Jun 28, 2020

Axios Sneak Peek

By Jonathan Swan
Jonathan Swan

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

  • Axios will be hosting a live, virtual event on the impact of Black Americans' underrepresentation in venture capital. Join Axios' Ina Fried and Dan Primack Tuesday at 1:30pm ET for a conversation with Precursor Ventures founder Charles Hudson, Cleo Capital managing director Sarah Kunst and partner at Bessemer Venture Partners Elliott Robinson.
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Tonight's newsletter is 1,657 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: From sleepy to senile — inside the effort to rebrand Biden

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

President Trump and his top advisers are trying to rebrand Joe Biden as a danger to America — with some aides admitting privately that the "Sleepy Joe" nickname will never gin up the visceral reaction they exploited against "Crooked Hillary" Clinton.

Driving the news: The emerging strategy is to claim Biden's mental faculties are diminished and say he can't rein in protesters' most controversial excesses, including toppling a Ulysses S. Grant statue, looting stores, burning buildings and vandalizing St. John's Church.

Why it matters: Trump is trailing in key states, and some of his advisers say they're running out of time to make suburban moms so scared of "Uncle Joe" that they'll vote for Trump.

  • A growing number of Trump's advisers say their best shot is to convince voters that the avuncular Biden won't really run the show if elected.

"We need to be demonizing him," said a Republican lawmaker who talks regularly to Trump. The lawmaker said "Sleepy Joe" sounds harmless, congenial and low key. "Sleepy probably sounds nice to a lot of people right now, with everything that's going on," he said.

  • In April's NBC/WSJ poll, only 25% of voters held a "very negative" view of Biden. In the NBC/WSJ poll of April 2016, meanwhile, 42% of voters held a "very negative" view of Hillary Clinton. Trump's figure is similar to Clinton's — around 43% of voters today say they hold a "very negative" view of him (53% were "very negative" on Trump in April 2016).
  • In recent days, Trump has sought to cast a more sinister light over Biden, replacing "Sleepy Joe" with "Corrupt Joe," the Washington Post first reported.

Behind the scenes: Trump's aides say it will be harder to make Biden widely despised than it was with Clinton, who was a conservative media target for decades.

  • "You're not going to make Joe Biden hated personally," said a source involved in the internal discussions. "You can't do it through personality."
  • So they will try to argue that he wouldn't really be in charge. "You've got to make it so that a vote for Joe Biden isn't a vote for Joe Biden, it's really a vote for his radical left-wing puppet masters," the source said.

Between the lines: Trump and some of his top advisers and surrogates have been testing variations on that theme.

  • Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller often sends out talking points to Trump insiders, which he calls "Quick Bites." Last Monday's talkers, reviewed by Axios, included this point: "The left-wing mob controlling Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party has gone too far. Statues of Teddy Roosevelt and defunding the police is just the beginning, and Joe Biden is too weak to make them stop."
  • In Thursday night's town hall with Fox News' Sean Hannity, Trump didn't use the phrase "Sleepy Joe," according to the Fox transcripts.
  • He did say: "I don't think Biden's a radical left, but it doesn't matter because they're going to just do whatever they want to do. They'll take him over. ... Whether you like it or not, he's shot. The radical left is going to take him over."
  • Both Donald Trump Jr. and Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale have made versions of this pitch in recent days.

Yes, but: It's not at all clear that any of these new attacks will work.

  • Trump's advisers have long argued over the most effective way of attacking Biden, and in the most recent NYT/Siena College poll, more than 60% of voters disagreed with the notion that Biden was too old to be an effective president.
  • Biden is 77; Trump is 74.
  • It's also a bit of a head-scratcher as to how Biden can be both "Corrupt Joe" — which suggests a degree of agency — and totally incapacitated.

Biden campaign response: "During the entire clown car parade of shattered, failed, and recycled lies that is the Trump campaign, Donald Trump has never been able to stop telling on himself," Biden's director of rapid response, Andrew Bates, said in a statement.

  • Bates listed Trump vulnerabilities, including the coronavirus response, China and questions of mental acuity, noting how Trump mused about whether doctors could inject disinfectant into people to treat the virus.
  • "Whoever comes up with these attacks," Bates said, "we should honestly be paying them."
2. What's next: Biden to zero in on COVID inflection points

Biden met with families who have benefited from the Affordable Care Act and made remarks on his plan for affordable health care, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, June 25. Photo: Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

The Biden campaign plans to focus its messages this week on "the difference between what Joe Biden called for and what Donald Trump did at crucial inflection points" since the pandemic arrived in America, according to a Biden adviser.

What we're hearing: Expect the Biden campaign to use footage of Trump golfing, holding rallies, complaining about being mistreated by the media and saying he wanted testing slowed down.

