Feb 25, 2019

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. Please encourage your friends and colleagues to sign up.

D.C. Readers: Join Axios' David Lawler Tuesday at 5 p.m. for a screening of The Price of Free and following panel discussion.

  • He'll sit down with Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (PA-6) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-4), along with designer Rachel Roy and Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi, to highlight the reality of child labor and slavery in the U.S. and abroad. 
  • RSVP here.
1 big thing: How Mike Pence wields power

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Political commentators often paint Mike Pence as an impotent toady. But those caricatures miss an important reality: The vice president has much more power than many people realize.

Why it matters: Most people know Pence has been a driving force behind perhaps the most socially conservative presidency in modern history — especially on abortion rights. But that's just the start.

  • For the past two years, the vice president has done more than arguably any other senior administration official to propel President Trump's most hawkish foreign policy positions. He's done so consistently in private and, increasingly, in public.

Nobody has had more influence over Trump's Venezuela policy than Pence.

National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Sen. Marco Rubio also play pivotal roles, but from the first days of the Trump presidency, Pence has dominated the issue.

  • It was Pence who ushered the wife of a Venezuelan political prisoner into the Oval Office for a historic meeting with Trump.
  • It was Pence who made the administration's first tour of Latin American countries, in the summer of 2017, soon after Trump threatened to use military force in Venezuela.
  • It was Pence who phoned Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, in January, and told him Trump would back him if he declared himself Venezuela's interim president. (Guaidó did so the next day, and Trump kept Pence's promise.)
  • Pence has rallied Venezuelan expats at churches throughout Florida and Latin America, making the faith-based case for overthrowing Maduro.
  • On Monday, Pence will give a speech in Bogotá, at the invitation of Colombia’s president, touting the U.S.'s "unwavering support" for Guaidó, who he will also meet with. It will be Pence's fifth trip to Latin America as VP.

The big picture: Pence also exerts power on other critical foreign policy issues. He publicly — and controversially — attacked European allies in a recent Warsaw speech for not supporting Trump's maximum pressure campaign on Iran.

  • He infuriated Turkish officials while working with Trump to secure the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson from a Turkish prison.
  • He also gave the toughest speech on China by any American leader in recent history, and has worked with key officials, including John Bolton, to shape the administration's China policy.

But Latin America is closest to his heart. As an Indiana congressman, Pence fiercely opposed Castro and railed against communism in Latin America. His faith colors his work. "We are with you," Pence told a crowd of several hundred South Florida Venezuelans at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church after his first vice presidential trip to Latin America, in the summer of 2017.

  • "I remember standing at a shelter in Colombia where he was deeply impacted by the stories of the refugees," recalls Pence's former chief of staff Nick Ayers.
  • "One grandmother told the story of watching her young grandchildren leave their home before 5 a.m to go stand in breadlines all day, only to receive one small piece of bread. She held his hand while crying and explained that they were once proud and happy people, now they were hungry and homeless. It was an emotional moment for him."
2. Inside Trump's Venezuela pivot

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Many observers see Trump's hawkish approach to Venezuela as a foreign policy aberration. In reality, though, it's pure Trump. Over a week of interviews, people with intimate knowledge of the president's thinking detailed to me why he's taken an unusually interventionist stance toward this country.

  • The key factors: instincts, personal relationships, aggressive advisers, and political opportunism.

Behind the scenes: A pivotal moment came in early 2017, when Lilian Tintori, the wife of political prisoner Leopoldo Lopez, met Trump in the Oval. The conversation wasn't planned, and the State Department didn't even know she was in the building; she had come for a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence that Sen. Marco Rubio arranged.

  • Toward the end of their conversation, Pence said to Tintori, "I want to introduce you to somebody. Come this way," according to a source with direct knowledge. Then he and Rubio walked her into the Oval.

Trump had no idea who she was. But he was taken by their conversation, some details of which The Washington Post first reported. After a short talk, Trump handed his iPhone to his social media guru, Dan Scavino.

  • "Take a picture, Dan," he ordered.

Scavino snapped a photo of Trump, Tintori, Rubio, and Pence. Then Trump drafted a caption to accompany the photo for Twitter.

