Jun 7, 2020

Axios Sneak Peek

By Jonathan Swan
Jonathan Swan

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

  • On tomorrow's episode of "Axios on HBO," Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) gives a surprisingly blunt answer when Alexi McCammond asks whether she'd accept an offer to be Joe Biden's running mate. Watch a clip.
  • Monday, June 8, at 11pm ET/PT on all HBO platforms.

Tonight's newsletter is 1,848 words, a 7-minute read.

1 big thing: Scoop — Trump's top aides plot new theme

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

President Trump's top political advisers, in a private meeting last week, said their boss needs to add more hopeful, optimistic and unifying messages to balance his harsh law-and-order rhetoric.

Why it matters: They're deeply concerned about "brutal" internal polling for the president in the aftermath of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and George Floyd's killing.

Behind the scenes: During a meeting of top political advisers at campaign headquarters on Thursday afternoon, the president's 2016 campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, raised a question that many close to the campaign have been asking themselves recently: "What's our message?"

  • Lewandowski, who called in on Zoom, later clarified in the meeting that he was asking specifically about the messaging to communicate Trump's second-term priorities.
  • But the original — very basic — question sounded relevant to some of the president's senior advisers, who worry about the president's political position.
  • Advisers settled on a theme of the "Great American Comeback" underpinned by words like "renewing," "recovering," "restoring" and "rebuilding."
  • Friday's surprisingly good jobs report gave them a chance to road test the theme with a new ad: "The great American comeback has begun. ... Renewing. Restoring. Rebuilding. Together, we'll make America great again."

Between the lines: Right now Trump is at a low point in his presidency and re-election campaign.

  • A source briefed on his internal polls called them "brutal," showing a significant drop-off in independent support.
  • He has a "woman problem" in the words of another adviser.
  • And Trump's more incendiary rhetoric and actions — "when the looting starts, the shooting starts" and his calls for the military to enter cities — trouble some of his top aides.

What they're saying: "There's a thought that we need to shift to be much more cohesive in terms of a message of healing, rebuilding, restoring, recovering ... a theme that goes with COVID and the economy and the race stuff," said a senior adviser to Trump.

  • "The messaging that works for the red-MAGA-hat base doesn't resonate with independents."
  • "He has to tone down the most incendiary rhetoric, talk about law and order in the context of riots, and at the same time say the country's united that what happened to George Floyd can never happen again," a second adviser familiar with the internal discussion said.
  • "He's starting to hear from a lot of people, political people, who are saying, ‘Simmer down. ... You are not helping the situation by talking about only sending the military in.’"
  • "We need to say police are an integral part of society, but we've gotta dial it down a bit," the adviser added.
  • But a third adviser familiar with the conversation cautioned: "Nobody would have been invited to that meeting who truly thinks they can stop Trump from saying anything."

Campaign response: Asked about the internal polling, Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh told Axios, "In our internal data, the president remains strong against a defined Joe Biden."

Be smart: A "defined Joe Biden" means when pollsters tell voters about Biden's record and proposals using the Trump campaign’s negative frame.

  • Look for the Trump campaign to put Biden on the spot about whether he supports language around "defunding" the police, a potential wedge issue.

Inside the room: The president's top 2020 strategists were seated around a table at the Trump campaign’s Arlington, Virginia, headquarters — the first time they've all been together for a meeting like this, per two people involved, who described it as a kickoff of sorts.

  • Around the table were campaign manager Brad Parscale and deputy campaign manager Bill Stepien; senior campaign officials Justin Clark, Michael Glassner, Jason Miller and Bob Paduchik; pollsters John McLaughlin and Tony Fabrizio; and 2016 deputy campaign manager David Bossie.
  • Calling in by Zoom were Lewandowski, Nick Ayers and David Urban.
  • One dynamic stood out to insiders: Over the last three years, Parscale has skirmished with the Lewandowski/Bossie duo, before coming to a somewhat negotiated ceasefire. People involved said the meeting attendees were warm to each other. A year ago, that would have been unthinkable.

Toward the end of Thursday's meeting, Bossie cracked a joke that seemed intended to reassure, as described by two sources familiar with his private comments: "Don't worry guys, we've still got plenty of time," he said. "Corey hadn't even been fired by this point in the last campaign."

Go deeper: Read the full story on the private deliberations and what Team Trump plans to do next.

2. House plans dramatic action on police reform

Demonstrators peacefully protest outside the U.S. Capitol, June 3. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

House Democrats will try to turn the public outcry over George Floyd's killing into policy action this week, unveiling sweeping legislation on police reform and holding a hearing with Floyd's brother, Philonise Floyd, Axios' Alayna Treene reports.

Why it matters: The Democratic measure represents the most drastic overhaul of federal policing laws in decades.

Details: The "Justice in Policing Act of 2020" aims to broaden police accountability, tracking "problematic" officers through a national misconduct registry and restricting "qualified immunity" (lawsuit limitations) for officers over actions in the field, according to a draft outline of the proposal.

  • The bill would also reform police training, make lynching a federal crime, and ban chokeholds and the use of no-knock warrants in drug cases.
  • House Democrats are expected to unveil the proposal on Monday with a goal of passage by the end of June.

