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February 27, 2017

​1 big thing: White House on the line

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer personally picked up the phone and connected outside officials with reporters to try to discredit a New York Times article about Trump campaign aides' contact with Russia, then remained on the line for the brief conversations, Axios has learned. Ten key points:

  • Why it matters: The new details show how determined the West Wing was to rebut a front-page Times report on Feb. 15 that Trump campaign aides "had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election."
  • Who was involved: The officials reached by Spicer were CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Senate Select Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr (R-N.C), according to a senior administration official. The reporters were from The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, the official said. Spicer provided reporters' phone numbers to House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who offered to make the calls himself, according to the official: "He was in and out of an event."
  • When did this happen? On Feb. 15, when the two-column lead of the Times print edition, which Trump reads carefully, declared: "Trump Aides Had Contact With Russian Intelligence: U.S. Officials Tell of a Flurry of Phone Calls Intercepted Before the Election." An FBI official had volunteered privately to the White House that the story was "B.S." (but used the full word). When the FBI didn't immediately agree to tell that to the press, the White House tried to find other officials who would convey that idea to inquiring reporters.
  • What the White House was thinking: Spicer declined to comment. The official said Spicer didn't know at the time whether an investigation of Trumpworld contacts with Russia was underway, and was trying to make sure the connections were made before evening deadlines. "We'd been getting incoming all day," the official said. "Ironically, the White House was actually encouraging people with direct knowledge of the accuracy of the Times story to discuss it with other reporters."
  • The backdrop: Top White House officials tell us they're authentically confident that the Russia smoke won't lead to fire, and are even happy to have their opponents distracted by the issue. "For over six months, we have heard about these alleged contacts with Russia," the official said. "And yet, … with all the leaks have have come out, there's no 'there' there."
  • What was said on the calls: Pompeo and Burr told the journalists that the Times story wasn't true but provided no details, frustrating the competing reporters, according to the official: "Both of them said: All I can tell you is the story is not accurate."
  • What we don't know: Our sources weren't sure exactly how many calls were made, or which official talked to which reporter.
  • Why this is unusual: Intelligence officials from the Obama administration said it's rare for the CIA director to talk directly to a single journalist – that in the past, the director usually was held in reserve to talk to a publisher or executive editor in a case where a news organization was contemplating publishing something that could harm national security.
  • What we knew before: The Washington Post reported the pushback operation on Friday night under the headline: "Trump administration sought to enlist intelligence officials, key lawmakers to counter Russia stories."
  • The reaction: Some Democrats were already arguing that Russian involvement in the election should be investigated by a special prosecutor or outside, 9/11-style commission, rather than the congressional intelligence committees. George Little, a top CIA and Pentagon spokesman under President Obama, told us: "It's doubtful that Congress can conduct an objective and independent investigation into ties between this White House and the Russian government if it is collaborating so closely on media pushback with the White House press secretary."

2. Get smart fast

What you need to know about the right-wing movement consuming Europe: The rise of nationalism and right-wing populism is the story of the decade in America and across Europe. The global movement delivered Donald Trump the presidency and formed the core of his inaugural address. In coming years, it could fundamentally reshape the European Union as we know it.

See our 12 cards — by Shane Savitsky Alex Duner Rebecca Zisser — showing how populism has made its mark across the continent, and what might happen next.

3. The 3 big themes ...

... of Trump's address to a Joint Session of Congress tomorrow at 9 p.m., per Jonathan Swan: safety, sovereignty and economic opportunity.

Chris Krueger of Cowen Washington Research Group has this sly preview: "We believe the speech will be best described as American First (with more of a smile) along with a greatest hits collection of Trump's achievements thus far and the big goals remaining for the Congress: tax reform/relief, border security, health care, and infrastructure."

"We would not be surprised to see further language in sync with Friday's CPAC address, where Trump stated 'the GOP will be from now on the party of the American worker.' So language more geared towards the proletariat as opposed to the owners of the means of production."

4. Beyond the bubble

A WashPost front-pager, "Mixed feelings in Trump land," takes a turn from the "attaboy" theme of most recent dispatches from Trump country. Jenna Johnson, who covered last year's Iowa caucuses, talked to more than 100 Iowans on a 370-mile drive across the state last week. She writes from Clinton, Iowa, under the online headline, "These Iowans voted for Trump. Many of them are already disappointed":

"While Iowa is still home to many strong supporters who say it's too early to judge him, there are others who say they voted for Trump simply because he wasn't Clinton. Many Iowans worry Trump might cut support for wind-energy and ethanol programs; that his trade policies could hurt farms that export their crops; that mass deportations would empty the state's factories and meat-packing plants; and that a repeal of the Affordable Care Act would yank health insurance away from thousands.