  • "What do you think, Marco?" the president asked, handing the phone to Rubio. "You can edit it if you want."
  • Rubio eyeballed the tweet — sources dispute whether he changed anything — then handed the phone back to Trump, who hit send. And with that, the United States toughened its stance toward the Maduro regime.
  • "At the time, we were like, 'Wow, he just stuck it to Maduro!'" said a source with direct knowledge of the conversation.

Why this matters: Conversations like this one have shaped Trump's Venezuela approach. Privately, Trump often talks about his fondness for the Venezuelan expats who frequent his golf club in Doral.

  • "We have many Venezuelans living in the United States,” he said in a press conference last September. "Many of them live in the Doral area of Miami. I've gotten to know them well. They are great, great people. We are going to take care of those people."

Between the lines: That's not all, of course. His senior advisers universally support unseating Maduro. And people close to Trump say he takes a markedly different view of Venezuela than Middle Eastern war zones. He sees Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq as beyond help, a waste of American lives and money. Venezuela, in his view, is different: It's a neighbor, and a crisis there directly affects the U.S., via trade and migration. Trump thinks Venezuela should be rich and peaceful.

  • "Venezuela is not anything like the Middle East; it is a western country, with western institutions and western cultural leanings," said Rubio, a key player in Trump's Venezuela policy.
  • "The president sees this country with extraordinary economic potential, which has been run into the ground," Rubio told me. "I think he believes some of these issues in the Middle East are intractable and just can't be fixed. But he actually thinks Venezuela and the western hemisphere can [be fixed]."
  • "He also takes some of this stuff personally. The fact that Maduro and others have reacted the way they have [with their fiery rhetoric about Trump]... Ultimately there comes a point, for this president, where he become personally invested in it...he becomes an enemy and then he goes after you pretty hard."

Political opportunism also plays a big role. "It's a real-life example of the failure of socialism and there's an appeal in that," a senior White House official told me.

  • Trump and his advisors see their approach as a way to court Venezuelan expats, who may be friendly to the American right-wing because of the failure of Maduro's leftist government.
  • The fact that the bulk of those expats live and vote in Florida, of all states, is not lost on Trump and his political team.

The bottom line: Trump's instincts on Venezuela find daily reinforcement from the growing uprising on the ground there, the rare unity with other democratic Western governments, largely favorable media coverage, and bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

3. Breaking ... Trump gives China a break

President Trump announced he would delay a scheduled tariff hike on $200 billion of Chinese goods in a series of Sunday tweets, citing "substantial progress" in an ongoing round of U.S.-China trade talks and hinting at an upcoming Mar-a-Lago summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

"I am pleased to report that the U.S. has made substantial progress in our trade talks with China on important structural issues including intellectual property protection, technology transfer, agriculture, services, currency, and many other issues. As a result of these very productive talks, I will be delaying the U.S. increase in tariffs now scheduled for March 1. Assuming both sides make additional progress, we will be planning a Summit for President Xi and myself, at Mar-a-Lago, to conclude an agreement. A very good weekend for U.S. & China!"

Between the lines: China hawks inside the administration have long argued the administration should ratchet up tariffs on March 1 because the Chinese have given nothing they can be held to on the most important structural issues that Trump mentions in his tweets.

  • Trump's announcement will be music to President Xi's ears. Over the past decades, successive Chinese administrations have mastered the art of negotiating with the U.S. government — playing for time while they continue stealing U.S. intellectual property, defying global trading rules and using government policy to accelerate their rise towards what Xi views as China's destiny: replacing America as the global superpower.
  • Global markets will likely breathe a small sigh of relief — that comes with any new data that show Trump taking a more dovish stance towards China.
4. Mr. Cohen goes to Washington

Michael Cohen, Trump's former lawyer and fixer, is set to testify for three consecutive days on Capitol Hill this week, Axios' Alayna Treene reports.

  • Cohen's interview before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, his first and only planned public Congressional hearing, will produce a striking split-screen: He testifies while Trump meets in Hanoi with Kim Jong-un.

While some Democrats hope it'll be a blockbuster hearing — Rep. Jackie Speier, who serves on both the House Oversight and Intelligence committees, told Alayna she thinks Michael Cohen could be "the John Dean of the Watergate crime" — some Democratic members privately acknowledge they don't expect Cohen to offer any new, substantially damaging information on Trump.

