Axios Sneak Peek

The back of a propped up cardboard cut-out of the U.S. Capitol.
August 18, 2019

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

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  • Smart Brevity count: 1,932 words (~7 minutes)

1 big thing: Scoop — Trump's naval blockade obsession

Illustration of a map with Battle Ship game toy pieces placed near Venezuela.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Trump has suggested to national security officials that the U.S. should station Navy ships along the Venezuelan coastline to prevent goods from coming in and out of the country, according to 5 current and former officials who have either directly heard the president discuss the idea or have been briefed on Trump's private comments.

Driving the news: Trump has been raising the idea of a naval blockade periodically for at least a year and a half, and as recently as several weeks ago, these officials said.

  • They added that to their knowledge the Pentagon hasn't taken this extreme idea seriously, in part because senior officials believe it's impractical, has no legal basis and would suck resources from a Navy that is already stretched to counter China and Iran.
  • Trump has publicly alluded to a naval blockade of Venezuela. Earlier this month he answered "Yes, I am" when a reporter asked whether he was mulling such a move. But he hasn't elaborated on the idea publicly.

In private, Trump has expressed himself more vividly, these current and former officials say.

  • "He literally just said we should get the ships out there and do a naval embargo," said one source who's heard the president’s comments. "Prevent anything going in."
  • "I'm assuming he's thinking of the Cuban missile crisis," the source added. "But Cuba is an island and Venezuela is a massive coastline. And Cuba we knew what we were trying to prevent from getting in. But here what are we talking about? It would need massive, massive amounts of resources; probably more than the U.S. Navy can provide."

Hawkish GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally, has a different perspective about the value of a show of military force. "I've been saying for months that when the Venezuelan military sees an American military presence gathering force, this thing ends pretty quickly," he told me.

Behind the scenes: In recent months, an alleged drug lord in President Nicolás Maduro's inner circle has reached out to the White House through intermediaries, according to administration officials and other sources briefed on the outreach.

  • Diosdado Cabello, an alleged drug lord with substantial power inside the Venezuelan political and military elite, has been communicating through emissaries with National Security Council official Mauricio Claver-Carone, these sources said. These sources did not know what messages, if any, Claver-Carone had sent back to Cabello through these intermediaries.
  • A senior administration official added that members of various centers of power within Venezuela, including Cabello, have been reaching out through emissaries to U.S. government officials.
  • Trump administration officials view Cabello as an important power broker, and some say the Venezuelan opposition's April 30 uprising would have succeeded if Cabello had been involved.
  • Some State Department officials are concerned about the idea of communicating with an alleged drug lord, per a source familiar with the situation. It's also the case that some administration officials have assessed that Cabello purportedly sending messages is a positive sign and suggests Maduro's circle is gradually cracking.

The big picture: Thus far, Trump has sought to strangle dictator Maduro with escalating sanctions. Senior administration officials say they are focused on diplomacy and economic pressure and have little interest in military options, though they won't rule them out.

Go deeper: Read my full story on Trump's Venezuela deliberations. The story includes details of a classified memo requesting military options that has never been reported until now.

2. "September or bust" on guns

Photo of U.S. Capitol building.
Photo: drnadig/Getty Images

If new gun legislation doesn't pass in September, it won't get done before the 2020 election, sources involved in the talks between the White House and Capitol Hill tell Axios' Alayna Treene and me.

  • "It's September or bust," said a source involved in the discussions. "We'll either have everything ready for when Congress returns, drop it on the floor, vote on it and move on — or we blow it."

State of play: The president genuinely wants to expand background checks, according to White House and Hill officials. He's directed the Domestic Policy Council and Office of Legislative Affairs to provide him with options for a reform package, these sources said.

  • As of now, Trump has expressed support for big, vague ideas — including tougher background checks and restrictions on firearms access to the mentally ill — but on the gun issue, consensus evaporates when lawmakers dive into the details.
  • It's still unclear whether House Democrats, who have already passed a bill to extend background checks to all gun purchases, would support a slimmer package.

Behind the scenes: The president's outside lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, says that he and Trump have discussed the need for "a bigger debate" over how much a psychiatrist is able to share from sessions with their patients.

  • "If a psychiatrist could disclose a little more, you might have been able to catch that guy," Giuliani said, referring to the Sandy Hook gunman Adam Lanza, who had seen a psychiatrist before gunning down the elementary school.
  • "It would be really illuminating" to have psychiatrists testify about when their patients reveal a desire to kill people, he added.
  • Reality check: The Department of Health and Human Services sent a letter to doctors after the Aurora and Sandy Hook shootings specifically clarifying that they are allowed to release a patient's information "when you believe the patient presents a serious danger to himself or other people." It was also never reported that Lanza had revealed his intent to kill during his sessions with his psychiatrist.

Giuliani also argued that the controversial New York "stop, question and frisk" policy is an effective deterrent for illegal gun owners.

  • In 2013, a judge for the Southern District of New York ruled the policy violated the 14th Amendment's promise of equal protection, as police frisked African Americans and Hispanics at higher rates than whites.

Worth noting: It's unclear how serious these discussions were. Two White House officials said they hadn't heard anything about bringing psychiatrists into the larger gun debate.

Go deeper: Read our full story on the latest gun deliberations inside the White House and on Capitol Hill.

3. David Bossie's embarrassing retreat

Data: Presidential Coalition's forms 8872 from the IRS; Note: Chart excludes undated expenditures; Chart: Harry Stevens/Axios
Data: Presidential Coalition's forms 8872 from the IRS; Note: Chart excludes undated expenditures; Chart: Harry Stevens/Axios

David Bossie, who Axios exposed as milking elderly donors by flaunting President Trump's name, is trying to repair and revive his controversial fundraising operation, Alayna reports.

