Mar 10, 2019

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. Please encourage your friends and colleagues to sign up.

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1 big thing — Trump: "The Democrats hate Jewish people"

President Trump addresses the Project Safe Neighborhoods National Conference, Dec. 7, 2018. Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

To prevent leaks from Trump's Friday night Mar-a-Lago speech to RNC donors, security guards made attendees put their cellphones in magnetized pouches that they carried around like purses until they left the club.

  • So leakers had to rely on their memories. Trump entered to Lee Greenwood’s "Proud to Be an American," then launched into one of his trademark stream-of-consciousness speeches, according to three people who were there. They said the crowd roared with laughter throughout.

Some of his remarks raised eyebrows.

1. Referring to the recent anti-semitism controversies with Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, Trump told the donors: "The Democrats hate Jewish people."

  • Trump said he didn't understand how any Jew could vote for a Democrat these days. Trump talked about how much he'd done for Israel, noting his historic decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
  • Trump said if he could run to be prime minister of Israel, he'd be at 98% in the polls, according to three sources who were there.

2. Trump went off on what one guest called a "bizarre tangent." He described being home alone in the White House over Christmas "while the Democrats were in Hawaii."

  • Trump described opening his curtain to look at Secret Service agents swarming the White House lawn. "They're in the trees, on the lawn," he said.
  • He said he saw agents wearing night vision goggles. "They're in blackface," Trump added, jokingly referring to the masks over the agents' faces.
  • Trump joked that the agents were "in blackface" because of the masks so maybe "they have to take them away," according to two sources who were there. (The sources assumed Trump was referring to the recent controversy in which the Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam was caught in a racist costume in his 1984 medical school yearbook.)

Behind the scenes: The confab was for the RNC to update its donors on its activities. Secretaries Wilbur Ross and Linda McMahon attended, as did Don Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Guests munched on surf and turf under a tent with dangling chandeliers. Many of the private discussions turned to the 2020 race.

  • Trump only mentioned three 2020 Democrats in his remarks: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
  • Trump called Biden "the dummy."
  • He announced that he now calls Sanders "the nutty professor" instead of "Crazy Bernie."
  • Referring to Warren's low poll numbers, Trump said he "took her out really early" and that he doesn't want to do that to anybody else.
2. Scoop: Trump lies about "Tim Apple" video

Tim Cook turned into "Tim Apple" on social media after a slip-up by President Trump. Photo: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

Republican donors in attendance called it one of Trump's weirdest lies ever. On Friday night, under a tent erected over the pool at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, President Trump claimed the media were spreading "fake news" when they said he called the CEO of Apple "Tim Apple."

  • Trump told the donors that he actually said "Tim Cook Apple" really fast, and the "Cook" part of the sentence was soft. But all you heard from the "fake news," he said, was "Tim Apple."

Two donors who were there told me they couldn't understand why the president would make such a claim given the whole thing is captured on video. Nobody cared, they said, and Tim Cook took it in good humor by changing his Twitter profile to Tim Apple.

"I just thought, why would you lie about that," one of the donors told me. "It doesn't even matter!"

Between the lines: This isn't the first time Trump has tried to persuade people not to trust video. As The New York Times first reported, Trump privately told a senator that the Access Hollywood tape, in which he talks about sexually assaulting women, was fake. (Trump had previously admitted the voice was his, and apologized for "locker room talk.")

3. Scoop — The White House triangulation plan

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Senior Trump administration officials are crafting a plan ahead of the president's re-election bid that sounds like a blend of Bill Clinton's "triangulation" and Barack Obama's "pen and a phone."

The big picture: The plan — which acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and policy staff are developing, and which is in its early stages — would have Trump sign a series of executive orders on issues including education, drug pricing, the opioid epidemic and veterans affairs. Aides say the moves would appeal to Democrats and Republicans.

What's next? White House officials have already drafted some of these executive orders, and the White House Counsel's office has started vetting them. Officials familiar with the planning say they think most Americans will back them, as was the case with criminal justice reform.

  • White House officials have been tight-lipped about the content of the orders, so it's way too early to say if they will be substantive or just political theater.

