Axios AM

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May 19, 2017

1 big thing: The Swamp

Russia is The Swamp, and The Swamp is winning.

On Day 120 of the Trump presidency, Russia has become the administration's unintended but self-imposed mood music and narrative arc — sucking bandwith, draining esprit, looming as a potential calamity.

The price and opportunity cost have already been high — in time, in credibility, in possibility.

And it may just be starting. Legal scholar Jonathan Turley pointed out on Fox News that the Mueller miniseries may run for years.

The mood among some top Republicans is turning to anger: So much has been squandered.

"The damage to the agenda is permanent," said a Republican working to pass Trump's plans.

Et tu, Putin? In an article headlined, "Russia Grows Anxious Over U.S. Political Chaos Engulfing Trump," Bloomberg reports: "Trump's presidency appears hijacked by the U.S. obsession with Russia, one senior Kremlin official said. ... [H]is fate looks increasingly uncertain to Kremlin policy makers."

The Mueller appointment could have been used as a temporary lifeline — an excuse to fence The Swamp, and try to get lawmakers and journalists to focus on Trump's plans, at least until findings emerged.

Several top operatives gave me a similar plan of attack. You'd say: "I'm happy Robert Mueller is going to get to the bottom of this. He's perfect for the job, and I'm eager to cooperate." Then say no more. When you're asked about Russia, point the questioner to your previous statement, then talk about tax reform.

Instead, after a restrained statement when Mueller was named Wednesday evening, the president tweeted the next morning: "This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!"

Asked about the special counsel at an East Room presser yesterday, Trump said: "I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch hunt. ... I think it divides the country."

At 2:10 p.m. today, Air Force One takes off from Joint Base Andrews to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for a nine-day trip that will also take the President to Israel, Italy and Belgium.

  • Be smart: Absent a gaffe, American presidents always look bigger on the world stage. Trump aides hope this will be the beginning of a reset. One big problem: The Swamp awaits.

2. Article of the day

Former FBI Director James Comey "has spoken privately of his concerns that the contacts from Mr. Trump and his aides were inappropriate, and how he felt compelled to resist them," according to an ominous N.Y. Times front-pager by Michael Schmidt:

  • Ben Wittes, a friend of Comey's who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the editor in chief of the Lawfare blog: "He had to throw some brushback pitches to the administration."
  • In the Blue Room of the White House on Jan. 22, "Trump hosted a ceremony to honor law enforcement officials who had provided security for the inauguration. Mr. Wittes said Mr. Comey told him that he initially did not want to go to the meeting because the F.B.I. director should not have too close a relationship with the White House. But Mr. Comey went because he wanted to represent the bureau."
  • "Comey — who is 6 feet 8 inches tall and was wearing a dark blue suit that day – told Mr. Wittes that he tried to blend in with the blue curtains in the back of the room, in the hopes that Mr. Trump would not spot him and call him out."
  • Wittes: "Comey said that as he was walking across the room he was determined that there wasn't going to be a hug ... Comey has long arms so Comey said he pre-emptively reached out for a handshake and grabbed the president's hand. But Trump pulled him into an embrace and Comey didn't reciprocate. If you look at the video, it's one person shaking hands and another hugging."

Ben Wittes later posted his own account on Lawfare, "What James Comey Told Me About Donald Trump": "Comey was preoccupied throughout this period with the need to protect the FBI from these inquiries on investigative matters from the White House."

"Comey described at least two incidents which he regarded as efforts on the part of the President personally to compromise him or implicate him with either shows of closeness or actual chumminess with the President."

Why it matters: Comey will be testifying, before Congress and perhaps before a grand jury. This article spells trouble for 1600: He's aggrieved, he has notes, and he's not known for holding back.

3. "Fair and balanced"? "We report. You decide."

Roger Eugene Ailes of Warren, Ohio, despite his humiliating end, changed America with Fox News — one of the great media, business, social, political stories of our lives.

A speed read of the coverage of his death yesterday at 77, from complications after he fell and hit his head in the bathroom of his Palm Beach home on May 10:

  • Michael Wolff for Hollywood Reporter: "The Fox News exec understood the intensity of the unhappiness and anger in another America that liberal media people are only now waking up to with Donald Trump."
  • New York magazine: "According to Debra S. Katz, an employment and civil-rights attorney, the lawsuits will continue to move forward." She said: "The estate will be responsible for any kind of liability that ensues."
  • N.Y. Times front-page obit, "A Fighter Who Turned Rage Into a News Empire," by Clyde Haberman: "shaped the images that helped elect three Republican presidents."
  • Wall Street Journal editorial: "If Ronald Reagan was rightly called the Great Communicator, Roger Ailes ... has to be considered the greatest creator of communicators in the history of politics or television."
  • With Fox, "Ailes redesigned the playing field."
  • L.A. Times' Stephen Battaglio: "Fox News ... would alter how Americans view the media, ushering in the era of personality-driven, opinionated journalism that now dominates the cable news business."
  • Shep Smith: a "media genius, revolutionary in American politics, shaper of American history, uproariously funny man with now well documented flaws...I loved him."

