Jul 8, 2018

Axios Sneak Peek

By Jonathan Swan
Jonathan Swan

Welcome to Sneak Peek, our weekly lookahead for both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. 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.

Situational awareness: Trump, at Morristown airport in New Jersey around 4:20 p.m. ET, quoted by pool duty reporter Todd Gillman of the Dallas Morning News: "We are close to making a decision [on the Supreme Court.] It's, well, let's just say it's the four people. Every one you can't go wrong. I'll be deciding tonight or tomorrow sometime by 12 o'clock and we're all gonna be meeting at 9 o'clock. And we have a great country, folks."

1 big thing: Payback: How Democrats will torment Trump

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

At the end of last week, one of Washington’s most battle-hardened and sought-after lawyers forecast an ominous future for the Trump administration. We thought the lawyer's analysis — told to Mike Allen and me — was worth reproducing in full as it echoes what we're hearing from other attorneys in close touch with Trump's White House.

The big picture: "The Pruitt situation should be a warning sign to the administration about what will happen if the Democrats take the House."

Between the lines: "Pruitt’s ultimate downfall came from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee agreeing on a bipartisan basis to summon his staffers in for transcribed interviews. The Pruitt 'team' fell apart when he could no longer protect them and they had to hire their own lawyers, turn over documents and answer questions under penalty of perjury."

  • "Self-preservation kicked in and they spilled the beans. That is what happened on a bipartisan basis where Democrats were constrained."

What's next: "Imagine a world where the constraints are gone and every agency is fair game. That is what may be coming and it will completely immobilize the Administration’s immigration agenda and deregulatory agenda. And the smart aides will leave quickly rather than subject themselves to potentially ruinous legal bills."

  • Yes, it's probably true that Pruitt is a bad example. Or at least not a model case of what's to come. He brought this on himself, flagrantly abused his office, and gave investigators from both parties a ton of material to work with. Even some of his closest allies ended up turning against him and telling us that his narcissism and petty corruption got way out of control.

But the principle remains: Another top Washington lawyer pointed out that this cycle is entirely predictable, and repeats itself over and over when one chamber is taken over by the opposition party.  

  • "It will be even worse than in prior presidencies because the intensity of the mutual animosity is so great that the House will do everything in its power to destroy the Trump administration with investigations and attacks," the source predicted.  

The bottom line: This second lawyer, who is familiar with the inner workings of the Trump White House, told us there is "no way" that this "disorganized and dysfunctional bunch" is adequately prepared for the inevitable legal and investigatory onslaught should Democrats win the House in November.

2. Behind the scenes: Trump's Supreme Court suspense

Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

President Trump is trolling everyone. Either that or he's genuinely undecided, right up until the final day before he announces, in a prime-time address on Monday night, who he's picked to replace Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court.

Sources who've spoken to the president over the past 24 hours tell me, as of Sunday afternoon, that he still truly hasn't made up his mind and is still vacillating in phone calls to friends and advisers between his "final four" judges: Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, Thomas Hardiman and Raymond Kethledge.

What we're hearing: Kavanaugh has always been the frontrunner — and is a favorite of White House Counsel Don McGahn — but Trump has been mentioning Hardiman more frequently over the past few days.

  • Politicos outside the White House, including Trump allies Lou Barletta and Rick Santorum, have been lobbying hard for Hardiman, touting his political benefits to White House officials, according to a source with direct knowledge.
  • They've argued that Hardiman better matches the blue collar, outsider, western Pennsylvania coalition that helped elect Trump in 2016. (Trump also feels comfortable with Hardiman, who was one of his two finalists last year.)
  • The judge who's most exciting for the Republican base appears to be Barrett — a 46-year-old judge on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, a staunch social conservative and mother of seven children.

White House staff — even at a very senior level — have been given no guidance on who Trump has chosen and those who've discussed the decision with him are genuinely of the view that he hasn't made up his mind.

  • The White House team working on the Supreme Court nomination process had built out detailed roll-out scenarios for each of these final four judges I mentioned above. They've crafted messages to sell each potential candidate and have compiled lists of potential validators to promote each judge in the media and on Capitol Hill.
  • McGahn has led the process internally, working with his team. From a communications standpoint, the White House's principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah is in charge.

But, but, but: Don't discount the possibility that Trump has made up his mind — or all but done so — and is simply enjoying keeping everyone, even those closest to him, guessing. A source who spent a lot of time talking to Trump during last year's Neil Gorsuch confirmation told me "he loved the drama and theatrics of the announcement where no one knew before he revealed Gorsuch in the East Room."

  • "My guess," the source continued, "is that he's pretty much made up his mind but he's not telling anyone because he wants the surprise effect like last time. He's capable of keeping a secret when it's in the service of a PR success."

