Jun 14, 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.

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Tonight's newsletter is 1,656 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Scoop—Trump's loyalty cop clashes with agency heads

Photo Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Trump, in a highly unusual new effort, has begun making significant staffing changes inside top federal agencies without the consent — and, in at least one case, without even the knowledge — of the agency head, according to officials familiar with the effort.

  • This campaign — helmed by Trump's loyalty enforcer, a 30-year-old former body man who now runs hiring for the government — is part of the systematic purging or reassigning of those deemed insufficiently supportive of Trump.
  • The effort's pace has alarmed top officials, according to 11 current and former officials with direct knowledge of the situation.

Behind the scenes: Trump has empowered John McEntee, director of the Presidential Personnel Office, in a way his predecessors never were. In his short time on the job, McEntee has flexed this power, steamrolling Cabinet officials and agency heads to install his chosen candidates.

  • An extraordinary scene played out late in the morning on March 26, according to two administration officials with direct knowledge of the events, when Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of Homeland Security, learned he would have a new head of public affairs at his agency.
  • A crucial position such as this would normally be appointed only with the agency head's support. But Wolf learned about his new public affairs chief, Alexei Woltornist, by reading the White House's public press release.
  • Wolf was furious, according to these sources. He called the White House Situation Room to try to reach McEntee to find out how this could happen without his knowledge, let alone consent. And he complained privately to colleagues about how PPO treated him.

McEntee's new team has clashed with multiple other agencies, including the Pentagon. McEntee has overruled Defense Secretary Mark Esper on a number of important appointments, which we detail in this story.

In response to this reporting, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews said in a statement: "John McEntee is an invaluable member of the White House and he's been doing an excellent job leading the critical Presidential Personnel Office which is responsible for staffing up hundreds of political jobs across the federal agencies."

Go deeper: Read the full story.

2. Between the lines: How Trump hiring differs from other presidents

McEntee tests job seekers' loyalty to Trump in informal conversations, and he has formalized this emphasis in a new "research questionnaire."

  • Axios has obtained McEntee's questionnaire for potential political appointees. CNN first reported the existence of the document.
  • One question on the form: "What part of Candidate Trump's campaign message most appealed to you and why?"
  • We've uploaded the previous version of the questionnaire and McEntee's new version:

Read the old version.

Read McEntee's new version.

The big picture: Top personnel officials from previous administrations say they looked for people who supported their presidents' agendas and avoided candidates with the potential to publicly criticize or embarrass the president. But they said McEntee's heavy emphasis on loyalty over experience is unusual.

  • Rudy Mehrbani, the director of President Obama's Presidential Personnel Office, said of the new McEntee questionnaire: "We never used a form like this one — designed to test a candidate's fealty to the president and his ideology — when I was at PPO. As I've written and said elsewhere, these questions provide further proof that this iteration of PPO prioritizes loyalty to Trump over quality and competence."
  • A former senior official in President George W. Bush's PPO said: "I would venture to say we placed a much bigger emphasis on experience and qualifications than this White House appears to be doing."
  • "All nominees need to be supportive of the president, but you also need experience," the former Bush official added. "And when the people selecting don't have the experience to vet candidates, you have a problem."

The bottom line: A senior administration official said his concern about McEntee's modus operandi is that "there's no way that PPO can ever be in a position to assess if an appointee is professionally qualified to fill a role — the subject matters are too varied and there are internal politics at play in the departments."

  • "PPO needs to work with the Cabinet secretaries and not against them," the official said. "Otherwise you're going to end up with sidelined ideologues in all of the senior positions, and the secretaries will rely on career leadership."

Go deeper: Read the full story.

3. What's next: Team Biden

Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden campaign plans to hammer President Trump this week with targeted attacks in battleground states where COVID-19 infection rates are rising — including Florida and North Carolina. A campaign official said the attacks, delivered in press calls and high-level surrogate virtual events, will focus on his reopening of the economy.

In a statement to Axios, Deputy Campaign Manager Kate Bedingfield previewed the Biden campaign's message for this week:

  • "Donald Trump profoundly failed our nation by refusing to act on countless warnings from his own experts and from Joe Biden as the coronavirus outbreak spread around the world."
  • "Trump's lack of a coherent response to the worst public health crisis in generations has cost almost 115,000 Americans their lives, triggered historic job losses, and thrown our nation into chaos..."
  • "[I]nstead of finally doing his job and helping the country safely reopen, the virus is resurgent in nearly 20 states and the president is AWOL without a plan while still not rushing to give states the testing, contact tracing, and other resources they need to get this under control and repair the terrible damage his incompetence has wrought on our economy."

