Axios Sneak Peek

The back of a propped up cardboard cut-out of the U.S. Capitol.

September 23, 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.

  • Situational awareness: Brace yourselves for a wild week. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, are expected to testify on Thursday; an important NAFTA deadline looms; and with the Sept. 30 government funding deadline arriving next Sunday, Trump has to decide whether he's going to shut down the government because Congress won't give him enough money to build his wall.

For D.C. readers: An Axios vape event! Join Mike Allen for breakfast this Tuesday where he'll go deeper on the rapid rise of vaping and why it matters with FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, American Vaping Association President Gregory Conley and CATCH Global Foundation CEO Duncan Van Dusen. RSVP here. 

1 big thing: Scoop — The Trump admin's secret anti-China plans

An American Eagle lands on a Chinese flag.

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

The Trump administration is planning to launch a major, "administration-wide," broadside against China, according to two sources briefed on the sensitive internal discussions. These sources, who weren't authorized to discuss the plans with the media, told me the effort is expected to launch in the next few weeks.

The details:

  • The broadside against China — which is planned to be both rhetorical and substantive — will be "administration-wide," including the White House (led by senior officials on the National Security Council), Treasury, Commerce and Defense.
  • "We're not just going to let Russia be the bogeyman," one White House official told me. "It's Russia and China."
  • The White House plans to unveil new information about China's hostile actions against America's public and private sectors, and to act on it.
  • Administration officials will call out China for its "malign activity" in cyberattacks, election interference and industrial warfare (e.g., intellectual property theft), an administration source told me.
  • The administration has marshaled tons of data to support its charges against China. "We are going to show how the Chinese have infiltrated the U.S. and what we are doing to counter it," the source said.

Behind the scenes: "The push is coming from the national security apparatus," the source added. "Cyber theft has been appearing more often in the PDBs [President's Daily Brief]."

The unknowns: Neither administration official explained why the administration is pursuing this now. China has been an aggressor on trade and cyber issues for years, and the Trump administration has started a trade war with the country. At the same time, Trump has maintained cheery rhetoric toward President Xi Jinping in hopes of cooperating on some issues.

  • The extent to which Trump will lead this rhetorical push isn’t clear. But he's green lit it, according to a source familiar with the planning.
  • There's a good chance Trump will keep saying positive things about Xi to protect their relationship, delegating the hottest rhetoric to China hawks like Peter Navarro.

2. "Sovereignty week" at the United Nations

Trump busting out of a United Nations logo.

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

President Trump will address the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday. A source briefed on his remarks shared one word on his theme: "Sovereignty."

  • "Mutual respect and sovereignty" will be his frame for cooperation with other countries, another source with direct knowledge of his remarks told me.
  • He'll talk about reforming international trade, that source added.

With John Bolton as his national security adviser — a man who has fought for decades against international institutions that he believes infringe on U.S. sovereignty — Trump will have plenty of material for such a speech.

  • In his speech to last year's UN General Assembly, Trump branded Kim Jong-un "Rocket Man" and said the U.S. may have "no choice but to totally destroy North Korea."
  • Foreign officials were shocked. They'd never heard such incendiary rhetoric from a U.S. president. And Trump loved the headlines.
  • "So you'll have to wonder what the target will be this time, who he will vent against," a Washington diplomat mused to me.

On North Korea: According to a source who's spoken with Trump about North Korea this week, Trump feels good about the latest developments and is "very happy" about the latest letter he received from dictator Kim Jong-un.

  • But hawks worry Trump will be concede too much to North Korea before Kim completely and irreversibly denuclearizes the Korean Peninsula.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is close to Trump, told me, "Here's what I'm concerned about: The letters that Kim Jong-un is sending to Trump are good. It's good to keep a dialogue. But the letters and the behaviors do not match up.

  • "I am very worried about President Moon [of South Korea], who I think is the President Obama of Asia, putting President Trump in a bad spot."
  • "The last thing you want to happen is to lose control of the negotiations. I don't know how much Moon is freelancing here ... but the worst possible outcome is for us to talk about ending the Korean War with a peace treaty before they have a program to give up their nukes."
  • "That's what they want the most, to end the war, get normal relations, have security agreements. But all that comes at the end, not the middle."

