July 22, 2018

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1 big thing: Scoop — Turning Trump tricks against him

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

World leaders are learning to play President Trump using his own set of predictable negotiating tricks. The most vivid example of this: French President Emmanuel Macron bragging to Trump that he was jamming him by stealing "The Art of the Deal" techniques, Axios has learned. 

The scene: Perched on white leather armchairs in their bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the NATO Summit in Brussels, Trump and Macron soon turned to the unavoidable subject: The expanding trade war between the United States and Europe.

  • Trump, after whacking the Europeans with steel and aluminum tariffs, has been frustrated by the European Union's retribution. The Europeans have designed tariffs with the goal of inflicting as much political pain as possible on Trump. They targeted Kentucky's bourbon industry, Harley Davidson motorcycles and America's iconic Levi brand jeans.

During their tête-à-tête, Trump suggested to Macron that he tell the European Union they ought to negotiate with the U.S., according to a source familiar with the conversation.

Macron replied that no, actually he was not in favor of negotiating under threat.

  • "I read the Art of the Deal," the French president told Trump, with a smile. "I know that we need to retaliate first so we have some leverage in the negotiation."

Why it matters: Like many foreign leaders, Macron has learned that the only language the U.S. president understands is the un-nuanced, transactional language of dealmaking and the blunt projection of strength. It's why Trump is drawn to strongmen and belittles those he considers "weak" like Canada's Trudeau (whom Trump publicly refers to as "Justin.")

What we're hearing: A senior Trump administration official told me another story that illuminates this part of Trump's mindset. As we know, Trump was glued to the television as former FBI director James Comey testified before Congress on March 20 of 2017.

  • Trump would never admit this publicly, but he told people afterwards that he was impressed by the performance of his Democratic nemesis Adam Schiff. Trump hates Schiff and calls him a horrible liar. But he marveled at Schiff's tough and surgical opening statement that day.
  • More than six months after the hearing, Trump told an aide how impressive he considered Schiff's performance to be. "This is like September or October last year," a source who discussed the matter with Trump recalled. "Trump was like, 'I watched that [Schiff's statement] and thought I had committed a crime!'"
  • "He has respect for the adversaries that have the balls to take it to him like he takes it to them," the source added.

The Chinese have absorbed this lesson the best. They have engaged in a trade war with no armistice in sight. Trump has threatened the Chinese with tariffs on more than $500 billion of Chinese imports; but, as we've reported, he's playing a dangerous game. China is fully prepared to retaliate and out-wait America.

The bottom line: President Xi is playing Trump's game with a much better political hand. The Chinese leader enjoys the advantages of authoritarianism — "president for life" as Trump admiringly calls him.

  • Unlike Trump, Xi doesn't have to worry about annoying obstacles like Congress and elections. And while a trade war would hurt both nations badly — as my colleagues have written — a state-run government can do more to artificially prop up its economy than a capitalistic one.

2. The Hail Mary option

Not every foreign leader is eager to play hardball with Trump. The Germans, in particular, are much more inclined to compromise. Angela Merkel badly wants a trade deal to prevent Trump from carrying out his threat to put 25% tariffs on car imports into the U.S., according to two senior European officials privy to internal discussions.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker plans to meet Trump at the White House on Wednesday. And European officials tell me they expect him to come armed with proposals including a "plurilateral trade deal" that would involve the trade of cars and car parts — an obsession of Trump's.

  • The U.S. imposes tariffs of 2.5% on car imports, while the Europeans impose a 10% tariff on car imports. But the Europeans like to point out that the U.S. imposes a 25% tariff on light-truck and van imports.

Between the lines: Senior European officials have told me they're working under the assumption that Trump wants his car tariffs before the November midterm elections. So they're already discussing their retaliatory measures.

  • Trump is infuriated by Germany in particular. At lunch with Merkel last year when she visited Washington, Trump took her to task over the gusher of German car imports, when not enough American cars were selling in Germany.
  • According to a source at the lunch, Trump told her: "You guys are flooding our streets with German cars. I can’t go anywhere without seeing one. They’re flying up and down the streets here ... Do you have Fords and Chevrolets flying up and down streets in Germany too?"

3. Behind the scenes: Trump's TV guy

President Donald Trump walks to the podium before introducing Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh as his nominee to the United States Supreme Court. July 9, 2018. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In the early evening of July 9th, Donald Trump stood in the gold draped East Room of the White House with a small group of senior advisers to rehearse his announcement of Judge Brett Kavanaugh as his nominee for the Supreme Court.

Trump stepped on and off the podium, riffing with his aides. While this was going on, Bill Shine, the former co-president of Fox News, was meticulously obsessing over the camera shot which looked out upon a red carpet, according to a source familiar with the situation.

  • Shine toyed with the lights, adjusted the podium and the microphone, moved objects in the backdrop, and conferred with the camera operator. He seemed oblivious to the other conversations happening around him.
  • Hours before the announcement, Shine had gone to the East Room to test the lighting, according to a source familiar with the situation. He showed the president three different lighting options and Trump selected his favorite.

What we're hearing: Trump has been frustrated that some of his previous appearances on camera have not had the production values of the prime time TV shows he spends so much time watching.

  • Trump frequently complains to aides about the "terrible lighting," sources who've been in the room for his outbursts have told me.
  • Now, instead of taking his grievances out on his chief of staff John Kelly, Trump has his own in-house TV producer to consult.

Yes, but: As a senior administration official pointed out to me, Shine's official role is much larger than being a high-end TV producer. He oversees the entire White House press and communications operations. "And if ever there was a week when [Trump's concern] went from 'how does it look' to 'how does it sound', it was this one," the official told me, referring to the attempted clean-up after Helsinki.

