Aug 25, 2019

Axios Sneak Peek

By Jonathan Swan
Jonathan Swan

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

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  • Smart Brevity count: 1,866 words (7 minutes)
1 big thing: Scoop — President Trump suggested nuking hurricanes

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

President Trump has suggested multiple times to senior Homeland Security and national security officials that they explore using nuclear bombs to stop hurricanes from hitting the United States, according to sources who have heard the president's private remarks and been briefed on a National Security Council memorandum that recorded those comments.

  • The sources added that Trump's "bomb the hurricanes" idea — which he floated early in the first year and a bit of his presidency before John Bolton took over as national security adviser — went nowhere and never entered a formal policy process.

Behind the scenes: During one hurricane briefing at the White House, Trump said, "I got it. I got it. Why don't we nuke them?" according to one source who was there. "They start forming off the coast of Africa, as they're moving across the Atlantic, we drop a bomb inside the eye of the hurricane and it disrupts it. Why can't we do that?" the source added, paraphrasing the president's remarks.

  • Asked how the briefer reacted, the source recalled he said something to the effect of, "Sir, we'll look into that."
  • Trump replied by asking incredulously how many hurricanes the U.S. could handle and reiterating his suggestion that the government intervene before they make landfall. 
  • The briefer "was knocked back on his heels," the source in the room added. "You could hear a gnat fart in that meeting. People were astonished. After the meeting ended, we thought, 'What the f---? What do we do with this?'"

Trump also raised the idea in another conversation with a senior administration official. A 2017 NSC memo describes that second conversation, in which Trump asked whether the administration should bomb hurricanes to stop them from hitting the homeland. A source briefed on the NSC memo said it does not contain the word "nuclear"; it just says the president talked about bombing hurricanes.

  • The source added that this NSC memo captured "multiple topics, not just hurricanes. … It wasn't that somebody was so terrified of the bombing idea that they wrote it down. They just captured the president’s comments."

White House response: A senior administration official said, "We don't comment on private discussions that the president may or may not have had with his national security team."

  • A different senior administration official, who has been briefed on the president's hurricane bombing suggestion, defended Trump's idea and said it was no cause for alarm. "His goal — to keep a catastrophic hurricane from hitting the mainland — is not bad," the official said. "His objective is not bad."
  • "What people near the president do is they say 'I love a president who asks questions like that, who’s willing to ask tough questions.' ... It takes strong people to respond to him in the right way when stuff like this comes up. For me, alarm bells weren't going off when I heard about it, but I did think somebody is going to use this to feed into 'the president is crazy' narrative."

The big picture: Trump didn't invent this idea. The notion that detonating a nuclear bomb over the eye of a hurricane could be used to counteract convection currents dates to the Eisenhower era, when it was floated by a government scientist.

  • The idea keeps resurfacing in the public even though scientists agree it won't work. The myth has been so persistent that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. government agency that predicts changes in weather and the oceans, published an online fact sheet for the public under the heading "Tropical Cyclone Myths Page."
  • The page states: "Apart from the fact that this might not even alter the storm, this approach neglects the problem that the released radioactive fallout would fairly quickly move with the tradewinds to affect land areas and cause devastating environmental problems. Needless to say, this is not a good idea."

About 3 weeks after Trump's 2016 election, National Geographic published an article titled, "Nuking Hurricanes: The Surprising History of a Really Bad Idea." It found, among other problems, that:

  • Dropping a nuclear bomb into a hurricane would be banned under the terms of the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. So that could stave off any experiments, as long as the U.S. observes the terms of the treaty.

Atlantic hurricane season runs until Nov. 30.

2. Scoop: Kushner tells donors ex-prisoners are joining the GOP

Photo: Michael Reynolds - Pool/Getty Images

Jared Kushner told Republican donors that felons are coming out of jail and registering as Republicans, according to sources who attended a donor retreat in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, last week.

  • "I guess climate change is not their No. 1 issue," Kushner joked of the former prisoners, according to sources who attended the dinner where Kushner spoke.

Behind the scenes: The audience of Republican donors burst out laughing at this comment, these sources said. The remarks came as Kushner and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy discussed the prison reform bill that Trump signed into law at the end of the last Congress.

  • Through his remarks, Kushner was trying to solidify Republican support for prison reform, 1 of 4 sources who attended the dinner said. He praised the policy, but also made a political argument for pushing criminal justice reform, citing recent statistics he said he'd seen of ex-felons registering as Republicans in Florida.
  • Kushner said that if one of his predecessors had cared as much as he does about prison reform then "it would have changed my family." He was referring to his father, Charles Kushner, who went to jail in the mid-2000s after pleading guilty to tax evasion, illegal campaign donations and witness tampering.

What we're hearing: Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser made these comments during a staged conversation with McCarthy at a dinner Tuesday at the Wyoming ranch of John L. Nau III, a major beer distributor and Republican donor. More than 100 donors dined under a tent by the Snake River, with mountains in the backdrop, these sources said.

