Axios Sneak Peek

The back of a propped up cardboard cut-out of the U.S. Capitol.
March 17, 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: Scoop — Trump hates "crazy" driverless cars

A hand holding up an evil small car
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

In President Trump's view, self-driving cars are a menace to society. A skeptic of cutting-edge technology — as his tweets about Boeing's "complex" planes emphasized — Trump has privately said he thinks the autonomous vehicle (AV) revolution is "crazy" and that he'd never let a computer drive him around.

Why it matters: Most Americans share Trump's view: 71% of U.S. drivers would be afraid to ride in a self-driving vehicle, per AAA. Yet his own administration is encouraging AV development by removing barriers and issuing voluntary guidance instead of regulations. And we see no evidence Trump has imposed his personal views on the policy process.

Behind the scenes: In conversations on Air Force One and in the White House, Trump has acted out scenes of self-driving cars veering out of control and crashing into walls. He's said he doesn't think autonomous vehicles make sense, according to four sources who've heard him discuss the subject.

  • "You know when he's telling a story, and he does the hand motions," said a source who has heard Trump talk about hypothetical accidents involving self-driving cars. "He says, 'Can you imagine, you're sitting in the back seat and all of a sudden this car is zig-zagging around the corner and you can't stop the f---ing thing?’"
  • "He's definitely an automated car skeptic," the source said. Another source said Trump told him self-driving cars "will never work."

In one of the early 2017 meetings with CEOs in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Elon Musk and Trump shared a lighthearted exchange about Tesla's "Autopilot" technology. Trump told Musk he preferred traditional cars, according to a source who was in the room.

  • And in the summer of 2017, at his Bedminster golf club, Trump was chatting with club members when one raised the subject of AV technology. The club member was "excited" about a new Tesla he bought, recalled a source who was part of the conversation. "And [Trump] was like, 'Yeah that's cool but I would never get in a self-driving car. ... I don't trust some computer to drive me around.'"

While Trump is in no hurry to see automated vehicles, Chao is actively promoting the technology.

  • Last Tuesday at the SXSW conference, Chao announced a new regulatory body to speed up the adoption of cutting-edge transportation technologies like hyperloop tunnels and self-driving cars.
  • Then on Friday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it would seek the public's opinion on an unprecedented idea: Should decades-old motor vehicle statutes be changed to allow cars with no steering wheels, pedals or gear shifts?

The bottom line: Currently, there are no federal regulations on self-driving cars — just a hodgepodge of state rules.

  • Efforts to pass AV legislation stalled in the last Congress over concerns about privacy and safety. The issue will likely resurface this year, reports Axios' Joann Muller, who writes Axios' Autonomous Vehicles newsletter.
  • AV companies say the tech is moving too fast to regulate anyway. By sharing test data, they say they could help define standards and practices themselves.
  • For now, companies are encouraged to file voluntary safety self-assessments each year; so far, a dozen have done so.

Between the lines: A source who has discussed autonomous vehicles with Trump says he thinks it wouldn't take much for the president to rapidly reverse his administration's hands-off approach to hands-free vehicles. Trump already calls self-driving cars out-of-control death traps, so any news fueling that fear could jolt him into action.

2. Trump unsettles the auto sector

A car's heads-up display with a blinking warning light in the shape of Trump's tie
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Since taking office and replacing his Rolls-Royce with an armored Cadillac called "the Beast," Trump seems to have spent more time thinking about cars than any other industrial sector, per aides past and present.

  • He's also bred uncertainty, including over whether he’ll slap tariffs on imported cars.

Why it matters: Trump wants to restore American auto manufacturing to what he considers its mid-20th-century greatness, according to aides. But his ideas for saving the industry are creating angst for its top execs.

Over many months, I've interviewed sources who've discussed the auto industry with the president. And my colleague Joann Muller, who is based in Detroit and has covered the auto industry for 20 years, has been talking to industry executives about Trump's policies.

As with most relationships, it's complicated:

  • Automakers hated being used as political punching bags during the 2016 campaign — Trump berated Ford on Twitter, for example, about building cars in Mexico and often got his facts wrong.
  • After the election, they were generally pleased by Trump's attention to their issues, but not always with his actions.
  • Corporate tax reform was a welcome boost, but then his steel and aluminum tariffs wiped out much of their tax savings and drove up car prices.
  • Economists predict a sales downturn this year.