Meanwhile, Wednesday's House Judiciary Committee hearing will be the first House hearing on policing reform since Floyd's death.

  • The hearing will examine "the crisis of racial profiling, police brutality and lost trust between police departments and the communities they serve," per the committee.
  • It's still unclear whether Philonise Floyd will testify in person or virtually, given coronavirus-related health precautions, a committee aide told Axios.

State of play: Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (which has taken the lead on drafting the legislation) told CNN's Jake Tapper on Sunday that there is "a lot of support" among House Republicans for the bill.

  • House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy has said the two parties "can find common ground" on the issue and that he hopes Congress "rises to the occasion." But Republican leadership sources tell Axios they've been left out of the negotiations.
  • "We're talking to the press about this stuff more than we're talking to our colleagues," a GOP leadership aide said. "If they can put bills together and get their coalition to pass it, then, obviously, the ball’s in their court to do so. But we think it'd be a far more productive endeavor to call Congress back and open up the forums natural to the institution to debate these types of issues."

The bottom line: Both Republicans and Democrats agree that the government must meet the moment and address massive protests with meaningful policy change.

  • One aide in Senate Republican leadership said legislation with bipartisan support will be seriously considered, while suggesting that police issues might be better legislated at the state and local level and noting it's hard to pass major legislation passed in an election year.
  • It's unclear whether Republicans are willing to go as far as Democrats in terms of overhauling the nation's police system. Such changes could spark backlash from politically powerful police unions and provoke criticism from President Trump, who considers himself a law-and-order president and has promoted a "tough on crime" approach to law enforcement.
3. White House entertains police reform

The White House is also debating police reform this week, an addition to the president’s harsh “law and order” rhetoric toward a “phase two” approach aimed at addressing what policy the Trump administration can get behind, sources familiar with the plans tell Alayna and me.

What we’re hearing: President Trump will host a roundtable listening session with law enforcement on Monday, “to hear their challenges and input on how to fix racial inequality in American policing,” a White House official tells Axios.

  • Trump will also meet with his senior policy team to discuss potential executive actions and reform legislation that the White House is open to supporting.

Behind the scenes: Trump’s political team, which is deeply worried about internal polling regarding the president’s response to the protests (see item 1), has been pushing for the White House to be more proactive.

  • “We need to be seen as meeting the moment and go beyond the crackdown on protesters. The president recognizes that,” one administration official said.
4. New poll: 80% feel country spiraling out of control

Riot police block access to I-195 in Miami from protesters demonstrating against police brutality, June 5. Photo: Adam DelGiudice/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

"Americans by a 2-to-1 margin are more troubled by the actions of police in the killing of George Floyd than by violence at some protests, and an overwhelming majority, 80%, feel that the country is spiraling out of control, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll."

  • In the same poll, Biden had 49% support compared to 42% for President Trump.
  • "Mr. Biden's biggest advantage over Mr. Trump, 51% to 26%, was on which candidate could bring the country together," the Wall Street Journal's Michael Bender writes. "That 25-point gap compared with a 14-point advantage on the same question for 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton."

Yes, but: "Mr. Trump's biggest advantage over Mr. Biden continued to surround economic issues. When asked who would be best at cutting the unemployment rate and getting people back to work, Americans picked Mr. Trump, 48% to 35%. A similar share said Mr. Trump would be better at dealing with the economy."

Go deeper

5. Sneak Peek diary

Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)

The House will unveil policing reform legislation on Monday and hold a hearing with George Floyd's brother, Philonise Floyd, on Wednesday.

  • Thursday: The House Administration Committee will hold a hearing on voting and elections during the pandemic, Axios’ Alayna Treene reports.

The Senate will vote Monday on a motion to proceed on the vehicle for The Great American Outdoors Act, a bipartisan package introduced by Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.).

  • The bill would provide $1.9 billion a year for five years for maintenance at the National Park Service, United States Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Education.
  • It would also provide annual funding of $900 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Tuesday: The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on fraud during the coronavirus pandemic.

Wednesday: The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will hold a confirmation hearing on the nomination of Russell Vought as director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Thursday: The Senate Judiciary Committee will meet to discuss subpoenas related to the Russia investigation.

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

  • Monday: Trump will participate in a roundtable with law enforcement.
  • Thursday: Trump plans to attend a political fundraiser in Dallas, per AP.

The White House will also be reviewing a number of rules and regulations this week to roll back as part of the broader economic recovery plan, a White House official says.

6. 1 polarizing thing: A new political signifier

Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

A stunning statistical nugget — revealing of the extreme character of American polarization in these times — is buried at the bottom of the Wall Street Journal's piece on the latest NBC/WSJ national poll:

  • "Those who always wear a mask, as recommended by the federal government, said they supported Mr. Biden over Mr. Trump in November, 66% to 26%. Those who never or rarely wear masks backed Mr. Trump, 83% to 7%."

"Public-health guidance is now a political fashion statement, or bumper sticker over our faces," said pollster Jeff Horwitt.

Jonathan Swan