3. Behind the scenes: Trump at the UN

Trump addressing the United Nations General Assembly last year.

Trump addressing the United Nations General Assembly last year. Photo: Xinhua/Li Muzi via Getty Images

President Trump plans to use his chairing of the UN Security Council to spotlight two issues: the global opioids epidemic and the "malign activity" of Iran, according to sources with knowledge of his thinking.

Trump plans to address a counter-narcotics summit focused on opioids on Monday, sources familiar with the event told me. Much of the illegal opioids ravaging American streets are coming from factories in China.

  • "This is something he really wants to bring up, how there can be a global effort to fight the opioid crisis," a senior administration official told me.
  • But the event is "primarily for show" and unlikely to produce anything meaningful, a source briefed on the event said.
  • Press Secretary Sarah Sanders pushed back against that characterization. She said that "by the president bringing this up and making it one of the two focal points of his time chairing the UN Security Council, it's impossible for any leader or anyone else to ignore the issue."

On Iran: On Wednesday, Trump will chair a UN Security Council briefing on "counter-proliferation." Sources familiar with the preparations say he will likely spend much of the session beating up on Iran.

  • Trump wants to single out Iran, especially when it comes to ballistic missile proliferation during the era of the Iran deal, according to a source familiar with the administration's plans.

Go deeper: For a preview of coming attractions, read Brian Hook's speech at the Hudson Institute on Thursday. The passage of Hook's speech that caught the attention of insiders:

  • "In fact, and let me be clear about this, Iran’s pace of missiles did not diminish after the Iran deal was implemented in January 2016, Iran has conducted multiple ballistic missile launches since that time.
  • "We assess that in January 2017, Iran launched a medium-range missile believed to be the Khorramshahr. This missile is designed to carry a payload greater than 500 kilograms and could be used to carry nuclear warheads. Its suspected range also approaches 2,000 kilometers, which is far enough to target some European capitals."

A Republican foreign policy official told me: "The administration is pissed the Europeans are refusing to do anything about it, so they're going to continue laying out evidence in front of the public to shame them into acting. ... Hook's Hudson speech contained some of that and you should expect to see more at UNGA about Iran's missile threat."

4. Dems build lead for midterms

"Democrats hold a 12-point lead in congressional preference among registered voters," according to a new national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

  • In August, the same poll had Dems up by 8 percentage points. The shift is within the poll's margin of error, but it reflects mounting bad data for Republicans heading into November.

Why this matters: If Democrats hold a 12-point generic ballot lead on Election Day, they would comfortably take the House.

After reviewing the NBC/WSJ poll this morning, a former NRCC official from the Republicans' triumphant 2010 cycle sent me this text message:

  • "It was this week in 2010 when the bottom fell out for the Democrats. That's why the Republican campaign committees and outside groups are hoarding money.
  • "They aren't going to spend millions propping up GOP incumbents who didn't do their jobs just so they could limp into October only to lose by double digits a few weeks from now.

Bottom line: "There are probably a dozen or so GOP incumbents who are dead men walking," the former NRCC official said. "They just don't know it yet."

5. Senators scramble ahead of Kavanaugh-Ford hearing

Brett Kavanaugh sitting at table with microphone testifying

Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sept. 6. Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

After several days of what Hill sources called a never-ending game of pingpong, Christine Blasey Ford's attorney told the Senate Judiciary Committee her client will testify in an open hearing on Thursday.

Why it matters: The uncertainty and sensitivity of Thursday's showdown has key senators scrambling to prepare for the moment, writes my colleague Alayna Treene.

