Axios Sneak Peek

The back of a propped up cardboard cut-out of the U.S. Capitol.
October 27, 2019

Welcome to Sneak Peek, our weekly lookahead for both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, plus our best scoops.

  • You can catch a reairing of the latest episode of "Axios on HBO" tonight at 11:05 pm ET/PT on HBO.
  • Among the highlights: I traveled to Baghdad to interview Iraq's President Barham Salih inside the presidential palace, Margaret Talev visited Kamala Harris' campaign HQ in Iowa, and IMF managing director Kristalina Georgieva talks socialism and taxes with Felix Salmon.

Tonight's newsletter is 1,489 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Exclusive — Iraq president reveals Trump fears; warns of war, ethnic cleansing

Iraqi President Barham Salih smiles as he gives an interview
Photo: "Axios on HBO"

Iraqi President Barham Salih — long known as a pro-American leader — says he is no longer sure he can rely on the U.S. as an ally and may be ready to "recalibrate" Iraq's relationship with other countries, including Iran and Russia.

Why it matters: In an extraordinarily candid interview with "Axios on HBO," Salih said he still values his country's alliance with the U.S. 16 years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He wants to keep that alliance — but made clear that the Trump administration's policies are making that difficult.

  • "The staying power of the United States is being questioned in a very, very serious way," Salih said. "And allies of the United States are worried about the dependability of the United States."

The big picture: The interview was conducted last Monday — six days before Trump announced the successful U.S. operation that resulted in the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

  • The death of Baghdadi — which relied on America's military and intelligence assets in Syria and Iraq — reinforces why U.S. allies like Salih worry what would happen if Trump completes his promise to withdraw the U.S. military from the Middle East.

Several times in the interview, Salih used the words "recalibrate" or "rethinking" to describe how Iraq must approach its relationship with the United States — noting at one point that "dependability is important" in allies.

  • When asked if a U.S. drawdown from the Middle East could lead to a recalibration toward Russia and Iran, Salih wouldn't rule that out.
  • "Of course, many actors in this neighborhood," Salih said. "I'm not one of those, again, who goes and [says] to the Americans or the Russians, 'if you are not doing this for me, I'm gonna go the other way round.' [But] we need to think of our own priorities, and I've been very clear about it."

The nearly hour-long interview — in one of Saddam Hussein's old palaces, mostly unchanged since the days when he ruled Iraq — showed clearly how Salih feels as a leader who has relied on the U.S. as an ally for decades.

Among his biggest concerns: the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, leaving the Kurds to fend for themselves and increasing the danger of a resurgence of ISIS.

  • Keep in mind: Salih is one of the most influential Kurdish figures in the world — he's the former leader of Iraqi Kurdistan. And he chooses his words carefully. So the threat of ethnic cleansing by Turkish troops in Syria is hitting him especially hard.
  • "I'm worried about ethnic cleansing. And this has been the history, tragic history of the Kurdish people and this [is] dangerous and tragic. The humanitarian cost is just awful."
  • Salih also said he was "worried" about war breaking out between the U.S. and Iran — and Iraq can't afford to pick sides in such a war.

Go deeper.

2. Iraq's president: Won't pick sides if the U.S. and Iran go to war

Iraqi President Barham Salih gestures as he gives an interview
Photo: "Axios on HBO"

Iraqi President Barham Salih says he's "worried" about a war breaking out between the United States and Iran — and that this war would spell "disaster for everybody."

Driving the news: Salih is stuck between the U.S. and Iran, as he considers both countries to be Iraq's allies. When it was put to Salih that he might have to pick a side if war breaks out, Salih said Iraq couldn't afford to choose between the U.S. and Iran.

  • The reality, he said, is that it's not in Iraq's interests to harm its powerful neighbor. (The subtext: Iraq doesn't want a repeat of the devastating Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.)
  • "Iran is a neighbor of ours. We have 1,400 kilometers [870 miles] of borders with Iran. And we cannot wish Iran ill. It's not in our interests," Salih said.
  • "The United States is an important ally, partner. … We want this to continue and we definitely don't want our territory to be used," he said. "We should try and stop it because Iraq cannot sustain it, cannot survive it."

Why it matters: If the U.S. goes to war with Iran, some analysts believe that Iraq would be the first battlefield. The U.S. has more than 5,000 troops stationed in Iraq. Iran, using the militias it controls inside Iraq, could attack the U.S. forces as these militias have done in the past.

  • These are not academic questions. Salih acknowledged that if Trump hadn't changed his mind at the last minute in June — Trump says he reversed his decision to strike Iran with only 10 minutes to spare — a U.S.-Iran conflict could have spiraled out of control.

