Oct 25, 2020

Axios Sneak Peek

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

  • There are 9 days left until the election.

Situational awareness: Monday on “Axios on HBO,” Rep. Ilhan Omar tells Axios' Alexi McCammond that progressive Democrats should fill every Cabinet seat if Biden wins. (clip)

  • Catch the full interview and much more at 11:16pm ET/PT on all HBO platforms.

Tonight's newsletter is 1,522 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing ... Scoop: Trump's post-election execution list

Photo illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photo: David Becker/Getty Images

If President Trump wins re-election, he'll move to immediately fire FBI Director Christopher Wray and also expects to replace CIA Director Gina Haspel and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, two people who've discussed these officials' fates with the president tell Axios' Jonathan Swan and me.

The big picture: The list of planned replacements is much longer, but these are Trump's priorities, starting with Wray.

  • Wray and Haspel are despised and distrusted almost universally in Trump's inner circle. He would have fired both already, one official said, if not for the political headaches of acting before Nov. 3.

Why it matters: A win, no matter the margin, will embolden Trump to ax anyone he sees as constraining him from enacting desired policies or going after perceived enemies.

  • Trump last week signed an executive order that set off alarm bells as a means to politicize the civil service. An administration official said the order "is a really big deal" that would make it easier for presidents to get rid of career government officials.
  • There could be shake-ups across other departments. The president has never been impressed with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, for example. But that doesn't carry the urgency of replacing Wray or Haspel.
  • The nature of top intelligence and law enforcement posts has traditionally carried an expectation for a higher degree of independence and separation from politics.

Be smart: While Trump has also privately vented about Attorney General Bill Barr, he hasn't made any formal plans to replace him, an official said.

  • Trump is furious that Barr isn't releasing before the election what Trump hoped would be a bombshell report by U.S. Attorney John Durham on the Obama administration's handling of the Trump-Russia investigation.
  • Durham's investigation has yet to produce any high-profile indictments of Obama-era officials as Trump had hoped.
  • "The attorney general wants to finish the work that he's been involved in since day one," a senior administration official told Axios.

Behind the scenes: "The view of Haspel in the West Wing is that she still sees her job as manipulating people and outcomes, the way she must have when she was working assets in the field," one source with direct knowledge of the internal conversations told Axios. "It's bred a lot of suspicion of her motives."

  • Trump is also increasingly frustrated with Haspel for opposing Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe's declassification of documents that would help the Justice Department's Durham report.
  • A source familiar with conversations at the CIA says, "Since the beginning of DNI's push to declassify documents, and how strongly she feels about protecting sources connected to those materials, there have been rumblings around the agency that the director plans to depart the CIA regardless of who wins the election.”

As for Wray, whose expected firing was first reported by the Washington Post, Trump is angry his second FBI chief didn't launch a formal investigation into Hunter Biden's foreign business connections — and didn't purge more officials Trump believes abused power to investigate his 2016 campaign's ties to Russia.

  • Trump also grew incensed when Wray testified in September that the FBI has not seen widespread election fraud, including with mail-in ballots.

Trump soured on Esper over the summer when the Defense secretary rebuffed the idea of sending active-duty military into the streets to deal with racial justice protests and distanced himself from the clearing of Lafayette Square for a photo op at St. John's church.

  • Trump indicated to Axios then that he "really wasn't focused on" firing Esper. One senior official cautioned that others who want the Pentagon job could be driving speculation to undercut Esper. But one source, who discussed options with Trump, told Axios he urged the president to wait until post-election to replace him.

Read the full version, which includes comments from the White House and Pentagon.

2. Trump 2.0 would bring more loyalty tests

President Trump shaking hands with Chris LIddell in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, Jan. 30, 2017. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Chris Liddell, Trump's deputy chief of staff for policy coordination, is heading the White House’s transition effort, including vetting potential new Cabinet officials, two White House officials told Axios.

Don't forget: The transition between first and second terms is traditionally a time when presidents who win re-election accept resignations and switch out their teams.

  • Former chiefs of staff to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, speaking on David Marchick's "Transition Lab" podcast, said their administrations didn't prepare enough for a "robust transition" between terms.
  • Bush's former chief Josh Bolten said he'd advise Trump to "rethink all of your personnel and know what your priorities are."
3. Election night in Trumpworld

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Chris Carlson-Pool/Getty Images

A luxe election-night watch party at the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue is being planned for President Trump's donors, friends and advisers — but Trump's hand in it is minimal because he's "very superstitious" — people familiar with the plans tell me.

