Axios Sneak Peek

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May 12, 2019

Welcome to Sneak Peek, our weekly lookahead for both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, plus my best scoops. Please encourage your friends and colleagues to sign up.

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1 big thing: The "Year Five Plan" — Team Trump's post-election dream

A Trump 2021 yard sign
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Some of President Trump’s top aides, who assume he will be re-elected, are already planning for an epic 2021 spending battle.

  • Senior administration officials — including acting Office of Management and Budget director Russ Vought and fiscally conservative chief Mick Mulvaney — have told Republicans that the president doesn't want Congress to strike a spending deal in September when current funding runs out.
  • Instead, Team Trump wants a short-term solution to preserve the ability to fight for massive spending cuts in the fifth year of a Trump presidency.
  • The White House thinks the most likely scenario this year is that the president signs a one-year "continuing resolution" (a continuation of 2019 spending levels through 2020), followed by another short-term extension next September to get past the November election.

Why it matters: Some senior administration officials envision a newly re-elected Trump liberated to slash spending. They view 2021 as the year to have that fight — the final year in which the president can threaten hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of automatic spending cuts known as the sequester. (These automatic cuts, which attack both defense and domestic spending, expire in 2021.)

  • As president, Trump has floated massive budget cuts but signed legislation making the debt and deficits worse.
  • It's a huge broken promise. During his 2016 campaign, Trump said he would eliminate the $19 trillion debt over eight years. The debt now stands at $22 trillion — the highest ever.
  • Trump has spent prolifically, cutting taxes without making up the lost revenue. And now, he’s flirting with a $2 trillion infrastructure bill (but doesn't want to raise taxes to pay for it).

The big picture: Trump wants to spend more on prized projects, but still views most of government as a mass of fraud and waste — ripe for slashing.

Aides say Trump wants to spend more on the military, veterans’ programs, NASA, infrastructure and border security.

The bottom line: Trump will entertain cutting almost anything else. "The president feels like he's had to give up ransom" to Democrats, who pressured him to increase domestic spending in exchange for more spending on the military and border security, an administration official told me.

  • He reserves special contempt for foreign aid and additional disaster relief money going to Puerto Rico, which he believes the Puerto Rican government is unfit to manage.

2. Scoop: Former IDF chief of staff warned Trump advisers of West Bank escalation

Masked Palestinian youths throw stones during clashes with Israeli soldiers
Masked Palestinian youths throw stones during clashes with Israeli soldiers, West Bank, March 3. Photo: Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images

The former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, warned White House officials last week that there could soon be a violent escalation in the West Bank, and he recommended that the Trump administration take this into account as part of its calculations for the upcoming release of its peace plan, Axios contributor Barak Ravid reports.

Why it matters: Eizenkot, who was the IDF's chief of staff until just four months ago, is highly respected by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, most of his Cabinet ministers and the Israeli public.

Eizenkot gave his warning at a closed-door meeting last Tuesday in Washington between President Trump's special envoy Jason Greenblatt and a group of 10 Middle East experts from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and other think tanks who were part of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.

  • The purpose of the meeting, which lasted three hours, was to discuss the upcoming U.S. peace plan and for Greenblatt to hear different views from the former U.S. negotiators.

Details: According to five sources familiar with the discussion, Eizenkot told Greenblatt that the situation in the West Bank is "sensitive and explosive" — partially due to the total cessation of U.S. funding to the Palestinian Authority and its security forces.

  • According to the sources, Eizenkot told Greenblatt: "The West Bank could erupt before, during or after you present your peace plan, and you should add this to your calculations. Once this genie is out of the bottle, it will take five years to put it back in."
  • The former IDF chief of staff added that regardless of whether or not the U.S. releases its peace plan, the U.S. should promote steps on the ground that will de-escalate the situation so that it will be "a win-win for both sides." Eizenkot proposed renewing U.S. aid to the Palestinian security forces and taking steps to improve the economic situation.

What to watch: The sources tell Barak that following Eizenkot's remarks, Greenblatt said that the Trump administration is aware of the situation in the West Bank and the risk of escalation, but is keen on presenting its peace plan soon — likely after the Jewish Holiday of Shavuot, which ends on June 10.

Greenblatt told Barak today: "While I won’t comment on private discussions, Israel’s security is of paramount importance to the Trump administration and the plan takes Israel’s security into account."

 Go deeper: Israel warns White House about cutting off aid to Palestinian Authority

3. Kudlow concedes Americans pay tariffs

Screenshot of Kudlow on Fox News Sunday
Screenshot of Larry Kudlow on "Fox News Sunday."

This is a good example of why politicians from both parties consider Chris Wallace of "Fox News Sunday" a formidable interviewer. From today's interview with President Trump's top economic adviser Larry Kudlow:

After playing a tape of President Trump falsely saying that tariffs on Chinese imports are mostly paid for by China, Wallace said to Kudlow: "But, Larry, that isn't true. It's not China that pays tariffs. It's the American importers, the American companies that pay what in effect is a tax increase and oftentimes passes it on to U.S. consumers."

