Jun 2, 2019

Axios Sneak Peek

Jonathan Swan

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

  • We have a special edition of Sneak tonight. The second season of our TV show, "Axios on HBO," premiered at 6 pm ET with an interview with President Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner.
  • Why it matters: At 38, Jared Kushner is the most influential family member to serve a president since Robert Kennedy, and yet we hear almost nothing from him publicly.

I've summarized some of our exchanges below, but please watch the whole interview on HBO.

1 big thing: Kushner uncertain Palestinians can govern themselves

Jared Kushner. Photo: Maciej Luczniewski/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Jared Kushner — architect of the White House's Middle East plan, part of which is due for release at the end of June — casts doubt on the ability of Palestinians to govern themselves.

Driving the news: Asked whether he believes the Palestinians are capable of governing themselves without Israeli interference — a fundamental demand for Palestinians — Kushner said, "That's a very good question. ... The hope is, is that over time, they can become capable of governing."

  • Kushner said the Palestinians "need to have a fair judicial system ... freedom of press, freedom of expression, tolerance for all religions" before the Palestinian territories can become "investable."
  • Asked whether the Palestinians could expect freedom from any Israeli governmental or military interference, Kushner said, "I think that it's a high bar. ... If you don't have a proper government structure and proper security when people are living in fear of terror, that hurts Palestinians."
  • Between the lines: Axios contributor Barak Ravid writes: "When he says 'it's a high bar' — I think that partially what he means is that even if there is a Palestinian state, the Israeli army would still have some responsibility for security."

Why this matters: Kushner, who represents a president whose actions have so far been all-in for Israel, in the interview seems to want to drive a wedge between the Palestinian people and their leadership and in so doing may make the sales pitch for his future plan even harder.

  • The Palestinian leaders have already announced they're boycotting the Trump administration's economic summit later this month in Bahrain, even as other Arab countries who support the Palestinians have said they'll attend.

Yes, but: Kushner also said in the interview that he believes the Palestinians "should have self-determination." Barak told me he takes this as a signal that the White House plans to propose a two-state solution. Barak said it's the first time Kushner has said so this clearly.

  • However, the phrase "self-determination" is slippery. Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro told me that while "self-determination" usually connotes statehood, it could also mean "a level of limited autonomy that is little more than the Palestinians have right now — disconnected islands surrounded by overall Israeli control (and annexed settlements)."
  • "There aren't going to be any Palestinians who will endorse that definition of self-determination, and few others who matter elsewhere" would do so either, Shapiro said.

Context: I interviewed Kushner before his trip to Jerusalem ahead of the formation of a new Netanyahu government. But he arrived in Israel to discover that Netanyahu couldn't form a coalition and to news that Israel will have another election. This will further complicate the rollout of Kushner's peace plan.

2. Kushner: "I'm not here to be trusted" by Palestinian leaders

Kushner meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank, June 22, 2017. Photo: Palestinian Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

I asked Kushner, who hasn't had official talks with the Palestinian leadership in more than a year, whether he understands why the Palestinians don't trust him. (Since taking office, President Trump has moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, slashed all U.S. aid to the Palestinians and shuttered the Palestinian diplomatic office in Washington.)

  • Kushner replied, "I'm not here to be trusted" and that he thinks the Palestinian people — if not their leaders — will not "judge anything based on trusting me," but instead will judge the Trump peace plan "based on the facts and then make a determination: Do they think this will allow them to have a pathway to a better life or not?"

Why it matters: Kushner's critics say he has been dismissive of the Palestinians' political aspirations — to have their own state with a capital in East Jerusalem — and that he's instead trying to buy them off with the promise of tens of billions of dollars of new investment in the Palestinian territories.

  • Kushner responded by arguing that the Palestinian people want different things than the Palestinian leaders.
  • When I asked Kushner whether the Palestinians deserve their own independent sovereign state with the capital in East Jerusalem, he replied: "There's a difference between the technocrats and ... the people." While "the technocrats are focused on very technocratic things" (translation: Palestinian statehood), "when I speak to Palestinian people, what they want is they want the opportunity to live a better life. They want the opportunity to pay their mortgage."
  • Asked how he knows what the Palestinian people want given he's "not exactly walking on the streets of Ramallah every day," Kushner implied he's having lots of private conversations with regular Palestinians that people don't know about.
  • Watch the clip.

Behind the scenes: Given his commitment to secrecy, interviewing Kushner is a challenge. When I pressed him on what to expect next on the two big signature policies he's leading — the Middle East peace plan and the White House's immigration proposal — he was determined to say nothing newsworthy.

The more illuminating parts of the interview were when I asked him to set aside the details of his policy plans, which he refuses to disclose, and instead explain what he believes.

  • Does he think the Palestinian people are capable of governing themselves without Israeli military and governmental interference? Does he think the Palestinian people deserve their own state with a capital in East Jerusalem? How does he reconcile his family history as refugees with the Trump administration slashing refugee numbers — his answers were more revealing than anything he said when I pressed him for fresh details about the policies he's working on.
3. Kushner on MBS, refugees, racism and President Trump's legacy

Trump talks with Kushner. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Discussing the horrific death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Kushner was noncommittal on whether Saudi Crown Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) must account for Khashoggi's body.

