Feb 9, 2020

Axios Sneak Peek

By Jonathan Swan
Jonathan Swan

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

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Tonight's newsletter is 1,857 words, a 7-minute read.

1 big thing: Scoop — Trump's budget calls for major boost to nukes

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Trump will request a major increase to the budget for America's nuclear weapons arsenal, according to people familiar with the budget request the administration will unveil on Monday.

By the numbers: Trump's 2021 budget calls for $28.9 billion for the Pentagon to modernize nuclear delivery systems and $19.8 billion to the National Nuclear Security Administration — a nearly 20% increase over his previous budget request — for "modernizing the nuclear weapons stockpile," according to people familiar with the budget request.

  • "This includes a range of warhead life extension programs, investments in new scientific tools we need to maintain a safe, effective and reliable nuclear stockpile into the future," said a source familiar, "a major increase for maintenance and upgrade to a long-neglected and aging infrastructure, and funding to restore the nation's capability to develop new nuclear warheads."

Why it matters: Political leaders in America have kept delaying modernizing the three legs of the nuclear triad — land-launched nuclear missiles, nuclear submarines and strategic aircraft. These systems have now aged to the "end of their service lives," said Mackenzie Eaglen, defense budget expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

  • "We keep putting Band-Aids over Band-Aids and now new systems are required," Eaglen added.

Between the lines: There's a lot of bipartisan agreement in defense policy. But Republicans and Democrats tend to diverge when it comes to nuclear forces and arms control agreements.

  • Democrats tend to instinctively support international arms control agreements, with a goal to set a path to zero nuclear weapons, whereas Republicans tend to be reflexively skeptical of such agreements and supportive of modernizing the U.S. arsenal.
  • Democrats and liberals often argue that improvements to the U.S. arsenal will make nuclear war more likely. Republicans and conservatives tend to argue that the way to prevent nuclear war is to have a stronger arsenal.

Behind the scenes: President Trump is firmly in the latter camp and has often told his aides that the U.S. needs to have the best nuclear weapons program in the world. He has even privately mused about his desire for the U.S. to grow its arsenal, though that does not appear to be the point of this budget request.

  • "The president very much believes in nuclear modernization, as reflected by these generous budget increases," said a person familiar with this budget.

The big picture: China has turned the old nuclear calculation upside down. The Cold War-era arms control debate was framed around the U.S. versus the Soviet Union. That bilateral conception of arms control continues to the present day, with the New START Treaty struck between the U.S. and Russia under the Obama administration.

  • Trump needs to decide, this year, whether to negotiate with Russia to extend the New START agreement, which expires in 2021.
  • But complicating this picture is a new major power, China, whose officials have said they have no interest in participating in arms control agreements.
  • Not only that, the Russians and the Chinese are modernizing their nuclear arsenals, while the U.S. is not, Eaglen said. Pakistan and India are growing their arsenals. "The trend lines are moving in opposite directions from the U.S.," she added.

The bottom line: America's nuclear infrastructure is aging, but the project of modernizing the warheads and the missiles is enormously expensive and will take many years. Congress has not shown a capacity to support the spending required so far.

2. Despite massive cuts, deficits flow through Trump's second term

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Trump's 2021 budget proposes $4.6 trillion in deficit reduction, but it would take 15 years to balance, according to a source familiar with the budget.

  • The budget will project deficits until 2035 and rather than proposing a new round of tax cuts, it assumes the extension of Trump's 2017 tax bill through the next term.

Between the lines: On the 2016 campaign trail, Trump promised to eliminate the national debt in eight years. Not only has he failed to do that, but he's grown the debt by a trillion dollars each year he's been president. Even using optimistic scenarios, Trump's 2021 budget projects annual deficits to continue well beyond a second Trump term in office.

By the numbers: The Trump 2021 budget will propose a massive spending cut on nondefense activities — slashing almost $40 billion from the current levels to a proposed $590 billion, per sources familiar with the budget, and first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

  • Trump's budget "targets $2 trillion in savings from mandatory spending programs, including $130 billion from changes to Medicare prescription-drug pricing, $292 billion from safety-net cuts—such as work requirements for Medicaid and food stamps—and $70 billion from tightening eligibility access to federal disability benefits," per the WSJ.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency's budget would also be slashed by 26%, per the WSJ.

Trump will request $2 billion for his wall along the southern border, per a source familiar. That's less than half the $5 billion Trump requested for the wall in last year's budget.

  • "The president has kept his promise to secure the border," said a senior administration official. "With funding available, the administration will build up to approximately 1,000 miles of border wall along the southwest border."

Reality check: Budgets are best understood as outlines of the president's priorities — and opening bids for negotiations — rather than blueprints of what Congress will ultimately agree upon.

  • Lawmakers of both parties have ignored and stymied Trump's controversial requests, forcing him to resort to other legal avenues — such as declaring a national emergency to get money for his wall.
3. Bloomberg's theory of Trump

Bloomberg speaks at a campaign event in Compton, California, Feb. 3. Photo: Scott Varley/MediaNews Group/Torrance Daily Breeze via Getty Images

Others have tried this tactic without success — remember Hillary Clinton? — but Mike Bloomberg plans to attack President Trump on his business record.