The plan is still in its infancy, sources cautioned. "It gives the president the chance to take actions that go over the heads of and can be done without Congress," said a source familiar with the planning.

An early example of the strategy: On Tuesday, Trump signed an executive order "on a National Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End Suicide." The order called for a "Task Force," "roadmap" and "national research strategy" to "end the national tragedy of veteran suicide."

It's also an early example of the potential pitfalls. Task forces, road maps and national strategies don't exactly get people's blood running.

The emerging strategy assumes that Congress won't pass any legislation to advance Trump's agenda.

  • And the plans are coalescing as Trump's polling numbers sag with women and independents.

But it has some major, immediate hurdles.

  • First, you can't exactly break out the confetti cannon over a bunch of new task forces.
  • Second, centrist issues rarely excite the president. So even if he makes meaningful moves, his aides may still have to battle to get him to capitalize on them.
4. To watch this week

1. The Trump administration will unveil the top-line figures from its 2020 budget on Monday.

  • The big picture: Trump's budget won't balance in 10 years, and it uses a controversial Pentagon "slush fund" to give Trump a $750 billion military budget without exceeding the spending caps imposed under a 2011 budget law.
  • Between the lines: Capitol Hill will promptly reject this budget, as it does every year with every president.
    • Soon after Reuters reported Trump's budget would ask Congress for an extra $8.6 billion to pay for the wall, Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi said in a joint statement: "Congress refused to fund his wall and he was forced to admit defeat and reopen the government. The same thing will repeat itself if he tries this again. We hope he learned his lesson."
  • Though symbolic, Trump's budget will show his priorities: boosting military spending, cutting other domestic spending, avoiding big cuts to Social Security and Medicare, and ignoring the mounting deficits and debt. It will also include an increase in child care funding — an Ivanka Trump priority.

2. Veto watch

  • Trump administration officials have been calling Republican senators to urge them to back the president on this week's vote to disapprove his invocation of emergency powers to pay for his border wall.
  • Many Republican senators consider Trump's emergency declaration an abuse of power. The Senate is expected to follow the House in voting, this Thursday, to disapprove of Trump's action. The White House expects the disapproval resolution will pass the Senate, forcing Trump to veto it, according to sources with direct knowledge.
  • A senior administration official told me he worries Trump could lose up to 15 Republicans, which would be embarrassing. But White House officials doubt Pelosi can get enough Republicans on her side to overturn the president's veto. Republican members of Congress are simply too scared of Trump, who remains popular with their voters.
5. Trump administration divided over OPEC oil policy

OPEC headquarters in Vienna, Austria. Photo: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Trump administration officials are divided over legislation that would allow the federal government to sue OPEC nations for attempting to control oil prices, Axios' Amy Harder has learned.

Driving the news: The bipartisan measure, which has been introduced many times over the last 20 years, finally has a shot at becoming law — which experts say would upend global oil markets. President Trump has long been critical of the oil-producing group, and years earlier he backed the bill in question, but division is rampant elsewhere across the government, according to several people familiar with the dynamic.

"Like many things in this administration, the bureaucracy is trying to slow roll things as much as possible to keep it away from the political decision makers."
— David Goldwyn, former top energy official, President Obama's State Department

Goldwyn, now president of his own consulting firm, says the policy has the makings of everything Trump likes, including expanded executive branch power and a chance to show off America's energy dominance. "If he gets it, he'll sign it. If someone asks him, he'll say yes," Goldwyn said.

Details: The legislation at issue is called the No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act (thus the apt acronym NOPEC). It would give the U.S. attorney general the ability to bring lawsuits against OPEC for perceived anti-competitive conduct with petroleum commodities. Previous attempts to sue OPEC have lost in court.

For the record: A senior administration official told Axios: "The administration does not have a position on NOPEC legislation at this time." Requests for comments to the Justice Department and OPEC weren’t returned.

Go deeper: Subscribe to the Axios Generate newsletter by clicking here to read Amy’s full Harder Line column tomorrow morning. 