  • "We can't go into Russia stuff, because we can't in any way say something that hampers an ongoing investigation," said a Democratic aide on the House Oversight Committee. "Because of those parameters … it's not going to be any more damaging than what you've already seen." (House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings laid out 10 areas of focus for the hearing in a letter last week, and noted Russia was off-limits.)

Instead, Cohen will talk about Trump's character, and is expected to describe the "dirty deeds" he claims Trump directed him to carry out — some of which made him a felon.

  • "What Michael Cohen has to say will confirm what people already know about Donald Trump," Lanny Davis, Cohen's attorney, told Alayna. "The question is, some people care about Michael's experience with repetitive lies and misconduct that in the private sector seem less surprising, but as president may seem very frightening."
  • "This is his chance to tell America in some comprehensive way what his involvement with Trump did to his life and what Trump is doing to our country," said Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin, who serves on the Oversight committee.

Cohen's closed-door hearings before the Senate and House Intelligence committees (Tuesday and Thursday) may be more fruitful than the public Oversight hearing given both committees plan to focus on ties between Trump's 2016 campaign and the Kremlin, as well as whether foreign entities have any leverage over Trump, his family, and his businesses, according to sources on both committees.

  • "We will be conducting a closed-door interview with Mr. Cohen to fully explore his previous testimony before our committee, allow him to correct the record, and answer questions related to our probe," said Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
  • "We are particularly interested in hearing from Mr. Cohen about the Trump Tower Moscow project and any other foreign financial entanglement..."
  • A Democratic staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee indicated their questioning will be similar, but said they'll also ask about allegations in the Steele Dossier that Cohen met with Kremlin officials in the Czech Republic in 2016, as well as whether any foreign payments were made to Trump's inaugural committee.
5. Concerns rise over Trump's D.C. circuit nominee

A new obstacle has emerged in the path to Neomi Rao replacing Brett Kavanaugh on the powerful D.C. Circuit Court.

  • A source close to the White House confirmation process told me that Republican Sen. Josh Hawley has "deep concerns" about Rao's judicial philosophy and has raised these concerns with a number of key figures including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone.

Why it matters: The D.C. Circuit feeds judges to the Supreme Court — raising the stakes of Rao's confirmation. She's already had a bumpy ride. Hawley isn't the only Republican senator to register concern about Rao, and in this polarized environment she can't afford to lose many others when the Senate votes on her soon. Sen. Joni Ernst, of Iowa, said during Rao's committee hearing that Rao's 1990s writings on date rape "do give me pause."

What we're hearing: I checked with Hawley and he confirmed what I was told about him. He elaborated on his concerns in a phone interview on Sunday. "I am only going to support nominees who have a strong record on life," Hawley told me.

  • "To me, that means... someone whose record indicates that they have respect for what the Supreme Court itself has called the interests of the unborn child; someone whose record indicates they will protect the ability of states and local governments to protect the interests of the unborn child to the maximum extent...and number three somebody who will not extend the doctrines of Roe v. Wade and Casey, which I believe are deeply incompatible with the constitution."
  • Hawley said he'd read Rao's academic work and was concerned that some of her writings suggested to him that she might be comfortable with "substantive due process" — a legal interpretation, loathed by many conservatives, that can be used to protect rights, such as the right to an abortion, that aren't mentioned in the Constitution.
  • Hawley told me that if there's evidence out there that Rao opposes substantive due process he'd like to see it.

Hawley added: "I have heard directly from at least one individual who said Rao personally told them she was pro-choice. I don't know whether that’s accurate, but this is why we are doing our due diligence."

Behind the scenes: Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life group, also raised concerns about Rao with the White House. But Dannenfelser told me on Sunday she's no longer concerned about Rao, at least so far as her appointment on the D.C. Circuit.

The other side: A Rao ally who is familiar with the process told me he disagreed vehemently with Hawley's interpretation of Rao's academic work. He said there's no evidence she supports substantive due process and "some of her writings describe the problems that other people have pointed out with that doctrine."

  • "One final thing," the source said. "Any U.S. senator who is running on the legacy of Ronald Reagan ought not to be using any political or social policy litmus tests for whether they're going to vote for a judge."
6. New poll finds "dramatic shift" on abortion attitudes

The recent debate over "late-term abortion," fueled by state measures in New York and Virginia that loosened, or sought to loosen, abortion restrictions toward the end of a woman's pregnancy, has caused "a dramatic shift" in public attitudes towards abortion policy, according to Barbara Carvalho who directed a new Marist poll, commissioned by the Knights of Columbus.

