Jun 21, 2020

Axios Sneak Peek

By Jonathan Swan
Jonathan Swan

Welcome to Sneak Peek, our weekly look ahead from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, plus our best scoops.

🎬 On tomorrow's "Axios on HBO" (11pm ET/PT):

  • Alexi McCammond interviews Stacey Abrams about President Trump, police reform, the election, voter rights and more. See a clip.

🍽 And in partnership with No Kid Hungry, Axios will host a conversation on ending child hunger in America amidst a pandemic. 

  • Join Axios CEO and co-founder Jim VandeHei and executive editor Sara Kehaulani Goo Wednesday, June 24, at 12:30pm ET for conversations with chef and founder of Fieldtrip Harlem JJ Johnson and national policy adviser at Share Our Strength Dorothy McAuliffe.
  • Register here.

Tonight's newsletter is 2,206 words, an 8-minute read.

1 big thing: Exclusive — Trump held off Xinjiang sanctions for trade deal

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

In an Oval Office interview on Friday afternoon, President Trump told me that he held off on imposing Treasury sanctions against Chinese officials involved with the Xinjiang mass detention camps because doing so would have interfered with his trade deal with Beijing.

Driving the news: Asked why he hadn't yet enacted Treasury sanctions against Chinese Communist Party officials or entities tied to the camps where the Chinese government detains Uighurs and other Muslim minorities, Trump replied, "Well, we were in the middle of a major trade deal. And I made a great deal, $250 billion potentially worth of purchases. And by the way, they're buying a lot, you probably have seen."

  • Trump continued: "And when you're in the middle of a negotiation and then all of a sudden you start throwing additional sanctions on — we've done a lot. I put tariffs on China, which are far worse than any sanction you can think of."

The big picture: China hawks in the Trump administration have privately expressed frustration that the president hasn't used the Global Magnitsky Act to sanction Chinese officials for what many consider one of the worst human rights atrocities of this era.

Between the lines: But that new law is Congress' attempt to pressure Trump to enact sanctions. Trump already had all the authority he needed to sanction China for the camps. Congress passed the Global Magnitsky Act in 2016 — a law designed to counter human rights violations like those being committed in Xinjiang, where witnesses say the Chinese government imprisons, brainwashes, and tortures ethnic and religious minorities.

  • China hawks in Congress, such as Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, have repeatedly urged the Trump administration to sanction Chinese officials connected to the Xinjiang mass detention camps.

But in Friday's interview with Axios, Trump said: "When you say the Magnitsky Act, just so you know, nobody's mentioned it specifically to me with regard to China."

  • "If somebody asked me, I would take a look at it," he continued. "But nobody's asked me. I have not been spoken to about the Magnitsky Act. So if somebody asks me about it, I'd study it. But at this moment, they have not asked me about it."
  • In his book, John Bolton writes that Trump gave President Xi a green light to continue with the Xinjiang camps — an allegation Trump denies.

The other side: While the Treasury Department hasn't taken action with Magnitsky sanctions — which would allow the U.S. government to take harsh measures such as seizing the U.S. dollar assets of targeted Chinese officials — other departments of the Trump administration have taken concrete steps to penalize China for the human rights crisis in Xinjiang.

  • Since September 2019, the Commerce Department and the State Department have imposed export restrictions on a total of 21 Chinese government entities and 16 Chinese companies deemed complicit in the abuses in Xinjiang.
  • And the State Department has imposed visa restrictions on Chinese Communist Party officials deemed responsible for the abuse of Uighurs. Additionally, the U.S. has taken minor steps to stop the import of goods produced by Uighur forced labor.
  • A senior administration said he believes the U.S. government is the only government in the world that has imposed actual costs on China for the Xinjiang situation.
2. Trump: "What's good for the country is also good for an election"

Trump, Xi Jinping and members of their delegations at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Dec. 1, 2018. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

I also asked President Trump whether — as Bolton charges — he asked President Xi to increase China's farm purchases from the U.S. to help Trump win in 2020. Bolton claims Trump made the request when the leaders met in Buenos Aires in December 2018.

  • "No, not at all," Trump said. "What I told everybody we deal with — not just President Xi — I want them to do business with this country. I want them to do a lot more business with this country."
  • "By the way, what's good for the country is good for me," Trump continued. "What's good for the country is also good for an election."
  • "But I don't go around saying, 'Oh, help me with my election.' Why would I say that?"
  • "And remember, when I'm dealing with him, the whole room is loaded up with people. We're in a large room with many people in that room. I wouldn't want to say a thing like that. I don't even know if that would be wrong because, you know, but why would I say a thing like that? And I certainly wouldn't say it anyway, but I certainly wouldn't say it in a room full of people."
3. Exclusive: Trump cold on Guaidó, would consider meeting Maduro

A portrait of Nicolás Maduro. Photo: Ruben Sevilla Brand/picture alliance via Getty Images

In our interview, President Trump suggested he's had second thoughts about his decision to recognize Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela and said he is open to meeting with dictator Nicolás Maduro.

