Jun 3, 2018

Axios Sneak Peek

By Jonathan Swan
Jonathan Swan

Welcome to Sneak Peek, our weekly lookahead for both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, plus my best scoops. I'd love your tips and feedback: jonathan@axios.com. And please urge your friends and colleagues to join the conversation by signing up for Sneak Peek.

1 big thing: Michael Cohen's secret dream

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

On election night 2016, shortly after Donald Trump's team realized he would win the presidency, Michael Cohen told a handful of people on the 14th floor of Trump Tower about his own dreams for the future — to be mayor of New York.

"This is the beginning of a dynasty," Cohen told the group, according to a source who heard him.

Surprised by the remark, one of the people asked Trump's longtime personal attorney that if by "dynasty" he meant Ivanka or Don Junior was going to get the political bug next.

  • Cohen replied: "I've already got the bug."
  • Cohen then added: "Nobody's going to be able to fuck with us. I think I'm going to run for mayor."

Later that night, around 3:30 a.m., the Trump team was leaving its victory party at the Hilton Hotel on Manhattan's 6th Avenue. In the hotel, escalators took the crowd from the party down to the lobby. A member of Trump's entourage saw Cohen near the bottom of the escalator and yelled out: "Cohen for mayor!"

Cohen appeared to have no idea who said it, but looked over his shoulder and pumped his fist in the air.

Why this matters: The scene highlights the hubris of one of Trump's closest confidants in the hours after the election victory — and the extraordinary nature of his fall.

  • Cohen has since had his office raided by federal agents, as he's being investigated by the Southern District of New York on the referral of Robert Mueller.
  • Former allies in Trumpworld have told me they're avoiding Cohen because they assume his every move and phone call are being recorded.

Postscript: A second source told me that in the months after the election, Cohen asked their advice about setting up a campaign to run for New York City mayor. But he never ended up challenging Bill de Blasio.

  • I asked Cohen today about his mayoral plans. He told me: "Despite many friends suggesting that I run for mayor... I obviously chose not to. Additionally, I believe that Mayor de Blasio is doing a fine job for our city."
  • It's news to me that Cohen is a de Blasio fan!
2. The Trump Deadline Effect

President Trump boards Marine One en route to Camp David. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

One of the under-reported ways Donald Trump has changed Washington: Deadlines suddenly matter.

We saw it last week when Trump hit allies — the European Union, Mexico and Canada — with steep steel and aluminum tariffs. Trump had announced these tariffs back in March, but exempted some key trading partners. Trade lawyers and lobbyists following the situation told me they expected Trump to extend the deadlines when they expired on June 1, rather than throw these key relationships into further turmoil.

  • But Trump didn't do that. He enforced the deadline, as he'd done previously when he terminated the Iran deal.
  • And now, many on Capitol Hill worry that later this year he’ll use another key deadline — the September government funding bill — to play chicken with funding for the wall.

John Stipicevic, a lobbyist with pulse of House Republican conference (formerly Kevin McCarthy's floor director), told me this trend became so stark to him that he sent a note to clients on Friday warning them about it.

  • "There's been an attitude around this town for a long time that deadlines and expiration dates don't really matter," Stipicevic told me. "As deadlines and expiration dates are approaching there's this kind of casual attitude of 'Oh, time for another extension. No big deal. Time for another CR [short-term government funding extension].'"
  • "With this administration there needs to be a re-evaluation of that approach," Stipicevic added. "Clearly, deadlines and expiration dates are going to be used as leverage in this administration."
  • "I don't think he's going to accept a bad deal because it's just easier to do a clean extension."

What's next: At the end of September, government funding is set to expire and Congress will ask Trump to sign another deal. Hill Republicans want Trump to sign a short-term funding bill, rather than shut down the government so close to the midterms. But nobody I've spoken to is 100% confident he’ll do that.

  • A senior administration official told me that a number of Republicans Trump respects have privately told the president it would not be in his political interests to shutter the government so close to the midterm elections. The source said Trump appeared to be receptive to that argument.
  • The real deadline, the source added, is likely shortly after the midterms. Based on private conversations, there’s no reason to think Trump will keep the government open if he doesn’t get wall funding.

The bottom line: A source close to Trump told me the line "but you said..." is one of the most powerful lines you can use with the president when he's considering going down a different policy path than the one he previously promised. "If I'm talking to him later in the year when they're talking about this, I'd be saying 'but you said...'"

3. Tough talk behind closed doors

House Speaker Paul Ryan casts his shadow on a glass door. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In mid May, senior House Republican officials huddled at the Hyatt on the Chesapeake Bay to discuss their messaging plan to save the House majority.

One of their guest speakers was the well-respected election forecaster Charlie Cook, who founded the non-partisan "Cook Political Report." According to sources in the room, Cook gave the Republican staffers a bleak view of the midterms. He said he was deeply skeptical that simply touting the economic wonders of tax reform would be enough to save the House.

  • Cook confirmed this to me via email: "I told the group that the tax cut did help among Republican voters, but helped only a little and temporarily among independents and did nothing with Democratic voters.”
  • "The essence of what I said was that if they were going to rely primarily on the tax cuts to hang onto their majority, they were unlikely to succeed.”
  • "Even with the uptick in President Trump’s numbers and in the generic ballot test, I still think it is pretty uphill for them to hang onto their House majority. I use the metaphor of a Democratic tidal wave up against a Republican sea wall. In the House, the wave looks taller and stronger than the wall, in the Senate, the wall looks taller than the wave."

