Axios Sneak Peek
September 22, 2022
Welcome back to Sneak. Smart Brevity™ count: 1,058 words ... 4 minutes.
⚡ Situational awareness: An appeals court will allow the Justice Department to resume reviewing classified documents seized from former President Trump's Mar-a-Lago as part of its criminal investigation.
👀 Breaking: A former Trump official tapped to lead the Inter-American Development Bank allegedly threatened to "burn" or "bring" the bank down over an investigation into a rumored affair he had with a female staffer, Axios' Hans Nichols reports.
1 big thing: McCarthy's speaker threat
The House Freedom Caucus is so far refusing to back GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for speaker should its party win back the majority — testing what commitments it can leverage in exchange for its members' support, Axios' Alayna Treene and Andrew Solender report.
Why it matters: The ultra-conservative group, which has a history of dislodging Republican leaders whom members didn't see as properly representing the conservative movement, is plotting a return to relevance after years of seeing its influence fade.
- If Republicans regain the House majority with tight rather than wide margins, it could give the caucus more power.
Driving the news: The group's chairman, Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), and other members are pushing for the GOP conference to vote on a new House rules package before electing the new leadership, as The Washington Examiner and Punchbowl News have reported.
- It's one of several leverage points the caucus is discussing.
What they're saying: Perry told Axios "it's a different game" when a party is in the majority, compared to when they’re in the minority and totally unified on opposing the other party.
- "Somebody has to be the conscience of the conference and actually do the things we said we were going to do on the campaign trail," Perry said.
- As for aligning behind McCarthy, Perry said: "Talk to me on Nov. 9." For now, Freedom Caucus members have adopted an official stance of neutrality in leadership elections, Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) told Axios.
Between the lines: There was a time when the caucus — which often served as a check on party leadership and the GOP establishment overall — largely dictated conservative messaging and activism.
But the group's star power has weakened in recent years for key three reasons:
1. The minority: House Republicans have been more unified — and less involved in policymaking decisions — in their last four years in the minority.
2. Donald Trump's rise: The caucus was once viewed as the beacon of the right, but was overtaken in 2016 by a larger-than-life figure who preached many of the same ideals and principles.
3. Leadership shakeup: Former Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) — original co-founders of the Freedom Caucus — were once the frontmen.
- But Meadows left Congress in late 2020 to become Trump's chief of staff, while Jordan has since landed a spot within House Republican leadership and endorsed McCarthy for speaker.
What to watch: Some members want to adopt more scorched-earth tactics toward President Biden.
- Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) told Axios he wants to "force this president to sign bills that would rescind some of the harm" of Democratic policies and "shut it down if necessary. Gridlock is a good thing compared to the alternative."
2. 🔎 Mueller's dominos
Trump reflexively casts every allegation of wrongdoing against him as the continuation of a partisan "witch hunt" that began the moment he launched his political career.
- Motivations aside, there is in fact a clear investigative through-line that led to today's $250 million lawsuit and criminal referral by New York Attorney General Letitia James, Axios' Zachary Basu writes.
How we got here: Former special counsel Robert Mueller — an original Trump antagonist whose Russia investigation dominated headlines in the first years of his presidency — referred former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen to the Southern District of New York after uncovering his financial crimes in 2018.
- Cohen pleaded guilty to making hush-money payments on Trump's behalf and soon became one of the president's most vocal critics.
- On Feb. 27, 2019, Cohen delivered 10 hours of voluntary public testimony to the House Oversight Committee in which he revealed — under questioning from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) — that Trump artificially inflated and deflated the value of his assets to obtain favorable tax treatment.
- "I will remind everyone that this investigation only started after Michael Cohen ... shed light on this misconduct," James said in her press conference today.
What to watch: Trump is expected to respond in full to today's developments in an interview with Fox's Sean Hannity at 9pm ET.
3. 🏛️ Sign of the times
Nine House Republicans voted with all Democrats to pass a bill reforming the Electoral Count Act, a 135-year-old law Trump sought to exploit by pressuring then-Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
Stunning stat: None of the nine Republicans will be on the ballot in November's elections.
- They include Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), Peter Meijer (R-Mich.), Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), Fred Upton (R-Mich.), John Katko (R-N.Y.), Chris Jacobs (R-N.Y.), Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) and Tom Rice (R-Okla.).
- Eight voted for Trump's impeachment after Jan. 6 and are retiring or were defeated by right-wing primary challengers. Jacobs announced his retirement after drawing GOP backlash for supporting gun control legislation in the wake of the Buffalo mass shooting.
⚡ Latest: The Jan. 6 committee has reached an agreement to interview Ginni Thomas, conservative activist and wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, in the coming weeks.
4. 🗳️ House majority math
The Cook Political Report moved three more House seats in Democrats' direction, the latest welcome sign for a party facing historical and geographic headwinds in its quest to hold onto its majority:
- Arizona's 1st District: Rep. David Schweikert (R) — Lean R to toss-up
- Arizona's 2nd District: Tom O'Halleran (D) — Likely R to lean R
- Texas' 28th District: Henry Cuellar (D) — Toss-up to lean D
Why it matters: Republicans now need to win six out of 31 toss-ups to secure the majority, while Democrats need 26 out of 31, according to Cook's Dave Wasserman.
Go deeper: Visualizing the GOP's path to the majority (N.Y. Times)
5. ⛽ Tweet du jour
📬 Thanks for reading tonight. This newsletter was edited by Zachary Basu and copy edited by Kathie Bozanich.