Axios Sneak Peek

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December 03, 2017

Welcome to Sneak Peek, our weekly lookahead for both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Housekeeping note: I'm off to Australia tomorrow but stay with the Axios stream for all the latest news and a very special Sneak Peek will come from Mike Allen next Sunday. See you again to kick off 2018 on Dec. 31.

Axios events: if you're in D.C. Tuesday morning, join Mike and Axios' Evan Ryan for a discussion on health care innovations with Aneesh Chopra, The United States' first Chief Technology Officer. They'll be joined by Arianna Huffington and the presidents & CEOs of NewYork-Presbyterian and PhRMA. RSVP here.

1 big thing: Scoop — Trump approves National Security Strategy

President Trump has signed off on the core elements of the National Security Strategy (NSS).

The draft is almost completed, and all the principals — James Mattis, Rex Tillerson, Steven Mnuchin, etc. — have agreed on its core components. The document will be rolled out soon.

Why this matters: The NSS is as important as strategy documents get. It will explain how Trump's "America First" mantra applies to the vast range of threats America faces, including Chinese economic competition, Russian influence operations, and the weaponization of space. It's designed to guide the Trump administration's foreign policy and national security decisions, according to three sources familiar with it.

Behind the scenes: Nadia Schadlow, a well-respected member of the National Security Council and trusted confidant of H.R. McMaster, spent months drafting the document, working with Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell and McMaster.

  • Schadlow and Powell met with dozens of members of Congress, cybersecurity and foreign policy experts, military strategists and CEOs.
  • The big players across the agencies — including Mike Pompeo, Dan Coats, Jeff Sessions, Gen. Mattis, Wilbur Ross, Mnuchin, Tillerson, and, naturally, McMaster — all support the strategy.
  • They'll review the document this week at their cabinet meeting.

What's different: Sources familiar with the document call it "hard-nosed" and "realistic" — and less ambitious and idealistic than prior efforts. Critics will likely argue it forfeits American values and moral leadership — a continuation of Trump's lack of interest in fighting climate change and spreading democracy, his exit from the Paris climate deal and the Pacific trade deal.

  • One source described the Trump NSS as a "corrective" to George W. Bush's 2002 strategy, which promised to "champion aspirations for human dignity" and to prioritize democracy promotion around the world.
  • That source said Bush's team overestimated America's influence and lost track of priorities, and that Trump won't.

I haven't seen the Trump NSS, which remains under close hold. But sources familiar with it tell me to expect three things:

  1. "There is more focus on homeland security and protecting the homeland than any NSS before," said one source with knowledge of the document.
  2. The strategy will focus on economic competitiveness as a national security imperative, especially regarding China. That fits into Trump's long-held belief that foreign countries have been taking advantage of America and stealing U.S. jobs.
  3. The document will highlight the emergence of technological threats, including — per Newt Gingrich, who has worked with Schadlow and Powell to draft the document — Russia's hybrid warfare and new breakthroughs in the weaponization of space.

Looking ahead: Jeremy Bash — formerly Leon Panetta's chief of staff at the CIA and Defense Department — told me it's unusual for a White House to complete the NSS in its first year, and said Powell and Schadlow deserve credit for building consensus so quickly. But he added it will only be useful if tethered to achievable goals. "The hard part begins now," he said.

Bonus: What Trumpworld is reading

This WSJ column by Hudson Institute fellow Walter Russell Mead. Sen. Tom Cotton and Newt Gingrich both mentioned it to me when they were explaining how the Trump NSS will differ from those of prior administrations.

Mead's thesis is that "America's post-Cold War national strategy has run out of gas," and an entirely new approach is required. It very much remains to be seen if Trump's NSS will perform that duty.

Mead's money lines:

  • "Foreign policy has become as complex and unwieldy as the tax code, even as public support for this vast, misshapen edifice has withered."
  • "...American foreign policy needs to come back to earth. The U.S. isn't putting the finishing touches on a peaceful global system that is fated to endure for the ages."
  • "For the foreseeable future...foreign policy is going to be less about making dreams come true and more about keeping nightmares at bay."

And Mead's warning: "It is not enough to demolish the old. Ultimately Mr. Trump will be judged on his ability — or failure — to build something better."

2. "Happy talk"

A source who spoke to Trump last week told me he left the conversation concerned that the president "actually believes" Ty Cobb's "happy talk." What the source meant was that the White House lawyer has been naive in his view that the Mueller investigation — as it relates to the White House — will be wrapped by end of year or shortly after.

I emailed Cobb today to ask whether he still believed his previous public statements that the White House would be free of the investigation by the end of this year or January. (He'd originally said before Thanksgiving.)

  • Cobb's reply: "Yes Jonathan, still believe shortly after the first of the year absent some unforeseen delay. People keep confusing that estimate with the Manafort/Flynn silos which will certainly continue to be active. My August estimate of when interviews would be completed was less than two weeks off, and that was despite the China trip which cost us 2 weeks, and half a dozen international crises."

I told Cobb I still didn't understand what he meant. Was he saying Mueller has 100% completed all interviews with White House staff? And if the Manafort and Flynn "silos" continue to be active, couldn't they potentially implicate people who currently work in the White House?

