Jun 23, 2019

Axios Sneak Peek

By Alayna Treene
Alayna Treene

Welcome to Sneak Peek, our weekly lookahead at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, plus our best scoops. (Smart Brevity word count: 1,920 words, ~7 minutes)

The summer finale of this season's "Axios on HBO" aired at 6pm ET/PT. More coming in the fall.

  • We have a ton of breaking news in tonight's episode, including a Kim Hart tech scoop and Jim VandeHei's feisty interview with California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
  • And in a segment on another scoop, highlighted below, we show Chris Christie the vetting dossier the Trump transition team had on him.
  • "Axios on HBO" is also available on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners' streaming services.
1 big thing: Exclusive — Leaked Trump vetting docs

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Nearly 100 internal Trump transition vetting documents leaked to "Axios on HBO" identify a host of "red flags" about officials who went on to get some of the most powerful jobs in the U.S. government. 

Why it matters: The massive trove, and the story behind it, sheds light on the slapdash way Donald Trump filled his Cabinet and administration, and foreshadowed future scandals that beset his government.

Some highlights:

  • Scott Pruitt, who ultimately lost his job as EPA administrator because of serial ethical abuses and clubbiness with lobbyists, had a section in his vetting dossier flagging "coziness with big energy companies."
  • Tom Price, who ultimately resigned as Health and Human Services secretary after Trump lost confidence in him in part for stories about his use of chartered flights, had sections in his dossier flagging "criticisms of management ability" and "Dysfunction And Division Has Haunted Price's Leadership Of The House Budget Committee."
  • Mick Mulvaney, now Trump's acting chief of staff, had a striking assortment of red flags, including his assessment that Trump "is not a very good person."
  • The Trump transition team was so worried about Rudy Giuliani, in line for secretary of state, that they created a separate 25-page document titled "Rudy Giuliani Business Ties Research Dossier" with copious accounting of his "foreign entanglements."
  • One red flag for Gen. David Petraeus, then under consideration for secretary of state and national security adviser: "Petraeus Is Opposed to Torture."

Behind the scenes: In the chaotic weeks after Trump's surprise victory, Trump fired Chris Christie as transition chief. The new team outsourced the political vetting of would-be top officials to the Republican National Committee.

  • We obtained the RNC's political vetting dossiers on Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, Don McGahn, Laura Ingraham, Elaine Chao, John Bolton, Scott Pruitt and dozens of others — about 100 people.
  • President-elect Trump reviewed many of these documents at Trump Tower and his Bedminster golf club before his interviews, according to a source with firsthand knowledge.
  • Traditionally, any would-be top official faces three types of vetting: an FBI background check; a scrub for financial conflicts of interest from the Office of Government Ethics; and a deep dive from the president-elect's political team, which veteran Washington lawyers often handle.
  • The documents below are from the political vetting category. According to sources on the RNC vetting team, senior Trump officials asked them to do an initial "scrub" of the public record before Trump met the contenders. But in many cases — for example the choice of Andrew Puzder as Labor secretary — this superficial-by-design RNC vetting was the most substantive vetting the Trump team had done by the time he announced his nominees for top government jobs.

The RNC researchers identified some striking red flags.

  • One red flag for Fox News host Laura Ingraham, considered for White House press secretary: "Ingraham said people should wear diapers instead of sharing bathrooms with transgender people."
  • One heading in the document about Kris Kobach, in the running for Homeland Security secretary, listed "white supremacy" as a vulnerability. It cited accusations from past political opponents that he had ties to white supremacist groups.

The RNC vetted some left field contenders. Nobody we spoke to, including senior members of the transition, could remember why Hollywood talent agent Ari Emanuel was vetted.

Our process: We are publishing a selection of these vetting documents. We redacted personal details that weren't newsworthy, information from spurious sources, material the vetting team described as rumors about contenders’ personal lives, and contact and identification information. All the unredacted information is from public sources.

  • We've reached out for comment to the White House, the Republican National Committee and each person whose vetting form we are publishing. You can see the responses here, and we publish the RNC's full statement in a separate article that has behind-the-scenes details about their work.

White House response: "President Trump has assembled an incredible team throughout the federal government who — in spite of 93% negative news coverage — has accomplished undeniable successes like tax cuts, record employment levels, a booming economy ... unleashing energy exploration, rebuilding the military and crushing ISIS," said principal deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley.

  • "President Trump has done more to improve the lives of the American people in two years — than past presidents have done in eight — and no disgruntled, establishment, D.C. swamp creature's cowardly leaks can change that."

Read the leaked vetting documents here.

Go deeper: Our full story on the Axios stream has more highlights from the huge document dump.

2. Behind the scenes: How Trump's team staffed the U.S. government

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

The documents are the product of a hasty, dysfunctional, thrown-together effort to put together a presidential administration. Christie helmed a traditional transition effort during the campaign. Then, after Trump won, Steve Bannon fired him and tossed most of his work.

The result: Trump's original Cabinet, by most counts, was a mess. Some key Cabinet secretaries opposed him on core philosophical issues, and others had lethal ethical problems. Many are now gone.

Behind the scenes: Trump's frazzled transition team foisted the job of political vetting onto a group of young researchers at the Republican National Committee.

They faced trying circumstances. The contenders were such a motley crew that people who other administrations never would have considered looked like real standouts.

  • "We'd be sitting around and Trump would be like, 'Oh, hey, I'm bringing like Joe Shmoe up to Bedminster for Department of Interior,' and then we were like, 'F---, we need to run a vet on this guy to make sure he's not a kid-toucher,'" said one source involved in the vetting. "It was just a clown show."

