Axios Sneak Peek

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September 22, 2019

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

  • Hello, I'm Alayna Treene, an Axios White House reporter. Jonathan Swan is on his honeymoon, so I'm filling in tonight.
  • Please encourage your friends and colleagues to sign up, and I'd love it if you sent me your feedback: [email protected].

Tonight's newsletter is 1,481 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: GOP allies warn vaping ban will sink Trump

A man vaping smoke in the shape of Trump
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Conservative leaders are circulating data to White House staff that claims adults who vape will turn on President Trump if he follows through with his planned ban on flavored e-cigarettes, Axios has learned. 

  • The data (shown below) reveals that the number of adult vapers in key battleground states greatly outweighs the margins by which Trump won those states in 2016 — and they argue it could cost him reelection.

What we're hearing: "While parents may be concerned about e-cigarettes, the people who genuinely care about vaping as a voting issue so far outweighs the number of people Trump needs to win in 2020 that they are royally screwing themselves by doing this," Paul Blair, the director of strategic initiatives at Americans for Tax Reform, tells me.

  • Suburban moms concerned about vaping "don't have the same voter intensity on this as adult vapers do," an industry lobbyist said.
  • Florida, which Trump won by 113,000 voters, had about 873,000 adult vapers in 2016. They reason that if 1 in 8 vapers turn against Trump in 2020 because he foreclosed their vaping options, it could jeopardize the election.

Why it matters: If the FDA backs away from Trump's proposed enforcement policy, it would be the second time in recent weeks that political concerns prompted him to dial back government regulations.

  • Trump's openness this summer to expanded background checks cooled after the gun lobby and campaign advisers warned about bad internal polling.

Our thought bubble: There are four unsubstantiated assumptions about adult vapers in the case being presented to Trump:

  1. They start out as Trump voters.
  2. They wouldn't vape anymore if they couldn't get the flavors.
  3. They are single-issue voters around vaping rights.
  4. The eventual Democratic nominee would be more vape-friendly.

Still, the math can't be totally ignored, especially in places like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin where Trump's 2016 win margins were so narrow and the number of adult vapers is relatively high.

By the numbers: More than 4 million people in swing states regularly used e-cigarettes in 2016, according to FDA-funded survey data published last year in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

  • Industry experts say that number has increased significantly in recent years.

Behind the scenes: The White House scheduled a listening session with conservative groups last Thursday after receiving intense backlash from GOP leaders and industry execs following the announcement of the ban.

  • Among the invitees: The Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Goldwater Institute, AFT and the Vapor Technology Association.
  • But roughly 24 hours after invitations went out, the meeting was canceled.
  • "They’re in chaos mode on this stuff because the backlash has been so resoundingly overpowering," one invitee said.
  • A White House official says the meeting is expected to be rescheduled.

The bottom line: The political pressure points regarding the ban have gotten Trump's attention.

  • Shortly after the proposed ban was announced, Trump tweeted that he still likes vaping as an alternative to cigarettes.
  • Trump's 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale also hit back at a Trump follower who tweeted that banning vaping products is "not on brand with MAGA."
  • One administration official said the tweets were prompted by a flood of criticism from conservative leaders.

Bonus: The vaping data

2. Trump eyes free trade agreement with Iceland

Illustration of President Trump looking at a world map with Iceland highlighted
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Trump administration is eyeing a new trade deal with Iceland amid the U.S. trade war with China and tensions with Europe, officials tell me.

Why it matters: A potential deal isn't about Iceland’s economy, which offers little to the U.S. from a financial perspective. But the Arctic country is strategically located, and the president's national security team has emphasized the importance of investing in the region.

Between the lines: The discussions follow Denmark's blunt rejection of Trump's flirtations about buying Greenland. They also come at a time when China has sought to incorporate Iceland into the Belt and Road Initiative, and as Russia asserts its dominance in the Arctic Circle.

  • "There is a national security importance to that region — being able to strike trade deals and build an alliance with us and not China or Russia," one administration official said.
  • Remember, Vice President Mike Pence added Iceland as a leg on his recent swing through Poland and the U.K.

Behind the scenes: During a Senate GOP lunch last Tuesday, attended by Pence, Sen. John Kennedy strongly encouraged the administration to push forward with a free trade deal with Iceland, according to multiple senators in the room.

  • Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski then gave a similar vote of confidence and said she would support such an agreement.
  • Pence told them that there is a working group exploring a deal and that he is "amenable" to the idea.

I asked several other Republicans senators whether they would support a free trade agreement with Iceland.

  • Most said the topic caught them off guard when it came up during the lunch, but that they're open to it.

Worth noting: Iceland has had a free trade agreement with China since 2014.

3. Adam Schiff flirts with impeachment

Screenshot of Rep. Schiff on "State of the Union"
Screengrab from CNN's "State of the Union."

House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff told CNN's Jake Tapper this morning that if Trump did in fact pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden and his son, then Democrats may have to impeach him.

Why it matters: Schiff has so far given Speaker Nancy Pelosi necessary cover in her efforts to tamp down the caucus' impeachment push — which the majority of House Dems now support.

  • Yes, but: Pelosi knew this was coming. She and Schiff spoke this weekend about Ukraine and coordinated their responses, a source familiar with their conversation tells Axios.

Shortly after Schiff's remarks, Pelosi sent a letter to all House members urging acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire to turn over the whistleblower’s full complaints — despite the Trump administration blocking him from doing so. Maguire will appear before the House Intel committee in a public hearing on Thursday.

  • And while Pelosi called the block "a serious possible breach of constitutional duties by the President," she did not go as far as Schiff in hinting at impeachment.

4. Beto cracks the Democratic front on guns

Illustration of a giant hand in a suit holding a tiny AR-15
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Democrats in swing seats are more comfortable supporting new gun restrictions than they were just a few years ago, but most still aren't on board with Beto O'Rourke's "hell, yeah" stance on confiscating assault weapons, Axios' Stef Kight and I report.

Why it matters: Some vulnerable Democrats up for reelection next year are nervous that too much attention is being paid to mandatory gun buyback programs — thanks to Beto — ahead of 2020.

  • Sens. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.), and Reps. Cindy Axne (Iowa-3), Susie Lee (Nev.-3) and Angie Craig (Minn.-2), all told Axios they don't support mandatory buybacks for assault rifles.
  • Some 2020 presidential candidates also refuse to go as far as Beto: Andrew Yang and Sen. Amy Klobuchar support voluntary buyback programs, and the plan by Sen. Elizabeth Warren includes a mandatory assault weapon registration or buyback.
  • Yes, but: Joe Biden and Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker support mandatory assault weapon buyback programs.

Our thought bubble: Regardless of the divide within the party, O'Rourke has successfully shifted the debate so that expanded background checks or an assault weapons ban look more modest by comparison.

The big picture: Democrats' divisions on buybacks reflect America's divisions. Just over half of Americans polled by Monmouth University said they somewhat or strongly opposed the idea of an assaults weapons buyback program.

5. What to watch at UNGA

World leaders are flocking to New York for high-level talks at the UN General Assembly this week, which starts tomorrow with a climate change summit that Trump is expected to skip, Axios world editor Dave Lawler writes.

The leaders' speeches will begin Tuesday morning with Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, followed by Trump.

  • Trump's theme last year was “sovereignty," and he drew laughter when he claimed to have accomplished more than almost any other president in history.
  • This year he'll offer a positive "alternative to authoritarianism," a senior White House official told Axios, focusing on China, Iran, and multilateralism in general — particularly when it comes to foreign aid.

A dose of drama was added with news that Trump would meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday.

  • He'll also meet with the leaders of Pakistan, Poland, New Zealand, Singapore, Egypt, South Korea, the U.K., India, Iraq, Japan and El Salvador.

6. Sneak Peek diary

A photo of Capitol Hill at dusk
Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The House Intel committee will hear from Maguire on Thursday about the whistleblower complaint.

The Senate is expected to vote on the House-passed, short-term funding bill that would keep the government open through Nov. 21, per a Republican leadership aide, buying Congress more time to work out disputes with the long-term budget.

  • The Senate will also vote on up to seven motions for the National Defense Authorization Act conference committee, which is in the process of resolving differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.
  • The Senate will also vote to confirm several nominees.

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

  • Monday-Thursday: He'll be in New York to attend UNGA. He will travel back on Thursday.
  • Friday: Trump will join a call with Jewish leaders ahead of Rosh Hashana. He will also deliver remarks at a Hispanic Heritage Month reception.