Jul 12, 2020

Axios Sneak Peek

By Jonathan Swan
Jonathan Swan

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

  • Join Axios co-founder Mike Allen and health care reporter Caitlin Owens on Tuesday at 12:30 p.m. ET for a conversation on the future of telemedicine, with Oscar Health CEO Mario Schlosser and FCC Chair Ajit Pai.
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Tonight's newsletter is 1,591 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Scoop—White House trying to trap leakers

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Trump's chief of staff, Mark Meadows, has told several White House staffers he's fed specific nuggets of information to suspected leakers to see if they pass them on to reporters — a trap that would confirm his suspicions.

  • "Meadows told me he was doing that," said one former White House official. "I don't know if it ever worked."

Why it matters: This hunt for leakers has put some White House staffers on edge, with multiple officials telling Axios that Meadows has been unusually vocal about his tactics. So far, he's caught only one person, for a minor leak.

The big picture: Trump has made clear to Meadows that an important part of his job is to "find the leakers" — a wickedly difficult task that has plagued all three of Meadows' predecessors.

  • Trump is especially furious about two recent leaks of classified and sensitive information.
  • As Politico first reported, the administration has interviewed people with access to the intelligence that the Russians were paying the Taliban bounties to kill American soldiers. A senior White House official confirmed Politico's reporting that they have narrowed down the list of suspects to fewer than 10 people.
  • Trump was also enraged when the New York Times reported that the Secret Service rushed him down to the bunker during the protests outside the White House.
  • So far, Meadows has yet to deliver on either of these high-priority leak hunts. A source familiar with Meadows' thinking said he is "focused on national security leaks and could care less about the palace intrigue stories."
  • On a recent podcast with Sen. Ted Cruz, however, Meadows said they had tracked down and fired a federal employee who leaked information about a White House social media executive order.

Between the lines: Meadows, Trump's fourth chief of staff in three and a half years, faces the same problem all of his predecessors faced: In the leakiest White House in modern history, how does one possibly satisfy a president who has privately said he feels like he's surrounded by snakes?

  • All of Trump's chiefs have tried to stop the leaks, with no success, but perhaps nobody tried harder than Mick Mulvaney.

Mulvaney never netted the sort of catch Trump wanted. A former White House official said the one time Mulvaney did take evidence to Trump that he presented as damaging, the president dismissed it.

  • In January, Mulvaney asked the White House's IT department to search the work cellphone records of senior staff. His office gave the IT department the cellphone numbers of the top reporters who cover the White House.
  • After getting back the spreadsheet and finding senior staff contacts with reporters to be mostly unremarkable, Mulvaney zeroed in on what he thought were some unusual phone calls for White House Counsel Pat Cipollone.
  • Mulvaney, who had been in a bitter feud with Cipollone, had already told Trump he thought the White House counsel was a leaker.
  • When he made those accusations, Trump replied, "The guy doesn't even talk to the press. Never has," said a source familiar with their interactions.
  • The spreadsheet the IT department produced for Mulvaney in mid-January showed that Cipollone had multiple phone calls with the New York Times' Maggie Haberman and CNN's Pamela Brown. But when Mulvaney presented this information to the president, Trump brushed it off and did nothing about it, the former official said.
  • A former administration official familiar with the impeachment defense defended Cipollone. "Pat was encouraged by the president to talk with the media because the president viewed him as a strong advocate on his behalf. This was part of a coordinated effort."
  • "It's important to note Pat made all of these calls from his official phone," the former official added. "If he was leaking, do you really think he’d be doing it from his official phone?"

Told of this incident, Chris Whipple, presidential historian who wrote the definitive book on White House chiefs of staff, called it "unprecedented."

The bottom line: Over the past three and a half years, Trump's White House has been in a persistent state of flux, but one constant has remained — he persistently urges his top aides to "either 'find the leakers' or 'find the f---ing leakers,'" as one senior White House official put it.

  • In early December, Trump told a senior White House staffer it would be "a better use of your time to stay here and find f---ing Anonymous" rather than join the president on his trip to London for the NATO summit, according to a source familiar with the exchange.
  • The staffer went on the trip nonetheless. Seven months later, Anonymous is still at large.

Go deeper. Read the full story in the Axios stream.

2. Inside three years of failed leak hunts

Peter Navarro. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Trump went into a fury about leakers in late 2019 and early 2020. Trump told multiple members of his staff it was a high priority to find "Anonymous," the senior administration official who wrote a viral New York Times op-ed and later a bestselling book describing Trump as dangerously unfit and unstable.

Behind the scenes: The White House procured authorship attribution software to match Anonymous' writing style against internal writing samples from current administration officials. But the software was difficult to use and the effort failed, according to a senior administration official.

