Aug 5, 2018

Axios Sneak Peek

By Jonathan Swan
Jonathan Swan

Welcome to Sneak Peek, our weekly lookahead for both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, plus my best scoops. I'd love your tips and feedback: jonathan@axios.com. And please urge your friends and colleagues to join the conversation by signing up for Sneak Peek.

1 big thing ... The TiVo presidency: Trump relives Trump

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Like an NFL coach reviewing game film, Trump likes to watch replays of his debate and rally performances. But instead of looking for weaknesses in technique or for places to improve, Trump luxuriates in the moments he believes are evidence of his brilliance.

Behind the scenes: Trump commentates as he watches, according to sources who've sat with him and viewed replays on his TiVo, which is pre-loaded with his favorites on the large TV in the private dining room adjoining the Oval Office. When watching replays, Trump will interject commentary, reveling in his most controversial lines. "Wait for it. ... See what I did there?" he'll say.

  • "People think it's easy," Trump said in one riff about rally footage, per a source with direct knowledge. "I've been doing this a long time now and people are used to it, every rally, it's like, people have said P.T. Barnum. People have said that before. And they think that's easy, because hey, P.T. Barnum, he does the circus. ... They don't realize, it's a lot of work. It's not easy."

In the early weeks of the administration, Trump loved to relive his debate performances against Hillary Clinton. His favorite, according to sources with direct knowledge, was the St. Louis debate after the Access Hollywood tape leaked, when the Trump team invited Bill Clinton's sexual misconduct accusers as their guests in the live audience.

  • Trump used to enjoy rewatching the moment in that debate when Clinton observed, "It's just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country."
  • "Because," Trump replied, "you'd be in jail."

A source who's discussed the moment with Trump told me, "He thinks it's the greatest thing that ever happened in the history of presidential debates."

2. Inside Trump's summer playground

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Since last summer, Trump's staff have changed their philosophy on his vacation. When Trump unwound last year at his Bedminster golf club or at his Mar-a-Lago estate, his senior staff often scrambled to fill his time — planning events and scheduling golf games with people who might engage him in productive conversation. They feared he would live-tweet his favorite TV shows, setting off national and geopolitical firestorms (remember the Obama wiretap classic?).

  • But now his staff have largely given up on futile efforts to supervise him, leaving president's schedule open and unstructured. He dines with friends and allies each evening and has a prison reform roundtable on Thursday. But besides that, for his week-plus stay at Bedminster, he will, unless things change, be on "Executive Time."

According to staff who've joined him on Bedminster trips, Trump likes to play golf in the mornings. Bedminster, like Mar-a-Lago, remains open to members while Trump is there, which keeps the Secret Service busy.

"Bedminster is really something," said a source who's spent time there with Trump. "People in a swimming pool all day, 15 yards from POTUS' house."

  • Trump stays in a standalone cottage but likes to drop into the clubhouse to dine with the members on a big upstairs terrace overlooking the golf course.
  • Many of Bedminster's members are familiar faces from his pre-presidency life, but the value of their memberships has grown substantially since November 2016. They have extraordinary access to a president of the United States — better than any lobbying firm could provide.
  • Trump would never do well in an isolated setting, like George W. Bush's ranch outside of Crawford, Texas. He never switches off and needs constant human interaction. Sources close to him say he feeds off of the stream of club members coming up to him and praising him.
  • He's always on the phone, and staff often have no idea who he's talking to. And, of course, there's lots of tweeting — which means his press and legal teams can never truly switch off.

Trump is sensitive to stories about him being on vacation; he wants people to think he's busy, especially since he constantly lambasted Obama for playing golf during his presidency.

The bottom line: For the next week or so, Trump will be left to his own devices at a place where he feels totally at home. What could go wrong?

3. Scoop: Leaked document reveals Navarro's brashest tariffs yet

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Imagine the United States entering simultaneous trade wars with China, India, Pakistan, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Ukraine, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Chile, Hong Kong, Brazil and Turkey.

Judging by his tweets this morning, that might sound pretty good to President Trump. And if his economic adviser Peter Navarro had gotten his way last September, it could have happened.

  • Axios has obtained a copy of a draft executive order Navarro put together last fall that would have imposed tariffs on every product imported from every country doing significant business with North Korea.
  • The tariffs would have been massive, and they would have gradually increased as high as 45%.

Between the lines: To my knowledge, this is the most expansive tariff proposal ever floated in the Trump administration. Its death is thanks to — well, just about everyone. Officials at Commerce, State, Treasury, and the Office of the United States Trade Representative all considered the proposal totally unworkable.

  • I have no evidence Trump ever saw this proposal, though he probably would have liked it.
  • Navarro's proposal came at a time when Trump was in an escalating fight with Kim Jong-un and was looking to ramp up his maximum pressure campaign against Pyongyang.
  • In response to an email sharing this reporting, White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters replied: "We don't comment or give credence to allegedly leaked draft documents especially those that are purported to be almost a year old."