4. Behind the podium: "He wanted me to repeat his answers verbatim"

First look ... Sneak Peek readers know how obsessed President Trump is with his own press coverage. Here's a fresh window into his media mind, in this exclusive preview from Sean Spicer's book, The Briefing: Politics, The Press, and The President (Regnery), out July 24:

  • "[B]etween 10:00 a.m. and noon, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and I would poke our heads into the Oval Office ... [Trump] was always full of questions, wanting background on where a story came from and, of course, curious to know what we were going to say about it. And he was never shy about giving us directions."
  • "I'd be peppered throughout the day with calls from the president as stories evolved. He was extremely engaged, very particular, and insistent about how he wanted his points delivered."
  • "The more time I spent with him, the more I came to understand that President Trump wanted me to repeat his answers to the press verbatim."

Spicer, calling Trump in the residence the evening before St. Patrick's Day, 2017:

  • Spicer: "Sir, just a reminder about the St. Patrick's Day event tomorrow — do you have a green tie?"
  • Trump: "Yeah! Of course I have a green tie."
  • Spicer: "For tomorrow?"
  • A long pause. "Well, I have one in New York, but I don't have one here."
  • Spicer: "I've got an extra green tie. Would you like me to bring it in?"
  • Trump: "Thanks, sure, but let me see what I can do. It'd be great to have a backup in case I can't find one. Let's touch base in the morning."
  • "First thing that day, I delivered the green tie to the Oval Office and set it on the Resolute desk.. ... The billionaire president wore my green tie that entire day ... He must have liked it because I've never seen that tie again."

Spicer's pre-briefing ritual:

  • "Before I walked out, I would try and have a moment of reflection and read a daily passage from the book Jesus Calling."
  • "Behind my desk was a wooden table with two drawers. On top of the table sat a box with a picture of St. Gabriel on if that [my wife] Rebecca had given me as a gift when I took the job. In the box, I had two medals that I would slip into my pocket: one of St. Michael in honor of my dad and another of Mother Teresa ... given to me early in my tenure by John Gizzi of Newsmax."

5. Inside the Kavanaugh campaign

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh speaks while US President Donald Trump listens. Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, the right's deepest-pocketed judicial group will launch the latest phase of its campaign to pressure key Democratic senators to confirm Trump's nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, to the Supreme Court.

The Judicial Crisis Network will run a new round of ads targeting red-state Democrats in West Virginia, North Dakota, Indiana, and Alabama. The ad buy, worth $1.5 million, takes JCN spending to $5.3 million since Justice Anthony Kennedy retired from the court.

Why this matters: JCN was the most powerful outside group that helped confirm Trump's first justice, Neil Gorsuch. The group, which can legally protect its donors' anonymity, spent millions flooding the airwaves on Gorsuch's behalf.

  • As we've reported, progressives appear to be better organized this time around, and JCN is now contending with a well-coordinated array of groups on the left that are mobilizing against Kavanaugh.

First look... The JCN ads accuse red state Democratic senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana of being beholden to "liberal Chuck Schumer" and Elizabeth Warren.

  • The group will also release polling by Whit Ayres' North Star Opinion Research, showing that majorities of voters in all four targeted states say that the U.S. Senate should confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. (No surprise here, given Trump won these states handily in 2016.)

6. Sneak Peek diary

The House will consider a series of health care bills, which Republican members hope will give them something positive to tell voters about one of their most vulnerable issues in November's midterm elections.

The Senate will vote on Monday night to confirm Robert Wilkie as Trump's new secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

  • Then the Senate will begin considering the next package of spending bills. The package will fund the Department of the Interior and FSGG (financial services / general government), and may add funding for the departments of Agriculture, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, according to a leadership source.

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

  • Monday: Trump hosts the "Made in America Product Showcase."
  • Tuesday: Trump delivers remarks at the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States National Convention. Trump also participates in a roundtable with supporters.
  • Wednesday: Trump meets with the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has lunch with Pompeo and the Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. Trump also meets with the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker.
  • Thursday: Hold for presidential travel to Dubuque, Iowa, and Granite City, Illinois.

7. 1 fun thing: The halftime speech that missed its mark

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

A Trump campaign tale that never made it into the papers...

Jason Miller was excited. The legendary college basketball coach Bobby Knight was visiting Trump Tower and the campaign's senior communications adviser thought it would be a great opportunity to get Knight in front of the beleaguered Trump team for one of the coach's inspirational halftime speeches.

Behind the scenes: About 30 Trump communications staff and volunteers were gathered in the war room. Cable news blared on eight TVs that never switched off. Miller came out of his office to give the team a rare "ra ra speech," a "let's go get 'em speech... let's fight hard today and here's what we're pushing," according to two sources who were in the room for the occasion.

  • "Jason says, 'We've got Coach Knight here, the legendary Coach Knight. Coach, why don't you say a few words to the team here'," one of the sources recalled.

"Sure, sure. Happy to, Jason," Knight replied, in the recollection of the source. "You know, I love Donald Trump. He's a great man. He's gonna be a great president. I'm confident that he's gonna win.

  • "But really the one thing, the one thing I just can't understand is... Well, he's just got to stop talking about this f---ing wall."

Knight kept going, attacking the centerpiece of the Trump campaign, as Miller stood by agog and staff tried to suppress their laughter.

"I go everywhere," Knight said, "all over the country. And people tell me 'Donald Trump is awesome but I don't understand the wall.'"

  • "I'm telling you," Knight continued, "people don't understand the wall and you've got to stop talking about the wall. Trump's gonna win. But you've got to stop talking about the wall."
  • "So go get 'em guys."

Miller appeared befuddled. "Jason was like, 'Uh, thanks for that coach. Alright everybody, let's get back to work,'" the source recalled. Then everybody returned to their desks for another day in an office that often resembled The Office.