Driving the news: Asked whether he would meet with Maduro, Trump said, "I would maybe think about that. ... Maduro would like to meet. And I'm never opposed to meetings — you know, rarely opposed to meetings.

  • "I always say, you lose very little with meetings. But at this moment, I've turned them down."

The big picture: Trump also indicated he doesn't have much confidence in Guaidó, who has failed to wrest control of the Venezuelan government despite support from the U.S. and dozens of other countries.

  • Asked whether he regretted his decision to follow Bolton's advice on Guaidó, Trump initially said "not particularly," but then went on to say, "I could have lived with it or without it, but I was very firmly against what's going on in Venezuela."
  • Trump said that at the point he weighed in and recognized Guaidó, "Guaidó was elected. I think that I wasn't necessarily in favor, but I said — some people that liked it, some people didn't. I was OK with it. I don't think it was — you know, I don't think it was very meaningful one way or the other."

Why it matters: If Trump meets with Maduro, it would completely upend his administration's policy on Venezuela. Top administration officials, including Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo, have invested a huge amount of energy in supporting Guaidó.

  • And in March, Attorney General Bill Barr announced that the Justice Department was charging Maduro with narcoterrorism. The DOJ press release announcing the charges referred to him as the "Former President of Venezuela."

Behind the scenes: A former Trump administration official told me Trump's comments to Axios tracked with their firsthand experience of the first two and a half years of his presidency, when Venezuela policy was a hotter issue in the West Wing than it is now.

  • In 2017, the Venezuelan government reached out to the White House and the State Department at least twice to express Maduro's willingness to meet with Trump, the former official said.
  • In one of these instances, the Venezuelan Embassy called the White House switchboard. The other request came in a letter. Maduro also publicly expressed his desire to meet with Trump.
  • The former official said it was a "recurring concern" inside the administration during 2017 and 2018 that Trump would meet with Maduro. "It was really stop and go there for a while," he said. "And the Venezuelan opposition was beside themselves."
  • The president signaled a general openness to meeting Maduro in 2018, but also reiterated that "all options" were on the table — a signal he was considering military action against Venezuela.

Go deeper: Read the full story in the Axios stream

4. POTUS says he has a nondisclosure agreement with niece Mary Trump
Photo: Screenshot from Simon & Schuster

In his first public comments on the matter, President Trump told Axios that his niece, Mary Trump, is "not allowed" to write her forthcoming book about him because doing so would violate a nondisclosure agreement she signed.

Driving the news: "She's not allowed to write a book," Trump told me. "You know, when we settled with her and her brother, who I do have a good relationship with — she's got a brother, Fred, who I do have a good relationship with, but when we settled, she has a total ... signed a nondisclosure."

  • Trump said his niece's nondisclosure agreement with him was a "very powerful one. ... It covers everything."

Between the lines: Trump's comments to Axios confirm a Daily Beast story from last week, which broke the news of the NDA.

  • The Beast reported: "Mary Trump signed an NDA following a 2001 settlement after litigation disputing Fred Trump’s estate, according to people familiar with the matter. That NDA states she is not allowed to publish anything regarding the litigation or her relationship with Donald, Maryanne, and Robert."
  • "Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man" is slated to be published on July 28. Late on Monday night, following The Daily Beast's story, the publisher of Mary Trump's book, Simon & Schuster, posted the book on Amazon, where it quickly soared up the charts with pre-sale orders.
  • "In the book, Mary Trump is not only expected to discuss difficult internal family dynamics and offer revelations about a younger Donald Trump; she is also expected to out herself as a primary source behind a Pulitzer-winning New York Times investigation into her uncle's taxes," per The Daily Beast.

Trump suggested to Axios that he and some members of his family were blindsided by the news of the book.

  • "I have a brother, Robert, very good guy, and he's — he's very angry about it," the president said. "But she signed a nondisclosure agreement and she's obviously not honoring it if she writes a book. It's too bad."
  • "I have a good relationship with [Mary Trump's] brother. I actually had him — he was in here. He was sitting right in the seat where you are last week, unrelated to that. I didn't even know — maybe two weeks ago. I didn't even know about a book coming out until just the other day."

I asked the president about his niece's allegation that he "dismissed and derided" his father when he began to succumb to Alzheimer's.

