Nov 10, 2019

Axios Sneak Peek

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

  • 📺 Catch the final episode of the fall run of "Axios on HBO" — tonight at 6 pm on HBO.
  • See a clip from Dan Primack and Mike Allen's interview with Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.
  • See a clip from our interviews with Edward Snowden and other famous whistleblowers.

Tonight's newsletter is 1,922 words, a 7-minute read.

1 big thing: Trump aides fear Bolton's secret notes

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

John Bolton is the impeachment inquiry's biggest wildcard. People around the president say they are worried about what notes Trump's former national security adviser has kept and when he might divulge them.

Why it matters: These sources, including both current and former senior administration officials, tell me that the former national security adviser was the most prolific note-taker at the top level of the White House and probably has more details than any impeachment inquiry witness, so far, about President Trump's machinations on Ukraine.

  • "Bolton was a voracious note-taker, in every meeting," said a source who attended numerous meetings with him.
  • While others sat and listened in meetings with Trump, Bolton distinguished himself by filling legal pads with contemporaneous notes on what was said in the room.

The intrigue: Bolton's lawyer, Chuck Cooper, caught the attention of impeachment investigators and administration officials on Friday with a provocative line he dangled in a letter to the House's general counsel: that Bolton "was personally involved" in "many relevant meetings and conversations that have not yet been discussed" in the impeachment testimonies.

Behind the scenes: This tease from Bolton's lawyer provoked this warning from a senior administration official:

  • "Typically, anything that could contain classified information is turned over to the White House for review when an employee departs. … One would hope Bolton has considered that before advertising that he has additional information."
  • "It could be that these are notes that the White House has already viewed," the official added. "But if not, it would mean Bolton deliberately concealed them during his offboarding, which could lead to legal repercussions depending on the contents."

To be clear, there is no evidence that Bolton has held onto classified information. But the unease inside the administration has been churning ever since staff learned that Bolton had signed a book deal to tell about his time working for Trump. Bolton's book deal is worth $2 million, per AP, which suggests he's willing to dish.

Between the lines: Unlike most of the impeachment witnesses so far, Bolton talked one-on-one with the president on numerous occasions. He has a degree of insight that the impeachment witnesses we've seen so far simply cannot offer.

  • Bolton and his former deputy Charlie Kupperman — both represented by Cooper — have asked a court to determine whether they should obey the White House's order not to testify or the House Democrats' request for their testimony.

The bottom line: All of this may come to nothing because House Democrats are rushing to vote on impeachment before the end of the year. Democrats have said they don't want to get sucked into a lengthy legal battle, and so they have not subpoenaed Bolton to testify. The courts, however, have shown they're willing to move faster than normal if Democrats were willing to delay their timeline and chase Bolton.

  • If House Democrats maintain their current stance — and there's every sign they will — it's a relief for administration officials who have been nervously contemplating what Bolton knows and what he's recorded in that mountain of legal pads.
  • Even if Bolton doesn't testify, he could still put out information before the election that’s deeply damaging to Trump.

Go deeper

2. Inside the Dem prep for public impeachment battle

Marie Yovanovitch. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Three key witnesses in the House Democrats' impeachment inquiry will testify this week in a series of nationally televised hearings that Democrats are hoping will shock Americans enough to convince them that President Trump must be removed from office, Axios' Alayna Treene reports.

Why it matters: This public phase of impeachment is arguably the most important part of Democrats' efforts so far, as public sentiment will determine how this plays out.

What to expect: First up on Wednesday is the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine Bill Taylor, whose explosive closed-door testimony last month has been described by many Democrats as the most damaging to Trump.

  • State Department official George Kent will also appear on Wednesday. The committee will interview former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch on Friday.
  • The public hearings will begin with roughly 45 minutes of questioning from Intelligence staff, followed by questions from committee members.
  • Sources familiar with the layout of the hearings say they were deliberately organized to ensure the substance of their testimony is heard at the top.

Democratic House aides told Alayna and me that House Intel chair Adam Schiff chose to present Taylor, Kent and Yovanovitch first because they believe each has "unimpeachable character," as one aide described it, and are apolitical career officials.

  • "You've got to have a blockbuster opener and closer. That's why we went with Taylor and Kent," a second aide said.
  • "Yovanovitch was the first victim of the president's scheme with Giuliani,” the aide added. That draws the "sympathy of the audience."

Schiff's team has asked Democratic members not to share any information about their preparations ahead of the hearings.

  • Schiff himself will be laying low and will not do any media before Wednesday, one aide said.
  • And while a lot of their prep is being spent on how to counter and preempt Republicans' "theatrics," Schiff has directed members and staffers to be "serious as f--k," as the aide described it, and advised them to treat the hearings as a somber moment in American history.

Behind the scenes: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was not happy with how House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler — who, according to House rules, will eventually have to take ownership of the impeachment fight — handled the Russia hearings, particularly Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s hearing, two Democratic sources familiar with her thinking tell Alayna.

  • She thought Nadler lost control of the hearing and let it devolve into confusion.
  • This is why she has kept Schiff in charge and has commandeered the impeachment process behind the scenes.
  • This has also led to talk of lending Intelligence Committee staff to the Judiciary Committee when the inquiry ultimately lands there, the sources said.

What's next: More public hearings will follow. One of the aides said they hadn’t settled on week two witnesses yet, but thought Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a decorated military officer and the NSC's director of European Affairs, would be a natural closer.

  • "He'd come in his dress blues — how powerful would that be?" the aide said.
3. Inside Republicans' defense strategy

Jim Jordan. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Republican members and staffers on the House Intelligence Committee spent the weekend planning how to undermine the witnesses' credibility and convince the viewing public that Democrats have wiped away their due process rights, Alayna reports.