Now Trump is threatening to slap 25% tariffs on imported vehicles and car parts — which no one in the industry has asked for. As we've previously reported, most of Trump's senior economic advisers — with the notable exception of Peter Navarro — think new car tariffs are a terrible idea.

  • But Trump tells everyone who'll listen that the threat of car tariffs is his best leverage in talks with foreign leaders.

Trump's bargaining chips have expensive implications for the auto industry — and for consumers. Ford CEO James Hackett said last September that Trump's steel tariffs would cost the automaker about $1 billion in profits.

  • New tariffs would hurt auto suppliers, car dealers and U.S. factories that depend on global supply chains.
  • Toyota, which promises to spend $13 billion to expand U.S. manufacturing by 2021, warns that Trump's tariffs would raise the price of a U.S.-built Camry by $1,600.
"There are 137,000 Americans who design, build, sell and maintain American-built Toyota vehicles. They deserve to know if they’re a security threat. And consumers need to know if their costs for American-made vehicles are going to go up."
James Lentz, CEO, Toyota Motor North America

Over the past two years, Trump has latched onto all kinds of ideas he thought would help the car industry. But the auto industry asked for almost none of them.

One backdoor move that died: making foreign car companies adhere to higher fuel economy standards than American companies.

Unwinding Obama-era fuel economy standards is popular with conservatives, but the auto industry is wary.

  • Automakers welcomed the regulatory review, saying Obama’s higher standards would be tough to meet and didn’t match consumer demands.
  • Publicly, they say they're open to gradual increases. But privately, some welcome Trump's rollback, according to several sources.
  • Now Trump is battling California over the issue, as the state fights to set its own stricter standards.
  • Automakers’ top priority is ensuring the U.S. has only one nationwide standard.

The bottom line: "There's political uncertainty everywhere you look, which is worse than any technological uncertainty because it has a chilling effect on investments," John Bozzella, president and CEO of the Association of Global Automakers, told Joann.

3. Where's Rudy?

Rudy Giuliani
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Rudy Giuliani has vanished from your television. The last time the president's once-ubiquitous attack dog did a major TV appearance was on Sunday, Jan. 20, when he went on NBC's "Meet the Press" and CNN's "State of the Union."

Between the lines: Sources familiar with Giuliani's thinking say he views a major part of his job as trying to undermine public confidence in the Mueller probe and harden the support of Republican voters for Trump to protect him against impeachment. So for Giuliani to stay off TV for an extended stretch is odd.

  • White House officials had expected Giuliani's Jan. 20 Sunday show appearances to be an easy "victory lap" after Mueller's office took the rare step of publicly disputing a BuzzFeed story accusing Trump of committing a felony.

Instead, Giuliani tripped over himself, saying the Trump Tower Moscow talks may have lasted up until November 2016. The claim was both unhelpful and, in the White House's view, incorrect.

  • Giuliani walked back the comments in a statement the next day: "My recent statements about discussions during the 2016 campaign between Michael Cohen and then-candidate Donald Trump about a potential Trump Moscow 'project' were hypothetical and not based on conversations I had with the president."

Since that weekend, the president's most prominent lawyer has kept his head down. He has only made one on-camera appearance: a March 8 hit on the streaming channel of the Washington newspaper The Hill, where he said Paul Manafort's surprisingly short jail sentence was fair.

  • Two sources with direct knowledge told me that both Trump and the White House lawyer handling the Russia investigation, Emmet Flood, have privately griped about some of Giuliani's TV appearances.
  • A third source said Trump thought it would be best if Giuliani stayed off TV for a while after his Jan. 20 hits.

Giuliani's response: When I asked Giuliani about all of this, he texted that he has spent hours with Trump in the last month and hasn't heard any complaints about his TV appearances from the president.

  • Giuliani then called me to elaborate. He said his decision to stay off TV since Jan. 20 had nothing to do with his performances on those shows.
  • "About a month to a month and a half ago we decided, because we thought the Mueller report was imminent in the next four or five days, that it would be better not to comment until the report was filed or made public," Giuliani said.
  • "Obviously those days have now expanded way beyond four or five days."

Giuliani said he decided to stay off TV so as "not to upset the apple cart, not to create unnecessary, additional, needless friction" with the Mueller team.

