Oct 8, 2017

Axios Sneak Peek

By Jonathan Swan
Jonathan Swan

Welcome to Sneak Peek, our weekly lookahead for both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. I'd love your tips and feedback: jonathan@axios.com. And please urge your friends and colleagues to join the conversation by signing up for Sneak Peek.

1 big thing: How Rand Paul became the Trump Whisperer

Donald Trump should hate Rand Paul. The Kentucky senator has opposed the president on just about everything; from the first GOP budget to tax reform to Syria strikes to Trump's Saudi Arabian arms deal to his Afghanistan policy to the debt ceiling and hurricane funding to multiple attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. They could hardly disagree more. And Paul has stymied Trump's agenda at every turn — voting against the president's ACA replacement and fighting his beloved CIA director.

Based on a half dozen sources with front row seats to the odd couple, the enemy (Paul) of a bigger enemy (McConnell) can become one of Trump's few Senate friends.

That, by the way, is a big problem for GOP leadership. Top Hill Republicans — as well as senior administration officials — are frustrated and concerned.

It wasn't always this way. On the campaign trail, Trump tweeted that Paul was "truly weird" and "without a properly functioning brain." Paul, meanwhile, once called Trump an "orange-faced windbag."

Despite all this, Trump calls Paul "my friend" — and it's mutual. Paul's spokesman Sergio Gor told Axios that the senator "considers the president a personal friend," noted that they speak several times a week and said Trump recently invited him for another round of golf.

A source close to Trump puts it this way: "They'll talk on the phone and Trump will go on about Bedminster and golf and whatever else is going on; and Rand will drop in his libertarian ideas. And Trump will laugh and say, 'This guy's crazy. He doesn't care about anything. Doesn't care about Mitch. Doesn't care about anybody.' They won't even argue. He'll let him speak his mind."

Why this matters: Senior administration officials tell me they think Paul is playing them—that he gets all the perks of associating himself with the president without actually helping advance his agenda.

"We've had this conversation recently," one senior official vented. "It's like, 'Wow, Rand really doesn't help us on anything.'"

Why Trump doesn't care: Paul has found the way to Trump's heart. Here's how he does it:

  1. He spends a lot of time on the phone with him, listening patiently as Trump rattles on about his latest rounds of golf and, per one administration official, "all kinds of random stuff."
  2. He never asks for anything. Unlike other senators, who asked for tons of money for their states in return for their health care votes, Paul never asked Trump for anything. And he never suggested he would back the final health care bill.
  3. He plays nice. On TV, he never attacks the president personally or questions his moral center as others, like Susan Collins, do. Instead, Paul couches his opposition in principled terms — bringing it back to deficits or the Constitution.
  4. He backed the travel ban. And Trump remembers.

Go deeper: Insights from Randworld in the full article

2. Counterpoint: Trump vs. the Senate (and Mitch)

As we head into the fall's legislative fights and the new year, we'll be watching President Trump's deep frustration with the Senate in general and McConnell in particular. Sources who've spent time with Trump privately say he's at his wits end with both.

  • "Mitch isn't up to it," Trump privately tells associates, arguing that McConnell is a failed leader, past his prime, without the strength or stamina required to ram through his agenda.
  • Trump gets a kick out of his favorite TV host, Lou Dobbs, who constantly trashes GOP congressional leaders. (The president often calls Dobbs to praise him on his shows, revel in his attacks on Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and to seek his opinions on various issues.)

Trump views the Senate as an extension of McConnell: an archaic, do-nothing institution that relies on old rules simply because they are traditions, and not because they serve any modern day purpose. Trump's constant tweeting about the need to abolish the legislative filibuster — so Republicans can ram through any bill with 50 rather than 60 votes — can also be read as jabs at McConnell, who has bluntly said he won't change this tradition. (Asked about this, a WH official said the president has made his frustrations with the filibuster clear and his comments have been directed at the entire GOP caucus rather than any one individual.)

Go deeper: A look at what's next, in the full article

3. Jared and Ivanka's dinners

Jared and Ivanka have been working with the White House Office of Legislative Affairs to host dinners with Democratic and Republican members of Congress at their home in the upscale D.C. neighborhood of Kalorama. The dinners, which have been going on for months but have been ramping up more recently, have focused on a range of policy issues, and have yet to result in any substantive leaks.

Capitol Hill sources told me that last Tuesday night, four senators visited Chez Javanka to talk about criminal justice reform: one Republican senator, Mike Lee, and three Democrats: Dick Durbin, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Amy Klobuchar. A source with knowledge of the event told me a handful of White House officials also attended, including Reed Cordish — a friend of Kushner's and assistant to the president — as well as White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter.

Between the lines: Kushner describes his role in the administration as helping solve problems that should be above partisan politics: improving government systems, brokering peace in the Middle East, and shepherding through criminal justice reform. Some administration officials privately complain he's naïve, entitled, and unqualified for such transcendent challenges. Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats on the Hill tell me he keeps pushing for bipartisan wins.

Why last week's dinner matters: Over the last week, Congress has shown the first signs of movement on criminal justice reform in more than a year, with two bills being introduced. Kushner is especially passionate about this issue, even though Attorney General Jeff Sessions favors a "tough on crime" approach.

  • Kushner recently convened a criminal justice roundtable at the White House where attendees said he spoke about his personal interest in the issue. Kushner said he got a first-hand taste of the challenges of the criminal justice system when his father, Charles Kushner, was sentenced to two years in prison after pleading guilty to tax evasion.
4. Bannon's next victims

Steve Bannon and his allies are planning a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. And only one Senator running in 2018 will get a free pass: Ted Cruz.

