February 20, 2024

🧤 Welcome back, and happy Tuesday! Smart Brevity™ count: 1,491 words ... 5½ mins. Thanks to Noah Bressner for orchestrating. Edited by Bryan McBournie.

Situational awareness: The Washington Nationals are no longer for sale after the Lerner family — which owns the team — decided that "it's not the time or the place," The Washington Post reports.

1 big thing: AI movie magic

Video generated by OpenAI's Sora
Video generated by OpenAI's Sora

Everyone knew this was coming — but not this soon:

  • OpenAI's unveiling last week of Sora, which turns plain-text commands into remarkably life-like movie clips, sent shockwaves through both the tech and media worlds, Axios managing editor for tech Scott Rosenberg writes from the Bay Area.

Why it matters: This represents a huge leap for AI as a tool for executing human intentions. You type in a couple of sentences, and Sora cranks out a convincing video up to a minute long.

💥 State of play: Other tech pioneers have their own text-to-video tools. But, like with ChatGPT in 2022, OpenAI has upped the wow factor:

  • It's not just that the images look real. They feel like movies — the way ChatGPT's conversations sometimes feel like human speech.
  • Sora has what Wired's Steven Levy called "an emergent grasp of cinematic grammar."
An image generated by Sora that shows a man sitting on a cloud reading a book
Video generated by OpenAI's Sora

🖼️ The big picture: Just as Dall-E raised the hackles of visual artists and ChatGPT triggered soul-searching among authors and writers, Sora is giving moviemakers thrills and chills.

  • It seems to promise profound shortcuts around expensive special effects, and could upend many of the crafts that built Hollywood.
  • It also raises deep questions about the unique human contribution to artistic creation, the place of human actors and storytellers in visual media, and where future audiences will turn to find pleasure and surprise.

🥊 Reality check: Sora isn't available for most users, and won't be for some time.

  • Skeptics argue that OpenAI had cherrypicked its demo examples, and that Sora's output didn't appear substantially different from that of Midjourney and similar tools.

The intrigue: Even as engineers work to perfect the output of tools like Sora, creative artists are studying the mistakes.

  • OpenAI asked Sora for a scene with "New York City submerged like Atlantis. Fish, whales, sea turtles and sharks swim through the streets of New York."
  • Sora presented a finny phalanx flying between skyscrapers above the surface of a street-level sea.

The video is "wrong" — but also weirder and wilder than the human prompt.

2. 💰 Biden's colossal cash advantage

President Biden returns to the White House from Rehoboth Beach, Del., yesterday.
President Biden gestures to Marine One's pilots after returning to the White House from Rehoboth Beach, Del., yesterday. Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

President Biden's re-election team now has $130 million in the bank, while the RNC has little cash and Donald Trump's team is spending tens of millions on legal bills.

  • Why it matters: Despite Democratic angst over the president's poor polling, the Biden campaign announced this morning that it raised $42 million in January — adding to his vast fundraising advantage over Trump and the RNC, Axios' Hans Nichols and Alex Thompson write.

🧮 By the numbers: The RNC started the year with over $8 million in cash on hand. Trump's campaign had $33 million on hand. Neither has released fundraising totals for January.

  • Biden, the DNC and other affiliated committees raked in contributions at the same time his Republican rivals were attacking each other.
  • Trump's legal problems — which cost his political fundraising apparatus $50+ million last year — show no signs of going away.

Reality check: Incumbent presidents often have a financial advantage going into an election year.

  • Trump and the RNC had more cash at this point in 2020 before Biden ultimately made up ground.

Share this story.

3. 🇷🇺 Inside Navalny's final months

A woman touches a photo of Alexei Navalny after laying flowers at a memorial in St. Petersburg.
A woman touches a photo of Alexei Navalny after laying flowers at a memorial in St. Petersburg. Photo: Dmitri Lovetsky/AP

A paper trail of private letters showed that in his final months, Alexei Navalny was methodically preparing for the future and keeping his mind active with prolific correspondence, N.Y. Times Moscow bureau chief Anton Troianovski writes.

  • Navalny called former President Trump's agenda "really scary," and wondered why President Biden's health doesn't "concern the Democrats," according to a friend.

🔎 Zoom in: Navalny boasted of reading 44 books in English in a year while "refining his agenda, studying political memoirs, arguing with journalists, dispensing career advice to friends and opining on viral social media posts that his team sent him."

  • He sought out reading recommendations from friends and allies who could write to him for the prison system's charge of 40 cents a page.

