Sep 9, 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 sign up for Sneak Peek.

  • Situational awareness: שנה טובה to my fellow Members of the Tribe.
1 big thing ... Scoop: Inside Trump's biggest hire

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

President Trump was bluffing when he tweeted that he knows the successor to White House counsel Don McGahn, and instead he is vacillating about new legal leaders as he girds for open warfare with Democrats and Robert Mueller. The newest name on the president's mind: Fannie Mae general counsel Brian Brooks, two sources with direct knowledge tell me. 

  • Trump wants somebody who'll be unquestioningly loyal — who'll be "his guy" and defend him on TV, said a source familiar with his thinking. (McGahn fulfills neither criteria: He's independent-minded, TV-shy and makes no effort to disguise his contempt for Jared and Ivanka.)
  • Why it matters: This is, by far, Trump's most important current staffing decision. The climax of Mueller's probe lies ahead. And the White House faces the possibility of impeachment proceedings — and certainty of endless subpoenas and investigations — if Democrats win the House in November.

Emmet Flood, the White House attorney dealing with Mueller's investigation, looked set to take the job.

  • But Axios has learned that Trump is now seriously considering Brooks, a low-profile member of Washington's high-powered legal community.
  • Brooks has been recommended by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a friend from working together at OneWest, a California bank. Brooks was considered for deputy at Treasury, but he withdrew from consideration for reasons that are still unclear.
  • Flood is still very much in contention, along with Washington litigator Pat Cipollone, according to sources involved in the process.
  • No decision is likely for a few weeks, one of those sources said.

Trump tweeted on Aug. 30: "I am very excited about the person who will be taking the place of Don McGahn as White House Councel [sic]!" 

  • But Trump privately is still going back and forth, and he is even open to new names.
  • Meanwhile, the White House Counsel's office is down to bare bones. McGahn is leaving soon, almost all of his deputies have departed and the office is nowhere near equipped for the storm that's likely coming.
  • Another name that has been mentioned inside the White House as a possible McGahn replacement is Matt Whitaker. He's a former U.S. attorney for Iowa and has the disadvantage of being Jeff Sessions' chief of staff, but he's managed to maintain a good standing inside the White House despite Trump's hatred of Sessions.

The president's insistence on a loyalist could pose problems for Flood, who's by far the most qualified to handle a season of investigations:

  • Flood is independent-minded. According to friends, he agreed to take his current job because he thought the special counsel and "culture of investigations" was out of control. He wanted to protect the presidency as an institution, as he'd done for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
  • Trump and Flood have spoken about the job more than once, but Trump has never formally asked.
  • Flood is telling Trump he would need to be able to hire the right people to run day-to-day business so he can continue to focus on Mueller.

Be smart ... A top Washington lawyer summed up the stakes: "If they lose [Flood] they are f--ed. Because they are never going to find a decent white-collar type to fill Emmet's shoes."

2. Stress on Trump's machine

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

It's hard to overstate the extremity and variety of pressures bearing down on President Trump and his understaffed White House:

  • Midterm elections that, according to polls, will likely flip the House into Democratic control. Here's a long list of likely investigations awaiting Trump.
  • Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen and campaign chairman Paul Manafort are going to prison.
  • Federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York have granted immunity to Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization's chief financial officer and the man who knows more than anyone about Trump's business dealings. We don't yet know exactly what Weisselberg has offered the prosecutors in return for their kindness.
  • Trump has grown to resent and distrust his White House Counsel, Don McGahn, who has spent hours cooperating with Robert Mueller's team.
  • McGahn leaves this fall and he leaves behind an office unprepared to deal with the blizzard of subpoenas, investigations and possible impeachment proceedings that likely await it next year. Almost all of McGahn's deputies have already gone.
  • Bob Woodward's book hits the stands on Tuesday. Trump's advisers have spent the past few days reading a PDF of the book, and the president now knows that some of his previously trusted White House aides play starring roles in Woodward's narrative. Trump is privately furious at Gary Cohn and Rob Porter, and sources with direct knowledge of Trump's thinking tell me it's possible he publicly attacks Porter and Cohn this week.
  • The New York Times published an op-ed from an anonymous "senior administration official" who claims to be part of a wide-reaching resistance to Trump's presidency from inside his own administration. That op-ed, coupled with the Woodward book, inflamed Trump's paranoia about a "Deep State" working to undermine him.
  • The White House press and communications teams are very thin, after a handful of staff resigned or were forced out. They are wrestling with a firehose of bad news.

Bottom line: Taken together, it's a jaw-dropping list of problems, and Trump's "fine-tuned machine" is creaking under this stress. We're at a hinge point in the Trump presidency, and staff sound as unsettled as I've heard them in the 19 months since he took office.