The bottom line: Bossie told Alayna he suspended fundraising after Axios revealed that very little of the money he was raising actually went to political campaigns. Trump was livid about the news, and Bossie retreated.

  • Bossie said he is making several changes, presumably to get back into Trump's good graces and back into the fundraising business.

Behind the scenes: Bossie claimed he directed his political group, the Presidential Coalition, to cease all fundraising on May 7, 2 days after Axios published the findings of its investigation, done in collaboration with the Campaign Legal Center (CLC).

  • That's in part thanks to Trump, who personally authorized the Trump campaign to issue a blistering statement, without naming Bossie, condemning "any organization that deceptively uses the President's name, likeness, trademarks, or branding and confuses voters," in the wake of our story.

The big picture: We crunched the numbers, with the help of CLC, and they show Bossie's group still spends only a tiny percentage of the money it raises to boost Trump and his allies.

  • The Presidential Coalition spent $5.9 million in the first half of 2019, but devoted just $148,100 (or 2.5%) of its overall spending on political contributions. Another $325,000 was spent on "digital ad buys" that correspond to a July pro-Trump digital ad campaign, according to CLC's analysis.
  • Taken together, the Presidential Coalition dedicated just 8% of overall spending to direct political activity, up from 3% in 2017 and 2018.

The fallout: Bossie said his group is "currently redesigning our fundraising programs, because of my longstanding relationship with the president and because of my desire to only help the president and the administration."

  • The Presidential Coalition will no longer reference "The Trump Coalition" in its mailers and fundraising materials, Bossie said. He claimed they were going to stop using that language after 2019 anyway, "due to the regulatory regime."
  • Bossie also pledged that his group will more clearly state that the Presidential Coalition is an affiliate of Citizens United.
  • Despite making these changes, Bossie claims that he doesn't think "there was anything whatsoever that was done outside of the appropriate fundraising avenues."
  • Read Bossie's full response.

Go deeper: Read Alayna's full story in the Axios stream.

4. Quotes du jour

White House economic adviser Peter Navarro
White House economic adviser Peter Navarro on CNN's "State of the Union," Aug. 18. Photo: CNN

Stow these forecasts — from President Trump's top economic advisers — in your time capsules:

"I'll tell you what, I sure don't see a recession."
— Larry Kudlow on NBC News' "Meet the Press," Sunday, Aug. 18
"[Tariffs] are not hurting anybody here … OK? They're hurting China."
— Peter Navarro on CNN's "State of the Union," Sunday, Aug. 18

5. 2020 Dems target Native Americans

"Democrats seeking the White House are starting to focus on issues facing Native Americans: Native American voter turnout has ticked upward in the last several elections, and while Native Americans make up a small slice of the electorate, they overwhelmingly support Democrats," the Des Moines Register's Ledyard King and Shelby Fleig report.

Why this matters: "An increase in Native American voters in key battleground states could overcome the margins of victory President Donald Trump earned in Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and North Carolina, native activists said," per the article.

Between the lines: One of the Democratic candidates attending the forum, Elizabeth Warren, claimed for years that she was Native American and even took a DNA test — a stunt that backfired when it showed only the most distant lineage and offended some tribal leaders.

  • "It's going to be awkward for her even if she puts on a smile," Simon Moya-Smith, a 36-year-old Native American activist, told the New York Post.
  • "Moya-Smith, of the Ogala-Lakota Nation, wants Warren to address the controversy, sparked after the Massachusetts senator claimed her mother was 'part Cherokee and part Delaware' in 2012, then released a DNA test showing she was between 1/64th to 1/1,024th Cherokee."
  • "I think she should apologize. I think she owes an apology to all natives. Just own it. Own that you're not native," Moya-Smith said. "Nobody has ever called her an injun. Nobody has ever called her a redskin. Nobody has ever called her a prairie N-word. That's not her identity. She doesn't have to live it. We do."
    • Per Ryan Grim's reporting in The Intercept, Warren has already privately apologized to Cherokee Nation leadership.

Worthy of your time

6. Sneak Peek diary

Photo of the White House.
Photo: lucky-photographer/Getty Images

The House and Senate are out of session until Labor Day.

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

  • Tuesday: Trump will have lunch with Vice President Mike Pence and meet with President Klaus Iohannis of Romania.
  • Wednesday: Trump will travel to Louisville, Kentucky, for a fundraiser, a roundtable with supporters and a speech at the American Veterans 75th National Convention.
  • Thursday: Trump will present the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Robert Cousy.
  • Friday: Trump will have lunch with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
  • Saturday: Trump will attend the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, until Aug. 25.

7. 1 money thing: Impeachment pays

Elizabeth Warren Holds A Town hall In Aiken, SC
Sen. Elizabeth Warren addresses a crowd at a town hall event on Aug. 17 in Aiken, South Carolina. Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

The New York Times' Shane Goldmacher, K.K. Rebecca Lai and Rachel Shorey reported an illuminating, graphic-rich story on the 2020 Democrats' money race.

A detail that stood out:

  • "No single announcement seemed to goose the grass-roots [for Elizabeth Warren] as much as her April 19 call for congressional impeachment proceedings against President Trump."
  • "'I want to make sure you know where I stand,' she wrote supporters. The email did not include a donate button. It did not matter. The donations came anyway. Contributions per day jumped by 50 percent in the 30 days after, compared with the month before."
  • "Before April 19, Ms. Warren had gone 68 different days raising less than $50,000. Afterward? Zero."