By the numbers: Axios' Alayna Treene reports the poll found Americans are now as likely to identify as pro-life (47%) as they are pro-choice (47%). Last month, a similar Marist survey found that Americans were more likely to identify as pro-choice than pro-life 55% to 38%, a 17-point gap.

  • The survey also found that 80% of Americans support abortion being limited to the first three months of pregnancy, an increase of 5 percentage points since last month's Marist poll.

Between the lines: Marist has been polling Americans' attitudes on abortion for over a decade, and Carvalho told Axios this is the first time since 2009 that as many or more Americans have identified as pro-life as have identified as pro-choice.

  • But what Carvalho said she found most significant was that Democrats, specifically those under the the age of 45, seem to be leading the shift: This month's poll found 34% of Democrats identify as pro-life vs. 61% pro-choice. Last month, those numbers were 20% and 75% respectively.
  • Among Dems under 45, 47% identify as pro-life vs. 48% pro-choice. In January, those numbers were 28% and 65% respectively.

"This has been a measure that has been so stable over time. To see that kind of change was surprising," Carvalho said. "And the increased discussion [of late-term abortion] in the public forum in the past month appears to have made the biggest difference in how people identify on the issue."

Why it matters: Republicans have been on the offensive about this issue since the State of the Union, when Trump seized on the outrage over Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s abortion comments and the passage of a New York law to promote a congressional ban on late-term abortions.

  • In November, the Department of Health and Human Services proposed a new rule that would require insurers send customers separate bills for coverage provided for abortion services.
  • On Friday, the Trump administration issued a new rule barring organizations that provide abortion referrals, like Planned Parenthood, from receiving federal family planning money.
  • Axios health care editor Sam Baker points that by far the most significant thing Trump has done on abortion is replace Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy with Brett Kavanaugh. "State abortion restrictions will very likely be upheld no matter what public opinion is."

Methodology: This survey of 1,008 adults was conducted via landline or cell phones, Feb. 12-Feb. 17, 2019, by The Marist Poll, sponsored and funded in partnership with The Knights of Columbus.

7. Sneak Peek diary

The House will vote on a resolution to block Trump's attempt to build a wall on the southern border using emergency powers, according to a senior Democratic aide. (Trump has promised to veto the measure.)

The Senate's week will be consumed by voting on Trump administration personnel, but they'll start the week with a vote on Sen. Ben Sasse's "Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act," according to a Republican leadership aide.

They'll vote on:

  • Eric D. Miller to be U.S. Circuit Judge for the Ninth Circuit
  • Michael Desmond to be chief counsel for the IRS
  • Andrew Wheeler to be administrator of the EPA
  • John Ryder to the Board of Directors of the Tennessee Valley Authority

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

  • Tonight: Trump attends the Governors' Ball.
  • Monday: Trump meets with governors at the White House and leaves for Hanoi, Vietnam, where he'll meet for the second time with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
  • Later this this week, the President also meets with the President of Vietnam — but the eyes of the world will be on his meeting with Chairman Kim.
8. 1 fun thing: Trump's "slenderizing" ties

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In his book, "Let Me Finish," Chris Christie answers a question about Donald Trump that has long perplexed me: Why are his ties so ridiculously long?

Christie, who was the first high-profile Republican elected official to endorse Trump's 2016 campaign, describes what Trump was like backstage before rallies.

"Donald choreographed every last detail...he produced me, too, or tried to," Christie writes.

  • 'I want your tie to be longer,' he said. 'It's slenderizing.'
  • 'I'm not retying my tie,' I told him. 'My tie is fine. I think yours is too long.'
  • 'No, no,' he shot back at me. 'Mine is the perfect length. It makes you look thinner.'

Bonus: Christie describes a completely bonkers scene from Trump's 2016 debate prep. General Michael Flynn, whom Christie describes as "a train wreck from beginning to end," suggested that Trump pivot back to being pro-choice to "knock Clinton off guard."

  • "No sir," interjected Kellyanne Conway, according to Christie. "That's not a good thing to do."
  • Our thought bubble: Had Trump followed Flynn's advice, we would now be writing about President Hillary Clinton. Trump would've still achieved a record evangelical vote in 2016 — but instead of a record high, it would've been a record low for a Republican.
Jonathan Swan