Why this matters: While many of Trump's top economic advisors view tariffs as taxes on the American people, Navarro is totally uncowed by the near-consensus. As long as he’s in the administration, there will be a persistent, noisy, enthusiastic voice for the kind of tariffs that would make Sherrod Brown blush.

Read the full document in the Axios stream.

4. Behind the scenes: Trump's power politics

Photo: Kevin McCarthy/Instagram

A little over a week ago, when Kevin McCarthy was in Ohio campaigning for Troy Balderson, his phone rang. It was President Trump. McCarthy quickly put Trump on speakerphone for a conversation with Balderson and the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Steve Stivers.

  • The three men discussed Balderson's upcoming race, and McCarthy asked Trump to tweet his support for incumbent Rep. David Kustoff, who a few days later won the Republican primary in Tennessee’s 8th congressional district.
  • Trump was in a great mood. He told Stivers he'd been doing a good job. "Maybe I will do one [a tweet] for you, Steve," he said, per two sources familiar with the call. Stivers had won his primary months ago, but listeners could have guessed Trump would tweet praise for his work at the NRCC.
  • Six days later, Trump mistakenly encouraged Ohio voters to "get out and vote" for Stivers on August 7. The president quickly deleted the tweet.

Why this matters: This incident highlights Trump’s freewheeling approach to electoral politics this year. Most presidents don’t get involved in primaries, but Trump — to the horror of some top Republican officials — relishes his role as party kingmaker. And while his political team gives him advice, they can’t control him.

  • Sources who've spoken to Trump say that one of his favorite recent interventions was in Florida, where a Trump tweet sent little-known Rep. Ron DeSantis soaring over his well-respected primary opponent Adam Putnam in the Florida gubernatorial race.
  • Trump thinks it's fun to have a stake in these elections, according to sources familiar with his thinking. And he sometimes seems awe-struck by the way his endorsements can move a stunning percentage of Republican voters.

What's next? Senior Republican officials have told me they're holding their breath, hoping Trump won't endorse hardliner Kris Kobach in Tuesday's Kansas gubernatorial primary. Kobach is as far right as a Republican gets on immigration and voting rights, and Democrats view his potential victory as an opportunity to steal centrist voters.

  • A source close to Trump told me they thought the president had been convinced to hold off on supporting Kobach. But he added he couldn't be confident, given that Trump is in Bedminster with a cell phone and plenty of Executive Time.
5. Trump's next strike against Iran

The first half of the Trump administration's new Iran sanctions strategy will kick in on Monday.

  • The big picture: Trump administration will restore sanctions on any entity trading with Iran in gold, steel, aluminum, coal and other minerals and metals. The Trump administration will also restore sanctions on the Iranian automotive industry and on the issuing of Iranian debt or "significant" trade in Iranian currency.

Why this matters: Trump is moving ahead with his Iranian version of "maximum pressure" — though the end game, beyond a hope of unprecedented behavior change or regime collapse, remains unclear. These sanctions represent the first substantive move by the Trump administration after its May 8 withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

  • Trump is applying extreme stress to the Iranian economy, large European companies have been leaving Iran, and the value of the Iranian rial has been falling.

What's next? Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told me: "Reimposing these sanctions is the first step towards tightening the noose on Tehran, putting the regime to a choice between continuing its malign activities or improving its economy..."

  • "These penalties will lay the groundwork for heavier sanctions, such as oil sanctions, which will return in early November."
6. Trump's Lawyer: The Sequel

On ABC's "This Week," Host George Stephanopoulos confronted President Trump's lawyer, Jay Sekulow, about a statement he'd previously made on the show.

  • Stephanopoulos played a video tape from their interview last year in which Sekulow says: "The president didn't sign off on — on anything. ... The statement that was released on Saturday was released by Donald Trump Jr. and I’m sure in consultation with his lawyers. The president wasn’t involved in that."

Stephanopoulos then laid out the timeline of shifting responses regarding the infamous Trump Tower meeting. "You said the president wasn't involved in any way at all..."

  • "And then in January of this year, the president's legal team, including you, sent a memo to Robert Mueller saying...the president did dictate a short but accurate response to the New York Times article on behalf of his son. ... So why did you deny President Trump’s involvement?  When did you learn that the denial wasn't true?"

Sekulow did something rare for a Trump surrogate: he copped to a mistake.

  • "Well, let me tell you two things on that one. Number one, as you know, George, I was in the case at that point, what? A couple of weeks.  And there was a lot of information that was gathering and as my colleague Rudy Giuliani said, I had — I had bad information at that time and made a mistake in my statement."
  • "I've talked about that before. That happens when you have cases like this." 
  • "As far as when did we correct it, the important part is the information that we’ve shared with the Office of Special Counsel. ... So I think it's very important to point out that in a situation like this, you have — over time, facts develop."
7. Sneak Peek diary

The House and Senate are on recess.

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

  • Monday: Trump has dinner with supporters.
  • Tuesday: Trump has dinner with business leaders.
  • Wednesday: Trump has dinner with supporters.
  • Thursday: Trump hosts a roundtable with state leaders on prison reform.
Jonathan Swan