September 27, 2020

Welcome to Sneak Peek. I’m Alayna Treene, an Axios White House and congressional reporter.

Situational awareness: After nearly four years of Sneak-ing, Jonathan Swan is passing the torch to Hans Nichols and me, and will return to daily reporting.

  • We'll be your guides to both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the rest of the campaign and 2021's new power players. And Sneak will still be home to many Swan scoops.

Email me, today's author, with your thoughts, tips and jokes.

  • Today's newsletter is 1,483 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: How Trump, Biden plan to score

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Trump has been practicing with flashcards and prepping with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie before Tuesday's presidential debate.

  • Top aides tell Axios he's been testing his attacks on the campaign trail for weeks, seeing what ignites his crowds or falls flat.
  • One of the biggest themes Trump plans to drive home is his "tough guy" persona, which advisers see as an advantage with voters in key states.

Joe Biden has blocked off full days for mock debate sessions ahead of the Tuesday debate in Cleveland.

  • Expect a big emphasis from Biden on the sad milestone the U.S. passed last week — the 200,000th U.S. death from COVID.
  • While Biden plans to challenge Trump on any falsehoods, advisers say he won't spend the whole debate playing fact-checker, Hans reports.

Trump's team sees Judge Amy Coney Barrett as a vehicle to bait Biden into turning off centrist voters — if the president can goad Biden into attacking her.

  • That's something Biden advisers have already said they plan to avoid.
  • But Trump's team notes during past Democratic debates, Biden lost his temper.

Biden will counter Trump on the Supreme Court by focusing on how a 6-3 conservative court could be disastrous for the Affordable Care Act.

  • Biden has had several long weekend sessions and some shorter weekday rounds.
  • The informal practice sessions included staff peppering him with questions and massaging his answers.

🥊 Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tells me it's important for Biden not to "demoralize" the base with a swipe at progressives:

  • "We're working really hard to try to turn out young people, and it's just not helpful to decry people like myself or Bernie Sanders."

2. Debate traps

TV crews prepare today for Tuesday's debate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Here's what keeps the strategists up at night ...

For Trump:

Overconfidence. Many people close to the president say they're worried he hasn't taken the debates seriously or prepared enough.

  • "Presidents typically lose the first debate to a challenger," top Trump ally Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) tells me.
  • Trump sees Biden as someone he can bulldoze. But Trump's team has warned him that Biden is a seasoned politician.

Policy. One of Trump's big misses of the summer was his failure to lay out what his second-term agenda would look like. He did that during his convention speech, but this time he won't have a prewritten speech or teleprompter to rely on.

  • Trump has always struggled with policy debates, instead preferring to ramble and generalize. But Fox News moderator Chris Wallace is a seasoned Trump interviewer, and he knows how to force Trump to be direct.

Attacks on the moderator. Many Republicans still shudder at the memory of Trump's vicious attacks on Megyn Kelly, then of Fox News — something that stuck with viewers for months.

Downplaying the coronavirus. Trump's team recognizes that the president's biggest weakness is his handling of the coronavirus and the casual way in which he has seemingly minimized the number of people who have died.

  • This is the area in which they have tried to prep him the most. But Trump's refusal to admit he's done anything but a fantastic job presents a real problem.

For Biden:

Gaffes. Confidants believe the main risk for Biden is misspeaking, transposing numbers or seeming to lose his train of thought. If Biden does have a verbal misstep, their plan is to compare it to whatever mistakes Trump makes, Hans writes.

Temper. In some of his interactions with voters on the trail, Biden has shown flashes of anger. His challenge will be responding to Trump forcefully, without losing his cool.

Verbosity. Biden, who overcame stuttering as a child, well knows — and frequently chides himself — for going too long.

  • He's also a creature of the Senate, and some of his parliamentary verbiage is better understood in the cloakroom than in American living rooms.
  • He tends to meander in the past by mentioning old colleagues and mentors, like in a CNN town hall when he name-checked the late Sens. Mike Mansfield and Ted Kennedy.

Deference to the moderator — something Biden did during primary debates.

  • The danger is inadvertently ceding ground to Trump.

Taking the bait. Trump's preferred ways of getting under Biden's skin include suggesting he's lost a mental step because of his age (Biden is 77; Trump is 74) or going after Biden's son, Hunter. 

3. GOP fears "little guy" attack on Barrett

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

White House aides and Senate Republicans have spent the past week readying binders full of messaging and rebuttals to guide Judge Amy Coney Barrett to a pre-Nov. 3 confirmation.

  • "We knew for days it was going to be Amy," a Senate GOP aide involved in her confirmation process told Axios.