Sources in the room walked away with different impressions of Cook's presentation. A non-leadership source told me it should be a wake up call to leadership, who are fixated on using tax reform as a selling point to voters. But leadership sources disputed that to me, saying tax reform is just one message in their toolkit, though an important one.

  • Some were unimpressed by Cook's presentation and felt that other pollsters who presented to the group — including Kristen Soltis Anderson and David Winston — gave compelling reasons to think messages of tax reform and economic growth would help them this year.
  • One House source pointed out that just a week after Cook's presentation, his colleague Amy Walter wrote: "Part of the reason for the increase in enthusiasm is the fact that Republicans now have something around which to rally — specifically an improved economy and tax cut law."

The bottom line: Republicans have a heck of a hard job saving the House this year, as the president's party almost always loses seats in his first midterm. Trump's approval rating remains under water. Democrats are more energized than ever, and there are serious questions about whether Republicans will be motivated enough to show up and vote in the numbers required to save the House.

4. Supreme Court lookahead

Photo: Zach Gibson/AFP via Getty Images

My Axios colleague Sam Baker reports that the Supreme Court has 29 cases to decide by the end of this month, including all of the term’s biggest blockbusters.

The big questions the court still has to resolve:

Why it matters: All of these cases have enormous political implications. Some, like the gerrymandering challenges, could directly and immediately affect the actual practice of politics.

  • The public-sector unions case belongs in that category, too — the court is expected to limit their collective bargaining power, which in turn will likely weaken their political influence.
  • Cases like the travel ban and religious objections to same-sex marriage, meanwhile, threaten to reignite explosive cultural issues with the midterms just around the corner.

The X-factor: As if this month wasn’t sufficiently full of drama, throw in the persistent speculation about whether Justice Anthony Kennedy will retire — giving Trump an opportunity to pull the court further to the right, especially on issues like LGBT rights.

  • Burn this into your brain: Any time you hear someone talking publicly about Kennedy’s intentions — especially members of Congress — remember that they absolutely do not know what Kennedy’s intentions are.

What to watch: The court will issue rulings Monday at 10am. Until the very end, there’s no way of knowing which decisions will come down when. So all we know for sure is that we’re in for a dramatic and high-stakes June at the Supreme Court.

5. Sneak Peek diary

The House and Senate return from a weeklong break.

The House expects to vote on a water infrastructure bill and begins the 2019 appropriations process with a spending bill that combines funding for "Energy and Water, Legislative Branch, and Military Construction and Veterans Affairs," according to a leadership source.

  • Paul Ryan promised his Republican members — some of whom are anxious for action on immigration — a two-hour conference meeting on Thursday to air their views and hash out their differences.
  • Ryan and Kevin McCarthy are hoping to head off a discharge petition that would allow moderate Republicans to give the middle finger to leadership and team up with Democrats to put an amnesty bill on the floor.
  • GOP leadership has low expectations for Thursday's meeting. A "breakthrough" would be for members to air their views, move away from a discharge petition and come to some agreement to set up votes.
  • Bottom line: Whatever immigration bill the House votes on will never become law. The conference is too divided. And the bottom line remains: any immigration bill that can pass this House will be too hardline to pass the Senate. And any immigration bill that can pass the Senate will be too gentle and generous to get Trump's signature.

The Senate will confirm three more district judges and could begin consideration of National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) before the end of the week.

  • A senior Senate aide told me that Mitch McConnell is going to make an announcement this week about his plans for the August recess.
  • Senate Republicans believe McConnell is going to bow to calls from Trump and Senate conservatives like David Perdue to keep the Senate open for business through more of summer. They expect McConnell will scrap one or perhaps even two weeks of the August break.

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

  • Monday: Trump has lunch with VP Mike Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis. Trump also participates in the Gold Star Families Memorial Day reception.
  • Tuesday: Trump meets with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. Trump also hosts the Super Bowl champions, the Philadelphia Eagles, at the White House.
  • Wednesday: Trump will sign S. 2372, the “VA Mission Act of 2018” and he'll visit the Federal Emergency Management Agency Headquarters and attend the "2018 Hurricane Briefing." He's also expected to host a dinner at the White House to recognize the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
  • Thursday: Trump meets with Pompeo.
  • Friday: Travel hold to Charlevoix, Canada. (Per the AP, Trump is expected to attend a meeting of the Group of Seven major industrial nations in Quebec, Canada, through June 9.)
6. 1 revealing thing: Rudy's use of the "I" word

Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Unprompted, Rudy Giuliani brought up the word "impeachment" five times in his interview with NBC's Chuck Todd on today's "Meet the Press."

Giuliani repeatedly pointed out to Todd that while Trump has awesome powers as the boss of the executive branch, any move by this president to terminate the Mueller investigation or to pardon himself would likely lead to impeachment.

  • The money quote: "The president of the United States pardoning himself would just be unthinkable. And it would lead to probably an immediate impeachment."

Why this matters: Several Trump allies have told me they think it's politically useful to talk about impeachment as much as possible between now and November.

  • They believe it will motivate Republican voters to turn out in the midterm elections to save the GOP House majority.
  • And they also believe the impulsive Trump needs to be reminded, again and again, the stakes of any rash move on his part to bring an early end to the Mueller investigation.
Jonathan Swan