Axios Sneak Peek

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August 13, 2017

Welcome to Sneak Peek, our weekly lookahead for both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. I'd love your tips and feedback: [email protected]. And please urge your friends and colleagues to join the conversation by signing up for Sneak Peek.

1 big thing: Campaign against McMaster to get personal

The bare-knuckle campaign to remove National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster from the White House is about to get much uglier.

Outside forces opposed to McMaster are going to allege he has a drinking problem, according to sources outside the Trump administration familiar with the anti-McMaster campaign. The controversial nationalist Mike Cernovich, who has an inside track on the anti-McMaster campaign, teased the alcohol attack in an Internet video with Alex Jones of the website Infowars. Anti-McMaster forces believe this attack will harm his standing with the president, who is a teetotaler.

To be clear: I have never heard anything to support the allegation from anyone inside the Trump administration or from anyone who's socialized with McMaster. We are covering it to highlight the extremes to which McMaster's opponents are prepared to take their war against the National Security Adviser.

  • A White House official told me "McMaster has been made aware that the attack is likely coming, and prefers to focus on his work."
  • Another official told me the majority of senior staff "have rallied around McMaster and believe that all of the attacks against him are divorced from reality."
  • Chief of Staff John Kelly finds the attacks dishonorable and disgusting, according to a source close to Kelly. President Trump is also off-put by the campaign against McMaster — even though his relationship with his National Security Adviser has at times been strained.

Why this matters: For the nationalists making them, these attacks could backfire. Most top White House officials find the attacks loathsome, and blame Steve Bannon for them. So instead of hurting McMaster, they may damage Bannon – who is already in a perilous position, as we reported yesterday.

It's unclear how long Bannon and McMaster, who are ideological foes, can both work in the same White House. The most startling clip from today's Sunday shows was on NBC's "Meet the Press," when host Chuck Todd pressed McMaster on whether he and Bannon could keep working under the same roof. McMaster refused to say that he could, refused to say Bannon was advancing the president's agenda, and refused even to say Bannon's name out loud.

  • Bannon has told associates he has nothing to do with the hits on McMaster, calling them a spontaneous reaction against the "globalist" from Trump's nationalist base. But senior White House officials don't believe him. Breitbart News, the media outlet Bannon led before joining the Trump campaign last August, has been leading the attacks on McMaster, though they're hardly alone.
  • Some White House officials were startled by the force of a recent statement by the conservative pro-Israel group, the Zionist Organization of America. On Wednesday, ZOA's president Mort Klein issued a report accusing McMaster of being hostile towards Israel and unserious about the threats of Iran and radical Islamic terrorism. Klein called on the president to "reassign him to another position where he can do no further harm on these critical national security issues."
  • One of the GOP's top donors, Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson, funds Klein's group. I've asked an Adelson rep whether the billionaire donor signed off on ZOA's call for Trump to reassign McMaster. The Adelson rep hasn't responded. Bannon is one of the few senior administration officials that the ZOA trusts on Israel.
  • Former senior Israeli military officials have defended McMaster in the Jerusalem Post. They wrote: "Such an attack is not mere opinion; it is an offense against the truth, against basic decency and against the best interests of Israel as we see them."

2. Scoop: Bibi to send delegation to the White House

While the outside attacks on H.R. McMaster are set to continue — and a key line of attack is an accusation he's anti-Israel — the Israeli government appears to be signaling confidence in him and his colleagues in the White House's national security team.

A senior administration official tells me Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu is sending leading security officials from his government to the U.S. later this week to meet with McMaster, Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell, Special Envoy for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt, and other senior officials.

  • The senior official told me the meetings "will primarily focus on Israeli security matters vis a vis Lebanon and Syria and are not focused on the ongoing peace conversations."
  • Jared Kushner and Greenblatt helped arrange the meetings, which have been several weeks in the making.

What's next: President Trump is sending Kushner, Greenblatt and Powell to the Middle East for continued regional discussions to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort. Bibi and Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, welcomed the upcoming visit. The Trump negotiating team is expected to meet with leaders from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, and Egypt.

3. Charlottesville fallout

The White House finally condemned white supremacists this morning, after prominent members of both parties rebuked President Trump for vaguely blaming "many sides" for the racist horror in Charlottesville, Va.

Per White House pool reporter, the Washington Examiner's Gabby Morrongiello, in a 10:42am email from New Jersey:

A White House spokesperson has offered the following statement in response to questions about President Trump's remarks yesterday:

"The president said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry, and hatred. Of course that includes white supremacists, KKK, Neo-Nazi and all extremist groups. He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together."

