Jan 21, 2019

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. Please urge your friends and colleagues to sign up for Sneak Peek.

1 big thing: Freshmen Dems balk at impeachment

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

The vast majority of freshman House Democrats are not quite ready to "impeach the motherf*cker." Over the last two weeks, Axios’ Alayna Treene reached out to every single one of the 64 new House Democrats, and only a tiny fraction said they were on board with impeachment.

The big picture: There's been a cable news feeding frenzy over the "I" word, fueled in part by freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib's bleep-worthy call for ousting the president. But the reality is that the vast majority of new House Democrats are right in line with their caucus' leadership; they're uninterested in discussing impeachment before special counsel Robert Mueller finishes his work.

  • Instead, they emphasized aggressive Democratic oversight, including opening investigations into the president, his campaign and his administration.

By the numbers: Of the 64 new House Democrats:

  • 48 believe Congress should wait for the Mueller report's release before considering impeachment.
  • 7 go a little further, saying that language is "not helpful."
  • 6 support impeaching the president.
  • 3 have not made clear, on-record statements.

Rep. Al Green of Texas, the first member of Congress to introduce an Article of Impeachment against President Trump in 2017, confirmed this sense of hesitancy to Axios: "I can assure you that there is far more pressure on people who are supportive of impeachment not to impeach than there is on those who don't favor it to impeach. Exponentially more."

Behind the scenes: Privately, many of the new freshmen say that Trump may have committed impeachable offenses. But they also argue that impeachment doesn't have a chance of succeeding in the Senate under Republican control, and they think, politically, the messaging could have the adverse effect if they broach the subject too soon — further animating Trump's base ahead of 2020.

  • One Democratic aide told Axios that many of the new members who flipped red districts want to take a breather before committing to a hardline message on impeachment.

Meanwhile, "Need to Impeach," the campaign led by billionaire activist Tom Steyer, told Axios that impeachment was an integral part of the last election cycle, and they find it alarming that new members are saying one thing behind closed doors and another thing publicly.

"They're saying he's corrupt and the most divisive president in American history, but then publicly they're running from the word impeachment. ... They’re putting all their eggs in the Mueller basket, but the Trump administration is playing every possible game to discredit the investigation. They have a constitutional duty to hold Trump accountable and impeach him."
— Kevin Mack, lead strategist for Tom Steyer's "Need to Impeach" campaign

The bottom line: A handful of progressive freshmen Democrats looking to push the party to the left have taken the lion's share of the media attention devoted to their class. But the big picture is complicated; for every Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, there’s a Joe Cunningham and Abigail Spanberger — freshmen who claimed red seats and immediately found themselves in the NRCC's crosshairs.

Go deeper: Here's the spreadsheet showing Alayna's reporting on where every new House Democrat stands on impeaching Trump.

2. Trump fails to woo Democrats

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

In the 24 hours since Trump offered his immigration proposal, not a single Democrat has publicly expressed openness to it.

  • Senior White House officials told Axios their strategy — conceived largely by Jared Kushner and Vice President Mike Pence — was to get Trump's "compromise" immigration bill through the Senate with an overwhelming vote and then pressure House Democrats to break from Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

But the Democrats have a consensus: No immigration talks until the government is back open. Even the moderates who sometimes break with the party, including Sens. Joe Manchin and Chris Coons, are sticking with leadership on this, for now at least.

  • White House officials and Republicans close to leadership have privately admitted to Axios, since Trump's Saturday announcement, that they don't see how they win over the seven Senate Democrats they need to support this bill.
  • Democrats are blunt. Steve Elmendorf, one of the top Democratic lobbyists in Washington D.C., told Axios, "Why would any Senate Democrat vote for a bill that was not negotiated with any Senate Democrat?" (Kushner and Pence consulted Democrats, but they weren't at the negotiating table; this is a Trump offer.)
  • "I think it's totally impossible," Elmendorf said, when asked if he saw any chance of seven Senate Democrats backing Trump's offer.
  • "This could be a basis to have a meeting. ... He should have another meeting and present this offer, and let them talk about what they're willing to do."

During a meeting with reporters at the White House yesterday, Pence and Kushner acknowledged they've been talking to "rank and file" Democrats and tried to incorporate some of the things they want in the president's shutdown proposal. That's how they got the idea to add DACA and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) protections, Pence said.

  • But so far, their plan to divide Democrats hasn't worked.

Right-wing immigration restrictionists — part of Trump's base — are bashing the president for his offer. Ann Coulter tweeted yesterday: "Trump proposes amnesty. We voted for Trump and got Jeb!"

  • But some Trump allies say they're comfortable with attacks from Trump's right.
  • Marc Short, the former White House director of legislative affairs, told Axios: "The president saying he'll extend DACA by three years and TPS by three years is a more substantial concession than Pelosi saying she'll fund a few more judges. ... When you're being attacked by the right and the left, then you often know you've found more middle ground."

What's next: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has pledged to bring the president's proposal to the floor this week. But even if he somehow gets it out of the Senate, it looks dead on arrival in the House.

  • Meanwhile, Pelosi will move a series of bills to reopen the government — with about $1 billion extra in border spending (though not for a barrier) — and these are equally DOA. in McConnell's Senate, because Trump won't sign them if they don't have money for his wall.

The bottom line: On Day 30 of the shutdown, the White House and Congress don't look remotely close to striking a deal to reopen 25% of the government. And if they can't pass something by Friday, hundreds of thousands of federal workers will miss another paycheck.

3. What was Rudy thinking?

Rudy Giuliani. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

In a remarkable interview with CNN's Jake Tapper today, the president's lawyer Rudy Giuliani suggested it was possible — and would be "perfectly normal" — that Trump talked to Michael Cohen before he testified about him to Congress.

