Axios Sneak Peek
August 19, 2018
Welcome to Sneak Peek, our weekly lookahead for both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, plus my best scoops. I'd love your tips and feedback: [email protected]. And please urge your friends and colleagues to sign up for Sneak Peek.
1 big thing: Trump's "red wave" could sink GOP
The president's contempt for mainstream polling and the media may come back to haunt him in November. Several top Republican operatives working on the midterm elections told me Trump's fanciful "red wave" predictions could depress Republican turnout and, ironically, serve to make any blue wave even bigger.
One of those strategists told me he's detecting something interesting — and concerning — from focus groups of Trump voters.
- "You have Trump-MAGA loyalists, and their friends on Fox, who have reached a point of not believing polls and media people telling them things are going wrong, that I believe is actually causing the Republicans problems," the strategist told me, granted anonymity in order to be candid.
- "We've seen it in focus groups, with Republican base voters, where you'll come up with a hypothetical that the Democrats win, and people are like, 'That's not going to happen, that's stupid.' ... They're like, 'Oh, to hell with this crap, we were told Trump wasn't going to win. It's bullshit.'"
- "I would rather Sean Hannity get on TV every night and go, 'Oh my God, Nancy Pelosi could be Speaker and they're going to impeach Trump. You better get out to vote.'"
Between the lines: Questionable outlier polls like Rasmussen that favor the president have lulled and reassured Trump’s base. The president tweets out the polls, his media mouthpieces echo them, and his voters feel pacified — and, several top strategists I've interviewed fear, less motivated to show up in November.
- Trump isn't helping. The president is flatly denying what most polls indicate — saying he sees not a blue wave in November, but a giant "red wave."
- Republican strategists want the base to panic so they'll show up to vote. But instead, Trump is breeding complacency.
Another of the country's top House operatives told me:
- "It's worrisome. The President's tweeting 'red wave,' and they watch Fox News," the source said. "These [Trump voters] will say, 'The same Fake News, Deep State people told me Hillary was going to win and Hillary lost. We've won all these elections.'"
A third said: "They watch Hannity... and hear that a red wave is coming to save the House. They really believe it's going to be 2016 all over again."
The bottom line: Trump is virtually alone among Republican elected officials in predicting a red wave, but his megaphone is the party's loudest. So many strategists wish he'd be more realistic with his voters — many of whom loathe Congress and are already reluctant to vote in an election where Trump isn't on the ticket.
- The fact that Republicans have won eight out of nine special elections so far this cycle — a record Trump touts as evidence they'll sweep to victory in November — obscures the fact that Democrats have made these races way closer than they should've been.
- In these races, Republicans have deployed their top surrogates, including the president, and they've spent piles of money. They don't have nearly enough resources to replicate this formula across the country in November.
But, but, but: If the Trump base shows up in November, Republicans have a chance at holding the House. Trump has an unprecedented hold over his party's base, so if he changes tack it's possible his voters will, too — and quickly.
2. Behind the scenes: Trump's habit of blurting
Trump’s staff has learned a hard lesson. If the president says something in private, no matter how geopolitically fraught, it's only a matter of time before he blurts it out in public.
- Trump’s Wall Street Journal interview this week is just the latest example of this habit. In that interview, he contradicted the White House's official narrative by saying he had revoked John Brennan’s security clearance because of the Russia probe. It's far from the first time Trump has publicly blurted out something that his aides privately implored him to keep under wraps.
Behind the scenes: A source who's spent hours with Trump in confidential White House settings told me the Journal interview brought back bad memories.
- Not only of Trump's interview last year with NBC's Lester Holt — when the president admitted "this Russia thing with Trump" was on his mind when he fired then-FBI director James Comey — but of other times when Trump blurted out thoughts he'd previously expressed in private that his national security team hoped would stay that way.
The two examples the source gave:
- In a private meeting last summer, Trump asked senior national security aides, including then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster, what would happen if the U.S. invaded Venezuela. The aides warned Trump against the idea, but he ended up blurting out publicly that he wasn't ruling out a "military option" in Venezuela. (The AP first reported Trump's private comments.)
- For weeks earlier this year, Trump had been telling national security officials that Syria was a disaster and he wanted to withdraw U.S. troops ASAP. His aides, including Chief of Staff John Kelly, privately urged him not to say anything. When Trump traveled to Ohio for an infrastructure event in March, the text of his speech said nothing about foreign policy, according to a source with direct knowledge of the remarks. But Trump got up on stage and blurted out that the U.S. would be "coming out of Syria, like, very soon."
The bottom line: Trump's aides have learned the hard way that once they hear the president say something privately — no matter how harmful it might be — it's only a matter of time before he blurts it out publicly.
- "When something is on his mind, everybody will know it soon," the source told me. "The only thing you can do is once you hear him say something privately, start preparing talking points because sooner or later you will hear it in public."