3. The unstable future of Iraq's leadership

One of the most remarkable — and telling — parts of the interview was when Salih refused to predict whether Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi would still be in office in a week.

The big picture: Iraq has been reeling from anti-government protests, including a deadly one Friday and another in early October in which Iraqi security forces killed 149 people and wounded more than 3,000, according to an investigation by a government panel.

Go deeper (video).

4. What's next: Impeachment lookahead

illo of a gavel coming down on the capitol building
Image: wildpixel/Getty Images

The pace of House Democrats' investigation into President Trump and Ukraine will accelerate this week with a series of hearings from key administration officials, including a highly anticipated appearance from a top official on the National Security Council, Axios' Alayna Treene reports.

What we're watching: Tim Morrison, the NSC's Russia and Europe director, will be the first currently serving White House official to testify before the committees on Thursday. He's also the first official who is believed to have been on the July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which is at the crux of Democrats' inquiry.

  • Democrats are eager to ask Morrison about the explosive testimony of Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine. Taylor said Morrison had been told that Trump insisted Zelensky publicly commit to investigating the 2016 election and the Bidens, and that hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Ukraine hinged on his willingness to do so.
  • Worth noting: Morrison's name appeared 15 times in Taylor's opening statement.

Meanwhile, the White House is being stymied in its efforts to prevent current and former officials from complying with the committees' requests, and Morrison appears to be no exception.

  • Morrison's lawyer told Politico that "If subpoenaed, Mr. Morrison plans to appear for his deposition.”

Trump, who compared the impeachment inquiry to a "lynching" this week, has been extremely frustrated with Democrats' investigation, and he has lashed out at the officials cooperating.

  • The president has specifically singled out Taylor — who was handpicked by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — calling him a "Never Trumper" and adding that "Never Trumpers" are "human scum."

But three veterans who have served with Taylor defended him in powerful interviews with CNN's Jake Tapper and Kate Sullivan, describing him as a "man of honor," "public servant" and "role model" who "represents the best of our Department of State."

What's next: The following current and former administration officials are also scheduled to testify this week:

  • Tuesday, Oct. 29 at 9:30 am: National Security Council Director for European Affairs Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman.
  • Wednesday, Oct. 30 at 9:30 a.m.: Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Kathryn Wheelbarger.

Former Deputy National Security Adviser Charles Kupperman was subpoenaed by the House committees to appear on Monday.

  • However, Kupperman filed a lawsuit on Friday asking a federal judge to rule on whether he can testify, given that Trump has asserted that he is immune from the congressional process and instructed him not to testify.

5. Harris: No "reference point" for running as a woman of color

Kamala Harris smiles as she gives an interview
Photo: "Axios on HBO"

Axios' Margaret Talev caught up with Kamala Harris in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Harris says running for president as a woman of color in the 2020 election is different than running as a black man or as a white woman and that the question of electability has emerged as "the elephant in the room about my campaign."

Why it matters: In an interview with Margaret for "Axios on HBO," the California senator, stuck around fifth place in Democratic presidential primary polls, says there’s still time to regain momentum to crack the top three in the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3.

  • She was mostly guarded in her remarks, but she spoke more spontaneously on questions about race and her law-and-order background.

Go deeper: Read the full story.

6. Sneak Peek diary

Photo of the capitol building
Photo: Richard Sharrocks/Getty Images

The House is expected to vote on a bipartisan package that would impose sanctions on Turkey for invading Syria.

  • This comes despite President Trump declaring victory in the region and directing the Treasury Department to lift all sanctions imposed on Turkey on Oct. 14.

The Senate will vote on a package of appropriations bills to fund federal agencies and departments, including:

  • The Department of Commerce
  • The Department of Justice
  • Science-related agencies, NASA
  • The Department of Agriculture
  • The Food and Drug Administration
  • The Commodity Futures Trading Commission
  • The Department of the Interior
  • The Environmental Protection Agency
  • The Forest Service
  • The military construction activities of the Department of Defense
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs
  • The Department of Transportation
  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development

President Trump's schedule, per a White House official:

  • Monday: Trump will deliver remarks at the International Association of Chiefs of Police Annual Conference and Exposition in Chicago. He will also join a roundtable with supporters and speak at a fundraising lunch. Trump and the first lady will also host Halloween at the White House.
  • Tuesday: Trump will have lunch with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He will also join a roundtable with supporters and speak at a Washington, D.C., fundraiser.
  • Wednesday: Trump will have lunch with Vice President Mike Pence. He will also present the Medal of Honor to Master Sergeant Matthew Williams for his service during Operation Enduring Freedom.
  • Friday: Trump will host a rally in Tupelo, Mississippi.