  • In the same conversation, Kushner described the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement that he helped negotiate as "the best trade deal in the history of the country," a source in attendance said.
  • And Kushner said the president cares less about the politics of a China deal and more about "doing the right thing" with respect to pushing back against China in what has become a global problem, another source familiar with his remarks added.
3. Trump chases new deals as China feud deepens

Trump shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during the G7 summit, Aug. 25. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

President Trump announced today that the U.S. and Japan have agreed on a trade deal "in principle." "We've been working on a deal with Japan for a long time," Trump said at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, per Bloomberg. "And we've agreed in principle ... billions and billions of dollars."

  • Between the lines: "The 'in principle' here is important," writes Bloomberg's trade reporter Shawn Donnan. "As is the fact this is a limited deal. Trying to remember how many times Japan-EU deal 'in principle' was announced before final deal closed. Think there was at least a year of further negotiating after first 'in principle' announcement."

The big picture: Trump's conflict with China — which has both trade and military dimensions — is only likely to intensify, in the estimation of sources close to the president including people who've been with him over the past 72 hours.

  • As Trump's team adapts to the new status quo with China — a permanent state of tension interspersed with occasional tactical truces — they are trying to secure other trade deals to offset some of the damage the China situation is doing to the economy and markets.
  • Trump is chasing new deals with Japan, the U.K. and perhaps Brazil. But so far he's only made vague public statements about these potential deals.
4. Trump admin can't say when first section of new wall will be built

U.S. workers build the border wall between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Feb. 5. Photo: Herika Martinez/AFP/Getty Images

More than 2 1/2 years after President Trump took office with an ardent promise to build a wall along the southern border, his administration cannot tell us when it will add its 1st mile of new wall to a border area that doesn't have pre-existing barriers, Axios' Stef Kight reports.

Why it matters: The wall has been Trump's most iconic and polarizing promise — one he was willing to declare a national emergency and shut down the government for weeks over.

  • So far in Trump's presidency, more than 60 miles of existing barriers and fences have been replaced with new wall, according to a Department of Homeland Security official.
  • DHS has been referring to replacement wall as "new," but to date, not a single mile of wall has been built where no barrier previously existed. The official did not provide an answer when asked when the first section of "new" wall would be built.
  • “The Department is committed to confronting the humanitarian and security crisis at our border, stemming the flow of illegal and irregular migration, and protecting our rule of law and the American people from traffickers, child smugglers, and transnational criminal organizations exploiting our system to profit from human misery and suffering,” the DHS official said.

What's next: The Trump administration says it expects to build 450 miles of border wall — which has typically consisted of tall, steel slats — in "strategic locations" by the end of 2020, according to the same official.

  • DHS is currently replacing 124 miles of fencing with new wall in the El Paso, El Centro and Tucson sectors. In mid-September, the government expects to start building an additional 5 miles in the Yuma sector.

The big picture: Most of the funding lawmakers have secured for Trump's border security demands has specifically excluded building a border wall where there is no existing barrier. Democrats have opposed this funding, deeply frustrating the president.

  • A recent Supreme Court decision has enabled the Trump administration to begin building new wall with Pentagon funds through Trump's emergency declaration. Some of that money is now being used on border barrier projects, AP reported.

Go deeper: What the fight over Trump's border wall is really about

5. Sneak Peek diary

Photo: narvikk/Getty Images

The House and Senate are out of session until Labor Day.

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

  • Monday: Trump returns to Washington, D.C., from the G7 summit in Biarritz, France.

The White House did not provide a schedule for the rest of the week.

6. 1 press thing: Trump allies do oppo on journalists

"A loose network of conservative operatives allied with the White House is pursuing what they say will be an aggressive operation to discredit news organizations deemed hostile to President Trump by publicizing damaging information about journalists," the New York Times' Ken Vogel and Jeremy Peters report.

Why it matters: "The group has already released information about journalists at CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times — three outlets that have aggressively investigated Mr. Trump — in response to reporting or commentary that the White House's allies consider unfair to Mr. Trump and his team or harmful to his re-election prospects."

  • "One person involved in the effort said the pro-Trump forces, aware ahead of time about the coverage of [White House press secretary Stephanie] Grisham, were prepared to respond."
  • "Early Thursday morning, soon after the profile appeared online, Breitbart News published an article that documented anti-Semitic and racist tweets written a decade ago by Tom Wright-Piersanti, who was in college at the time and has since become an editor on the Times' politics desk. The Times said it was reviewing the matter and considered the posts 'a clear violation of our standards.'"

Between the lines: "It is clear from the cases to date that among the central players in the operation is Arthur Schwartz, a combative 47-year-old conservative consultant who is a friend and informal adviser to Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son."

  • "Mr. Schwartz tweeted a link to the Breitbart piece before 7 a.m., which Donald Trump Jr. retweeted to his 3.8 million followers — the first of about two dozen times that the president's son shared the article or its contents."
  • "Breitbart's article quoted several people or groups with close ties to Mr. Schwartz, including Richard Grenell, Mr. Trump's ambassador to Germany, and the Zionist Organization of America. It was written by the site's Washington political editor, Matthew Boyle, whose relationship with Mr. Schwartz started when Mr. Bannon ran the website."

Worthy of your time

Jonathan Swan