3. The big picture: "A blue wave is obscuring a red exodus"
Dave Wasserman, the Cook Political Report's House analyst, says the most under-covered aspect of 2018 is that "a blue wave is obscuring a red exodus." Republican House members are retiring at a startling clip — a trend that senior White House adviser Kellyanne Conway told me earlier this year was worrying her more than any other trend affecting the midterms.
- There are 43 Republican seats now without an incumbent on the ballot. That's more than one out of every six Republicans in the House — a record in at least a century, Wasserman says.
Why this matters: Just in the past eight months, the number of vulnerable Republican seats has almost doubled, according to Wasserman. Democrats need to win 23 seats to claim control of the House. Today, the Cook Political Report rates 37 Republican-held seats as toss-ups or worse. At the beginning of the year, it was only 20.
The big picture: Wasserman says the most important sign that 2018 will be a "wave" year — with Democrats winning control of the House — is the intensity gap between the two parties. In polls, Democrats consistently rate their interest in voting as significantly higher than Republicans. And Democrats have voted in extraordinary numbers in the special elections held the past year, despite Republicans holding on to win almost all of these races.
- "There's a bit of over-caution, perhaps, on the part of the punditocracy, after what happened in 2016," Wasserman told Axios. "But if anything most media could be under-rating Democrats' potential to gain a lot of seats. They could be caught being cautious in the wrong direction."
Wasserman has a vivid way of describing the most harmful dynamic for Republicans in November. "This election is the year of the angry female college graduate," he said.
- "The most telling number in the most recent NBC/WSJ poll is that Trump's approval rating among women with college degrees was 26 percent. That's absolutely awful and the intensity of that group is extraordinary. They're already the most likely demographic to turn out to vote in midterms. But never have they been this fervently anti-Republican."
- "In 2010 when Republicans won back control of the House, I would argue that was the year of the angry white senior ... and yes, there was a lot of consternation and upset about Obamacare."
- "But the main reason for that was who wasn't voting. It was the young, and non-white Obama surge voter from 2008, who stayed home, and it lost Democrats the election in 2010."
The bottom line: "Yes, it's about how upset suburban professional women are, with regard to family separations at the border and Trump's temperament and behavior. But it's also about who's not voting. And that's primarily men without college degrees who are Trump true believers."
- "They believed in Trump fervently, but they've never liked congressional Republicans at all. In fact, Trump gained ground by running against them in 2016. So why are they going to turn out this year for congressional Republicans?"
4. "RAT" bites President
President Trump tweeted this morning: "The failing @nytimes wrote a Fake piece today implying that because White House Councel Don McGahn was giving hours of testimony to the Special Councel [sic], he must be a John Dean type "RAT." But I allowed him and all others to testify — I didn’t have to. I have nothing to hide."
This afternoon, I called up said "RAT," John Dean, to get his take. Dean was Richard Nixon's White House counsel and heavily involved in the Watergate cover-up before he became a key witness for the prosecution.
- "I am actually honored to be on his enemies list as I was on Nixon's when I made it there," Dean told me. "This is a president I hold in such low esteem I would be fretting if he said something nice."
Dean told me he read the hard copy of The New York Times this morning and enjoyed the "fascinating" story about the White House counsel, Don McGahn, cooperating "extensively" with Robert Mueller's investigation into the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
- "It says more than it seems just in the cold print of the story," Dean said. "Trump doesn't really know what he's done. ... I don't think he really knows what this involved, and it's got to be incredibly helpful to Mueller, to put things in perspective and timelines...from somebody who was right there."
- "Rudy [Giuliani] may think he [McGahn] had nothing but nice things to say about the boss, but Rudy has to remember his days as a prosecutor where, if you can get this kind of information, it can put a lot of other pieces into perspective that aren't so good for the defendant, or the potential subject or target."
Why this matters: Per the latest reporting from the NYT's Maggie Haberman and Michael Schmidt, "The president, who is said to be obsessed with the role that John W. Dean, the White House counsel to President Richard M. Nixon, played as an informant during Watergate, was jolted by the notion that he did not know what Mr. McGahn had shared [with Mueller]."
What's next? As Politico first reported, Dean has been talking to Michael Cohen's lawyer, Lanny Davis, who became a friend when they both appeared regularly on cable news during the Bill Clinton impeachment.
- Dean says he sees parallels between his own Watergate experience and what Cohen is going through now.
- Both were in the cross-hairs of criminal investigations (including a Southern District of New York investigation), both engaged with multiple congressional investigations, and both had been attacked by the president in order to discredit future testimony.
"There are some parallels," Dean said. "Nixon made a comment in his memoir, that I found striking. That he wasn't worried about my Watergate testimony, but it was everything else I had to say. Because I had become privy to so many activities... and he said that's what killed him."
- "He [Cohen] can place this president in a broader context of how he operates."
5. Inside the Democratic war against hacks
Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's team has sent out three fake spearphishing email campaigns to staffers over the last 18 months to test whether they’d fall for real hacking, her chief of staff, Maura Keefe, tells Axios. The result? Several fell for it.
Why it matters: Every political operation in the country is grappling with the reality that hackers may target them — that is, if they haven’t been infiltrated already.
