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1 big thing: A thought for the West Wing

If this sentence is true, it should worry people who work for President Trump -- and people who're thinking about it. And bringing in good people is a challenge right now: Talented, experienced Republicans who have turned down big jobs tell me it's partly because it just seems too risky right now.

Here's the sentence, from the N.Y. Times' First 100 Days Briefing last night: "Trump has been increasingly focused on who was with him or against him during his campaign, according to several people who have spoken with him in recent days."

That intel -- under the bylines of Maggie Haberman, Jonathan Weisman and Eric Lichtblau -- came in the context of this news: "Trump overruled his newly minted secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson, and rejected the secretary's choice for his deputy at the department ...

"The deputy's job was denied for Elliott Abrams, a conservative who had served under President Ronald Reagan and President George W. Bush, [and] deals a blow to Mr. Tillerson in his first week on the job. The rejection of Mr. Abrams leaves Mr. Tillerson without a sherpa to help guide the first-time government official around the State Department headquarters."

Mr. Tillerson isn't the type who likes to have blows dealt to him, especially blows that are apparent to, and trumpeted by, The New York Times. Trump has gained credibility from impressive Cabinet picks -- Generals Mattis (Pentagon) and Kelly (Homeland Security), Tillerson, Elaine Chao (Transportation), etc.

But there be dragons: If one of them gets fed up and quits (not impossible, we told), it's a fiasco. Mattis chafed during the transition at efforts by Trump's team to impose underlings. And there are other grievances that Cabinet members express privately.

Why did Elliott Abrams, who was preparing to bring along some impressive young talent, get the death penalty from The Donald? This is amazing: "Trump had a productive meeting with Mr. Abrams on Tuesday, according to a White House official and a person close to Mr. Abrams. But after it took place, Mr. Trump learned of Mr. Abrams's pointed criticisms of the president when he was running for president ... Among those criticisms was a column headlined 'When You Can't Stand Your Candidate,' which appeared in May 2016 in The Weekly Standard."

We all need to show we're capable of growth (hence Axios AM). And if the president is obsessing about past slights on Day 23, he's losing precious time, expertise and goodwill -- playing into the hands of those unwilling to give him a chance.

P.S. Another juicy item from the same briefing: "Charles J. Cooper [a conservative D.C. lawyer who argued against gay marriage in California] ... said he was withdrawing as a possible nominee for solicitor general," the official who argues the administration's case before the Supreme Court]."

"His withdrawal appears to leave George T. Conway, a New York lawyer who is married to Kellyanne Conway ... as the leading contender ... Trump said Thursday that he expected to select a new nominee in about a week."

2. Signs he CAN change

We're not even a month into the Trump presidency, and the foreign-policy radicalism has faded into a conventional crouch. Trump ...

  • ... has made up with the Chinese, affirming the "One China" policy.
  • ... told the EU that he'll stick to the Obama and European standard on the Iran deal, after campaigning on ripping it to shreds.
  • ... warned the Israelis on settlements.
3. Top talker

"Trump Secretly Called Xi, Then Blamed the New York Times for 'Fake News,'" by Weekly Standard senior writer Mike Warren: N.Y. Times White House reporter"Mark Landler had emailed the White House Wednesday to alert them the Times was preparing a story, and his colleague Maggie Haberman called a White House source on Thursday afternoon just before 4:00 pm. Neither was informed by the White House that the call with Xi would occur later on Thursday evening.

"Landler sent an email at 7:14 p.m., just over an hour before the phone call, to the White House asking about the administration's position One China. But Landler received no response, and so the Times published a story online at 9:00 p.m. ... Trump, the article [said], had not spoken with Xi since November 14. That wasn't true, since Trump had just begun his call with Trump half an hour before the Times story ran. ...

"It was only after the administration released a readout of the call at 11:04 p.m.—two hours after the initial Times story ran—that the paper updated the article online. ... [E]ven after the online version had been corrected to reflect newly obtained facts, President Trump accused the paper of 'fake news' for what an incomplete story that ran in its [D.C.] print edition.

"And what does all this drama about 'fake news' and an unreported phone call obscure? The fact that Trump's Chinese policy had become more conciliatory toward Beijing than what he had been indicating during the campaign and transition."

4. Smart sentence

From "Fixing Trump Executive Order's Legal Problems Is No Easy Task: President may issue revised travel ban as early as Monday," by Bloomberg's Greg Stohr and David Voreacos:

"A rewrite of the travel ban would almost certainly trigger a new round of legal challenges on a topic that has riveted the nation and sparked turmoil around the globe over the past two weeks."