The latest:

  • A Senate Judiciary staffer told Axios that, in a call with aides for Chairman Chuck Grassley and ranking member Dianne Feinstein on Sunday morning, Ford's lawyer, Debra Katz, requested that the committee meet 10 conditions, including enhanced security during the hearing, an equal amount of time for senators to ask questions (a standard practice) and that the number of cameras in the room are limited. Grassley agreed to 6 of the 10 requests.
  • Email correspondence between the committee and Katz, obtained by Axios, also showed that Ford had specifically asked that the committee subpoena Mark Judge, the man who Ford alleges was in the room when Kavanaugh allegedly assaulted her. (Judge denies being there.)
  • The emails also showed that Ford had asked that she testify before Kavanaugh and that she preferred to answer questions from senators, not lawyers hired by the committee.
  • Grassley's team denied these requests, stating in a series of emails: "The Committee determines which witnesses to call, how many witnesses to call, in what order to call them, and who will question them. These are non-negotiable."

What to watch: Several Democratic senators on the committee plan to focus on Kavanaugh's behavior in high school and question his character, sources with direct knowledge of their intentions tell Axios.

  • Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) has met with sexual assault survivors and legal experts to prepare.
  • Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) will draw on her legal background and experience with sexual assault cases to shape her approach.

How it's playing on the right: Conservative activists are increasingly frustrated with the delays, and Republicans involved in the process are sensitive to their complaints.

  • Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin and Concerned Women for America CEO Penny Nance have complained that the GOP is caving to Democrats' "delay circus," saying this could hurt the party in the midterms.

6. Big Tech preps for Senate showdown

Google sign

Photo: Michele Tantussi/Getty Images

Some of the biggest tech and telecom companies are preparing for members of the Senate Commerce Committee to grill them over their data practices this week.

Why it matters: Industry players are trying to shape the debate as Congress considers passing its own privacy rules, writes my colleague David McCabe.

The details:

  • "Consumers deserve clear answers and standards on data privacy protection," says committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) in a statement.
  • Witnesses include staffers from Google, Amazon, Apple, Twitter, AT&T and Charter Communications.
  • While Thune wants to produce privacy legislation, that may not happen until next year.

What we're hearing: The companies will take different approaches depending on how key user data is to their business models.

  • Google expects to defend its underlying business while endorsing the broad idea of privacy regulation. It will release its own framework for privacy rules ahead of the hearing.
  • "We want to reiterate how important user trust is to our business and our long-term success. It feels like that gets lost in the public conversation sometimes," the search giant's Chief Privacy Officer Keith Enright tells Axios.

Silicon Valley is playing defense in more ways than one this week, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions is expected to convene a meeting with his state counterparts to discuss concerns about major social media platforms.

7. Scoop — What Apple will tell the Senate

man looking at new iphone

Photo: Qi Heng/VCG via Getty Images

Apple will pledge its support for "comprehensive" federal privacy regulations during a Senate hearing this week, according to an executive's prepared testimony obtained by Axios. It'll be the first time Apple has made this explicit to Congress.

The big picture: Expect Apple's Bud Tribble to underscore the difference between the hardware maker, which doesn't need to make money from user data, with companies like Google, which have built their business model on it, my colleague David McCabe writes.

What he'll say: Tribble, a member of the original Apple Macintosh design team who leads the company's privacy engineering work, will "convey Apple's support for comprehensive federal privacy legislation that reflects Apple's long-held view that privacy is a fundamental human right" during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Wednesday.

  • "We want your device to know everything about you; we don't feel that we should," he’ll say. "These concepts have guided our design process for years because privacy is a core value at Apple, not an obligation or an aftermarket add-on."

Tribble will be testifying alongside representatives from Google, Twitter and Amazon as well as internet service providers AT&T and Charter Communications.

  • Apple has tried to set itself apart from web platforms that have successfully monetized user data, with CEO Tim Cook calling for "well-crafted" regulation earlier this year.

Driving the news: Some lawmakers in D.C. are scrambling to create federal privacy rules after tight regulations went into effect in Europe and California's state legislature passed its own rules.

  • Industry groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have said that federal policymakers should create rules that would pre-empt state action.