- The offices of Shaheen and Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill have both been targeted by phishing emails.
- Russian hackers successfully spearphished the DNC and DCCC in 2016.
The context: Keefe's effort is just one indicator of the cybersecurity culture shift starting to happen on the Hill, as Axios' Shannon Vavra and I report:
- They sent one email campaign prompting staff to open an attachment from an address imitating Keefe’s Senate email with a slight typo.
- Another mimicked the legitimate attack last year that hit McCaskill’s team.
- Another asked staff to change their Facebook passwords.
- Those who got caught had to retake a cyber training course.
The impact: Fewer staffers clicked the phishing links with each new campaign, from five or six on the first, to just one. "It works," Keefe said. "It’s become a little bit of a point of pride for the staff to be on top of it."
The big picture: This is about playing catch-up on cybersecurity. "I was not hyper-aware and I don't think many people were" before the 2016 elections about cybersecurity, said Keefe. She added she didn't think Sen. Shaheen's previous campaign even had a line item in the budget for it. "It's definitely been an awakening," she said.
- What’s next: Keefe, who chairs the Democratic chiefs of staff group, intends to discuss cybersecurity budgeting for the campaign cycle with other chiefs of staff.
- Campaigns generally are nowhere near where Sen. Shaheen's office is — and she's not up for reelection until 2020. One-third of House candidates have vulnerable websites right now, according to a study released this month, and campaigns are often too strapped for cash to afford cybersecurity expertise.
- The DNC has been sending spearphishing training emails to staffers as well, a Democratic source tells Axios.
The bottom line: The nature of political operations — from Iowa presidential strivers to the halls of the Senate — is changing. It's no longer just about policy and messaging, but also running cybertraining bootcamps to outsmart adversaries. And politicians can train their teams all they want, but each office is only as secure as its weakest, most distracted, careless clicker.
6. "Truth isn't truth"
Rudy Giuliani went insta-viral this morning when he told "Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd that "truth isn't truth" when it comes to Trump's potential testimony to special counsel Robert Mueller.
Why this matters: The statement from the president’s lawyer — an awkward attempt at saying that Trump and Comey have differing accounts of their meeting — highlights the Trump team's already-yawning credibility gap.
- Over the past 18 months, Trump and his lawyers have been caught making numerous false statements, including about the handling of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Kremlin-connected attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya.
Ironically, in the same interview with Todd, Giuliani made a blatantly and provably false statement about that same Trump Tower meeting:
- He said Don Junior, Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner didn't know in advance that the Russian government had anything to do with the Trump Tower meeting to get "dirt" on Hillary Clinton.
- "You asked me, did they show an intention to do anything with Russians," Giuliani told Todd. "All they knew was that a woman with a Russian name wanted to meet with them. They didn't know she was a representative of the Russian government and, indeed, she's not a representative of the Russian government."
The bottom line: Literally every part of that Giuliani answer is false. Veselnitskaya has well-documented ties to the Russian government. And here's what Rob Goldstone, the intermediary who arranged the Trump Tower meeting, emailed to the president's eldest son when setting up the meeting:
- "Emin just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting."
- "The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father."
- "This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump — helped along by Aras and Emin ..."
Don Junior replied: "Thanks Rob I appreciate that. I am on the road at the moment but perhaps I just speak to Emin first. Seems we have some time and if it's what you say I love it especially later in the summer. Could we do a call first thing next week when I am back?"
What's next? When Giuliani's shock-and-awe media blitz first started months ago, many White House staffers were gobsmacked. A few even considered quitting. But, in the months since then, a broad sense of resignation has emerged. Giuliani works for Trump — not for the White House — so only the president can tell him what to do. And when it comes to his bungled media hits, the president seems mostly unbothered.
7. Sneak Peek diary
The House is out on August recess.
The Senate is still at work, and is expected to remain in session throughout August, honoring Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's promise to cut short the summer break to process spending bills and nominations.
- A Republican leadership aide tells Axios the Senate will continue work this week on two more spending bills, the two biggest: Defense and Labor, HHS, & Education.
- The aide said Senate leadership expects to pass these bills by the end of the week, making them the 8th and 9th spending bills passed by the Senate this year. (This is the fastest pace the Senate has passed a majority of its bills since 2000.)
Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, will have his last week of meetings with senators ahead of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, scheduled to begin on September 4.
- A source involved in the process told me Kavanaugh is expected to meet this week with Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer, the ranking member of Senate Judiciary Dianne Feinstein, key red state Democrat Claire McCaskill, moderate Republicans Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, plus other Democratic senators serving on the Judiciary Committee.
President Trump's schedule, per a White House official:
- Monday: Trump has lunch with Vice President Mike Pence and hosts the "Salute to the Heroes of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection."
- Tuesday: Trump meets with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and has lunch with Pompeo and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. He then flies to Charleston, West Virginia, for a roundtable with supporters and a campaign rally.
- Wednesday: Trump presents the Medal of Honor.