3. Trump expected to declassify Carter Page and Bruce Ohr documents

President Trump is expected to declassify, as early as this week, documents covering the U.S. government's surveillance of Trump campaign adviser Carter Page and the investigative activities of senior Justice Department lawyer Bruce Ohr, according to allies of the president.

The big picture: Republicans on the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees believe the declassification will permanently taint the Trump-Russia investigation by showing the investigation was illegitimate to begin with. Trump has been hammering the same theme for months.

  • They allege that Bruce Ohr played an improper intermediary role between the Justice Department, British spy Christopher Steele and Fusion GPS — the opposition research firm that produced the Trump-Russia dossier, funded by Democrats. (Ohr's wife, Nellie, worked for Fusion GPS on Russia-related matters during the presidential election — a fact that Ohr did not disclose on federal forms.)
  • And they further allege that the Obama administration improperly spied on Carter Page — all to take down Trump.

House Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows, who is close to Trump, told Axios earlier today: "After two years of investigations and accusations from both sides of the aisle about what documents indicate, it is past time for documents to be declassified and let the American people decide for themselves if DoJ and FBI acted properly."

The bottom line: President Trump has been hyping, and congressional Republicans have been calling for, the declassification of these documents. It's now put up or shut up time. We should find out very soon whether these documents are as explosive as advertised.

4. Scary signs for Republicans
Expand chart
Data: Cook Political Report, Real Clear Politics, Politico, The Washington Post, CNN; Table: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

My colleague Mike Allen, who's covered a few midterm elections in his time, says it's rare to see so much evidence of a trend accumulate so many months out, only for all the signals to be proven wrong.

Yes, the punditocracy is being cautious about 2018 because it has fresh memories of how humiliating it felt to wake up on Nov. 9, 2016, with Donald Trump as president.

  • But the graphic above tells a stark story and shows the pundit class may be underestimating the odds of a devastating election season for Republicans.

Bottom line: The signals look every bit as bad for Republicans as they did for House Democrats when they got wiped out in the 2010 Tea Party wave.

  • "Every metric leads you to one conclusion: The likelihood of significant Republican losses in the House and state/local level is increasing by the week," said the Republican operative who did this statistical comparison to 2010.
  • "The depth of losses could be much greater than anticipated and the Senate majority might be in greater peril than anticipated."

Go deeper: Read the Washington Post's Dan Balz on the under-covered battle for the Senate.

5. Sneak Peek diary

The House will try to pass a package of three spending bills. It's the first package expected to emerge out of conference. (Nine of the year's 12 spending bills are currently in conference, being hashed out between House and Senate negotiators.)

  • The House also expects to pass a health care bill that eliminates the employer mandate for health insurance coverage. (Spoiler: It'll never pass the Senate.)

The Senate will confirm Charles Rettig, a Beverly Hills tax lawyer friendly with Trump, to head the IRS. Senate leadership has not announced when they'll pass the bipartisan opioids package, but it's expected soon. And the Senate will continue to work on spending bills. 

President Trump's schedule, according to a White House official:

  • Monday: Trump has lunch with Mike Pence.
  • Tuesday: The President and First Lady participate in the Flight 93 September 11 Memorial Service. Trump also meets with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
  • Wednesday: Trump has lunch with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
6. 1 fast thing: The downfall of Les Moonves

It took three hours. Three hours after The New Yorker's Ronan Farrow published fresh sexual assault allegations against Les Moonves on Sunday, CNN's Brian Stelter broke the news that CBS' longtime chief executive is out.

These allegations, from 6 additional women, churn the stomach and throw Moonves into a special category reserved for monsters like Harvey Weinstein.

  • "They include claims that Moonves forced them to perform oral sex on him, that he exposed himself to them without their consent, and that he used physical violence and intimidation against them," Farrow writes. "A number of the women also said that Moonves retaliated after they rebuffed him, damaging their careers."

Why this matters: Moonves is the most powerful and highly paid executive in television. As Stelter writes: "Moonves is the first CEO of a Fortune 500 company to leave his job amid harassment allegations in the year since two investigations of Harvey Weinstein (one of them by Farrow) jump-started the #MeToo Movement."

  • Moonves appeared to be trying to gracefully ride through the first wave of sexual harassment allegations after Farrow first reported, about a month ago, that six women were accusing the CEO of harassment and intimidation.
  • Exit talks had been in the works, but today's report from Farrow sped up the inevitable.

Now Moonves is gone, leaving behind a network in turmoil.

Jonathan Swan