"While the hyper-simplicity of Trump's campaign promises helped him win over voters, they are no match for the hyper-complexity of Iowa's economy and values."

5. Shadow Cabinet debuts

Today, a progressive "Shadow Cabinet" starts tweeting @ShadowingTrump to rebut the administration's statements, actions and tweets in real time.

The "cabinet" includes scholars, authors and former Democratic officials, assembled by former New York City Public Advocate Mark Green in six weeks of frantic phoning, emailing and fundraising:

  • LAURENCE TRIBE, "Attorney General" -- Constitutional law professor at Harvard Law School.
  • MARIELENA HINCAPIE, "INS/ICE/Immigration" -- executive director, National Immigration Law Center
  • DERAY MCKESSON, "Justice Issues" - Co-founder, Black Lives Matter. civil rights activist.
  • ROBERT REICH, "Labor/Commerce" -- Ex-Labor Secretary, best-selling author.
  • LAURA TYSON, "Treasury/Trade" -- Ex-chair CEA, professor at BerkeleyHass Business School
  • DAVID CAY JOHNSTON, "IRS" -- Pulitzer prize-winning journo/author. Founder of new DCReport.
  • DIANE RAVITCH, "Education" -- Professor at NYU, author/editor of 24 books on education.
  • JOAN CLAYBROOK, "Transportation" -- Ex-head of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
  • ROB WEISSMAN, "Consumer Agencies" -- President, Public Citizen.
  • DAVID FREEMAN, "Energy & EPA" -- Ex-head of TVA & NYS Power Authority.
  • DAVID HIMMELSTEIN, STEFFIE WOOLFINDLER, "HHS/Health" -- Distinguished Professors at Pub. Health School, CUNY/Hunter; co-founders Physicians for National Health.
  • COLIN KAHL, "NSA/Terrorism" - V.P. Biden's National Security Adviser.
  • ROSA BROOKS, "State Department" -- Ex--DoD counselor, author, columnist Foreign Policy.
  • ANDREW BACEVICH, "Defense Department" -- Author/historian, BU.Pardee School Global Affairs.

​6. Fast-food robots

Wendy's is installing self-help kiosks at 1,000 restaurants this year.

The automation paradox, per Axios' Chris Matthews: This is the sort of anecdote brandished by those who warn of the effects of automation on the labor market, and the theoretical case for why recent advances in computer science will greatly increase number of automatable jobs is strong.

But actual labor productivity growth has been at historically low levels lately. If automation were overtaking the American labor market, business would be producing more with fewer workers, and the data is saying they're not — at least yet.

7. Trending in business

Wall Street Journal front-pager, "Markets Flash Warning Sign," by Min Zeng: "Stocks and bonds are again moving in tandem after diverging in recent months—a sign some investors may be losing faith in the so-called reflation trade."

  • Huh? "It is a shift from late last year when investors were selling bonds and buying stocks, anticipating that large fiscal stimulus from President Donald Trump would lead to accelerated growth and higher inflation, a bet known as the reflation trade."
  • NYC watching D.C.: "Trump is scheduled to speak on Tuesday to a joint session of Congress. Investors will zero in on updates to his proposals for an expansive fiscal policy.

​8. Hot in tech (and for some of our readers)

The Recode headline says it all: "Chart of the day: The BlackBerry's fall to 0.0 percent market share. A decade after the iPhone launched, the BlackBerry platform is all but dead."

9. News you can use

Will be quite a block party ...

10. 1 fun thing

The WashPost's Style banner is: "CHAOS IN THE MOONLIGHT."

The last-minute Oscars debacle ... The L.A. Times Josh Rottenberg captures the scene in "'Moonlight' wins in unprecedented upset during a night of many firsts":

"In one of the most surprising upsets and shocking moments in Oscar history, the poetic coming-of-age drama 'Moonlight' [about a poor gay African American boy growing up in Miami] took home the top prize for best picture at the 89th Academy Awards, beating out the heavily favored 'La La Land,' which was actually announced as the winner.

"The win for 'Moonlight' came in a chaotic and confused moment that played out live in front of an audience of millions, as presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway initially presented the ... final award to 'La La Land,' only to have one of the film's producers announce that 'Moonlight' had, in fact, won. ...

"'Oh my God, he got the wrong envelope,' said a stage hand in the wings. When 'La La Land' producer Jordan Horowitz revealed the mistake — 'this is not a joke, "Moonlight" won' — the audience in the Dolby Theatre erupted in gasps."

See Vanity Fair's full list of winners.