Breitbart's Washington Editor Matt Boyle writes today that conservatives are "running or actively seeking out" serious primary challengers for every incumbent Republican senator running in 2018 except the Texan.

Why this matters: Bannon once said he successfully weaponized a human being in Matt Boyle. So Boyle's stories are a useful guide for what Bannon and his outside groups — funded by billionaires like the Mercers — are planning.

Here are the races and candidates Boyle teases as part of Bannon's push to support "America First" candidates in congressional and gubernatorial races nationwide:

  • Rep. Marsha Blackburn for the open Senate seat in Tennessee vacated by Bob Corker
  • Attorney general Patrick Morrisey against the establishment favorite Evan Jenkins in the West Virginia Republican primary
  • Matt Rosendale against Jon Tester in Montana
  • State Attorney General Josh Hawley in the Missouri primary to challenge Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill
  • Danny Tarkanian against Dean Heller in Nevada
  • Kelli Ward against Jeff Flake in Arizona
  • Chris McDaniel against Roger Wicker in Mississippi
  • Gov. Rick Scott in Florida's Senate race (Scott hasn't announced whether or not he's running)
  • Roy Moore, who already beat Luther Stranger in Alabama
  • State Treasurer Josh Mandel in Ohio's Senate race
  • Blackwater founder Erik Prince, who Bannon is encouraging to run against John Barrasso in Wyoming. (NYT broke that he was considering running.)
  • Ann LePage, the wife of Maine Gov. Paul LePage, to challenge independent Sen. Angus King (like Scott, LePage hasn't made her intentions clear)
5. What's next for health care

So what to make of Trump's next turn on health care? Axios scooped on Friday night that Trump had called Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer to see whether they could cut a deal. Now Trump and Schumer are giving their versions of the call.

I asked one of the smartest health care reporters I know — my colleague, David Nather — to forecast where this conversation is headed and why it's likely to explode politically. Here's Nather's take:

  • If there's another Trump-Schumer conversation — and this isn't just a one-off — the president has to figure out if he really wants to take repeal off the table. If he does, the GOP base blows up. But if he doesn't, it's not surprising that Schumer calls it a nonstarter.
  • Even if Trump did decide to take repeal off the table, and just stabilize the Affordable Care Act, there's nothing remotely easy about reaching a health care deal with the Democrats. Republicans would have to get something out of it.
  • At a minimum, Republicans want states to be able to cut back the ACA's rules on what has to be covered. They think that's the key to making health insurance less expensive. But for Democrats, that's just a backdoor way of undermining coverage of pre-existing conditions.
  • Example: If they let states cover fewer benefits — like, say, not making them cover prescription drugs — then those are benefits that sick people won't get. So even if you say people with pre-existing conditions are still covered, they wouldn't have as much coverage as they do now. Democrats will be under a lot of pressure to oppose that.
  • This is where senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray are stuck in trying to negotiate their deal. Murray has offered smaller concessions, but nothing that would interest most Republicans.

Bottom line: If Alexander and Murray can't get past that roadblock — two people who really know the details of the health care law — how is Trump going to cut his own deal with Schumer, since policy details aren't really his thing?

6. Sneak Peek diary
  • House: Expected to pass the new supplemental funding request from the White House. Per the AP: "The Trump administration on Wednesday asked Congress for $29 billion in disaster aid to cover ongoing hurricane relief and recovery efforts and to pay federal flood insurance claims."
  • The Budget: The Senate is on recess this week but senior GOP aides are cautiously optimistic they can pass the Budget — the bill needed to pass tax reform — when senators return to work the week of October 16. Like always, McConnell can only lose two votes. Leadership is worried about Rand Paul, John McCain, and Susan Collins.Bob Corker is expected to vote for the Budget, but he keeps saying the Big Six tax framework is "all sugar" and that the senate will need to eat its "spinach" (translation: he's not willing to go along with overly aggressive growth projections and budgetary gimmicks to get to deficit neutrality.)
  • NAFTA: Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady and Trade Subcommittee Chairman Dave Reichert have invited members to a bipartisan committee meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday, according to Ways and Means spokeswoman Emily Schillinger. "This meeting is an important opportunity for committee members to speak with the Prime Minister about a range of trade policy issues, including NAFTA."fWhy this matters: Free trade advocates in Washington are concerned instead about the direction the Trump administration's NAFTA negotiations are taking. Sources familiar with the talks say Trump's top trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, is making impossible, inflexible demands of the Canadians and Mexicans, leading trade experts to worry that negotiations could break down.
7. 1 bleak thing: Autumn of Discontent

A couple months back, I reminded you of some prescient commentary from a source close to Republican leaders, which we reported in Mike Allen's "Top Ten" on May 24:

We are walking into an autumn of discontent because they won't have any legislative accomplishment when they come back from the August recess. ... Their biggest problem is that the reconciliation instructions will expire at the end of September. ...

They're going to go home and get the [stuff] kicked out of them because people think it actually was accomplished — and, by the way, people are likely going to be getting their premium increases that are going to occur regardless of whether they pass this bill or not. ...

And now the president's threatening that he's not going to approve the money for the insurance subsidies — it is going to be a catastrophic political problem ...

They are in this terrible box on healthcare and they're about to get blamed for it because they did what I've been calling that Bon Jovi rally at the White House — because they were halfway there...

Update: The same source, who nailed that earlier prediction, texted me this bright and sunny outlook a couple days ago: "So the first year of this administration could end with securing Obamacare, preservation of DACA, raising taxes on the rich, and the first new gun law in 25 years?"

Jonathan Swan