The NYT's Maggie Haberman tweets this in response to the White House's statement: "They are really dragging this out. Potus still hasn't said this."

Between the lines: For insight into some of the (never back down!) advice Trump is hearing from his more hardline aides, go no further than this tweet from Vanity Fair's Gabe Sherman: "When I asked senior WH official why Trump didn't condemn Cville [Charlottesville] Nazis, he said: 'What about the leftist mob. Just as violent if not more so'..."

Go deeper: Here's what we know so far about the alleged domestic terrorist, who plowed his car into the counter-protesters on Saturday. He's been charged with second-degree murder.

4. The shows

Sunday highlight reel, with reactions to North Korea, the Charlottesville violence, and the uncertain future of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon:

  • CIA Director Mike Pompeo to John Dickerson on CBS's "Face the Nation": "This is not a leader [Kim Jong-Un] for whom containment is a policy that makes sense for American national security."
  • Pompeo to Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday": "I've heard folks talking about that we being on the cusp of a nuclear war [with North Korea]. I've seen no intelligence that would indicate that we're in that place today."
  • Leon Panetta, the former Defense Secretary who is close to current White House chief John Kelly, spoke to "Face the Nation."... "I think the North Koreans understand that if they take the wrong step, it's the end of the regime. Period. And for that reason, I think it's clear that they're going to-they are going to allow themselves some off-ramps here..."
  • Anthony Scaramucci, the former White House communications director, told George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week" that he thought President Trump hadn't been tough enough on the white supremacists protesting in Charlottesville.
  • "I wouldn't have recommended that statement," Scaramucci said. "I think he needed to be much harsher as it related to the white supremacists."
  • Scaramucci, who clashed openly with Steve Bannon during his 10-day tenure in the White House, said he had a "very candid conversation" with President Trump last week.
  • The Mooch also told Stephanopoulos: "I think the president knows what he's going to do with Steve Bannon...The president has a very good idea of the people that are undermining his agenda that are serving their own interests."

5. Sneak Peek diary

  • Confronting China: As Axios scooped 11 days ago, President Trump will finally replace his blustery talk with the beginnings of real action against China. On Monday, Trump will initiate a U.S. government process to crack down on Beijing for stealing American intellectual property and forcing U.S. companies to hand over their technology as a cost of doing business in China. Go deeper here.
  • Pence trip: Vice President Mike Pence left today for South and Central America. Pence, who is traveling with his wife and top aides, visits Colombia, Argentina, Chile, and Panama. Why this matters: Pence's last trip, to Eastern Europe, was a well-timed message of reassurance as the U.S. applying tougher sanctions to Russia. Now, Pence will meet with leaders of the key countries working with the U.S. to try to prevent Venezuela from becoming a failed state under the illegitimate dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro.Pence is expected to say that these South and Central American countries are the future, that Venezuela is the past, and that the Venezuelan people deserve better.
  • POTUS movements: We're told that his week, Trump will host an infrastructure discussion at Trump Tower, hold a tax-reform event, and visit an opioid clinic in New Jersey.

6. 1 intriguing thing: the Manchin Hail Mary

Some administration officials tensed up when Bloomberg reported that "White House and Republican officials are exploring the idea of putting West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin in charge of the Energy Department."

Key paragraph in the intriguing Bloomberg story:

"If Manchin were offered and accepted the position, that would allow West Virginia's Governor Jim Justice — a newly minted Republican — to appoint a GOP successor and bring the party a vote closer in the Senate to being able to repeal Obamacare. The idea is in the early stages of consideration, and it's unclear whether it has support within the administration, according to the people, who described the conversations under condition of anonymity."

So, how seriously should we take this chatter?

  • I asked a senior White House official about the Bloomberg report. The reply: "Speculation. Not helpful to get out." (We shouldn't be surprised the White House didn't want this reported. Deals like this only tend to work when they're kept away from the media.)
  • I also phoned Jonathan Kott, a spokesman for Sen. Manchin. Kott told me Manchin hadn't talked to anyone in the administration about the Energy Secretary job since December or January, when he was briefly in contention until Trump passed Manchin over for Rick Perry.
  • Kott wouldn't say whether Manchin remains — or has ever been — especially interested in the job. He said Manchin took the Trump Tower meeting in December because we wanted to "start building a relationship" with then-president elect Trump, "to discuss energy policy and out of respect for the office."