Oct 7, 2018

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. I'd love your tips and feedback: jonathan@axios.com. And please urge your friends and colleagues to sign up for Sneak Peek.

1 big thing: Scoop — White House begins prepping for Dem legal storm

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Top officials inside the White House have taken their first steps to prepare for an onslaught of investigations if Democrats win the House. According to a source with direct knowledge:

  • Chief of Staff John Kelly recently formed a small working group to start preparing for the possibility that Democrats will soon sic Congress' top investigators on Trumpworld.
  • Senior White House staff have an offsite weekend retreat scheduled for late October. The agenda is expected to include a discussion of investigations under a Democratic-controlled House, according to the source.
  • To be clear: Team Trump is still trying to prevent a House flip from happening. They're ramping up political activities leading into the midterm — including a blitz of rallies from the president — to give Republicans their best chance of saving the House.

Why this matters: Polls show Republicans will probably lose the House in November. And Trump's team, including the understaffed White House Counsel's Office, must batten down the hatches for an onslaught from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

  • White House officials have been telling us for weeks they were worried that Kelly hadn't been taking the threat seriously enough. This is the first time I've learned new information to suggest that they're preparing.
  • According to three sources who attend senior staff meetings, when Kelly gathers the full White House senior staff in the Roosevelt Room several times a week, they never discuss the prospect of investigations.
  • "You'd think," one White House official told me, "we'd have a briefing or something to help us understand what's coming with subpoenas and investigations."

What they're saying: Over the past month, my colleague Evan Ryan and I have been interviewing lawyers who worked in the Obama and Clinton White Houses. We wanted to find out what it's like being inside a White House when the opposite party controls Congress and trains its investigative fire on the president.

  • A couple lawyers spoke on the record; most didn't. But what we learned from these conversations provides a map for Trump's likely future.

"Subpoenas flowing into a White House create paralysis," said Neil Eggleston, who was Obama’s White House counsel and an associate counsel in the Clinton administration.

  • "The whole system stops while everyone tries to comply with subpoenas and prepare to testify."
  • "The White House doesn't operate optimally, and the policymaking process doesn't receive its due attention. Morale suffers, and energy is diverted to the crisis at hand."

The big picture: Lawyers from previous White Houses mostly agreed on one thing: The better analogy for what's coming for Trump is not the Obama White House, but Clinton's.

  • Obama's administration faced scandals — from "Fast and Furious" to the IRS-Tea Party targeting to Benghazi. But his White House counsels managed to mostly keep the White House out of the picture; the agencies bore the brunt of the investigative onslaught.
  • But Bill Clinton spent his entire presidency under a cloud of investigation, from Whitewater to Monica Lewinsky under the glare of Ken Starr. Staff who worked in the Clinton White House say it felt like there was a subpoena coming for them every day.

The bottom line: For the most part, the staff who work in the Trump West Wing — beyond the Counsel's Office — have no idea what may be coming for them. But senior staff are now finally preparing for a tough new normal under House Democrats.

2. Trump's traps: White House lawyers analyze his danger spots

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Here are the looming legal dangers for the Trump White House, foreseen by former White House lawyers interviewed by Evan Ryan and me:

1. Compartmentalization: One reason Bill Clinton survived a presidency of investigations was, according to his former staff, his almost supernatural ability to compartmentalize. He put the investigations in a psychic and literal box: A separate team handled them, from a communications war room to his lawyers. Clinton avoided publicly discussing the scandals.

  • "The key to Clinton’s survival during impeachment," a former Clinton official told us, "was 'compartmentalization': working with Congress on substantive issues like health care and education, even as the same Congress was trying to impeach the president."
  • "The president rarely talked about impeachment,” the former official added. “He showed himself to be busy at work delivering for the American people."

Compare that to Trump. The president relishes discussing the Mueller probe, not only with his staff but on Twitter and in public interviews.

  • Staff tell us he can't help himself. White House officials have told us they try to stay out of Trump's vicinity on a bad Mueller news day, because any conversations with him may make their legal bills balloon.
  • "He has no boundaries," a former senior White House official told Axios. Trump will try to discuss the Mueller "WITCH HUNT" with whoever is around him.

2. Legal talent: Whoever ends up replacing McGahn as White House counsel "needs to put together what is in effect the best litigation and investigation law firm in this city," Bill Clinton's White House Counsel Jack Quinn told us.

  • "And needs to do it overnight. They're going to have to get the best and the brightest and the most experienced and the most skillful, and assemble an absolutely first-rate team of lawyers to conduct defense on multiple fronts."
  • The current White House Counsel's Office — hampered for months by a terrible relationship between Don McGahn and Trump — is nowhere near the fine-tuned machine Quinn describes.

3. Competent and focused investigators: Incompetent, distracted and overzealous Republican congressional investigators helped both the Clinton and Obama administrations survive years of aggressive oversight.

  • If they win the House, Democrats could make the same mistakes and screw up their investigations by overreaching.
  • But there's a decent chance they won't. Former White House lawyers concurred that if Democrats install the highly experienced Nancy Pelosi as Speaker and keep Elijah Cummings and his seasoned staff in charge of oversight, they could marshal their investigatory power far more effectively than Republicans did under Obama and Clinton.

The bottom line: Obama's White House Counsel Bob Bauer, who has thought considerably about these pitfalls and opportunities, told Axios: "An impeachment process is a legal process, and to defend against the inevitable political attacks, it must be carefully structured and well-presented to the public."

