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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios
Donald Trump wants to rebuild America’s infrastructure the same way he built his buildings: debt, debt and more debt. His then-economic adviser, Gary Cohn, learned this the hard way in a fraught meeting last year, the details of which haven’t been previously reported.
As Cohn and his team were putting together their $1.5 trillion infrastructure package, Cohn tried to use a real estate analogy to sell Trump on his plan to pair public and private investment. It backfired.
The Cohn plan proposed leveraging $200 billion of federal investment into a $1.5 trillion overall infrastructure package — with state and local governments and the private sector making up the difference.
Trump was skeptical. Instead, he just wanted the federal government to borrow tons of money for infrastructure projects. He was especially obsessed with overhauling his hometown airport LaGuardia, which he calls "Third World."
In a separate conversation, Cohn tried to win Trump over with a real estate analogy, according to two sources familiar with their conversation. "Think about when you're putting up a building, you put down $50 million of your own money to leverage several hundred million," Cohn told Trump.
The president scoffed. He told Cohn that when he was building, he'd never be so stupid as to put down his own money. He'd borrow the first installment from one bank and borrow the rest from another bank.
Cohn told associates afterwards that he'd never have supported such an idea when he worked at Goldman Sachs. "I'm a 30% equity guy," Cohn told associates after the conversation. "He [Trump] is 100% leverage."
Why this matters: During his career as a real estate magnate, Trump proudly called himself the "King of Debt." Now, he's the President of Debt — stimulating the economy by slashing taxes and jacking up defense spending without doing anything serious to rein in entitlement spending.
What's next? Senior administration officials tell me Trump is still dead keen on passing a massive infrastructure bill. He likes the sound of big round numbers: A $1 trillion package is music to his ears. If Democrats win the House in November, it's more than possible Trump will defy his own party and favor Sen. Elizabeth Warren's approach of heavy federal borrowing over private investment.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told me he reassured Montenegro after President Trump publicly questioned whether it was worth it for the United States to defend the tiny NATO ally if an enemy attacked.
"I have reassured Montenegro," Stoltenberg told me in an interview on Friday, "and I also know that the United States has clearly stated that they are fully committed to Article 5 and NATO and the collective defense."
Why this matters: NATO's foundational principle is that an attack on one member country is an attack on all. America's willingness to honor that commitment provides the security blanket that keeps the transatlantic alliance alive.
I asked Stoltenberg whether he agreed with Trump's assessment that Montenegrins are "very aggressive people."
You can read the rest of my interview with Stoltenberg here. It's a case study in how carefully the NATO leader chooses his words so as not to offend Trump.
What was previously an allegation of sexual misconduct against Brett Kavanaugh by an unidentified person — without a lot of details or evidence — is now backed by a name, a specific allegation and therapist's notes. A senior Republican official involved in Kavanaugh's confirmation privately admitted to me that they felt queasy when they read The Washington Post story.
And there was one sign tonight that these allegations could actually derail Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Supreme Court — which was previously a sure thing. Jeff Flake told the WashPost's Sean Sullivan that the Senate Judiciary Committee should wait to hear more from Kavanaugh's accuser, Christine Blasey Ford: "For me, we can’t vote until we hear more."
Since the story broke, I've spoken to four sources close to the Kavanaugh confirmation process. All were defiant and sought to raise doubts about the accuser's credibility and the holes in her story — though none were willing to do so on the record. They signaled potential lines of attack: the accuser's Democratic political background, lapses in her memory and the accounts of the 65 women who've known Kavanaugh since high school who've vouched for his character.
A source who has seen recent polling, conducted by the Republican National Committee, told me the data show that a majority of Trump voters don't believe the mountain of evidence that Democrats will win back the House in November.
Why this matters: A month ago, we reported in "Sneak Peek" that Republican strategists were detecting something interesting — and from their POV, concerning — in focus groups of Trump voters. These voters — who have been listening to the president predicting a "red wave" in November — didn't believe polls showing Democrats would win the House.
But, but, but: Several Republican officials who have reviewed the latest polling tell me they see an opportunity amidst the gloomy data. They think they can energize seniors, suburban women and Republicans less likely to vote by attacking the high costs and potential implications of Democrats' "Medicare for All" single payer health care plans.
Democrats plan to fight back against this messaging. Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson told me: "For years, Republicans have been trying to make Medicare wither on the vine, so voters aren't going to believe they're now trying to save it. Even if Lex Luther put on a cape, people wouldn't start believing he's Superman."
On Saturday morning, a senior administration official told me President Trump has "come to realize that there's not a path to 60 votes" to pay for his border wall before the November elections. "The president, I think, is not really in veto mode right now," the official said.
Between the lines: Trump has privately assured Republican leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell that he accepts his border wall won't be funded before the midterms. He's promised them he won't shut down the federal government at the end of September in a fight over the wall.
What's next? President Trump expects to sign his first package of spending bills late this week. That "minibus" will fund the Energy and Water, Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and Legislative Branch Appropriations bills for 2019.
Bottom line: That CR will reveal that Trump won't get his wall money. He'll get the $1.6 billion he requested in his first budget, but nowhere near the $25 billion he once hoped for, or the $5 billion he asked for.
The House is on recess.
The Senate will pass a pharmacy transparency bill, major opioids legislation on Monday, and expects to report Judge Brett Kavanaugh out of the Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
President Trump's schedule — which could include a visit to hurricane-affected areas:
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios
Politicians across Trumpworld are aping the president's "never admit defeat" tactics, crying "WITCH HUNT!" after finding themselves in legal hot water, writes my colleague Alayna Treene.
Why it matters: By appealing to the president’s distrust of the nefarious "Deep State," these Trump acolytes attempt to convince him — and his base — that they're being targeted by shadowy forces inside the government.
The "blame the Deep State" cardholders:
“This is political — period. This is the U.S government — what I would call the Deep State ... they want to rig the election their own way, because they can’t beat me in a real election.” Rep. Duncan Hunter to The San Diego Union Tribune
The bottom line: These men have taken a page straight out of Trump's playbook — deny, deny, deny — whether with eyeing potential pardons or looking to revive their battered reputations. And, like the president's campaign to discredit the FBI and those he deems political enemies, these men have succeeded in sowing seeds of doubt among those on the right.