Behind the scenes: Trump has chosen an interesting cast of characters to surround himself with for his final hours of deliberation. The president spent the weekend hanging at his New Jersey golf club with friends and aides, including Fox News host Sean Hannity, former Fox News co-president Bill Shine (who recently joined the White House in a senior role), chief of staff John Kelly and son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner.

3. Trump in Europe: What to watch

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

I fly to Europe this week to cover President Trump as he meets with NATO allies in Brussels, Theresa May in London, then Helsinki for his first one-on-one summit with Russia's Vladimir Putin.

Senior European officials have told Mike Allen and me they are worried about three things:

  1. That Trump will spend the entire NATO summit beating up on America's closest allies — especially Germany — for not spending enough on their defense. They're worried he'll make these deficiencies the focus of the summit rather than solidarity in face of the Russian threat. And that he'll have a friendlier summit with Putin just a few days after a tense NATO gathering.
  2. That Trump will say something that suggests America's commitment to defend NATO allies against attacks is conditional upon the allies meeting their defense spending targets. They're stressed about any suggestion from Trump that he'll draw down U.S. troops stationed in Europe.
  3. That Trump will side with the populist, Putin-friendly leaders at the expense of America’s closest allies (more on that later.)

Behind the scenes: Senior officials from NATO member nations have told us that Trump administration officials, including Defense Secretary Mattis, have sought to reassure them leading into the summit.

  • These officials have been told, at various moments, that Trump is in a "good place" and has an "ironclad" commitment to support NATO’s Article 5 — which commits each member state to consider an armed attack against one to be an attack against them all.
  • Trump officials have also signaled to allies that the president is ready to take a victory lap to celebrate how NATO members have bumped up their defense spending levels (thanks to Trump’s pressure, he would say).

Between the lines: The European officials we’ve spoken to would love nothing more than for Trump to take a victory lap and claim credit for them boosting their defense spending. (Anything to avoid divisive scenes in Brussels that would make Putin’s day.) And they would love to believe these reassuring words from Trump administration officials.

The bottom line: But we've yet to speak to a NATO member official who feels confident that Trump will actually say what his aides say he will say. And that's a uniquely severe problem for foreign officials dealing with this administration.

  • "When you’re talking to Mattis it’s a normal conversation and you imagine for a moment you’re dealing with a normal administration," a senior European official told us. "But then you look at Trump’s Twitter feed and you realize none of it matters."
4. What's next: The campaign to charm and disarm Trump

President Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May at the G7 summit last year. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/AFP/Getty Images

Watch for European leaders to make moves to — hopefully, in their minds — charm and disarm Trump during his consequential visits to the NATO summit and to the United Kingdom for his first visit there. 

  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel mentioned several times last week that German defense spending levels need to go up. Watch for her to make a good faith statement at NATO along similar lines.

The Brits have arranged Trump’s visit to the United Kingdom with the apparent goal of keeping him as far as possible from the massive protests against him being planned in central London.

  • London's mayor, Sadiq Khan, has approved a giant blimp, depicting Trump as an angry baby, to fly over Parliament during Trump's U.K. visit.
  • Meanwhile, British officials will host Trump at events far away from 10 Downing Street and Buckingham Palace. Sources familiar with the planning tell me they want Trump out of sight and earshot of the protesters.
  • British Prime Minister Theresa May will host the president and first lady for a black-tie dinner at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. It's the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, and Trump will be able to say he's the first American president in recent memory — possibly ever — to be hosted there.
  • Trump will meet the Queen at Windsor and will head to Chequers — the Prime Minister's country estate in Buckinghamshire — for bilateral talks with May.

Between the lines: European officials tell me they're setting a low bar for their meetings with Trump. In their wildest dreams, he'd enthusiastically endorse the NATO alliance, commit to staying the course in Syria, and speak out boldly against Russian aggression. But they'll happily settle for none of that, so long as Trump keeps his ally-bashing to a minimum.

5. The big picture: Globalists vs. nationalists at NATO

Europe is already deeply divided between populist nationalists — some of whom flirt with Vladimir Putin — and globalists who defend multilateral institutions and view Russia as an enemy.

Ivo Daalder, the former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and coauthor of the upcoming book "The Empty Throne: America Abdicates its Global Leadership," tells me he worries Trump will side with the nationalist leaders and hand Putin a win this week.

  • "One angle that I'm not seeing people commenting much about is that this alliance is now deeply divided between nationalists on one side and transatlanticists on the other," he said.
  • "On one side you have Erdogan [Turkey], Orban [Hungary], Conte [Italy] and Trump taking a pro-Russian, pro-populist, pro-nationalist line."
  • "And on the other side you have leaders like Merkel, Macron, May, and Trudeau who are deeply worried about Russia and care, above all, about preserving the liberal rules-based international order."