4. Trump's budget to include family leave

"Ivanka Trump plays guiding role in plan to grant six weeks of paid leave to new moms and dads," by WashPost's Danielle Paquette and Damian Paletta:

"Trump's budget proposal next week will include a new benefit for America's working parents, one Democrats have long championed and Republicans have long opposed: paid family leave."

"The president's first detailed budget request on Tuesday will seek funds for the creation of a program to grant mothers and fathers six weeks of paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child."

5. What to expect from Trump's first overseas trip

A cool card deck from Axios' Shane Savitsky, Rebecca Zisser, Lazaro Gamio, and Gerald Rich: "Over nine days, he's tackling five countries, three major world religions, and two core American alliances."See the cards.

6. Pence washes his hands

Vaughn Hillyard, who was NBC's Pence embed on the campaign, gets the goods:

"Vice President Mike Pence has been kept in the dark about former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn's alleged wrongdoing, according to a source close to the administration, who cited a potential 'pattern' of not informing the vice president and calling it 'malpractice or intentional, and either are unacceptable.'"

7. Zeitgeist

  • Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter's letter from the upcoming summer issue, on N.Y./L.A. newsstands on June 1: "The media, the opposition, the resistance, and indeed the rest of the Free World are playing by outmoded rules of engagement with regard to the man in the White House."
  • David Brooks, on "The Trump Administration Talent Vacuum": "[T]he Trump White House has just become a Human Resources disaster area."
  • Charles Krauthammer for National Review: "[I]t seemed as if the guardrails of our democracy — Congress, the courts, the states, the media, the cabinet — were keeping things within bounds. Then came the last ten days. ... Chaos reigns. No guardrails can hold."

8. House GOP leaders fear tape leaks

The House Republican leadership is agitated after the WashPost published a transcript from a secret recording of one of the inner-sanctum conversations in the office of Speaker Ryan, Axios' Jonathan Swan reports:

  • The most widespread theory in House leadership is that the secret recorder and the leaker was Evan McMullin (the former presidential candidate), who as a former leadership aide participated in the June 15 conversation, and confirmed the private conversation to the Washington Post.
  • Swan writes: "I am told that the Post, in their back-and-forth with leadership over the story, privately said that the source wasn't McMullin. There's no evidence that he was the leaker and I've reached out to him for comment."
  • Evidence or not, leadership sources are privately worried that McMullin had a tape on while he sat silently through all of their confidential meetings. They're concerned about what leaks could come next.

9. "The Trump card"

The Economist cover, "The legacy of the six-day war: Why Israel needs a Palestinian state — More than ever, land for peace also means land for democracy":

Unexpectedly, there may be a new opportunity to make peace: Donald Trump wants to secure "the ultimate deal" and is due to visit the Holy Land on May 22nd, during his first foreign trip. The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, appears as nervous as the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, seems upbeat. Mr Trump has, rightly, urged Israel to curb settlement-building. Israel wants him to keep his promise to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. He should hold off until he is ready to go really big: recognise Palestine at the same time and open a second embassy in Jerusalem to talk to it.

10. 1 fun thing

Record price for an American artist at auction ... A 1982 artwork by Jean-Michel Basquiat ("Untitled") sold for a record $110.5 million at Sotheby's auction of contemporary art last night, per AP:

  • "The painting's graffiti-like typography depicts a face in the shape of a skull."
  • Gregoire Billault, head of Sotheby's Contemporary Art Department in New York: "Tonight, Jean-Michel Basquiat entered the pantheon of artists whose works have commanded prices over $100 million, including Picasso, Giacometti, Bacon, and Warhol."
  • "The piece was purchased by noted Japanese collector and e-commerce entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa after a 10-minute bidding war that was watched by thousands live on Instagram."
  • "'Untitled' was virtually unknown before it was unveiled at Sotheby's weeks ago. The auction house said it remained in the same private collection since it was bought at auction in 1984 for $19,000."