Trump campaign's response: "Biden has been lobbing ineffective partisan bombs from his basement, trying to undermine confidence in the federal response, and has sought relevance where there is none," said the Trump campaign's communications director Tim Murtaugh.

  • "Voters know that President Trump built the American economy to unprecedented heights before it was artificially interrupted, and he will do it again."
  • "As the record 2.5 million jobs created in May prove, the Great American Comeback is already underway. Joe Biden is actively rooting against a recovery, knowing that good news for Americans is bad for him..."
  • "On all economic issues, President Trump wins hands-down, and voters know it."
4. What's next: Team Trump

Photo: David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

Recent polls have been brutal for President Trump. He trails Joe Biden by almost 10 points nationally and is behind in nearly every battleground state. His support among independents has fallen amid his handling of the recent protests. And women currently favor Biden over Trump by a margin bigger than in any presidential contest in modern history.

Yes, but: It's only June, and Trump's advisers point to several reasons for hope. Voters still trust him more than Biden to handle the economy. Biden has weaker support than Hillary Clinton did among Hispanic voters. And, as CNN's Harry Enten writes, Trump's supporters "are much more enthusiastic about voting for their candidate than Biden's supporters are voting for theirs."

Trump wants to run as the candidate of "law and order." But one reason Trump 2020 is not analogous to Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign — based on the same theme — is that Nixon wasn't president while he exploited fear of violence in American cities during that volatile year. Nixon was campaigning against a chaos for which voters could not conceivably hold him responsible.

  • Trump, however, leads a nation roiled by protests and bursts of looting and violence. Trump's aides say he needs to paint a picture of what a Biden presidency would look like. So, naturally, he grabs onto what he considers the most unappealing excesses of the left and tries to brand Biden with these images.
  • That's why Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller calls the Seattle Autonomous Zone a "Biden Zone." The message: "This is what all of our cities will look like if Joe Biden gets elected."

Trump is already road-testing a tactic that advisers plan to use on nearly every issue that arises between now and November. When Biden hits him on an issue, Trump has a go-to rejoinder: What did Biden do to fix that problem during his 36 years in the Senate and his eight years as vice president?

  • The message they're trying to convey to voters: You can't be a change candidate when you've been part of a failed Washington establishment for more than 40 years.

The Biden campaign's response: "As he exacerbates crisis after crisis, Trump has stepped on his own message so much that he no longer even has one," said Andrew Bates, Biden's director of rapid response.

  • "Any politician who tear-gasses Americans peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights for a cynical photo-op, who defiles the Department of Justice by treating it as an extension of his re-election campaign, and who has leached untold millions off of taxpayers into his own pocket while still refusing to show them his own tax returns has no business saying that he stands for either 'law' or 'order.'"
5. Sneak Peek diary

Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

The House will begin marking up two sweeping bills on Wednesday, Axios' Alayna Treene reports.

  • The House Judiciary Committee will mark up the "Justice in Policing Act of 2020," its comprehensive police reform bill that would ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants, limit "qualified immunity" for police officers, and create a nationwide police misconduct registry, among other provisions.
  • The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will also mark up the "INVEST in America" Act, which would authorize nearly $500 billion over five years to bolster U.S. infrastructure, including improving roads and bridges and reducing carbon pollution.

On Monday, the House Education and Labor Committee will hold a virtual hearing to address the impacts of COVID-19 on education. Go deeper on how former education secretaries are trying to fill the void left by Betsy DeVos.

On Wednesday, the Small Business Committee will hold a hearing examining loan forgiveness under the Paycheck Protection Program.

The Senate will continue its debate on the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act this week.

  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also filed cloture on Judge Justin Walker to be the U.S. Circuit Judge for the District of Columbia. A McConnell spokesman said his cloture and confirmation vote is expected to take place next week.
  • Sen. Tim Scott is also expected to unveil Senate Republicans' package addressing police reform. The measure is expected to make lynching a federal crime and would threaten funding cuts if states don't force their police departments to report significantly more detail on officers' use of force.

On Tuesday, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell will testify before the Senate Banking Committee on the semiannual monetary policy report.

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

  • Monday: Trump will host a roundtable to help America's senior citizens.
    Wednesday: The president will announce the "PREVENTS Task Force Road Map," which will highlight the administration's work to prevent veteran suicide and offer mental health resources to veterans.
  • Thursday: Trump will discuss boosting rural broadband.
  • Saturday: Trump will host a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla.
Jonathan Swan