Feb 23, 2020

Axios Sneak Peek

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

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Tonight's newsletter is 1,815 words, a 7-minute read.

1 big thing: Exclusive — Trump's secret hit list — the Never Trump files

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photos: WPA Pool/Getty Pool, Drew Angerer/Getty Staff

The Trump White House and its allies, over the past 18 months, assembled detailed lists of disloyal government officials to oust — and trusted pro-Trump people to replace them — according to more than a dozen sources familiar with the effort who spoke to Axios.

Driving the news: By the time President Trump instructed his 29-year-old former body man and new head of presidential personnel to rid his government of anti-Trump officials, he'd gathered reams of material to support his suspicions.

  • While Trump's distrust has only intensified since his impeachment and acquittal, he has long been on the hunt for "bad people" inside the White House and U.S. government, and fresh "pro-Trump" options. Outside advisers have been happy to oblige.

In reporting this story, I have been briefed on, or reviewed, memos and lists the president received since 2018 suggesting whom he should hire and fire. Most of these details have never been published.

  • A well-connected network of conservative activists with close ties to Trump and top administration officials is quietly helping develop these "Never Trump"/pro-Trump lists, and some sent memos to Trump to shape his views, per sources with direct knowledge.
  • Members of this network include Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and Republican Senate staffer Barbara Ledeen.

The big picture: Since Trump's Senate acquittal, aides say the president has crossed a psychological line regarding what he calls the "Deep State." He feels his government — from Justice to State to Defense to Homeland Security — is filled with "snakes." He wants them fired and replaced ASAP.

  • "I think it's a very positive development," said Rich Higgins, who served on Trump's National Security Council in 2017. H.R. McMaster removed Higgins after he wrote a memo speculating that Trump's presidency faced threats from Marxists, the "Deep State," so-called globalists, bankers, Islamists, and establishment Republicans. (This was long before the full scope of the FBI's Russia investigation was known to Trump and his aides.)
  • Higgins told me on Sunday he stands by everything he wrote in his memo, but "I would probably remove 'bankers' if I had to do it over and I would play up the intel community role — which I neglected."

Let's get to the memos.

1. The Jessie Liu memo: Shortly before withdrawing the nomination of the former D.C. U.S. attorney for a top Treasury role, the president reviewed a memo on Liu's alleged misdeeds, according to a source with direct knowledge.

  • Ledeen wrote the memo, and its findings left a striking impression on Trump, per sources with direct knowledge. Ledeen declined to comment.
  • A source with direct knowledge of the memo's contents said it contained 14 sections building a case for why Liu was unfit for the job for which Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin selected her, including:
    • Not acting on criminal referrals of some of Justice Brett Kavanaugh's accusers.
    • Signing "the sentencing filing asking for jail time" for former national security adviser Michael Flynn (a friend of Ledeen's).
    • Holding a leadership role in a women's lawyers networking group that Ledeen criticized as "pro-choice and anti-Alito."
    • Not indicting former deputy director of the FBI Andrew McCabe.
    • Dismissing charges against "violent inauguration protesters who plotted to disrupt the inauguration."
  • Neither Liu nor the White House responded to requests for comment.

Between the lines: The Liu memo is not the first such memo to reach the president's desk — and there's a common thread in Groundswell, a conservative activist network that's headed by Thomas and whose members include Ledeen.

  • Sources leaked me details of two other memos from people associated with the Groundswell network that also caused a stir inside the White House over the past year.

Go deeper: Read the full story on Trump's personnel lists in the Axios stream

2. Inside the fight over FBI spy powers

Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Over the past year, President Trump has told senior administration officials, including Attorney General Bill Barr, that he wants a major overhaul of national security surveillance powers and the secret court that approves them.

Behind the scenes: In one such discussion last year about the need to reauthorize government authorities to surveil U.S. citizens, Trump went so far as to say he'd rather get rid of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) altogether.

  • Barr had argued it was necessary, for national security reasons, to reauthorize the current surveillance laws without any changes.
  • Trump responded, "I trust you, Bill, but if it was up to me, we'd get rid of the whole thing," per a source familiar with the conversation. Trump was especially exercised about the process that the FBI used to wiretap his former campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page.

Why it matters: Key measures in FISA — including the business records provision, Section 215 — are set to expire on March 15.

Between the lines: Trump's discussions came several months before the Justice Department Inspector General released a scathing report about the abuses of the FISA process involved in the surveillance of Page.

  • The Inspector General said the abuses were so profound, he had decided to open a full review of the FISA warrant process.
  • Barr has since acknowledged that FISA needs targeted reforms.
  • Trump has repeatedly told aides that he never wants what happened to him in the Russia investigation to happen to any other president or their families. There is no evidence the FBI used FISA authorities to target any of the Trumps. And aides have since interpreted Trump's position to be that he wants major reform of FISA rather than getting rid of it altogether.

Since at least last summer, officials in the Trump administration have been hotly debating the best way to turn Trump's instincts into policy. Domestic Policy Council head Joe Grogan has led an internal process to develop reform options, per sources briefed on the effort.