  • Giuliani added he didn't know if Trump and Cohen had such a conversation.

Why it matters: It's not "perfectly normal" for subjects of or witnesses in a Congressional investigation to discuss testimony directly with each other. If witnesses or subjects are talking to each other, the government can always claim one is trying to influence the others' testimony. That's why lawyers counsel against doing it.

  • But the act itself is not illegal. "Fundamentally, what is important is what Trump said to Cohen," said Kathy Ruemmler, who served as White House counsel to President Obama. "The fact that they may have discussed it is bad practice, but not in and of itself problematic."

Top Washington criminal defense lawyers, both Democrats and Republicans, told me they couldn't understand what Giuliani was trying to achieve with his TV appearance.

  • "Any defense lawyer would advise their client in an investigation not to discuss testimony with other people involved in the investigation in order to avoid the risk of obstruction or suborning perjury charges," said a Republican attorney who spoke on condition of anonymity because he works with the Trump administration and doesn't want to offend them.
  • "Rudy is the gift that keeps on creating issues that do not otherwise exist. He should have taken the Mueller statement [denying the BuzzFeed story], embraced it and not said another word," said a prominent criminal defense lawyer, who requested not to be identified because he's active in Robert Mueller's investigation.

The White House referred questions to outside counsel. So I texted Giuliani asking if he really thought it would be perfectly normal for Trump to discuss Cohen's testimony with him.

Giuliani texted back: "If there is a joint defense agreement it is safe to do it through your lawyers. I can't believe your [sic] still pursuing this after the malicious BuzzFeed blowup. President has not advised anyone to do anything but tell the truth as that [sic] recall it ...

  • "Cohen's lawyers reviewed his testimony and said it was truthful. ... Their lawyers had a joint defense agreement."
  • A joint defense agreement lets lawyers talk to one another — not their clients — and only while the interests of the clients are aligned, former senior DOJ official Chuck Rosenberg told me. "Once those interests diverge — as they would when Mr. Cohen pled guilty — the agreement typically ends."

The bottom line: I tried to clarify this with Giuliani. "You said to Tapper it would be perfectly normal for Trump to discuss testimony with Cohen. Now you're saying only through lawyers. Which is it?"

  • By deadline, Giuliani had not replied.

Go deeper: The New York Times' Maggie Haberman and Michael Schmidt published another interview with Giuliani on Sunday. In it, Giuliani indicated Trump and Cohen's conversations about the Trump Tower project in Moscow could have continued months longer than previously known.

4. 2020 watch: Pompeo reportedly met with GOP Senate strategist

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Photo: Luiz Rampelotto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Politico's Alex Isenstadt scoops: "Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is slated to meet with veteran Republican strategist Ward Baker on Sunday afternoon to discuss a possible 2020 run for the vacant Kansas Senate seat, according to two people familiar with the plans.

  • "Pompeo, a former congressman and ex-CIA director who in April 2018 was confirmed as secretary of State, is considering a Senate bid, though he has yet to make a final decision.
  • "Yet party leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are aggressively wooing him. McConnell (R-Ky.) and Pompeo spoke shortly after Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts announced his retirement."

CNN later reported on the meeting. (I've not yet independently confirmed.)

5. Sneak Peek diary

A quarter of the federal government remains shut down, and there's no deal in sight.

The House is back in session on Tuesday for votes, and Democratic leadership expects to stay through Friday. This was originally supposed to be a recess week, but members are being brought back to D.C. because of the shutdown.

  • Nancy Pelosi will put on the floor "the 6 bill package of appropriations bills that were negotiated by House and Senate appropriators during the last Congress that includes hundreds of millions in new border security funding added by Democratic leadership to pay for enhanced infrastructure needs at ports of entry, additional immigration judges and other priorities," according to a senior House Democratic aide. (This bill is DOA in the Senate.)
  • "Rep. [Jimmy] Panetta [D-Calif.] has a bill that would block the President from being able to withdraw the U.S. from NATO," per another senior House Dem aide.

The Senate will reconvene Tuesday. Per a leadership source, McConnell will wrap Trump's immigration proposal in a package that includes the following:

  • "Seven full appropriations bills to reopen the portions of the government that are currently shutdown
  • "Billions in disaster relief"
  • Border security funding and immigration measures that Trump announced yesterday. Most notably, $5.7 billion to build a steel barrier along the southern border, a three-year reprieve from deportation to people who came from dangerous countries and qualify for TPS, and illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children who are covered by the DACA program.

The White House did not provide a week-ahead schedule for President Trump. Trump's schedule appears to be more fluid than usual amid the government shutdown.

6. 1 Brit thing: John Bolton, Brexiteer

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Trump isn't the only senior White House official rooting for Brexit. National security adviser John Bolton talks regularly by phone with his Brexiteer friends inside Theresa May's imploding government — Cabinet ministers Liam Fox and Chris Grayling — according to a May government source.

  • "John is a strong believer in Brexit and has been encouraging the Brexiteers to keep it up," the source told me.

Bolton has never disguised his contempt for the European Union, and he's long advocated for a clean Brexit. He did so as a Fox News commentator long before joining the Trump White House, and he's done so both privately and publicly as national security adviser. "God bless the people of Great Britain who two years ago voted to get out of the European Union," Bolton said in a September speech.

Between the lines: We already knew that Bolton channels Trump in a way that differs dramatically from his predecessor, H.R. McMaster (see Bolton's stances on Iran, the UN and the International Criminal Court). But his pro-Brexit cheerleading may be his Trumpiest turn yet.

A spokesman for Bolton declined to comment.

Jonathan Swan