Problems: The team foresaw some of the problems that plagued the Trump Cabinet (including Scott Pruitt's ethical issues). But in the rush, they also overlooked a bit.

  • Andrew Puzder, Trump's first pick for Labor secretary, is a good example. The Trump transition team vetted him in a hurry. And they missed that his ex-wife had accused him of domestic violence — an allegation she later retracted. Puzder withdrew the day before his confirmation hearing.

The response: RNC spokesperson Mike Reed defended the team's work. "It is not abnormal for a presidential transition team to utilize the national party committee as a resource in putting together background briefings on potential nominees and executive branch staff," he said. Read the full statement here.

Between the lines: Nobody we spoke to who worked at the senior levels of the transition could point us to any additional political vetting that was done before Trump announced his nominees. (Hence, the Puzder situation.)

  • This is how Trump works; he makes announcements on the fly, and his team scrambles to catch up. It was a problem during the transition, and it persists today.
  • Earlier this year, for instance, he announced he would nominate Herman Cain and Stephen Moore to the Fed. Neither had been vetted, and both withdrew because of reputational problems (for instance, Cain’s email list hawked wacky theories and products, including a cure for erectile dysfunction).
  • And Patrick Shanahan, his pick for Defense secretary, withdrew from contention last week after allegations of violent domestic situations involving his wife and son surfaced.

Go deeper: Read our full inside story here, including more from the RNC vetters themselves.

3. The consequences: Empty chairs and preventable mistakes

Trump started his presidency on the back foot when it came to personnel. Now, he has confirmed fewer senior administration officials at this stage of his presidency than any of the previous four presidents, according to analysis provided to Axios by the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.

  • Trump has withdrawn twice as many nominees as President Obama at the same point in time in his administration, 65:31, according to the Partnership for Public Service's data.
  • Trump has withdrawn one nominee for every 11 confirmations, the worst ratio of any other president from George H.W. Bush to Obama, according to the data.

Between the lines: The withdrawal numbers we cite above are only the formal withdrawals. This understates the problem, as Trump tends to announce people for senior jobs and then withdraws them before he formally nominates them. (Recent examples: Herman Cain, Stephen Moore, Patrick Shanahan.)

Expand chart
Note: Data excludes non-civilian and judiciary positions; Data: Partnership for Public Service; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios
4. The "red flags" for top Trump officials

Most of the vetting files had a section called "red flags," where the vetting team noted concerns about potential top officials. Axios' data wizards Chris Canipe and Lazaro Gamio categorized them all — for the nearly 100 people whose vetting documents we received.

Expand chart
Data: Axios analysis; Chart: Chris Canipe and Lazaro Gamio/Axios
5. Trump to Iran: I'll talk with "no preconditions"

President Trump speaks one-on-one with Chuck Todd from the White House in an interview aired this morning on "Meet the Press." Photo: NBC News/Meet the Press

Trump provided some big news and striking statements to NBC's "Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd.

Driving the news: Trump told Todd he's willing to speak with Iran with no preconditions. "I'm not looking for war, and if there is, it'll be obliteration like you've never seen before. But I'm not looking to do that. But you can't have a nuclear weapon. You want to talk? Good ... No preconditions."

  • Todd asked Trump whether he'll mention election interference when he sees Vladimir Putin at the G20 next week. Trump's sarcastic response: "I may if you'd like me to do it, I'll do that."

Other highlights of the Trump interview:

  • "I have doves and I have hawks. ... John Bolton is absolutely a hawk. If it was up to him, he'd take on the whole world at one time, OK? But that doesn't matter because I want both sides."
  • Todd asked Trump if he could have one do-over as president, what would it be? Trump replied: "Well, it would be personnel. ... I would say if I had one do over ... I would not have appointed Jeff Sessions to be attorney general ... that was the biggest mistake."

Also worthy of your time: Jake Tapper, host of CNN's "State of the Union," grilled Vice President Pence on Iran, climate change, immigration and more. It's worth watching in full.

  • During the interview, Pence told Tapper the president planned to hit Iran with additional sanctions, which Trump plans to announce tomorrow.
6. Sneak Peek diary

Photo: Mike Kline (notkalvin)/Getty Images

The House plans to vote on a bill for additional humanitarian and security spending at the southern border.

The Senate will vote to proceed on the National Defense Authorization Act, per a Republican leadership aide. "We expect floor action on the border supplemental package that passed the appropriations committee with near unanimous support this week," the aide added.

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

  • Monday: Trump will have lunch with Mike Pence and sign an executive order on "improving price and quality transparency in health care." (This is part of the White House strategy you read about in Sneak Peek a few months ago.)
  • Tuesday: Trump will present the Medal of Honor to former Army Staff Sgt. David G. Bellavia for his service in Iraq.
  • Wednesday: Trump will give a speech to a big evangelical audience at the Faith & Freedom Coalition's "Road to Majority Policy Conference."
  • Thursday: Trump leaves for Osaka, Japan. Per the Japan Times: "Much attention is focused on whether there will be a breakthrough in Beijing’s trade tensions with Washington when Xi holds talks with U.S. President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the two-day G20 summit."

We'll also be watching:

  • The Democratic presidential debates on Wednesday and Thursday nights.
  • The next steps in the first stage of the rollout of Trump's peace plan for the Middle East. Yesterday, the White House released its long-awaited economic plan: "A new vision for the Palestinian people." Axios contributor Barak Ravid reported on its contents.
    • On Tuesday and Wednesday, senior Trump officials including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner (who has led the peace efforts) will join a conference in Bahrain where Middle East politicians and private business leaders will discuss opportunities for investment in Palestinian areas.
Alayna Treene