  • Plus they'll hammer Trump for continuing his assault on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) during this health crisis — noting that if the Supreme Court invalidates the law as the administration is seeking, it could strip 23 million Americans' health care and eliminate coverage for preexisting conditions amid a pandemic.
  • Biden's deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said that Trump's "streak of failure to protect or even prioritize American lives and jobs is one of the most catastrophic mistakes made by any commander in chief in modern history."
  • "And the entire time," she said, "Joe Biden has laid out a better course — sounding the alarm early, telling President Trump not to trust the Chinese government about containment, and releasing a comprehensive national testing strategy months ago."

Trump campaign response: "President Trump has been leading the nation through the global coronavirus crisis while all Joe Biden has done is try to turn it into a political weapon from his basement in Delaware," responded Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh.

  • "If Biden had truly been warning everyone about the virus since January, why was he campaigning normally into the second week of March?" he said. (In late January, Biden wrote an op-ed sounding the alarm about Trump's early handling of the coronavirus.)
  • "When the President restricted travel from China in January, Biden called it 'xenophobic' and 'fear-mongering,'" Murtaugh added.
  • He said that "all Biden knows about handling a crisis is that he can't. ... During the swine flu outbreak when Biden was vice president, the White House had to apologize for his reckless remarks so they didn't cause 'undue panic.'"
3. Scoop: Trump to put loyalist in charge of government's HR department

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

President Trump intends to nominate John Gibbs to run the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), according to two sources with direct knowledge of the decision, which remains closely held.

Why it matters: OPM is the HR department for the federal government's civil service. The agency has become a focus of the White House's efforts to install and reward Trump loyalists across the government.

  • As Politico first reported, the previous head of OPM, Dale Cabaniss, "stepped down because of, what two people familiar with the matter said, was poor treatment from the [then] 29-year-old head of the Presidential Personnel Office, John McEntee, and a powerful appointee at OPM, Paul Dans."

Between the lines: Gibbs is a former conservative commentator who currently serves as a senior official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

  • Gibbs received national media attention when CNN reported, in 2018, that he "spread a false conspiracy theory that claimed Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign chairman took part in a Satanic ritual."

White House response: Deputy press secretary Judd Deere told Axios that "the White House has no personnel announcements at this time."

4. 😷 Sunday highlight reel

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar offered urgent public health advice to address the recent COVID-19 outbreaks in an interview this morning with Chuck Todd on NBC's "Meet the Press."

  • "The window is closing," to slow the COVID-19 spread, Azar said.
  • "We have to act, and people as individuals have to act responsibly. We need to social distance. We need to wear our face coverings if we're in settings where we can't social distance, particularly in these hot zones."

Flashback: When I interviewed President Trump last Friday, I asked him whether he recommended people wear masks to his rally the next day.

  • Trump's reply: "I recommend people do what they want. You know, masks are a double-edged sword. You do know that. They grab them. They hold them. No, I mean, it's true though. I see a guy who walks in, oh, thank you so much. He grabs a mask, puts it on the desk ... then you're supposed to say, oh, isn't it wonderful? They are a double-edged sword. You know, there was a time when people thought it was worse wearing a--I let people make up their own decision."
  • Images of the crowd show that most of the 6,000+ people who attended the Trump rally chose not to wear masks.
5. Sneak Peek diary

Photo: Xinhua/Liu Jie via Getty Images

The House will vote Monday on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Enhancement Act, which would expand on the Affordable Care Act to lower health costs and prescription drug prices, Axios' Alayna Treene reports.

  • Monday: The House will also vote on the Emergency Housing Protections and Relief Act of 2020, introduced by Rep. Maxine Waters, chair of the Financial Services Committee. The measure would prevent evictions, foreclosures and unsafe housing conditions resulting from COVID-19.
  • Tuesday: Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on going back to work and school during COVID-19.
  • Thursday: The House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on the firing of the State Department's inspector general.

The Senate will vote Monday to proceed on the National Defense Authorization Act — the bill to fund the U.S. military.

  • Discussions over police reform following the House passage of Democrats' "Justice in Policing Act of 2020" are expected to continue this week.
  • Tuesday: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing on international pandemic preparedness, prevention and response. Also on Tuesday, IRS commissioner Charles Rettig will testify before the Senate Finance Committee on the 2020 filing season and the pandemic.
  • Wednesday: The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will hold a hearing on compensation for college athletes.

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

  • Monday: Trump will have lunch with Vice President Mike Pence.
  • Thursday: Trump will deliver remarks at a Spirit of America Showcase.
  • Friday: Trump will visit South Dakota for its 2020 Mount Rushmore Fireworks Celebration in Keystone.

Bonus: Pence on Tuesday will visit Tucson and Yuma, Arizona, and meet with Gov. Doug Ducey and other officials to talk about the spikes in confirmed cases of the coronavirus.

  • Thursday, Pence will travel to Florida to meet with Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Jonathan Swan