  • John Bolton, while Trump's national security adviser, led the charge for a straight renewal of surveillance powers and was supported at the time by Barr, per a source with direct knowledge of the internal conversations. They had another ally in Trump's former director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.
  • In one of his last acts on the job, in August 2019, Coats sent a letter to Capitol Hill that said the Trump administration wanted Congress to permanently reauthorize key surveillance provisions in the USA Freedom Act. These included the "roving wiretap" authority and the seizing of business records from companies.
  • This stance cementing broad government surveillance power as the affirmative position of the Trump administration was news to some senior officials who'd been listening to Trump's jeremiads against all manner of government surveillance.

Members of Congress — including Republican Sens. Mike Lee and Steve Daines and Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Patrick Leahy — have been working on legislation to reform FISA.

  • Lawmakers are weighing a number of potential reforms, per a source familiar with the talks. They include mandatory, random audits of FISA applications by the Inspector General, ending the Call Detail Records program, requiring the FBI turn over exculpatory evidence when seeking a FISA warrant, and appointing amici in all "sensitive investigative matters" who can access all FISA court documents.
  • Sen. Rand Paul, a longtime critic of government surveillance, has also shaped Trump's thinking on the issue, per sources briefed on their conversations.

But, but: This wouldn't be Trump's first bait-and-switch on FISA. On Jan. 11, 2018, hours before a vote on warrantless FISA surveillance, Trump tweeted that the authorities had been used "to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign."

  • 90 minutes later, under urgent pressure from congressional leaders and his senior staff, Trump walked back the criticism, and the reauthorization vote passed without any major wins for reform advocates.
  • Rolling back surveillance powers is notoriously difficult, and the Intelligence Community usually gets its way.
  • The White House and Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Go deeper: Read the full story about the FISA fight — in the Axios stream

3. The real impact of Trump's next big immigration rule

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Effective tomorrow, the U.S. will begin blocking more foreigners from obtaining green cards and some visas based on the Trump administration's guesses about what kind of people they'll become and whether they may ever burden taxpayers, Axios' Stef Kight reports.

Why it matters: The long-expected "public charge" rule effectively creates a wealth and health test, which could keep hundreds of thousands of people from making the U.S. their legal home.

  • Technically, the public charge rule targets immigrants that U.S. officials predict are likely to rely on certain government benefits at any point in the future.
  • In reality, the new regulations could make it harder for some people with middle incomes to come to the U.S. as well as those who are sick or impoverished.
  • The act of applying for a permanent green card itself will be counted against an applicant by the Department of Homeland Security.

Factors that could potentially hurt an immigrant's chances at a green card:

  • Not having an income that is 250% of the poverty line, or $76,700 for a family of five. That means some middle-income families would be hit, since an income of $58,300 for a family of five is considered a middle-level income, according to the Pew Research Center.
  • Being older than 61 or younger than 18.
  • Having medical issues, especially if uninsured.
  • Not having private health insurance.
  • Not being a full-time student or employed.
  • Not speaking English proficiently.
  • Having a mortgage, car loan or credit card debt.

Go deeper: Read Stef's full story in the Axios stream

4. Exclusive: Anti-Sanders group targets black South Carolina voters

Courtesy of The Big Tent Project

The Big Tent Project, a Democratic political group focused on promoting moderate presidential candidates, has sent hundreds of thousands of mailers bashing Bernie Sanders to black voters in South Carolina who voted in the state's 2016 Democratic primary, Axios' Alayna Treene reports.

Why it matters: Sanders' rise to the top of the pack, as dueling moderate candidates split their side of the vote, is worrying many in the Democratic political establishment who fear a democratic socialist can't beat President Trump.

  • Sanders' triumph in Nevada, after rising to the lead in Iowa and New Hampshire, creates the very real potential that he will be the Democratic nominee.

What's next: Sanders' performance in South Carolina will test how far he's come in gaining the support of black voters and whether it's enough to deprive Joe Biden of the comeback critical to his campaign’s survival.

Go deeper: Read Alayna's full story on the stop-Sanders effort

5. Sneak Peek diary

Photo: Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

The House returns Tuesday and will vote on a series of bills this week, including the Veterans Affairs Reporting Transparency Act. It would direct the VA secretary to establish a website to let the public obtain electronic copies of legislatively requested reports, Alayna writes.

The Senate returns Monday and will consider the following nominations this week, per a Republican leadership aide:

  • Robert Anthony Molloy as a judge for the District Court of the Virgin Islands for a term of 10 years.
  • Silvia Carreño-Coll as a judge for the District of Puerto Rico.
  • Katharine MacGregor as deputy secretary of the Interior.
  • Travis Greaves as a judge of the U.S. Tax Court for a term of 15 years.

They will also vote on:

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

  • Monday–Wednesday: The president and first lady will be in India, meeting with Prime Minister Modi.
  • Thursday: The president and first lady will attend an African American History Month reception.
  • Friday: President Trump will hold a campaign rally in North Charleston, South Carolina.