  • One difference: Trump's pre-White House career can now be linked with his decisions as president.
  • Another difference: Bloomberg will be making this argument as a multibillionaire who built a multinational company.

Between the lines: The crux of Bloomberg's argument is that Trump has only ever had to think about crushing his next adversary in a deal rather than building a long-term customer relationship — and that this short-term, win-at-all-costs mindset defines how Trump operates as president, and with allies.

  • "He is a real estate promoter as opposed to a businessman," Bloomberg told me at a campaign stop last Monday in Compton, south of downtown LA. "And they have very different ways of going about things."

Bloomberg's full comments:

"A promoter does one transaction and is never going to see that customer ever again. In his case, he sells a building to you and chances are he'll never have you as a customer again. So he can be much more aggressive in terms of trying to get the best deal for himself.

A businessperson, you always want to leave something on the table for the other side of the transaction because you're going to come back and try to have another transaction. And in fact, in this day and age, you can be a customer of another firm, they can be a customer of yours, you can be partners with them, you can have a lot of different relationships.

So the business world is much more complex, and you don't behave that way. And I think that explains a lot of ... his demeanor here versus other presidents or what I would do. ... That's the way I've always thought about it. Because you look at him and you say, 'Why does he do this?' That's what my conclusion is."

4. Pompeo darkly warns of mass Chinese spying

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Image

"Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had a stark message for the governors gathered in Washington this weekend: The Chinese government is watching them, and other state government officials, more closely than they think," Politico's Anna Gronewold reports.

Driving the news: "Pompeo told some 44 governors at the National Governors Association winter meeting that they are being individually analyzed by at least one Chinese government-backed think-tank on how malleable they are, and how prone to cooperate with China. And he warned governors to be cautious on everything from business deals to pension funds to the D.C. Metro system."

  • "'They've labeled each of you friendly, hardline or ambiguous,' he said, describing a report put out by the think tank last year. 'I'll let you decide where you think you belong. Someone in China already has. Many of you indeed, in the report are referenced by name.'"
  • "Saying that China's efforts have become more methodical than ever, Pompeo told the governors to verify business inquiries and 'not to make separate individual deals' with China that could 'undermine national policy.'"
  • "'And, in fact, whether you are viewed by the [Communist Party of China] as friendly or hardline, know that it's working you, know that it's working the team around you,' Pompeo, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, warned. 'Competition with China is happening inside of your state, and it affects our capacity to perform America's vital national security functions.'"
5. Sneak Peek diary

Photo: WIN-Initiative/Getty Images

The New Hampshire primaries are on Tuesday.

The House will vote on H.J.Res. 79, which would remove the deadline to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).

  • The ERA states that the rights affirmed by the U.S. Constitution are held equally by all citizens regardless of their sex. The amendment, first proposed in 1923, has been the source of several lawsuits, including one filed just a few weeks ago, Axios' Alayna Treene writes.
  • Attempts to add the controversial amendment to the Constitution have been made in almost every Congress since the 1920s.
  • The House will also consider H.R. 2546, "Protecting America's Wilderness Act." This bill would designate 1.3 million acres as wilderness or potential wilderness areas.

The Senate is back to confirming judges now that the Senate impeachment trial has concluded. The Senate will vote on the following nominees, per a Republican leadership aide:

  • Andrew Lynn Brasher as U.S. Circuit Judge for the Eleventh Circuit.
  • Joshua M. Kindred as U.S. District Judge for the District of Alaska.
  • Matthew Thomas Schelp as United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Missouri.
  • John Fitzgerald Kness as U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Illinois.
  • Philip Halpern as U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of New York.

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

  • Monday: Trump will deliver remarks to governors at the White House. He will also have lunch with Pompeo. Trump will then travel to Manchester, New Hampshire, for a campaign rally.
  • Wednesday: Trump will have lunch with VP Mike Pence. He will also meet with Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno at the White House. Later, Trump will meet with supporters and speak at a fundraising committee reception.
  • Friday: Trump will attend a meeting with the National Border Patrol Council.

Bonus: On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper will depart for Brussels and Munich. He returns Feb. 15.

  • On Thursday, Pompeo departs for a tour of Germany, Senegal, Angola, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Oman. He returns Feb. 22.
6. 1 fun thing: What Obama told Bloomberg

Obama shakes hands with Bloomberg on the sideline of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C., Aug. 5, 2014. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

After Bloomberg announced his presidential bid, he spoke over the phone with the last Democrat to win the presidency.

Behind the scenes: President Obama "congratulated me and we chit-chatted," Bloomberg told me. "He just basically said, you know, 'Good luck, and when they try to go after you don't fall for the bait, and don't feel bad if not everything goes right.'"

  • "It's not a sprint, it's a marathon and you've got to keep working at it," Bloomberg said Obama told him.
  • A source close to Obama said, "It was the same advice he's dispensed to all the other presidential candidates who have sought his advice."

Between the lines: Bloomberg said he did not ask Obama for an endorsement. "You know, he's got his vice president's running. And he hasn't endorsed him yet. ... Maybe he's just staying out of the whole thing, I don't know."

Jonathan Swan