6. What's next: Trump Org insurance

Mar-a-Lago. Photo: Wangkun Jia/Getty Images

This story could be a sleeper. Buried under last week's news, two pieces are worth following:

  • "New York State regulators have issued an expansive subpoena to the Trump Organization's longtime insurance broker, the first step in an investigation of insurance policies and claims involving President Trump's family business, according to the company and a person briefed on the matter," per the NYT.
  • Per Bloomberg's Tim O'Brien: "Revisiting that time my lawyers asked President Trump under oath about an $18.3 million insurance payment he got for hurricane damage to Mar-a-Lago. He pocketed a chunk of that money and couldn’t remember how badly damaged his club actually was."

Why this matters: "The subpoena was served late Monday on the company, Aon, one of the largest insurance brokerage firms in the world. ... It came just days after Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former fixer and lawyer, indicated in congressional testimony that the Trump Organization inflated the value of its assets to insurance companies," per the NYT.

  • Between the lines: Michael Cohen, who has lied to Congress several times, offered no public evidence to support his claims. But he laid a trail for investigators, and it appears they're following it.
7. First Look: Kavanaugh defenders team up on new book

Brett Kavanaugh sworn in as a Supreme Court justice, Oct. 08, 2018. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Brett Kavanaugh's defenders have a new project: a book to preempt several forthcoming books expected to describe allegations of sexual assault and their bearing on Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Supreme Court.

Carrie Severino and Mollie Hemingway — of Judicial Crisis Network and The Federalist, respectively — tell us they will release a book this summer offering a sympathetic, insider account of Kavanaugh's confirmation.

  • The authors, both conservatives who supported Kavanaugh's confirmation, said they conducted over 150 hours of interviews with more than 60 key players.
  • Regnery Publishing, a conservative book publisher, has the project.
  • Hemingway and Severino told Axios' Alayna Treene that the book will describe conversations in the White House as they fought to get Kavanaugh on the bench; scenes from the Senate as Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, struggled to keep Republicans from voting against the judge; and Kavanaugh's personal approach to the tumultuous confirmation process.
  • They wouldn't say who they interviewed or whether Kavanaugh participated.

Hemingway and Severino told Axios they decided to write the book as a counter to books coming from the Washington Post's Ruth Marcus and New York Times reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly.

  • "Seeing how the media, including some of the authors of these books, treated the confirmation during the process itself, there’s not a lot of trust that they would treat this fairly," Hemingway said.
8. Sneak Peek diary

Photo: Henryk Sadura/Tetra Images/Getty Images

The House will frame the coming week as "Sunshine Week" — "focused on increasing government transparency and accountability," to follow their vote last week on sweeping anti-corruption legislation, according to senior House Democratic aides.

  • The House's main action this week: On Thursday, they'll vote on a resolution calling for the Mueller report to be made public. 
  • On the hearing front: The Oversight Committee has Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross; Energy and Commerce has Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and a hearing on drug pricing legislation; and Ways and Means has Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

The Senate will confirm Neomi Rao to be a judge on the District of Columbia Circuit. It's a significant win for Trump after a rocky confirmation process for Rao.

  • The Senate will also vote to confirm Paul Matey to be a judge on the Third Circuit, and William Beach, of Kansas, to be Commissioner of Labor Statistics at the Department of Labor, according to a Republican leadership aide.
  • The Senate will also vote on the resolution of disapproval on Trump's emergency declaration (see item 4 above for more detail).
  • And lastly, Mitch McConnell's longtime top communications aide, Don Stewart, leaves the Senate. His last day is Friday. Stew's colleague David Popp emails: "Every Senate press staffer, no matter the age, title, or experience was sent to see Stew the minute they started. Many House flacks would also end up seeing him within their first year. He took every single coffee and gave each one the exact same attention and energy. ... He's an institution. There will never be another Stew. We're all going to miss him."

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

  • Monday: Trump has lunch with Mike Pence.
  • Tuesday: Trump receives the "Boy Scouts' Report to the Nation."
  • Thursday: Trump hosts Taoiseach Leo Varadkar of Ireland at the White House. Trump attends the Friends of Ireland Luncheon at the U.S. Capitol, and the president and first lady will attend the Irish PM's "Shamrock Bowl Presentation."
  • Friday: Trump has lunch with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Jonathan Swan