The big picture: This "mecca for all things MAGA," as one adviser described it, is one of three hubs where they say Trumpworld will watch returns. The others are the war room at campaign HQ in Rosslyn, Virginia, and the White House residence, where Trump and the first lady will gather close family and advisers before heading to the hotel later that night, the sources said.

  • Early talk of an election-night party in Florida at Mar-a-Lago was scrapped, another Trump adviser said.
  • The Trump campaign declined to comment.

The intrigue: "Trump is very superstitious," one Trump adviser tells me. "He doesn't like the idea of planning a victory party, he didn't like it in 2016, either."

What we're hearing: Since the massive use of mail-in ballots this year means the election may not be called on Nov. 3, Trump revelers may toast each state that goes in the win column, then go home to wait for more answers.

4. Texas Dems beg Biden to spend now

A poll worker in Austin, Texas, helps a voter at a mail-in ballot drop-off location, Oct. 13. Photo: Sergio Flores/Getty Images

The Biden campaign is rebuffing persistent pleas from Texas Democrats to spend at least $10 million in the Lone Star state, several people familiar with the talks tell Axios' Alexi McCammond and Hans Nichols.

Why it matters: If Texas — which has 38 electoral votes and is steadily getting more blue, but hasn't backed a Democrat for president since 1976 — flipped to the Biden column, it would be game over. But the RealClearPolitics polling average stubbornly hovers at +2.6 for Trump — and Team Biden appears more focused on closer targets.

State of play: Beto O'Rourke and others say Biden's haul — $383 million in September alone — means there's nothing to lose by spending more than the planned $6.2 million in Texas to target Latino and young voters.

  • “There are gaps that need to be filled, especially on the border and in San Antonio,” Texas Democratic Party chair Gilberto Hinojosa told Axios.
  • "The resources they can send would seal the deal and calcify the work we’ve already been doing in the state," said Rep. Veronica Escobar, adding, "The window of opportunity to make a difference is closing."

Don't forget: Hillary Clinton lost Texas by 800,000+ votes in 2016, compared with Barack Obama's 1.2 million+ deficit. In the 2018 Senate race, O'Rourke lost to Sen. Ted Cruz by around 215,000 votes.

What to watch: Kamala Harris will travel to Texas on Friday.

5. Amy Coney Barrett's immediate impact

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

In her first week on the job, Amy Coney Barrett may be deciding which votes to count in the presidential election. By her third week, she’ll be deciding the fate of the Affordable Care Act, Axios' Sam Baker and I report.

Where it stands: The Senate votes on Barrett’s nomination tomorrow. If she’s confirmed, Chief Justice John Roberts is expected to swear her in at the Supreme Court within hours, an administration official tells me.

  • At that point, she's officially on the job, even if a ceremonial swearing-in at the White House comes later.
  • The official said they're following the same speedy process as they did for Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. He was confirmed on a Saturday and began hearing cases on Tuesday.
  • This means Barrett could weigh in immediately on election-related cases piling up, including emergency petitions on extending deadlines for counting absentee ballots.

Between the lines: Barrett could seal a majority delivering Republicans some decisive wins.

  • Because of a 4-4 tie last week, the court let stand an extended ballot-counting deadline in Pennsylvania. Roberts joined the three remaining liberals, while his conservative colleagues voted to block the extension.
  • If that conservative bloc held and was joined by Barrett, it could change how ballots are counted after Election Day in two critical swing states, Wisconsin and North Carolina.
  • More election-related lawsuits could reach the court in the coming weeks.

What’s next: Barrett also could jump straight into some enormously consequential work on the court’s regular schedule.

  • On Nov. 4, the court will hear a significant case on the collision of LGBTQ rights and religious freedom: whether Philadelphia violated the First Amendment by requiring adoption agencies to serve same-sex couples.
  • The week of Nov. 10, the court is scheduled to hear the Affordable Care Act case that dominated Barrett’s confirmation hearings.
6. Sneak Peek diary

Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee leave the Capitol after a boycott of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, Oct. 22. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The House is on recess through the election.

The Senate will vote on Barrett's confirmation on Monday.

President Trump will be on the road every day between now and Election Day.

  • Monday: Trump will speak at campaign rallies in Allentown, Lititz and Martinsburg, Pennsylvania.
  • Tuesday: Trump will deliver remarks at rallies in in Lansing, Michigan; West Salem, Wisconsin; and Omaha, Nebraska.

Vice President Mike Pence plans to continue large-scale, multi-state campaign events even after multiple aides' fresh COVID-19 diagnoses.

  • After North Carolina today, he's to travel to Minnesota tomorrow, and North Carolina and South Carolina on Tuesday.

Joe Biden will speak at a campaign event in Warm Springs, Georgia, on Tuesday.