  • Meanwhile, Trump's trade adviser Peter Navarro launched his own personal hunt for Anonymous.
  • Navarro's investigation culminated in a lengthy memo citing stylistic analysis, biographical information, a Reddit post and a defunct blog to allege that the author was former national security staffer Victoria Coates. She vehemently denied the charge and retained counsel.
  • No one ever went on record accusing Coates, and the White House put a senior administration official on background saying leadership didn't put any stock in the rumors.
  • Literary agent Matt Latimer, whose firm brokered the book deal, said Coates is not the author. National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien said Coates "has served the president loyally since the earliest days of the administration."
  • Coates is now senior policy adviser to Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette and special energy representative to the Middle East.

Other highlights of the White House's leak hunts include former press secretary Sean Spicer forcing his own staff to dump their phones on a table for an impromptu phone search — an interrogation that itself immediately leaked.

  • Former communications director Anthony Scaramucci famously threatened to fire all the leakers, but at the same time... well, this Vox headline sums it up: "Anthony Scaramucci leaked that he would fire a press aide, then complained about the leak."

The big picture: "Leaks drive presidents crazy," Whipple said. "They always have and they always will. But one thing that effective chiefs of staff figure out is that the way you prevent leaks is not by tapping people's phones or threatening to ruin them.

  • "The way you prevent leaks is by running an effective White House staff where voices are heard and people feel they have a stake in the process and there's some integrity."
  • "I know that may all sound Pollyanna-ish," Whipple added, "but that's really the way you prevent leaks."
  • "And the way you encourage them is by doing lunatic things like trying to monitor their calls and ferret them out and threaten to ruin them. So it's just counterproductive."

After we got off the phone, Whipple texted a final thought: "A good chief of staff knows that the best way to prevent damaging leaks is to stop doing illegal, stupid stuff. You don't have to be James Baker to figure that out."

Go deeper: Why do leakers leak? I'm glad you asked.

Editor's note: This article has been updated with additional information about the search for Anonymous.

3. Trump campaign aims to capitalize on AMLO's visit

López Obrador and Trump at the White House on July 8. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Pool/Getty Images

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's White House visit was catnip for the Trump campaign. Campaign officials tell Axios they plan to use some of his comments to try to court Hispanic voters.

Behind the scenes: A source familiar with the campaign's plans specifically said they will likely use this quote from López Obrador in TV ads aimed at Hispanic voters later this year: "I'm here to express to the people of the United States that their President has behaved with us with kindness and respect. You have treated us just as what we are: a country and a dignified people; a free, democratic, and sovereign people."

  • "Nobody caught it in Spanish, but it's as good as it gets — basically an endorsement," the source said.

What's next: The campaign may spend millions to run Spanish-language ads featuring the quote in the fall.

4. The great reopening debate

Betsy DeVos. Screenshot: Fox News Sunday

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos doubled down this morning on President Trump’s threats to withhold federal funding for schools that refuse to reopen in the fall, telling Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday” that “if schools aren’t going to reopen and fulfill that promise, they shouldn’t get the funds," Axios' Alayna Treene reports.

  • DeVos told Wallace that the government should redirect those funds to "families who decide to go to a school that is going to meet that promise.”

Why it matters: DeVos did not say how the Trump administration will carry out this threat, or whether it even has the authority to do so. Vice President Mike Pence suggested earlier this week that the administration could use the next coronavirus relief package to coerce states into reopening.

  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” later told Dana Bash, “I think what we heard from the secretary was malfeasance, and a dereliction of duty. This is appalling … they’re messing with the health of our children.” Pelosi added that "going back to school presents the biggest risk for the spread of the coronavirus.”
  • Meanwhile, Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins, told Wallace that the Trump administration’s threats to issue an “ultimatum” for schools to reopen in the fall amid the coronavirus pandemic is the “wrong approach.”

Go deeper: How Trump's push to reopen schools could backfire

5. Sneak Peek diary

Photo: George Rose/Getty Images

The House and Senate are on recess through July 20, Alayna reports.

  • Friday: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Small Business Administrator Jovita Carranza will appear before the House Small Business Committee for an oversight hearing.

Tuesday: Simon & Schuster will publish “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man,” a memoir by the president’s niece, Mary Trump.

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

  • Monday: Trump will have lunch with Vice President Mike Pence. He will also participate in a roundtable with "stakeholders positively impacted by law enforcement."
  • Wednesday: Trump will deliver remarks on infrastructure in Atlanta, Ga.
  • Thursday: Trump will give a speech on deregulation.
  • Friday: Trump will participate in a credentialing ceremony for newly appointed ambassadors to Washington, D.C.
Jonathan Swan