I asked the president's lawyer if he thought this brief cease-fire would have a meaningful effect on the Mueller report, given that Giuliani has attacked Mueller and his team relentlessly for the previous year.

  • "Yes, because we've had, over a period of time, after we were very tough, we've had some what we regard as very fair decisions, and some that aren't as fair. So we see that there's the capacity to go either way."

4. Exchange du jour

CBS' "Face the Nation" host Margaret Brennan and White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney
Screenshot: CBS' "Face the Nation."

On today's episode of CBS' "Face the Nation," host Margaret Brennan pressed White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney on Donald Trump's history of anti-Muslim rhetoric.

The key exchange:

  • Brennan: "As a candidate, the President called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States. He said Islam hates us. This kind of language in the past leads to these questions of why isn't the president now directly using that megaphone to condemn it.
  • Mulvaney: "Well, then ... take the words and put them in one category and take the actions and put them in another. Something the president doesn't get hardly any credit for or any attention to is the work he's done in defense of religious minorities all around the world up to and including Muslims in the Middle East. ... So I hear what folks say, 'Oh, Donald Trump said this during the campaign.' Look at what we've done while we've been here. I don't think anybody could say that the president is anti-Muslim."
  • Brennan: "Well, the president's tweeting now about a TV host who was suspended for anti-Muslim rhetoric. So it's I think a fair question to ask you about this."

Behind the scenes: We often hear this exact line from administration officials as justification for Trump's rhetoric: "Take the words and put them in one category and take the actions and put them in another." A senior European government official told me former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis often used the same line privately with allies to try to assuage their concerns about Trump.

  • But Brennan made a painfully obvious point that still bears repeating: Trump's words matter.

5. Sneak Peek diary

Upclose photo of the White House with a fence in front.
Photo: Keith Brofsky/Getty Images

The House and Senate are on recess.

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

  • Monday: Trump receives a briefing on the "Economic Report to the President." Trump also has lunch with Mike Pence and attends a Greek Independence Day celebration.
  • Tuesday: Trump meets with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. The leaders plan to hold a joint press conference.
  • Wednesday: Trump tours and gives a speech at the Lima Army Tank Plant in Lima, Ohio.
  • Thursday: Trump joins a conversation at the Business Roundtable Q1 quarterly meeting.

6. 1 fun thing: Trump's road trips

President Trump stepping out of a car
Photo: Matthew Busch/Getty Images

Donald Trump is a car nut. And people who've worked for him say he's always been particular about which cars he likes to drive, who he likes to drive him around, and which right-wing talk radio hosts he likes to listen to in the car.

Behind the scenes: On some Fridays during the 2016 campaign, Trump would hop in his Rolls-Royce and drive from Trump Tower in Manhattan to one of his nearby golf clubs.

  • Trump would wear his MAGA hat and listen to Rush Limbaugh, according to a source familiar with his driving routine.
  • Trump loves driving, but he also enjoys being driven around — sometimes just for the sake of it, not to get anywhere in particular. He owns a black Cadillac limousine — "old school, with the partition and the bar ... like the inside of the limo in 'Home Alone 2,'" according to the source. 

Before he became the Republican nominee and got his Secret Service detail, Trump would sometimes just go for a cruise. "He'd be driven into a TV studio to record an interview and he'd say afterwards, 'Let's drive a couple blocks and listen to the radio.'" By radio, he meant right-wing talk shows: Rush, Sean Hannity, sometimes conservative Mark Levin in the evenings, and sometimes provocateur Michael Savage.

Between the lines: Over the past decade, Trump has spent countless hours honing his feel for the Republican base by listening to right-wing talk radio on his drives.

As president, Trump still loves driving past the lines of people on the street on the way to rallies. "Let's turn the lights on so they can see me," he sometimes says, according to a source familiar. A White House source who's joined him for car rides told me Trump likes to recognize the people who wait in line for hours to see him — plus, he craves the attention.

During the early days of the campaign, before getting Secret Service protection, Trump would ride in the front seat. People used to chase the car with MAGA hats, photos of him and other memorabilia. He would open the window at stop lights and sign things or he'd tell the driver to pull over.

Trump chafed when Secret Service ended these impromptu stops. "We've lost the magic," he'd gripe. As president riding in his armored Cadillac, he'll say, "Come on let me out. They'll go crazy. ... Stop the car for one second and open the door." They always say no.