  • "It has to be disciplined in identifying and explaining the relevant standards for an impeachable offense, and it has to pay close attention to a fair and rigorous process.
  • "The House impeachment of President Clinton completely failed that test. ...
  • "In any impeachment proceedings directed against Donald Trump, the House majority would be well-served by proceeding step by step with care, attention to detail and transparency."
3. In their celebrations, Team Kavanaugh thanks Michael Avenatti

Attorney Michael Avenatti. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Michael Avenatti was a hot conversation topic Saturday night at Trump Hotel, where administration officials gathered for happy hour with advisers from the outside groups who poured money and energy into confirming Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

At one point in the evening, a senior person at one of the outside groups joked that Avenatti might have been on the Republican payroll. "You guys put Avenatti up to it, right?" the person said, according to a source at the party.

  • "I can't overstate how important Michael Avenatti's role in this [confirmation] was" in adding to undecided senators' doubts about the allegations being leveled at Kavanaugh, the source added.
  • The source noted that Sen. Susan Collins specifically mentioned the gang rape and drug peddling allegations leveled by Avenatti's client, Julie Swetnick, when she explained why she decided to vote for Kavanaugh.

I asked Avenatti on Sunday what he made of this criticism. "This is complete garbage," he said, "and reflects an effort by the Republicans to discredit me in light of the comments recently made by Steve Bannon and others. They are threatened by me and rightfully should be."

4. Trump's political blitz

Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Kansas Expocenter on Oct. 6. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

President Trump is in full midterm campaign mode, with rallies in three states this week.

  • He's holding rallies in Iowa on Tuesday, Pennsylvania on Wednesday and Ohio on Friday.

Behind the scenes: Trump has been asking staff for months to amp up his political travel. He said earlier this year he wanted to campaign "six or seven days a week" for Republicans, but according to a source with direct knowledge, the Secret Service wasn't thrilled with that idea.

5. World stories to watch

Two very disturbing international stories that will dominate Washington this week:

1. Alleged murder of Saudi journalist: "Turkey has concluded that Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent journalist from Saudi Arabia, was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last week by a Saudi team sent “specifically for the murder,” two people with knowledge of the probe said Saturday," per WashPost. (Saudi Arabia’s consul-general told Reuters on Saturday his country was helping search for Khashoggi, and he dismissed talk of his possible abduction.)

  • Between the lines: It'll be interesting to see how the Trump administration will react, given how large a bet the administration has made on the kingdom.

2. China detains anti-corruption leader: "The Chinese Communist Party announced late Sunday that the missing president of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, was under investigation on 'suspicion of violating the law' and was 'under the supervision' of an anticorruption watchdog tied to the party," per the NYT.

  • Why this matters: The NYT's Eric Lipton tweets: "Just pause and reflect on what has happened here. The head of a global organization committed to fighting crime and corruption worldwide — Interpol — has been detained by the Chinese government. In broad daylight."
6. Sneak Peek diary

The House is on recess until the midterm elections.

The Senate will vote to advance on a Water Infrastructure bill that has already passed the House, and they'll vote to confirm three of Trump's nominees:

  • Jeffrey Bossert Clark to lead the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division
  • Eric Dreiband to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division
  • James Stewart to be an assistant secretary of defense (Manpower and Reserve Affairs)

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

  • Monday: Trump addresses the International Association of Chiefs of Police Annual Convention and participates in Brett Kavanaugh's swearing-in ceremony.
  • Tuesday: Trump has lunch with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and later holds a campaign rally in Iowa.
  • Wednesday: Trump has lunch with Defense Secretary James Mattis and later holds a campaign rally in Pennsylvania.
  • Friday: Trump holds a campaign rally in Pennsylvania.
7. 1 fun thing: Fight night gets Trumpy

Derrick Lewis (top) beats on Alexander Volkov of Russia to a knock out on Oct. 6. Photo: Harry How/Getty Images

While Hollywood mourns the Kavanaugh confirmation, another group of entertainers seems surprisingly enthusiastic about the happenings in Washington. This weekend, two UFC fighters gave shout-outs to the Trump administration after winning mixed martial arts fights.

  • USA Today reports: "Heavyweight destroyer Derrick Lewis stunned the crowd in Las Vegas with a brutal knockout with seconds remaining in the third round against Alexander Volkov, then proceeded to deliver one of the wildest post-fight interviews of all time ...
  • In an extremely profane interview with Joe Rogan, Lewis said that President Donald Trump ordered him to knock out Volkov. ‘A few hours before the fight, Donald Trump called me and told me I gotta knock this Russian mother-----r out because they make him look bad on the news. You know, him and Putin and s--t.’"
  • We asked the White House press shop if they could confirm whether such a call took place. No word by deadline.

But that's not all. Lewis wasn’t the only UFC fighter to wax political this weekend after knocking out an opponent. Nik Lentz, a vocal Trump supporter, praised the newest Supreme Court justice in his post-fight interview.

  • "I think this fight really highlighted the improvement and the development of your striking," said interviewer Joe Rogan. But Lentz had something else on his mind.
  • "First and foremost, I want to give out a shout to my homie Brett Kavanaugh," Lentz said, waving a thumbs-up. "Way to go, Special K."

Between the lines: UFC President Dana White, who has been a staunch Trump booster for years, spoke at the RNC and recently told The Hill he will never say anything bad about the president. And Trump’s relationship with the sport goes back decades. When mixed martial arts was largely relegated to the cultural fringe, Vice reports that Trump helped it “take its first step into cultural legitimacy in the U.S., opening the doors of his Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City to the UFC on November 17, 2000.”

  • Steven Cheung, a former Trump White House official who was previously communications director at the UFC, told Axios he was at the fight Saturday night in Vegas.
  • "They see what Trump is," Cheung said. "He's a counter-puncher, and that translates to the fight world."
Jonathan Swan