Axios Sneak Peek

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August 11, 2019

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

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1 big thing: Scoop — Inside Trump's strange pen-pal diplomacy

Illustration of a President Trump stamp.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Trump has sent highly unusual, Sharpie-written notes to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at least twice, Axios has learned. One missive was so odd, the Canadian ambassador double-checked with the White House to be sure it wasn't a prank.

In at least one instance, Trudeau also wrote to Trump. The exchange of handwritten notes, never before reported, was confirmed by several sources with firsthand knowledge. The diplomatic missives include:

  • A torn-out Bloomberg Businessweek cover featuring a portrait of Justin Trudeau.
  • A back-and-forth about U.S.-Canada trade figures that culminated in Trudeau sending Trump a printout of the website of the Office of the United States Trade Representative with a smiley face beside the U.S. government figure showing America has a trade surplus with Canada (contrary to Trump's claims).

Context: The May 1–7, 2017, issue of Bloomberg Businessweek — featuring a picture of Trudeau headlined "The Anti-Trump" — caught President Trump's attention, according to 4 sources with direct knowledge. Trump tore the cover off the magazine and wrote on it, in silver Sharpie, something to the effect of "Looking good! Hope it's not true!" according to these sources.

  • Before the White House mailed this diplomatic correspondence, it went through the normal clearance process inside the National Security Council. While some White House staff thought it was not the appropriate way to communicate with a foreign leader, they ultimately figured "it was done in good fun and would be interpreted as positive outreach," said a source with direct knowledge of what happened. So the White House mailed the magazine cover to the Canadian Embassy in Washington.
  • The Canadian ambassador thought it was a prank, according to 2 sources familiar with the situation. He called the White House to check, and a White House official confirmed to the ambassador that the note was real, one of these sources said.

Months later, on Dec. 8, 2017, President Trump falsely told a rally crowd in Pensacola, Florida, that the U.S. has a trade deficit with Canada. Around that same time, Trump also mailed Trudeau a document purporting to show that the U.S. had a trade deficit with Canada, according to a source with direct knowledge.

  • Trump wrote in Sharpie on the document: "Not good!!" or something to that effect, the source recalled. Trump's document only mentioned America's deficit in the trade of goods and ignored its surplus in services (the two combined would gave the U.S. its overall surplus).

A few weeks later, Trump received a handwritten letter from Trudeau. The note, on Trudeau's official stationery marked by the Maple Leaf, began with a friendly tone, but ended with a drop of acid.

  • "Dear Donald," Trudeau wrote in the letter dated Dec. 20, 2017, according to a source with direct knowledge of its contents, which 2 other sources confirmed. "It's been a busy year! Enjoy the Christmas holidays — you deserve it."
  • "One thing," Trudeau added. "You gave a great speech in Pensacola, but you were slightly off on the balance of trade with Canada. USTR says so! All the best for 2018, Justin."

The second page of the letter brought the kicker. Trudeau enclosed a printout of Canada's informational page from the website of the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

  • Trudeau underlined the section on the USTR website, which at the time reported that "the U.S. goods and services trade surplus with Canada was $12.5 billion in 2016." Trudeau circled the $12.5 billion and drew a cheeky little smiley face next to it, according to a source with direct knowledge.

A Canadian government official responded to this reporting: "We're not going to comment on whether or what paper was exchanged between our 2 countries. There was a lot of back and forth. That said, it is certainly true that there were disagreements between our 2 countries about the figures, and we repeatedly pointed to USTR and U.S. Commerce's own figures. On your second point (the Bloomberg cover), no comment, but we don't deny it."

Go deeper: Read my full story on the Trump-Trudeau relationship and how it fits into the bigger picture of the president's foreign relations in Year 3.

2. Exclusive: Mooch says Trump may need to be replaced for 2020

Anthony Scaramucci
Former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Anthony Scaramucci, who famously served as President Trump's communications director for 11 days, says Republicans may need to pick a different candidate in 2020.

In a phone interview on Sunday afternoon, Scaramucci compared Trump to a melting nuclear reactor and said he may support a Republican challenger to Trump.

  • "We are now in the early episodes of 'Chernobyl' on HBO, where the reactor is melting down and the apparatchiks are trying to figure out whether to cover it up or start the clean-up process," Scaramucci said.
  • "A couple more weeks like this and 'country over party' is going to require the Republicans to replace the top of the ticket in 2020."

Scaramucci, who has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates, including Trump's 2016 campaign, said that if Trump "doesn't reform his behavior, it will not just be me, but many others will be considering helping to find a replacement in 2020."

  • "Right now, it's an unspeakable thing. But if he keeps it up, it will no longer be unspeakable. The minute they start speaking of it, it will circulate and be socialized. We can't afford a full nuclear contamination site post 2020."

The big picture: Scaramucci has said that Trump's attacks on congresswomen of color "divide the country." And yesterday the president attacked his former communications director in a couple of tweets.