  • And they'll unleash their top attack dogs — including Rep. Jim Jordan, who was just made a member of the committee on Friday, and his general counsel Steve Castor, who will lead their interrogation — to do it.

A GOP committee aide said Republicans will focus on three main areas in their defense of the president. Two other GOP committee sources confirmed the first source's account:

1. Process arguments: Republicans plan to give "speeches" during their allotted time about what they will describe as the lack of due process rights for the House minority and the White House.

2. Counters to witnesses: They will argue that much of the evidence Democrats have gathered is largely based on "hearsay."

  • They'll harp on the fact that the anonymous whistleblower, who launched the Ukraine saga, based his or her complaint on second- and third-hand knowledge.
  • They'll also point to how some witnesses heard things third-hand. (For example, Taylor has described how former NSC staffer Tim Morrison told him about conversations that Morrison himself had overheard and not been privy to.)
  • They will highlight how Taylor and Kent have had virtually no communication with Trump. "That'll be a major point," the GOP aide said.

Worth noting: Democratic committee aides have already prepared a rebuttal to this attack.

  • Dems will say they see this as a non-issue. One aide said they'll characterize the whistleblower as someone who sounded the alarm, and that alarm led to a legitimate fire. 

3. Affirmative defense: Republicans will argue that the officials who had the most direct access to the president, such as former Ukraine adviser Kurt Volker, said there was no clear quid pro quo.

  • They will also argue that each witness has "pretty glaring flaws," the aide said, claiming that Yovanovitch's testimony was centered on her "political beef" with Trump.
4. Trump leaps into Louisiana governor's race

John Bel Edwards (L); Eddie Rispone. Photos: Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images (L); Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Next weekend's Louisiana governor's race is "too close to call," according to the state's top daily paper. President Trump hopes he can use his popularity in Louisiana to push the politically inexperienced Republican challenger across the line.

Why it matters: Incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards "is attempting to defy the laws of political gravity for the second time and remain as the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, and the only Democrat in Louisiana to hold statewide office," per The Advocate.

Between the lines: "[Eddie] Rispone has the biggest gun of all behind him" — President Trump, who remains popular in Louisiana. And, as the NYT notes, "Rispone has lassoed his fortunes to the president like few others: The candidate's first two runoff ads ... showed Mr. Trump speaking at a rally, with no footage of Mr. Rispone at all."

  • Trump has thrown himself into the run-off election. He held a Nov. 6 rally in Monroe, Louisiana, and told the crowd: "John Bel Edwards has not done a good job. You're going to have great new Republican, a tremendously successful man Eddie Rispone."
  • And the president and first lady joined a huge and enthusiastic crowd for Saturday's college football game between the University of Alabama and Louisiana State University.
  • Trump is scheduled to throw another rally in Louisiana on Thursday night, two days before the vote.
5. Sneak Peek diary

Photo: Mike Kline (notkalvin)/Getty Images

The House Intelligence committee kicks off its public impeachment hearings on Wednesday (as seen above).

The Senate will vote on the following nominees, per a Republican leadership aide: 

  • Chad Wolf as Undersecretary for Strategy, Policy and Plans at the Department of Homeland Security. (Trump has nominated Wolf to replace Kevin McAleenan as acting DHS secretary. However, Wolf, who is currently the acting undersecretary, needs to be confirmed to that position first before he can be made acting DHS secretary.)
  • Steven Menashi as a judge for the Second Circuit.

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

  • Monday: Trump will address the New York City Veterans Day Parade. 
  • Tuesday: Trump will address the Economic Club of New York and attend a fundraiser in New York.
  • Wednesday: The president and first lady will host Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his wife. Trump will meet with Erdoğan, then the leaders will hold a joint press conference.
  • Thursday: Trump will meet with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. He'll then speak at a rally in Bossier City, Louisiana, to gin up support for Rispone ahead of Saturday's gubernatorial election in Louisiana.
6. 1 election thing: Kathryn Murdoch's grand plan

James and Kathryn Murdoch, Sept. 20, 2018. Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for National Geographic

Kathryn Murdoch, the wife of Rupert Murdoch's son James, saw last week's elections as a field test of what she hopes will become a $100 million-plus effort to reform electoral politics in America.

Two things happened last Tuesday that encouraged Murdoch to double down on her efforts:

  1. Candidates her group supported in Virginia primaries earlier this year won their elections.
  2. A ballot measure she supported succeeded in New York City, as it became the biggest city to adopt ranked-choice voting, which lets voters rank their favorite candidates instead of choosing only one. Advocates say this encourages candidates to reach out to a wider section of voters.

The big picture: Murdoch and Unite America, the political reform group to which she's attached, say they are trying to reduce the hyper-partisanship and gridlock that define U.S. politics.

  • They're promoting changes like open primaries, independent redistricting commissions and ranked-choice voting. And they're intervening in primaries to fight off "partisan flamethrowers" and support candidates they view as pragmatists who will back these political reforms.

Why it matters: Murdoch brings a vast net worth and network to these efforts. She saw last week's elections as a small test of what's to come. Some observers, meanwhile, have voiced skepticism that her group's efforts — no matter how well-funded — can do anything more than tinker around the margins of hyper-polarized politics that have existed in America for decades.

  • Tuesday's elections were "a really exciting proof point of our theories," Murdoch told me. "We think that this is going to get stronger and stronger."

As the New York Times reported in a long profile of Murdoch's political efforts, she and her husband James "are claiming their independence from the more conservative arm of the family."