  • Kushner said he's still waiting for results of a U.S. investigation to assign blame, even though the CIA reportedly determined with a high degree of confidence that MBS ordered the murder, and the U.S. Senate unanimously declared that he was responsible.

Why this matters: Kushner, who shares the president's view that Saudi Arabia is a crucial partner to counter Iran, has formed a close relationship with MBS and helped promote him as a great reformer. We see here that even eight months after Khashoggi's death in a Saudi consulate, the White House still refuses to publicly hold the Saudi leader accountable.

  • Asked whether he would join Khashoggi's fiancée in calling on the Saudi government to release his body (or identify where they put the body parts) so that his family might bury him, Kushner said: "Look, it's a horrific thing that happened. … Once we have all the facts, then we'll make a policy determination, but that would be up to the Secretary of State to push on our policy."

Other highlights:

  • Kushner talked about how his grandparents came to America as impoverished refugees, after surviving the Nazis, and "they were able to build a great life for themselves." He said, "It's a great reminder of how great this country is, where my grandparents could be on the precipice of life or death and then come to this country and ... 70 years later ... their grandson's working in the White House."
  • I asked Kushner what he makes of President Trump's decision to slash America's refugee intake to the lowest level in 40 years. He defended that decision, saying the overall numbers are irrelevant given the scale of the global refugee crisis. Read Axios' Stef Kight's story on our exchange.
  • Kushner passionately defended Trump against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's charge that the president is a racist. I asked him whether Birtherism is racist. He wouldn't answer the question — saying repeatedly that he wasn't involved in Birtherism and that he knows who the president is. He also ducked whether Trump campaigning on a Muslim ban was an example of religious bigotry. Watch the clip.

Kushner said history will remember President Trump for two things above all else:

  1. Changing the types of people who come to work in Washington — "people who never would've been in Washington before who were not qualified by conventional standards ... have brought great results to this country both economically and from a national security point of view."
  2. Changing "how we think about America's place in the world" — from a post-World War II era where everybody took advantage of America, to a new era of "rebalance" in trade and burden sharing. Kushner believes Trump has set America on a new course that will outlive his presidency.
4. Iran offer: Pompeo says U.S. ready to talk with 'no preconditions'

Mike Pompeo. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Driving the news: "U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday that the Trump administration is ready for unconditional discussions with Iran in an effort to ease rising tensions that have sparked fears of conflict," the Associated Press' Matthew Lee reports from the scene in Bellinzona, Switzerland.

  • "But the United States will not relent in trying to pressure the Islamic Republic to change its behavior in the Middle East."
  • What Pompeo told reporters: "We're prepared to engage in a conversation with no preconditions. We're ready to sit down with them, but the American effort to fundamentally reverse the malign activity of this Islamic Republic, this revolutionary force, is going to continue."

Why this matters: The Trump administration's tough stance against Iran, including sending more troops to the region, have caused some allies to fear an outbreak of war.

  • Iran's first response: "It's not very likely because talking is the continuation of the process of pressure. He is imposing pressure. This may work in a real estate market. It does not work in dealing with Iran," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told ABC's "This Week."
5. Mexico hints at immigration concessions to Trump

Trucks queuing at the Otay Mesa border crossing. April 3. Photo: Omar Martínez/picture alliance via Getty Images

"Mexico's president on Saturday hinted his country could tighten migration controls to defuse U.S. President Donald Trump's threat to impose tariffs on Mexican goods, and said he expected 'good results' from talks planned in Washington next week," Reuters' Dave Graham reports from Mexico City.

Why it matters: "Trump says he will apply the tariffs on June 10 if Mexico does not halt the flow of illegal immigration, largely from Central America, across the U.S.-Mexican border." Trump left it deliberately vague, and aides believe there's plenty of room for Mexico to give him a "win" and avoid tariffs.

6. Sneak Peek diary

Photo: Tetra Images-Henryk Sadura/Getty Images

The House has a short week (Monday–Wednesday), as many members are traveling to Normandy for the 75th anniversary of D-Day, per a senior Democratic aide.

  • During that time, House Democratic leaders expect to vote on a $19 billion disaster aid package and possibly vote on the American Dream and Promise Act, which would protect undocumented immigrants eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status.
  • The bill would "cancel removal proceedings against certain aliens who entered the United States as minors and grant such aliens conditional permanent residence status for 10 years."

The Senate expects to confirm the following Trump nominees, per a Republican leadership aide:

  • Andrew Saul reappointed as Commissioner of Social Security until 2025.
  • David Schenker as Assistant Secretary of State (Near Eastern Affairs).
  • Heath Tarbert as Chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
  • Susan Combs as an Assistant Secretary of the Interior.
  • Ryan Holte and Richard Hertling as judges on the United States Court of Federal Claims for terms of 15 years.
  • Rossie David Alston Jr. as judge for the Eastern District of Virginia.

President Trump leaves today for Europe. Per The Atlantic:

  • "Queen Elizabeth II will host [Trump] at a state banquet in Buckingham Palace on Monday, making him just the third U.S. president to be so honored (Barack Obama and George W. Bush being the others).
  • "Over the following days, he'll mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day at ceremonies in Britain and France, and hold face-to-face meetings with outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar."
  • President Trump returns to the U.S. on Friday, per a White House official.
Jonathan Swan