8. What's next: Trump's NAFTA dilemma

Donald Trump

Trump speaks on the telephone via speakerphone with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto in the Oval Office Aug. 27. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Trade watchers call Sept. 30 the "AMLO deadline" for President Trump's efforts to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

  • If the Trump administration can't strike a deal with Canada and Mexico by next Sunday — and the Canadians are showing few signs they'll comply with Trump's demands — it means Mexico's incoming leftist leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) would have to sign the final deal.
  • Everyone involved has been trying to avoid that scenario. AMLO has campaigned on far more aggressive changes to NAFTA than have been agreed to by Trump and current Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.
  • It's an image issue; AMLO and his team don't want his face tied to the new NAFTA, so by Pena Nieto signing the deal, he gives the new leftist leader political room to claim the new deal was a "fait accompli."

Assuming Canada doesn't cave, Trump has two options on the 30th:

  1. Delay the release of the trilateral deal, which would be a concession that AMLO has to be the one to sign the deal.
  2. Publish the text of a U.S.-Mexico only agreement. That would raise all sorts of questions, including how to get such a deal through a very skeptical Congress and how these amazing new automobile rules of origin would work without Canada.

Go deeper: To understand the fraught state of the NAFTA negotiations, read Phil Levy's latest for Forbes. "It really means," writes Levy, "that the odds of a revised NAFTA being implemented anytime soon just went from slim to slightly slimmer."

9. Sneak Peek diary

The House will pass the most important spending bill of the season. The package contains funding for the departments of Defense, Labor, Health and Human Services, and tacked onto it is a short-term continuation of funding for the remaining government agencies that didn't have their funding covered by normal spending bills. The bill, which keeps the government open until Dec. 7, will go to Trump's desk this week.

Why this matters:

  • The government runs out of money on Sept. 30, and Trump has been publicly flirting with the idea of shutting down the government because Congress won't give him the money he needs to build his wall.
  • This bill won't have Trump's wall money, but he's privately assured Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan that he'll defer this politically costly fight until after the November midterm elections.

The Senate will confirm Jackie Wolcott to be the U.S. representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency. McConnell will also work to confirm Peter Feldman to be a commissioner of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

  • But Capitol Hill will be preoccupied by one event: Brett Kavanaugh and his sexual assault accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, testifying before the Judiciary Committee. After days of negotiation, Ford's lawyer agreed today that her client would appear at the open hearing, 10 a.m. Thursday.

President Trump's schedule at the UN General Assembly in New York, per a White House official:

  • Monday: Trump will address a counter-narcotics session titled, "Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem." The president will also host a reception for heads of state and will have bilateral meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and French President Emmanuel Macron.
  • Tuesday: Trump will address the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly — his major speech for the week. Trump will have "pull-aside" meetings with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and UNGA President Maria Fernanda Espinosa. Trump will also have a bilateral meeting with Colombian President Ivan Duque Marquez, attend a lunch hosted by Guterres, and the U.S. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley’s "Security Council Presidency Reception."
  • Wednesday: Trump chairs the UN Security Council briefing on "counter-proliferation." Trump tweeted on Friday that he would focus the meeting on Iran. Trump will also have bilateral meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and UK Prime Minister Theresa May.

10. 1 fun thing: Hot comma talk, with Chuck Todd and Mike Pompeo

Chuck Todd and Mike Pompeo

Chuck Todd (L) and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appear in a pretaped interview on "Meet the Press" in Washington, D.C., Sept. 22. Photo: William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images

On Saturday morning, NBC’s Chuck Todd met with Mike Pompeo in the ornate Ben Franklin room of the State Department ahead of their “Meet the Press” taping.

Their small talk before the interview, according to a source with direct knowledge, turned to CNN's amazing punctuation scoop: "Pompeo cracks down, on improper use, of commas at State Department."

  • A leaked State Department email obtained by CNN suggests the secretary of state "appears to have had it, up to, here, with, the rampant, improper use of commas by State Department staff."
  • "It also notes that Pompeo prefers adherence to the Chicago Manual of Style…"

Pompeo's staff wouldn't comment on internal documents, but my source confirms the secretary's debate with Todd "spanned from the proper use of the comma to the semicolon."

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.