Mar 1, 2020

Axios Sneak Peek

By Jonathan Swan
Jonathan Swan

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

🍿 "Axios on HBO" Season 3 premiered tonight at 6 pm ET/PT. If you missed it, catch up later on HBO GO.

  • See a clip from Alexi McCammond's interview with Harvey Weinstein prosecutor Cy Vance.
  • See a clip from Mike Allen's interview with Roger Stone.

Situational awareness: Pete Buttigieg is ending his bid for president. Go deeper.

Tonight's newsletter is 1,568 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Scoop — Lab for coronavirus test kits may have been contaminated

A researcher works in a lab that is developing testing for the coronavirus. Photo: Kena Betancur/Getty Images

A top federal scientist sounded the alarm about what he feared was contamination in an Atlanta lab where the government made test kits for the coronavirus, sources familiar with the situation in Atlanta tell me and Axios' Caitlin Owens.

  • The Trump administration has ordered an independent investigation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lab, and the manufacture of the virus test kits has been moved, the sources said.

Why it matters: At a time when the administration is under scrutiny for its early preparations for the virus, the potential problems at the lab became a top internal priority for some officials. But the Trump administration did not talk publicly about the Food and Drug Administration’s specific concerns about the Atlanta lab.

  • Senior officials are still not saying exactly what the FDA regulator found at the Atlanta lab.
  • The CDC lab in Atlanta developed the testing formula for the coronavirus test — which the government says works — and was manufacturing smaller quantities of the testing kits for laboratories around the country. This is where the lab ran into problems, per sources familiar with the situation.

FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn said, in a statement to Axios, that government agencies have already worked together to resolve the problems with the coronavirus tests.

  • "Upon learning about the test issue from CDC, FDA worked with CDC to determine that problems with certain test components were due to a manufacturing issue," he said.
  • "We worked hand in hand with CDC to resolve the issues with manufacturing. FDA has confidence in the design and current manufacturing of the test that already have and are continuing to be distributed. These tests have passed extensive quality control procedures and will provide the high level of diagnostic accuracy we need during this coronavirus outbreak."

The big picture: The FDA says it now has full confidence in the coronavirus diagnostic kit, but a slew of new cases announced over the weekend suggest the virus has spread throughout the country while the U.S. government tested only a narrow subset of the population for it.

  • The U.S. government had admitted to problems with its diagnostic tests — which have put the U.S. well behind China and South Korea in doing large-scale testing of the American public for coronavirus.
  • But the U.S. has now tested more than 3,600 people for the virus, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The big question: It was not immediately clear if or how possible contamination in the Atlanta lab played a role in delays or problems with testing. Nor was it clear how significant or systemic the contamination concerns may be; whether it was a one-time issue that's easily resolved, or a broader concern involving protocols, safeguards or leadership.

Behind the scenes: The FDA official who visited the Atlanta lab, Timothy Stenzel, is the director of the Office of In Vitro Diagnostics and Radiological Health.

  • About a week ago, when HHS Secretary Alex Azar was under extreme pressure over the delays in getting coronavirus testing kits to market, Stenzel traveled to Atlanta to help troubleshoot whatever technical problems might have been occurring with the tests.
  • Stenzel was alarmed by the procedures he witnessed in the Atlanta laboratory and raised concerns with multiple CDC officials, per a source familiar with the situation in Atlanta.
  • Stenzel is a highly regarded scientist and diagnostics expert. He was on the ground in Atlanta to deal with technical issues and happened to stumble upon the inappropriate procedures and possible contaminants. He is not a laboratory inspector and thus was not charged with producing an inspection report on the lab conditions.
  • But he raised the concerns and they have been taken seriously and risen to the highest levels of the U.S. government.

On Thursday afternoon, the concerns about the Atlanta laboratory were raised in a conference call that included senior government officials from multiple agencies including the FDA, HHS, the CDC, and the National Institutes of Health.

Go deeper: Read our full story in the Axios stream

2. "Axios on HBO": Anatomy of a Trump rally

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Trump rallies are the centrifugal force driving his campaign. And the campaign has weaponized them to hoover up maximum attendee data. "Axios on HBO" looked inside the campaign's systematic efforts to gather as much information as possible about attendees — information they hope will supercharge the Trump re-election bid.

Here's how it works: Trump's team has designed the sign-up process — and key parts of the rally buildup — to suck a maximum of information from the people attending. Cellphone numbers are their most prized assets.

  • The data pitches are beamed from Trump surrogates on the screens outside the venues, from a well-rehearsed warm-up speech by campaign manager Brad Parscale, and from the omnipresent MAGA merchandise stalls inside the rally.