5. Mar-a-Lago as magnet

Mar-a-Lago -- the Palm Beach estate that has become Trump's Winter White House (two weekends this month) has become "a magnet for anti-Trump protesters and the subject of an ethics debate over his invitation to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to join him this weekend," AP reports (Darlene Superville and Jill Colvin, with Julie Pace):

  • "Demonstrators plan to assemble [tomorrow] near the estate to protest Trump's decision on the Dakota Access oil pipeline. ... During Trump's other weekend in Florida, several thousand people marched near the property to protest" his travel restrictions.
  • "Trump's election is also putting charitable organizations, such as the American Red Cross, in an awkward position for choosing Mar-a-Lago for events booked months in advance."
  • Trump and Abe, accompanied by the first ladies, intended to spend the weekend holding more talks and playing golf, likely at another Trump club across the Intracoastal Waterway in nearby West Palm Beach."
  • Sean Spicer said Abe's free-of-charge stay at Mar-a-Lago is Trump's gift to Abe, who in NYC in November "gave Trump a pricey, gold-colored Honma golf driver; Trump reciprocated with a golf shirt and other golf accessories."
6. Kellyanne's cover

Conway in tomorrow's WashPost Magazine, "HER WAY ... 'An anchor in the storm'" ... Q&A by Joe Heim:

Twenty-five years from now what do you want people to say about you?

That I was an excellent mother and a great friend and I brought honor and respect to what I did. I was fair and judicious to people. I had compassion and empathy for those less fortunate than me. I made a difference inside and outside of government and that I was kind and generous and honest.

And I want to be famous for my children. I want one of them to cure cancer or win the Nobel Peace Prize or be the first woman president. One of my daughters said, "Mom, I don't want to go to Washington and be known as Kellyanne Conway's daughter." And I said, "Well, then cure cancer, and I'll be known as Claudia Conway's mother." That's the way I look at it.

7. Tops in media trends

"Enemies with benefits: Trump and the NYT," by Stef Kight and Sara Fischer: "Since the inauguration, Trump has tweeted 6 different times, complaining about NYT's coverage of his presidency. ... Beneath Trump's outward anger towards The New York Times lies a need for their approval."

How the mutually beneficial relationship works:

  • Trump benefits from publicity, which he has used to build his brand and run a successful campaign.
  • The Times benefits from a fascinating character who drives readers, subscribers and clicks to their reporting. The Times added 276,000 net subscribers in the fourth quarter of last year.
8. Trending in business

Autonomous autos ... "Ford Motor Co. plans to invest $1 billion over the next five years in tech startup Argo AI to help the Detroit automaker reach its goal of producing a self-driving vehicle for commercial ride sharing fleets by 2021. ... The investment in Pittsburg-based Argo AI, founded by former executives on self-driving teams at Google and Uber, will make Ford the company's largest shareholder." (Reuters)

9. The talk of tech

"Twitter's Downward Dive Is a Warning to Snap IPO Investors" -- Barron's: "While Twitter's revenues rose to $2.5 billion in 2016 from $665 million in 2013, earnings based on conventional accounting standards have proved elusive. Snap, the parent of Snapchat, is going public at an even earlier stage. Its sales last year were $404 million, and it is operating deeply in the red."

"Twitter's fourth-quarter earnings release last week was one of the worst in what has been a series of disappointments. The report prompted a flurry of downgrades from analysts, who focused on weak first-quarter financial guidance and what that portends for this year and beyond."

10. 1 Drumpf thing

"John Oliver Takes on the Trump Era: The Rolling Stone Interview," by senior writer Brian Hiatt:

What did [the Brexit] vote reveal for you?

It's hard to unpack the general shift toward the right in America and in certain parts of the world. The moment in that pathetic Brexit campaign that seemed to resonate most afterward was [conservative member of Parliament] Michael Gove saying in an interview, "People in this country have had enough of experts." And that turned out to echo throughout the year, especially in the U.S. You can understand, right? Being lectured is annoying, when you're a kid and throughout your life. But it turned out there was less collective investment in facts than people thought.

There's this endless debate over whether the use of his Twitter account is strategic or whether they're tantrums. Where do you fall?

Is Trump strategic, or is he sophisticated enough to know the power of the kind of linguistic hand grenade that he has become? Because even if he isn't, it's a classic magician's misdirection trick, isn't it? Is he sophisticated enough to understand the power to distract people from what you're doing with ridiculous behavior? And the party he nominally belongs to is definitely sophisticated enough to know that. They could get a lot ... done while people are gasping over the things that Trump has said. You could do hard legislation in the shadows, because if a magician comes onstage and releases a chimpanzee into the room who starts throwing feces at people, it's going to be pretty easy for him to make a couple of moves and end up with a woman sawed in half [laughs]. They could get an incredible amount done while people are distracted by just the volume of nonsense.