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D.C. Readers: Join Axios' David Lawler Tuesday at 5 p.m. for a screening of The Price of Free and following panel discussion.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Scavino snapped a photo of Trump, Tintori, Rubio, and Pence. Then Trump drafted a caption to accompany the photo for Twitter.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A new obstacle has emerged in the path to Neomi Rao replacing Brett Kavanaugh on the powerful D.C. Circuit Court.
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.
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."
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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:
President Trump's schedule, per a White House official:
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.
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."