Why it matters: Sources in the Trump camp say they hope to cash in on the base-first strategy that put their candidate in the White House back in 2016. For that to work, they need to know everything about their base. And these rallies may make that possible.

The big picture: The affection between the Trump campaign team and the thousands of people who flock to his rallies is mutual — and strong. In fact, impromptu campsites also spring up around the rallies, as our film crew documented last month in freezing conditions in Manchester, New Hampshire.

And Manchester is no fluke. Trump supporters have also literally pitched their tents for overnight stays before rallies around the country:

"I did it once — it's addictive," one of the frozen MAGA campers told "Axios on HBO." "It's like, I've gotta do another one. Because I've never had the opportunity to express such love. Everybody's in love here."

Team Trump is in love, too.

Go inside

3. Brett Kavanaugh's first big abortion case

Brett Kavanaugh participates in a ceremonial swearing in by retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, Oct. 08, 2018. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Supreme Court this week will wade into its first big abortion case since Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the bench.

Why it matters: It will give us the clearest indication yet of how just how quickly and aggressively the newly expanded conservative majority is likely to move in curtailing abortion rights, Axios' Sam Baker writes.

  • The case has the potential to revive a set of abortion restrictions once thought to be off-limits and to energize conservatives to chip away further and faster at Roe v. Wade.
  • It could also make abortion rights — as well as the court itself — an even bigger issue in the 2020 campaign.

Driving the news: The court will hear arguments Wednesday over a Louisiana law that requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

  • The state says those rules ensure a woman's safety in the event something goes wrong; challengers say they simply force clinics to close without providing any demonstrable benefit to women.

That may sound familiar. Louisiana's law is nearly identical to one the court struck down just four years ago. The justices said in 2016 that Texas' admitting-privileges requirements made abortion harder to access but not any safer, and were therefore an unconstitutional "undue burden" on abortion access.

  • Yes, but: Those were the Anthony Kennedy days.
  • The big question now is whether the court's 2016 decision is a controlling precedent for similar restrictions.

What we're watching: Kavanaugh matters here because he made the court more conservative by replacing Kennedy — not because he's seen as a likely swing vote.

Go deeper: Read Sam's full story in the Axios stream

4. Sneak Peek diary

Photo: Dan Thornberg/EyeEm/Getty Images

The House is expected to vote on a series of bills this week, including emergency funding supplemental legislation to deal with the coronavirus, Axios' Alayna Treene writes.

  • The House will also consider the Rights for Transportation Security Officers Act, which would ensure Transportation Security Officers are afforded the same rights and protections afforded to other federal workers.
  • On Wednesday, the House Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing on confronting the coronavirus. 

The Senate will vote Monday on a motion to proceed on Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Joe Manchin's (D-W.Va.) energy innovation measure, the American Energy Innovation Act.

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

  • Monday: Trump will have lunch with Mike Pence, meet with pharmaceutical companies and have a campaign rally in Charlotte, North Carolina.
  • Tuesday: Trump will deliver remarks at the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference and visit the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
  • Wednesday: Trump will deliver remarks at the Latino Coalition Legislative Summit.
  • Thursday: Trump will participate in a live Fox News Town Hall in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
  • Friday: Trump will join a roundtable with supporters in Palm Beach, Florida. He will speak at a campaign fundraising dinner there, too.
5. 1 Roger thing: Stone's muzzled interview

Photo: "Axios on HBO"

Roger Stone was never shy about speaking his mind — until a federal judge slapped a gag order on him last year. In an interview with Mike Allen for "Axios on HBO," he broke his silence (legally).

Why it matters: It's his first on-camera sit-down since a judge sentenced him to 40 months in prison for witness tampering, lying to Congress and obstructing an official proceeding.

  • But the gag order is still in place, so he couldn't dish on the state of his case (he's expected to appeal the sentence) or any hopes he holds for a presidential pardon.
  • "This is going to be a very boring interview," he said.

Between the lines: Instead, Stone told Mike that he's renewed his faith in God since he got into legal troubles.

  • "It's brought me an enormous amount of solace and peace," he said. "I went to St. Patrick's in Washington, D.C., this morning for mass. Was a terrific sermon about forgiving those who have trespassed against us. It's probably the hardest thing that Christians have to do, but it has to be done because the Bible requires it."
  • "Now, I know there are those who are gonna say, 'Oh, this is a pose by Stone. This is some kind of head fake.' Doesn't matter to me because He knows what's in my heart."

Mike noted that Stone was "spotted" at the church service. A picture of him ended up on social media. Stone's reply: "The only thing worse than being infamous is never being famous at all."

Jonathan Swan