What we're hearing: Beyond the expected questions about her views on religion, abortion and health care, Republicans worry about Democrats painting Barrett as someone who is insensitive and unfair to “the little guy,” one source involved in the talks told Axios.

  • That argument plays right into Democrats' campaign themes about the economy, health care and entitlements. And they can draw from her judicial record for examples.
  • "You saw the 'little guy' theme with Gorsuch and Kavanaugh," the source said. "I think you'll see that in this context as well."

Republicans expect Democrats to bring up Barrett’s support of the Trump administration’s “public charge” rule restricting immigration for those receiving public benefits and a Title IX case in which she argued Purdue University may have discriminated against a male student accused of sexual assault.

  • “Obviously, some of the outside groups will bring up the religious stuff. But I think the way they'll bring that up is by trying to find a way to tie it to insensitivity or bigotry, as opposed to being extremist, because the extremist thing just isn't going to work,” one person involved in the process told me.

What's next: Opening statements at Barrett's confirmation hearings are expected Oct. 12, Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham said on Fox News.

  • The first round of questions will follow on Oct. 13.
  • A second round of questions and a closed session are tentatively set for Oct. 14, we're told.
  • Outside witnesses will present Oct. 15.

Go deeper: U.S. Chamber to launch widespread lobbying effort for Barrett fight

4. Beyond Barrett

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Trump and Senate Majority Leader McConnell are so confident they'll confirm Barrett that they're already thinking about who to tap to replace her on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, based in Chicago.

  • Quickly filling Barrett's role as a judge on the 7th Circuit would be "the cherry on top" of a massive victory for conservatives, a GOP Senate aide said — "one that McConnell won't pass up."

Among the names being floated is Kate Todd, a White House lawyer who was included on Trump's Supreme Court shortlist.

  • Todd, who's also from Indiana, is a favorite of White House counsel Pat Cipollone.

An administration official says no one has been formally considered yet.

5. Sneak Peek diary

Cecile Richards interviews Speaker Pelosi for this weekend's "Supercharge: Women All In," a "virtual day of action" hosted by Supermajority. Photo: Getty Images

The House will consider the Uyghur Forced Labor Disclosure Act this week.

  • The bill would impose an SEC disclosure requirement mandating companies to disclose whether they engaged with an entity to import goods manufactured in forced labor camps in China's Xinjiang region.  
  • The House might also consider a new $2.4 trillion coronavirus relief package this week, but it's not expected to go anywhere.

On Tuesday: The House Oversight and Reform subcommittee will hold a hearing on white supremacy.

  • Wednesday: The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee holds a hearing on a coronavirus vaccine.
  • Friday: HHS Secretary Alex Azar will testify before the House Select Subcommittee on Coronavirus.

The Senate is expected to vote on the House-passed, short-term legislation to fund the government through Dec. 11.

  • Wednesday: Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the investigation into the FBI's Russia probe.

President Trump's schedule:

  • Monday: Trump will give an update on coronavirus testing.
  • Tuesday: Trump and Biden face off in the first presidential debate in Ohio.
  • Wednesday: Trump will participate in a fundraising reception in Shorewood, Minnesota. Later he will speak at a campaign rally in Duluth, Minnesota.
  • Thursday: Trump will participate in a roundtable with supporters in Bedminster, New Jersey. He'll also speak at the 75th annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in the Bronx, New York.
  • Friday: Trump will speak at a campaign rally in Sanford, Florida.

6. First look: Trump, Biden pitch AARP

President Trump and Joe Biden make closing arguments to millions of 50+ Americans — about Social Security, Medicare, nursing homes, coronavirus and jobs — in this AARP special report.

7. What we're reading: Ted Cruz says he rebuffed SCOTUS overture

Cover courtesy of Regnery Publishing

In "One Vote Away: How a Single Supreme Court Seat Can Change History," out Tuesday, Sen. Ted Cruz has this tale from his meeting with President-elect Trump at Trump Tower, the week after the election:

"The president asked if I would be interested in secretary of Homeland Security. Although I care deeply about securing the border, I said no. I thought I could have significantly more impact in the Senate.
I told him the one job I might consider was attorney general. ... [I]t seemed clear to me even then that he wanted Jeff Sessions in that slot ...
He asked if I was interested in the Supreme Court vacancy. I paused for a second, and then said no. ... Though I hold judges in the highest esteem, there’s a simple reason why I don’t want to be a judge: principled judges stay out of policy and political fights. ...
But I don’t want to stay out of policy and political fights. I want to lead them."

Read the full excerpt.