Axios Sneak Peek

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1 big thing — Scoop: GOP's Cornyn backlash

John Cornyn
Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Frustration is boiling among conservatives inside the Senate GOP conference at the way Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) is handling the bipartisan gun reform negotiations — putting the man who aspires to succeed Mitch McConnell as Republican leader in a political jam.

  • The GOP senators uneasy about the negotiations include Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rick Scott (R-Fla.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), among others, multiple sources with direct knowledge tell Axios' Jonathan Swan and Alayna Treene.

Behind the scenes: At Tuesday's private Senate GOP lunch, several senators questioned Cornyn about the proposal and pushed for specific details about what the legislation would entail.

  • Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) "very vocally" requested more information from Cornyn on the substance of the framework. Those requests were rebuffed, three sources familiar with the lunch told Axios.
  • Scott, the chairman of Senate Republicans' campaign arm, feels snubbed by the bipartisan group after holding early talks with Cornyn and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).
  • "No one's telling me anything. I've just asked for the text, and I haven’t gotten anything," Scott told Axios.

Between the lines: Several senators feel they've been shut out of the negotiating process and kept in the dark about crucial details, and will be asked to take a politically tough vote without enough time to digest the bill.

  • One GOP senator, speaking to Axios on the condition of anonymity to be candid about his concerns, branded Cornyn's approach: "Shut up, and vote."
  • "There's considerable unhappiness in the conference that we seem to be approaching a bill that will unite all the Democrats and divide the Republicans," said another senior Republican with direct knowledge of the internal talks.

Cornyn's initial aspiration was to put forward a bipartisan bill that could win the support of 20 or more Republicans — not just eke out passage with the 10 GOP votes required to break the filibuster.

  • "That [approach] was in response to the complaint that they were going to pick off 10 Republicans and divide our conference," a GOP senator told Axios.
  • "And what do we get? Last weekend we get a press release with 10 Republican senators and the suggestion it's happening whether you like it or not."

2. Part II: The other side

McConnell and Cornyn
Sens. Mitch McConnell (L) and John Cornyn (R). Photo: Al Drago/Getty Images

McConnell has thus far supported Cornyn's efforts, saying he's "comfortable" with the bipartisan gun deal and will support the bill if it "ends up reflecting what the framework indicated."

  • Leadership was skeptical that some of these conservative senators would vote for any gun deal they might come up with, given the makeup of their constituencies and — for some of them — suspected presidential aspirations.

Cornyn is also aware of the growing conservative backlash and has sought to tamp it down in public remarks — including today, when he walked out of negotiations and told reporters: "It's fish or cut bait. I don't know what they have in mind, but I'm through talking."

  • Cornyn's also emphasized the provisions he fought to keep out of the bill, such as raising the age to purchase assault weapons to 21.
  • And he's tried to rebrand "red flag laws" — a toxic phrase among conservatives — as "crisis intervention."

A Cornyn aide told Axios the senator "has been talking to and answering questions one on one from multiple of these members. He or our staff has been in particularly close contact with Crapo and Lee."

  • "Part of the reason McConnell selected him is because he has credibility and a track record on this issue and has a wide reach across the board among members," a Senate GOP leadership aide said. "He is uniquely suited to take on this challenge."

The bottom line: Given his leadership aspirations, Cornyn is taking on a bigger risk than the nine other Republican senators who signed onto the bipartisan gun safety framework.

  • Four of those GOP senators are retiring, and none are up for re-election this year.

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3. Trump advisers knew Pence plan was illegal

Screenshot of John Eastman email asking for pardon
Screenshot: CNN

Today's Jan. 6 hearing revealed top Trump advisers privately knew the scheme to have Mike Pence unilaterally reject electors was legally unjustifiable:

  • White House chief of staff Mark Meadows acknowledged to Pence's chief of staff Marc Short "a couple times" that the VP "doesn't have any broader role," Short testified in a taped deposition.
  • Rudy Giuliani admitted the same to White House lawyer Eric Herschmann, before saying the exact opposite during his speech at the Ellipse rally later that day, according to Herschmann's testimony.
  • Fox News host Sean Hannity texted Meadows on Dec. 31: "I do NOT see January 6 happening the way [Trump] is being told."
  • John Eastman — the architect of the plan — acknowledged to Pence's counsel Greg Jacob that "we would lose 9-0" if the case were brought to the Supreme Court, according to Jacob. He also said he wouldn't want Democratic vice presidents like Al Gore or Kamala Harris to have the power to decide the outcome of the election, before adding. "But I think you should do it today."

4. Web of witnesses

Data: Axios research. Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals
Data: Axios research. Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

The small world of conservative legal scholars was on full display at today's hearing:

  • Eastman clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The committee is now seeking testimony from Thomas's wife Ginni, a conservative activist who pushed to overturn the election and emailed Eastman in December 2020.
  • Eastman also clerked for Judge J. Michael Luttig, whose analysis Pence cited on Jan. 6 to refute Eastman's theory. Luttig testified at today's hearing that his former clerk's scheme would have created "the first constitutional crisis since the founding of the republic."

🤯 The Jan. 6 committee's senior investigative counsel, John Wood —who led today's questioning — also clerked for both Thomas and Luttig.

5. 🔥 Hot mic: Taxpayer superyachts

Amadea super yacht
The $325 million, Russian-owned "Amadea" superyacht is now flying the American flag after being seized in Fiji last week. Photo: Osman Uras/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan was caught on a hot mic at a CNAS event today speaking candidly about the Russian superyachts seized by the U.S. government, according to audio shared with Axios by Vox's Jonathan Guyer:

"You know what the craziest thing is? When we seize one, we have to pay for upkeep. The federal government pays for upkeep, under the kind of forfeiture rubric. Some people are basically being paid to maintain Russian superyachts on behalf of the United States government. It's unbelievable."

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