  • White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham had this short response to Scaramucci's comments about opposing Trump in 2020: "It sounds like his feelings are hurt."

3. Scavino's small courtesies

Illustration of a Twitter bird with President Trump's hair and a string tied around it's beak.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

On Saturday, the president of the United States retweeted a conspiracy theory video claiming Bill and Hillary Clinton had a hand in the death of pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. The news media did not treat this as a major story; the Sunday New York Times editors found a few inches for it on page 21.

  • Times' columnist Ross Douthat captured the collective shrug in his tweet: "Dear God, next thing you know the president will accuse a political rival's family of being implicated in the JFK assassination!" (A reference to Trump's 2016 smear of Ted Cruz's father.)

Behind the scenes: I asked a senior White House official whether anybody internally did anything about the Clinton tweet. "I think we're beyond the point of trying to control these things," the official said.

  • White House officials, including press staff, say they rarely receive any forewarning before the president tweets something incendiary.
  • On the occasions they do get a heads-up, it's from Dan Scavino, the White House social media director who manages Trump's Twitter account.
  • Two sources familiar told me that on at least a few occasions, Scavino has taken dictation on an incendiary tweet from Trump, saved the tweet to drafts and given a small number of his colleagues advanced warning that this particular tweet might be coming.
  • But it's just a heads-up. Two and a half years into his presidency, Trump has kept his @realDonaldTrump Twitter account entirely his own.

4. What's next on guns

protestors hold a Gun Reform Now sign
Advocates of gun reform legislation hold a candle light vigil for victims of recent mass shootings outside the headquarters of the NRA, Aug. 5, Fairfax, Virginia. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Conservatives in President Trump's close orbit are worried that he is serious this time about supporting new gun control measures.

  • Between the lines: It's unclear what policies, if any, Trump will ultimately throw his weight behind. This isn't the first time Trump has talked big about gun restrictions only to walk his comments back after talking to the National Rifle Association.
  • A person briefed on the president's thinking said he worries the president will alienate his political base by supporting red flag laws and expanded background checks.

Behind the scenes, per the New York Times: "On the way to his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., Mr. Trump stopped in the Hamptons, raising $12 million at two fund-raisers and telling his donors he was confident that lawmakers would agree to a deal on new gun legislation. He said the Senate doesn’t need to return early because the congressional leadership in both parties would agree on something that members could vote on when they return in the fall."

Go deeper: The Times has a well-reported piece on Trump's long, vacillating history on the gun issue.

5. Sneak Peek diary

Photo of the U.S. Capitol Building
Photo: Image Source/Getty Images

The House and Senate are out of session until Labor Day.

President Trump is staying at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, this week. A White House official shared his public events:

  • Tuesday: Trump will tour the Shell Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex in Monaca, Pennsylvania, and then will give a speech on "America's Energy Dominance and Manufacturing Revival."
  • Thursday: Trump has a campaign rally in Manchester, New Hampshire.

6. 1 fun thing: Trump's pen-pal diplomacy ... with Congress

Up-close photo of Trump signing a document with a black Sharpie.
Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

World leaders aren't the only politicians who've been startled by President Trump's pen-pal diplomacy. Members of Congress, including at least 1 Democratic senator, have received unusual Sharpie-scrawled notes and even autographs from Trump.

What we're hearing: Early in Trump's presidency, Marc Short's Office of Legislative Affairs would produce pocket-sized briefing cards on senators or congressmen that Trump was going to be meeting at the White House or on Air Force One.

  • The cards had the members' photo, a little bit about them and what committees they serve on.
  • They also had a column with political comments. These assessments were often blunt, sometimes included polling from their districts, and in some cases did not necessarily reflect favorably on the member, especially if they were Democrats.
  • The briefing documents also often included quotes from the lawmaker that might be unfavorable toward the president, per 3 sources who saw them.

As his attention drifted in some of his meetings with members, Trump got into the habit of autographing and writing little notes with his Sharpie on these lawmakers' briefing cards. He would then either hand the cards to the members or ask one of his aides to make sure the members received the card, 2 sources familiar with the situation said.

  • "There were like 3 or 4 of these that were Democratic senators," a source with direct knowledge said. "And they ended up sending it to them. Trump signed it, but it has all this negative stuff down at the bottom of the piece. And they're like 'what the f---!'"
  • I asked this source whether Trump read these briefing materials before he signed them and got them sent to the member. "Probably, or he just didn't really care," the source said. "For him, when he's doing it he's in like autograph mode."

One of the Democratic senators who received these Sharpie-scrawled presidential briefing materials was Chris Coons of Delaware. A source familiar with the situation said Coons' briefing card was inoffensive but that Coons' office gave the White House Office of Legislative Affairs a friendly heads-up that their briefing material had found its way to Capitol Hill.

  • After that, the Office of Legislative Affairs began preparing more sanitized briefing materials for the president — assuming they might ultimately end up in the hands of the lawmaker.