Axios Sneak Peek
September 01, 2019
Welcome to Sneak Peek, our weekly lookahead for both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, plus our best scoops.
Situational awareness: This is my last Sneak Peek before I take an extended break to get married and go on a honeymoon. I'm taking next weekend off because some of my closest friends and family will be arriving from Australia ahead of the nuptials.
- You'll be in good hands with my Axios colleagues. See you on the other side!
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Smart Brevity count: 1,748 words (<7 minutes)
1 big thing: The new normal with China
As the Chinese government accelerates its crackdown on Hong Kong's pro-democracy protesters, the Trump administration has sharpened its view of the world's most important bilateral relationship. Senior officials tell me they are increasingly concerned about Beijing's treatment of activists in Hong Kong and, increasingly, fear overreach that could also target Taiwan.
- This comes as any chance of an armistice in the trade war seems to be shrinking away.
Why it matters: Based on numerous conversations with Trump administration officials over the last few weeks, it is clear that many of the president's top advisers view China first and foremost as a national security threat rather than as an economic partner.
- This is a new normal. And it's poised to affect huge parts of American life, from the cost of many consumer goods — likely to go up under a punishing new round of tariffs — to the nature of this country's relationship with the government of Taiwan.
- Trump himself still views China primarily through an economic prism. But the angrier he gets with Beijing, the more receptive he is to his advisers' hawkish stances toward China that go well beyond trade.
- The big open question remains whether Trump's anger with China — especially its flooding of the U.S. with deadly fentanyl and its backtracking on promises to make huge agricultural purchases — will ever grow to such a point that he wants to move in a tougher direction on national security and human rights. If he gets to that point, his advisers will have plenty of hawkish policy ideas waiting for his green light.
Behind the scenes: A New York Times op-ed by Hong Kong activists Joshua Wong and Alex Chow — titled "The People of Hong Kong Will Not Be Cowed by China" — has been circulating inside the administration. And U.S. officials have been reviewing reports of Chinese authorities snatching protesters off the streets.
- Senior administration officials have also contemplated selling another tranche of advanced weaponry to Taiwan, beyond the recent F-16 fighter jet sale, according to 3 sources briefed on the sensitive internal conversations. A senior administration official cautioned that these talks may go nowhere and that Trump would probably hesitate to expand his fight with China to include Taiwan.
- Trump administration officials have also discussed terminating the State Department's self-imposed restrictions on contact with Taiwanese officials. A policy under discussion would let Taiwanese officials attend meetings at State Department headquarters and send direct letters to State.
- A State Department official responded to this reporting: "The Department of State regularly reviews our activities with Taiwan, within the scope of our unofficial relationship. As of this time, no decisions to change current practices have been made."
- If the State Department made such a change, it would stick in China's craw and lessen the chances of a trade deal. But it wouldn't be the first departure from the status quo under this administration. Trump enraged Beijing and broke decades of protocol a few weeks after he was elected by taking a phone call from Taiwan's leader.
The big picture: As the Hong Kong situation deteriorates, the Trump administration is entering the tensest stage of its economic standoff with China. The situation is further complicated by China's militarization of the South China Sea and dominant role in propping up North Korea's rogue regime.
- Trump's latest round of China tariffs kick in today, imposing a new 15% tariff on billions worth of consumer products.
Go deeper: Read my full piece on this volatile moment in the U.S.-China relationship.
2. Top literary agents: Trump's secretary could make millions
A couple of Washington's top literary agents say President Trump's former personal secretary, Madeleine Westerhout, could make millions if she writes a tell-all of her time working for the president.
Driving the news: Keith Urbahn and Matt Latimer — who run the literary agency Javelin and secured 7-figure book deals for former FBI director James Comey and former White House official Cliff Sims — say most publishers in the country right now want a meeting with Westerhout.
- But a source close to Westerhout says she has "no intention" of writing a book about her time working for the president. The source added that Westerhout had "very positive" experiences with President Trump and would have nothing negative to say.
Context: Westerhout resigned last week after Trump learned she'd shared intimate details about him and his family during off-the-record drinks with reporters.
- Trump described Westerhout as a "very good person" on Saturday, but in the same tweet sent a warning shot, saying that she has a "fully enforceable confidentiality agreement" and that he is "currently suing various people for violating their confidentiality agreements."
- Urbahn says the lawyers his agency works with are confident that Trump's nondisclosure agreements are unenforceable for government service. The former White House employees' First Amendment rights override these agreements, he says.
The big picture: Latimer and Urbahn say that if Westerhout is willing to endure the legal, media and presidential onslaught that would come as a result of turning on her former boss, then she could get the biggest literary payday so far in the Trump era.
- "This is someone who had total access, saw everything, which Trump obviously knows," says Latimer. "If she was willing to say 'here's everything I saw and I'm not trying to protect anybody,' then she could have a huge advance."