The bottom line: Daalder laid out his nightmare image — an image I've heard privately described by European officials over the past few weeks: "I can see the picture: Trump being chummy with the nationalists and Merkel, Macron, May and Trudeau on the other side of the room. Making the divide visual."

  • "It's clear where Trump's sympathies lie. Trump has a comfort with the leaders who are deeply uncomfortable to our longstanding allies."
6. Trump and Merkel: An explosion-in-waiting

Photo: Jesco Denzel /Bundesregierung via Getty Images

Trump often saves his harshest words for Germany and its leader Angela Merkel — and their feud could explode this week at the NATO summit.

Trump has perfected what European officials describe as a 10-minute monologue on what he views as Germany's major sins: unfair trade with the U.S. (especially on cars), inadequate defense spending, and loose immigration policy leading to an invasion of radical Islamists.

Between the lines: Merkel is politically weak, domestically, and Trump has been exploiting this situation. He's been hammering away at her for months, saying that he thinks it's hypocritical that Germany views Russia as a bad actor worth confronting and yet at the same time spends a paltry amount on its defense and appears eager to purchase Russian gas.

The big picture: To illuminate how the German political establishment is grappling with a new aggressive America under Trump, I interviewed Karen Donfried, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and former senior director for European affairs in Obama's National Security Council.

  • Donfried, who recently returned from Germany, said there's a "very robust debate" going on, both within and outside of the German government, about how to relate to the United States and the Trump administration.  

"Strategic patience" vs. "strategic autonomy": "You had one group that argued robustly that Germany should be exercising strategic patience," she said. "They see Donald Trump as a singular U.S. president and, whether he serves one or two terms, that after that presidency the pendulum would swing back to a United States that exercises a more traditional relationship to its European allies."

  • "Then there is another school of thought arguing that, no, the changes in how the U.S. views its role in the world began prior to the presidency of Donald Trump and will extend beyond his presidency, arguing very much that Donald Trump is a symptom of deeper trends relating to the U.S. role in the world, not the cause of them.  "
  • "And, therefore, the U.S. is no longer a reliable ally..."

The bottom line: "Now, those in the second camp would admit that they are far from being strategically autonomous in 2018 but that that's where their focus should be rather than on limiting damage for a day when the pendulum swings back and the U.S. assumes a more traditional role."

What's next? "You've seen the European Union create — the acronym is PESCO —  a permanent structured cooperation on security and defense. And the French have put forward an idea for a European Intervention Initiative, where they're trying to bring together a smaller number of European countries to focus on building up more robust military capabilities that would allow the Europeans to intervene militarily on their own."

7. Sneak Peek diary

The House will pass its Intelligence Authorization Act — setting the funding levels for the U.S. intelligence community.

  • The FBI's Peter Strzok will testify before the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform Committees on Thursday. He'll come under pressure from Republicans eager to grill him over his handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe and his demonstrable bias against Trump.
  • A Congressional Gold Medal will be voted on (and awarded later) for Larry Doby, who was the second African-American to play Major League Baseball. "With the All-Star game next week in D.C., [it's] a nice opportunity for the Chamber to reflect and honor the citizens that have made our country great," a Republican leadership source told me.

The Senate will confirm three more nominees, per a leadership source:

  1. Mark Jeremy Bennett, of Hawaii, to be United States Circuit Judge for the Ninth Circuit.
  2. Brian Allen Benczkowski, of Virginia, to be an Assistant Attorney General.
  3. Paul Ney, Jr., of Tennessee, to be General Counsel of the Department of Defense.
  • The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs will vote on the nomination of Robert Wilkie to be Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
  • In the near future (not sure it will be next week), the Senate plans to go to conference on three major bills (NDAA, the Farm Bill, and minibus spending bills), according to the leadership source.
  • And, after Trump nominates his next Supreme Court Justice on Monday night, expect to see the nominee begin to pay visits on Capitol Hill with senators whose votes they'll need to be confirmed.

President Trump will announce his pick for Supreme Court justice in a televised address on Monday at 9 p.m. ET. He'll then head to Europe for the NATO summit in Brussels, his bilateral talks with British PM Theresa May, and Helsinki for his meeting with Vladimir Putin.

8. 1 scoopy thing: Israel's "red lines"

Photo: Kobi Gideon/GPO via Getty Images

My colleague Barak Ravid reports on the Axios stream that Israel has presented the Trump administration with its "red lines" for the nuclear deal the United States is currently negotiating with Saudi Arabia to build reactors in the kingdom.

The big picture: A senior Israeli official told Ravid the Israeli government realized it will not be able to stop the deal — set to be worth billions of dollars for the U.S. — and decided instead to attempt to reach an understanding with the Trump administration regarding the parameters of the deal.

Jonathan Swan