  • "It's totally false; the opposite," Trump said. "Actually, the opposite. I always had a great relationship. I didn't know that she said that. That's a disgraceful thing to say."

Mary Trump did not respond to requests for comment. Simon & Schuster's director of publicity, Julia Prosser, declined to comment.

5. What’s next: Biden to hit Trump on Obamacare

Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden campaign plans to seize upon Trump’s Tulsa claim that he asked officials to "slow the [coronavirus] testing down, please" to focus on Trump’s broader policy goal of dismantling the Affordable Care Act. (Trump’s campaign later said he was joking.), writes Axios' Hans Nichols.

  • The Biden strategy is pretty straightforward: Reiterate Biden’s commitment to Obamacare while signaling that he is open to revising it with a public option — all while drawing a contrast with President Trump, who continues to call for its repeal.

The big picture: Even during the pandemic, the Trump administration is continuing its assault on one of President Obama’s signature issues and is expected to file a Supreme Court brief to repeal the law this week.

  • Biden’s campaign is salivating about that expected filing and will use it to bludgeon Trump on both his COVID-19 response and his opposition to Obamacare.
  • Expect Biden’s team to call on Trump to explain how he plans to provide health care to an estimated 20 million Americans who have lost their jobs, and likely, their health insurance.

The other side: In early May, Trump hinted that his opposition had softened, but that he’d still work to repeal it: “Obamacare is a disaster, but we’ve made it barely acceptable,” Trump said.

6. The right v. John Roberts

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Conservatives are frustrated with Chief Justice John Roberts after a pair of surprising Supreme Court rulings last week — and those frustrations are only likely to grow, Axios' Sam Baker writes.

  • Driving the news: The court is set to rule in the next week or two on abortion, federal bank regulations and President Trump's taxes, and none of those cases are primed for sweeping conservative victories.

Go deeper: Read Sam's full story on what's next for SCOTUS — in the Axios stream.

7. Senate prepares for showdown over police reform

Photo: Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

Senate Democrats are debating how to deal with the GOP police reform bill, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) intends to bring to a vote this week, Axios' Alayna Treene reports.

State of play: Some Democrats want to negotiate to push Republicans to include an outright ban on police chokeholds and stronger federal control of police training and accountability. Others are indicating they don’t trust McConnell to negotiate in good faith and would rather oppose this legislation and risk being labeled obstructionists.

  • Senate Democrats held discussions over the weekend about what to do, a senior Senate Democratic aide told Axios.
  • Some are frustrated that McConnell "hasn't made clear what the process would look like if they get on the bill," the aide said. Many also have concerns about advancing legislation that they feel is inadequate.
  • "They dropped a partisan bill with no Democratic input, and they said the vote’s gonna be next week, and it's widely been reviewed as insufficient," the aide said.

What's next: On Monday, McConnell will file cloture on a motion to proceed with the Senate’s Justice Act, setting up a procedural vote on the bill as early as Wednesday.

  • Republicans say the real debate should take place in a conference committee, with House and Senate members from both parties coming together to reconcile differences in legislation.
  • But Senate Republicans need at least seven Democrats to sign onto the bill for an open debate to happen.
  • "We will continue to go through the motions to have a vote on this regardless of what the Democrats do," a GOP leadership aide said.
8. Sneak Peek diary

Photo: Tim Graham/Getty Images

The House is expected to vote on Democrats' sweeping police reform legislation, the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, Alayna reports.

The Senate will vote on the nomination of Cory Wilson as a judge for the Fifth Circuit, per a spokesperson for McConnell.

  • The Senate also plans to consider Senate Republicans' Justice Act (see item 7).

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

  • Monday: Trump has lunch with Pence.
  • Tuesday: Trump participates in a roundtable briefing on border security and in the commemoration of the 200th mile of new border wall in Yuma, Arizona. He'll also deliver an address to young Americans in Phoenix.
  • Wednesday: Trump will meet with Poland's President Andrzej Duda. Afterward, they will hold a joint press conference.
  • Thursday: Trump visits the Fincantieri Marinette Marine in Marinette, Wisconsin.
  • Friday: Trump delivers remarks at the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board Meeting.
9. Happy Father's Day!

Me and dad after my wedding to Betsy. Photo: Jon Fleming

Earlier this year, Australia's version of The Onion reported that my lowly journalist dad had taken over as the "Nation's Daddy." On this Father's Day, Dad, I hope you dwell on your disturbing encroachment on Australian family life. My message to you: Know your limits.

  • Happy Father's Day to my dad and my father-in-law Scott Woodruff, and to all the dads everywhere.
  • But mostly to mine. He's so much more than a dad — he's my best friend and mentor, and 10 times the journalist I will ever be.
Jonathan Swan