The bottom line: Urbahn says if Westerhout's anecdotes of her time working for the president at intimate quarters are "sufficiently shocking" she could get an advance of $5 million or more. "It doesn't get much higher. I mean that would be a major score," he said. "But everything has to align."
Go deeper: Read my full story on the publishing world's interest in Trump's former personal secretary, featuring a cameo from former press secretary Sean Spicer.
3. What's next on Capitol Hill
Three questions should define the fall on Capitol Hill:
- Will House Speaker Nancy Pelosi allow a vote on President Trump's top legislative priority: the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement?
- Will Congress pass any major gun legislation to respond to the epidemic of mass shootings?
- How will Congress avoid a government shutdown on Sept. 30 when spending bills expire?
The bottom line:
- On 1, White House officials are quietly optimistic and say that Pelosi seems to have been negotiating with Bob Lighthizer in good faith.
- On 2, most officials I speak to in the White House and on the Hill think that any legislative fixes would be modest and narrow.
- And on 3, Congress is expected to pass a smaller spending bill by Sept. 30 to fund a few departments: possibly Labor, Health and Human Services, and Defense. Lawmakers will likely wrap the rest of the government's spending into a short-term bill (a continuing resolution) to stave off a shutdown and buy each side more time to negotiate.
4. Hurricane Dorian hits frightening speed
"With peak winds of 185 mph, Hurricane Dorian is the strongest storm on record to strike the Bahamas, and threatens to bring hurricane force winds, coastal flooding and other impacts to the east coast of Florida and Southeast U.S.," the Washington Post's Andrew Freedman and Jason Samenow report.
By the numbers: "Dorian ranks as tied for the 2nd-strongest storm (as judged by its maximum sustained winds) ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, behind Hurricane Allen of 1980, and tied with the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane for the title of the strongest Atlantic hurricane at landfall."
- "It’s also extremely likely to be only the second Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the Bahamas since 1983, according to Phil Klotzbach of Colorado State University. The only other is Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The international hurricane database goes back continuously only to 1983."
Why it matters: "A 'catastrophic' scenario is unfolding in the northwestern Bahamas, where the storm’s eyewall, the ring of destructive winds around the center, struck Sunday. ... In short, this is a storm that, depending on its exact track over the northern Bahamas, particularly Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands, could reshape these locations for decades."
- "'This is a life-threatening situation. Residents there should take immediate shelter. Do not venture into the eye if it passes over your location,' the Hurricane Center warned. Specifically, the storm is unleashing wind gusts over 220 mph, along with storm surge flooding of 18 to 23 feet above normal tide levels."
What's next: "The storm is moving slowly toward Florida and the Southeast United States, but its exact track remains somewhat uncertain, with computer models shifting the storm slightly closer to the coast early Sunday compared with Saturday."
- "Florida may miss the full fury of this severe hurricane, but dangerous storm hazards are still possible. Coastal Georgia and the Carolinas also are at risk."
- "'[L]ife-threatening storm surge and dangerous hurricane-force winds are still possible along portions of the Florida east coast by the middle part of this week,' the Hurricane Center wrote."
5. Sneak Peek diary
The House and Senate are on their last week of the summer recess.
The White House did not provide a schedule for President Trump.
6. 1 brave thing: "If we burn, you burn with us."
Pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong and Alex Chow are on the frontlines in Hong Kong, speaking out against China's authoritarian Communist Party. On Friday morning, Hong Kong police snatched Wong off the street and shoved him into a car, per this account in the New York Times.
Wong and Chow published an urgent cry for help in the Times:
- "'If we burn, you burn with us.' A famous line in the movie 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay' has been given a new life in Hong Kong's summerlong protests: It has come to represent the spirit unleashed by hundreds of thousands of protesters."
- "As many commentators have pointed out, the massive, leaderless resistance movement here is a critical front-line battle against the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. A dictatorial party facing domestic and global pressures — especially from the ongoing trade negotiations with the United States — the C.C.P. is getting impatient, apparently. On Friday, it targeted leading activists and politicians in Hong Kong with a round of arrests, possibly signaling that a broader crackdown may be around the corner."
- "Friday's arrests mark another watershed moment in the fast-moving story of Hong Kong’s eroding freedoms. But so, too, does the protest on Saturday: Tens of thousands of people marched again for their rights, despite a police ban on any gatherings that day, braving arrests, tear gas and water cannons. The people of Hong Kong will not be cowed by the C.C.P."
Why it matters: "Righting the wrong that is being done in Hong Kong is also the business of the outside world and rests on its will to confront a C.C.P.-controlled China," Wong and Chow write.
- "World leaders cannot keep mistaking their wish for the peaceful rise of China (and one that perhaps will eventually become democratic) with the reality of the Chinese Communist dictatorship today. Any act or policy that sustains the lifeblood of the Communist dictatorship in Beijing is an offense to the peoples whom that dictatorship persecutes and oppresses — in Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and mainland China."
- "The clock is ticking in Hong Kong. Our future is being determined now."