress, President Trump plans to sign the first significant changes to the post-crisis Dodd-Frank banking law of 2010. The details, from The Wall Street Journal (subscription):

  • "The bill cuts regulations for small lenders and raises the asset threshold at which larger regional lenders automatically face stricter rules."
  • "The plan leaves untouched most of Dodd-Frank’s major planks, such as emergency government powers and curbs on derivatives, an outcome that is expected to cement those provisions for years to come."
  • "Democratic supporters in the Senate — 17 in all — say the legislation is needed to help smaller, community banks."
  • Yesterday's House vote was 258-to-159.

Why it matters, from Bloomberg: This "is the product of years of financial-industry lobbying to soften post-crisis rules[,] and sensitive negotiations ... to attract bipartisan support needed to get it through the narrowly-divided Senate."

  • "It could ... spark a wave of dealmaking among regional firms."
7. The new thing: electric SUVs
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Bloomberg New Energy Finance; Chart: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

By 2022, Chinese demand for electric cars will triple, and the largest block — 39% — will be SUVs and crossovers, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a research firm.

  • Americans will buy more than twice as many electrics as they currently do, and 52% of them will be SUVs and crossovers.
  • Why it matters, from Axios future editor Steve LeVine: Electric car skeptics cite relatively low current demand as evidence that battery-propelled vehicles are unlikely to break out. But the new forecast show why they can — because they will fall neatly into the current of existing mobility fashion.
  • Go deeper.
8. Smart video: Why the U.S. never got universal health care


Every fight over the Affordable Care Act is a reminder of the bigger truth about the U.S. health care system: It's really a patchwork, not a system, because we never decided what our priorities were.

9. "Driving progress from the bottom up"

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies, in his annual letter on philanthropy:

"[T]he increasing disdain for facts is making it harder for America to address major challenges here and around the world ... Fortunately, ... a counter-assault is under way in both red and blue states. ... While it doesn’t attract national headlines, there is a growing movement of big cities and small towns that are striving to use data to improve the performance of government and the lives of their citizens. ... As Washington has grown more dysfunctional, American cities have grown more dynamic."
10. 1 novel thing

Philip Roth, revisiting areas where he grew up in Newark, in 1968 at age 35. (Bob Peterson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

"Philip Roth, the American literary icon whose novel 'American Pastoral' won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, in 1998, has died, at the age of eighty-five," per The New Yorker:

  • "His great subjects, as Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote in this magazine, in 2006, included 'the Jewish family, sex, American ideals, the betrayal of American ideals, political zealotry, personal identity,' and 'the human body (usually male) in its strength, its frailty, and its often ridiculous need.'"
  • "David Remnick wrote about Roth’s retirement, in 2012, and, the following year, sent a dispatch from Roth’s eightieth-birthday celebration, in Newark —Roth’s home town and the site of much of his fiction."
  • Roth read a famous passage from "Sabbath’s Theater," "death-haunted but assertive of life," Remnick wrote: "The passage ends with his hero putting stones on the graves of the dead. Stones that honor the dead. Stones that are also meant to speak to the dead, to mark the presence of life, as well, if only for a while. The passage ends simply. It ends with the line, ‘Here I am.’ ”