  • Kudlow's response: "Fair enough. In fact, both sides will pay. Both sides will pay in these things."

4. The military commits to the border crisis

Shanahan speaking to troops serving at the border and some CBP personnel
Shanahan speaking to troops and some CBP officials serving at the border. Photo: Stef Kight/Axios

North Korea fired missiles, a U.S. warship deployed to the Middle East and unrest continues in Venezuela, but two days after President Trump announced he would appoint him to Defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan spent his Saturday in McAllen, Texas, underscoring his focus on solving the crisis at the border, Axios' Stef Kight reports from McAllen.

  • One key quote: "We're not going to leave until the border is secure," Shanahan told Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel during his visit.

Driving the news: The Department of Homeland Security submitted a new request for the military's help in providing housing for migrants at the border. Shanahan is leaning toward agreeing to the additional help, a Defense official told Stef. Meanwhile, border patrol stations in the Rio Grande Valley are dealing with more than double the number of migrants their facilities were designed for, a CBP spokesperson told reporters.

Troops on the border: Shanahan told reporters that defense officials are working on a long-term plan to help DHS end the crisis. "I can't keep playing this wack-a-mole," he said.

  • On Friday, the acting Pentagon chief signed off on transferring $1.5 billion to build a border wall, bringing DOD's total wall contributions to $2.5 billion. As much as $3.6 billion more could still be coming from the department's military construction budget. DOD is still looking at which construction projects the funds would come from, Defense officials told reporters.
  • Already, about 4,500 troops are helping CBP with transportation, barrier construction, surveillance and other tasks.

The big picture: For two months in a row, border patrol has arrested or turned away more than 100,000 migrants attempting to cross the southern border, according to CBP data. There are near record numbers of migrant children in government custody again, the San Francisco Chronicle recently reported.

  • Immigration officials say that detention centers are so crowded, they have begun releasing migrant families into the U.S. because there is nowhere to put them. What's more, Border Patrol continues to suffer from a recruiting crisis, according to DHS officials.
  • When asked what the solution was to border patrol's personnel shortage, DHS acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan told Axios, "Right now, it's DOD [the Department of Defense]."

5. What's next: A new drive to divide Facebook

Kamala Harris on CNN
Screenshot of Kamala Harris talking with Jake Tapper on CNN.

2020 presidential candidate Kamala Harris told CNN's Jake Tapper that "we need to seriously take a look" at breaking up Facebook, which she claimed is "essentially a utility that has gone unregulated," Axios' Zachary Basu reports.

"I think Facebook has experienced massive growth and has prioritized its growth over the best interest of its consumers, especially on the issue of privacy. There's no question in my mind that there needs to be serious regulation and that has not been happening. ... When you look at the issue, they're essentially a utility. There are very few people that can get by and be involved in their communities or society or in whatever their profession without somehow, somewhere using Facebook. It's very difficult for people to be engaged in any level of commerce without it. We have to recognize it for what it is. It is essentially a utility that has gone unregulated. And as far as I'm concerned, that's got to stop."

The big picture: Harris was responding to New York Times op-ed by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who said that CEO Mark Zuckerberg is "human. But it's his very humanity that makes his unchecked power so problematic."

  • Harris' view on Facebook is slightly softer than that of fellow 2020 candidate Elizabeth Warren, who has already outlined her specific plan to break up Big Tech platforms like Google, Facebook and Amazon if elected.
  • Harris' aggressive stance is a sign of the times. During the Obama presidency, Facebook was a darling of the administration and received kid-glove treatment on Capitol Hill. Now, the regulatory knives are out for Zuckerberg and his platform.

Go deeper: How the past is shaping Big Tech's future

6. Sneak Peek diary

photo of the capitol building in DC
Photo: J.Castro/Getting Images

The House will vote on a package of seven health care and drug pricing bills, titled the Strengthening Health Care and Lowering Prescription Drug Costs Act, per a senior House Democratic aide.

  • At the end of the week, the House will also vote on The Equality Act, which "defines and includes sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity among the prohibited categories of discrimination or segregation."

The Senate will confirm the following nominees in this order, per a Republican leadership aide:

  • Michael Truncale as judge for the Eastern District of Texas
  • Kenneth Kiyul Lee as judge for the Ninth Circuit
  • Wendy Vitter as judge for the Eastern District of Louisiana
  • Brian Bulatao as Undersecretary of State (Management)

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

  • Monday: President Trump will sign an executive order on the Economic Empowerment of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Trump will also have lunch with Mike Pence, meet with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and host the White House Iftar dinner.
  • Tuesday: Trump will tour the Cameron LNG Export Facility in Hackberry, Louisiana. While in Hackberry, the president will also speak about "promoting energy infrastructure and economic growth."
  • Wednesday: Trump will address the 38th Annual National Peace Officers Memorial Service. He will also meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In the evening, the president and first lady will host the White House Historical Association dinner.
  • Thursday: Trump travels to New York for a political fundraiser.
  • Friday: The president will address the National Association of Realtors Legislative Meetings & Trade Expo in Washington, D.C.