Navalny told Kerry Kennedy — the human rights activist daughter of RFK — that he'd cried "two or three times" while reading a book about her father.

4. 📈 Charted: Trump's half-billion dollar debt

Civil litigation fines against Donald Trump
Reproduced from AP. Chart: Axios Visuals

Former President Trump is facing a combined $500 million in legal debt from his New York civil fraud trial and the E. Jean Carroll lawsuits.

  • Fines from the lawsuits themselves add up to about $443 million.

Add in interest payments (almost $99 million) and that number balloons to $542 million.

5. 💳 Year's giant deal: New credit-card behemoth

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Capital One's $35 billion deal to buy Discover — announced last night — would make McLean, Va.-based Capital One the largest credit card issuer in America, Axios' Felix Salmon writes.

  • JPMorgan Chase currently leads the ranking, with a 16% market share. The combined company would have 19%.

Why it matters: Some 4,000 banks offer credit cards. But the top 10 issuers, including both Discover and Capital One, account for 80%+ of loans.

  • That concentration seems to have given the biggest lenders the ability to charge higher interest rates on outstanding balances. (Explore the numbers.)

🖼️ The big picture: It's this year's biggest merger globally, surpassing Synopsys' $34 billion acquisition of software developer Ansys in January. (Bloomberg)

What we're watching: It's unclear whether the deal will pass regulatory scrutiny.

  • Go deeper with Axios Pro: Fintech Deals ($) ... Smart, quick intel for your job.

6. 🐘 Scoop: GOP fight over impeachment trial

From left, Sens. Rick Scott, R-Fla., Mike Lee, R-Utah, Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Eric Schmitt, R-Mo.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) speaks at a news conference on border security legislation at the Capitol last month. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

A group of Senate conservatives is demanding help from Leader Mitch McConnell on forcing a full impeachment trial for Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Axios' Stef W. Kight scoops.

  • Why it matters: Senate Democrats will control the process. But the historic impeachment articles are proving to be the next flashpoint for the GOP minority leader.

What's happening: 13 Republicans, led by Sens. Mike Lee and Ted Cruz, plan to send a letter to McConnell this morning, demanding they "fully engage our Constitutional duty and hold a trial."

  • A Democratic effort to dismiss the impeachment articles would be "an action rarely contemplated and never taken by the U.S. Senate," the senators argue in a copy of the letter first obtained by Axios.

Keep reading.

7. ⏳ Sinema running out of time

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill earlier this month.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill earlier this month. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) faces an uphill battle and a very narrow timeline if she wants to run for re-election, Axios Phoenix co-author Jessica Boehm reports.

  • Why it matters: The first-term senator, who left the Democratic party in 2022, has remained tight-lipped about her political future.

✍️ Zoom in: Sinema would need to launch her campaign in the next two weeks to gather enough signatures by an April 1 deadline, according to local political consultant Meghan Cox.

Between the lines: No independent candidate has ever won a state-level or federal office in Arizona.

8. 📚 Savannah Guthrie on God's big thing

The book cover of "Mostly What God Does" by Savannah Guthrie
Photo: Nathan Congleton/NBC via Getty Images. Cover: Thomas Nelson

Savannah Guthrie, co-anchor of NBC News' "Today" show, is out today with "Mostly What God Does," a candid account of her connection to God and a gentle invitation to "come as you are" to faith — all told with what she calls "nothing but my curiosity and a receptive heart."

  • Why it matters: The book "is by far the most personal and vulnerable thing I've ever undertaken," Guthrie, 52, tells me. "I'm way out of my comfort zone. But I just felt like I had something good to say about God and couldn't help but share it."

"At church," Guthrie writes, "my pastor always apologizes when he tells the congregation a personal story or life anecdote that he knows they've heard from him before. 'I'm sorry!' he says sheepishly. 'I only have this one life!' In a way, I feel the same":

"I have just this one life, and it is certainly not an example to hold up for others or a monument to great righteousness or faith. It's just a life of a person who has felt the love of God and been saved by it, over and over and over again. I like to tell people about the God I know. The one whose hand rests gently on my shoulder, whose presence I can feel behind and beside me when I'm under pressure. ... The one who holds me, firmly and purposefully."

⏱️ Behind the scenes: I hear Guthrie wrote this on a journalist's speedy timetable. Her publisher gave her a date two years out — and the book is on shelves in less than a year.

  • Guthrie hates projects hanging over her head — one reason she's in daily journalism even though she has a law degree from Georgetown

Spoiler: Guthrie writes that mostly what God does is love you.

📬 Thanks for starting your morning with us. Please invite your friends to sign up.