7. The case for suing Trump over his Yemen veto

Nancy Pelosi participates in a bill enrollment ceremony for legislation ending U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi participates in a bill enrollment ceremony for legislation ending U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen, April 9. Photo: Alex Edelman/Getty Images

The U.S. still backs Saudi Arabia's fight in Yemen, even though Congress voted to end that support. Now, progressive Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) is pushing Democratic leaders to turn to the Supreme Court to help enforce Congress' will, Sam Baker and I report.

Why it matters: Congress' resolution seeking to end U.S. involvement in Yemen passed with support from diverse ideological factions — from moderates to Bernie Sanders to Rand Paul, only to meet a veto from President Trump.

That has united a similarly diverse group of law professors, who say Trump usurped Congress' authority over matters of war when he vetoed the resolution and that the House should sue him for it.

  • "I think the Speaker is seriously considering pursuing the lawsuit and will make the correct next step for the people of Yemen and our constitutional integrity," Khanna told Axios. "Yemen can’t wait, and it is my hope that this legal challenge to Trump’s veto moves forward."

"If Nancy Pelosi gets a majority behind her to bring suit, this is a moment of truth for the Supreme Court," said Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman, who's leading the charge on this legal theory.

The response: "We continue to consider all viable options to end this humanitarian crisis," Pelosi's office said.

The big picture: The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, and in the wake of Vietnam, Congress spelled out more detailed rules about presidential unilateral power. In Ackerman's view, the Yemen vote is a referendum on whether those rules still apply.

The big question: The Supreme Court has said presidential power is "at its lowest ebb" when exercised in a way that's "incompatible with the ... will of Congress." If the House sues over Trump's Yemen veto, the central question would be whether that's what happened here, said Scott Anderson, a Brookings fellow and former State Department lawyer.

  • Ackerman says it obviously is. Trump's veto "defied fundamental principles of constitutional law," he and 12 other law professors wrote in a letter to Pelosi.

Between the lines: The case is likely a long shot, given the Supreme Court's ideological balance as well as Chief Justice John Roberts' traditional reluctance to get in the middle of disputes between the other two branches. 

  • The courts would have to toss aside a decades-old interpretation of certain parts of Congress' war powers, Anderson said, adopting a new standard for America's work with other countries' militaries. 
  • "Courts have been really resistant and reluctant to take up these questions," he said.

What's next: If Congress wants to force the U.S. out of Yemen, its best bet might be to keep trying with different legislative vehicles, Anderson said.

  • That could include the annual Defense Authorization Bill, a must-pass omnibus that will get rolling in the Senate over the summer.

8. 1 fun thing: Chamber of Commerce courts Trump

A sign comparing Trump to Reagan and Eisenhower, on the steps of the Chamber of Commerce building in D.C.
A sign comparing President Trump to presidents Reagan and Eisenhower — on the steps of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce building in D.C. Photo: Ian Wagreich/U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Sign of the times: The top advocate for corporate America, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has installed a sign on the front steps of its headquarters in Washington, D.C., comparing Donald Trump to Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower. Their building is right near the White House.

Why this matters: Comparing Trump to Reagan and Eisenhower is quite a leap for a group that got on the wrong side of the president by excoriating his 2016 campaign and clashing with him on everything from tariffs to immigration policy. (A previous sign on the Chamber's steps advocated for DACA recipients.)

  • The new message highlights the Chamber's determination to help Trump pass a massive infrastructure bill.
  • The sign places Trump in the grand sweep of history. It says that in 1956, Eisenhower launched the federal highway system; in 1983, Reagan "raised the gas tax to reinvest and save the highway system"; and in 2019, "President Trump and Congress have a historic opportunity to revitalize America with a 21st Century infrastructure program."

Driving the news: This is part of a campaign called "Infrastructure Now," in which the Chamber is convening a coalition of business groups to pressure politicians on infrastructure.

  • “Post the Trump-Pelosi and assorted other Democrats meeting on infrastructure ... we’re making a big push — now’s the time to get an agreement on an infrastructure package and financing,” Neil Bradley, executive vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told me. “This has the potential to be historic.”

Between the lines: The Chamber's sign will likely appeal to Trump's ego. As I recently reported, in an early 2017 infrastructure meeting at the White House with his friend New York real estate billionaire Richard LeFrak, Trump laid out his grand Trumpian vision:

  • "They say Eisenhower was the greatest infrastructure president. They named the highway system after him," Trump said, per a source who was in the room. "But we're going to do double, triple, quadruple, what Eisenhower did."