  • Cobb replied again: "I am saying the interviews will be completed by the end of next week which I have said often and which has been quoted by 50 news outlets over the last month or more (with the caveat and understanding illness, Acts of God or logistical factors could add 24 to 48 hours). The Manafort inquiry has nothing to do with the White House as the indictment itself and the related public acknowledgement of Manafort's lawyer, make plain. And, we do not anticipate the long awaited Flynn indictment will delay the Special Counsel's conclusion of the inquiry into the White House. Just no there there."

3. The pardon question

A revealing exchange between Jake Tapper and Republican Senator Tim Scott on CNN's "State of the Union".

  • Tapper: "Your fellow senator from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham, told CNN that he would urge President Trump to pledge to not pardon Michael Flynn. Do you agree with that?"'
  • Scott: "I do."

Why this matters: Republican senators will have little patience if Trump tries anything to stymie Mueller's investigation. They made that abundantly clear in a highly unusual New York Times story last week.

4. Israel week

This week will be the most important so far in the Trump presidency for supporters of Israel:

Move 1: Trump will recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital in a speech on Wednesday. (The administration still refuses to confirm this and has been sticking with the line that Trump is still considering his options. Jared Kushner was guarded in rare public remarks Sunday at the Saban Forum in Washington, D.C.)

  • The Trump administration won't move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem — for now. But the Jerusalem announcement is a big deal. No American president has recognized the city as Israel's capital since the state was established in 1948. As my colleague Barak Ravid has written, news of Trump's decision — which Axios broke — has angered Palestinians and could derail the Middle East peace negotiations brokered by the Trump team.
  • Why this matters: Per the NYT — "The diplomatic status of Jerusalem is one of the world's most contested issues, with Israel and the Palestinians claiming it as their capital. Its holy sites are sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, and any change in its status would have vast repercussions across the Middle East and other Islamic-majority countries worldwide."

Move 2: The Republican-led House will vote Tuesday on the Taylor Force Act. The bill would restrict U.S. funding for the Palestinian Authority unless they stop paying terrorists and the families of dead terrorists who attack Americans and Israelis.

Move 3: The White House is hosting its Hanukkah party on Thursday night. It's been a hot topic in Republican Jewish circles — and not for good reasons. A number of Republican Jewish leaders, including major party donors, were upset they weren't invited. The White House apparently wanted a "more intimate event," said a source close to the process, who argued it was a mistake and revealed this administration's political ineptitude.

5. Tax cuts: the final push

Republican House members return to Washington on Monday — a day earlier than previously planned — to vote to proceed to a conference to hash out a final tax bill with the Senate.

None of my best sources — inside or out of Republican leadership — think there's much of a chance the GOP tax effort collapses.

Per a senior administration source: "There's always a chance for this Congress to f--- things up, but I don't think it will happen. Have one vote to spare in Senate. Lots of momentum." Republicans are saying they'll have final legislation on Trump's desk by the end of this month.

Per sources close to leadership:

  • Everyone agrees it's a good thing the Senate ditched Bob Corker's idea of inserting a "trigger" into the bill to automatically increase taxes if the growth fueled by tax cuts didn't bring as much money into the Treasury as Republicans promised. They lost Corker's vote — he was the only Republican senator to vote against the tax package — but the Republican House would have never agreed to his idea.
  • "They're really not all that far apart and it's easy to see what Senate provisions are better and what stuff the House needs. I still don't think the House could pass the Senate bill as-is."
  • "One thing no one is talking about — the Senate bill is super complex and they gave a lot back to get votes. House is still committed to their post card."

6. Sneak Peek diary

  • Monday: Trump travels to Utah "to announce that he'll shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments," sources familiar with the trip confirmed to The Salt Lake Tribune. Two important people have been pushing for this: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Orrin Hatch, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee that wrote the Republican Senate tax bill.Also on Monday, Trump will meet with Mormon leaders and visit Welfare Square in Salt Lake City, the White House announced. Per an administration source, Mormons are an "important conservative political constituency with whom POTUS underperformed in 2016. There's a large Mormon population in Nevada, so it has swing state implications."
  • Tuesday: Trump to have lunch with Republican senators, then in the evening he and Melania will host the Congressional Ball.
  • Wednesday: Trump hosts a cabinet meeting and has lunch with VP Pence.
  • Friday: Trump meets with Defense Secretary Mattis then travels to Florida for a rally.

7. 1 Trump moment: Access Hollywood redux

The Washington Post got an early copy of the insider campaign book by former Trump officials Corey Lewandowski and Dave Bossie. Per WashPo, here's their account of the day the Trump campaign learned about the Access Hollywood tape:

  • It was [Hope] Hicks who, on Oct. 7, took a call from a Washington Post reporter about a video from "Access Hollywood" in which Trump boasted about how he could "grab" women "by the p---y." Trump looked at a transcript and said "that doesn't sound like something I would say." It was Bossie, who served as the deputy campaign manager, who played the video for Trump on his iPad. The campaign came up with the response that it was "locker room" talk.

I can give you a little more insider detail on that day, from my own conversations with sources who were in the room with Trump. They were in the middle of debate prep when they learned about the Access Hollywood tape.

Here's what happened:

When the campaign only had possession of the Washington Post transcript of the Access Hollywood video — but not the video itself — Trump's top aides sat around a conference table in Trump Tower to discuss whether the foul-mouthed person in the transcript was actually Trump.

  • One line jumped out at them: "And I moved on her very heavily. In fact, I took her out furniture shopping. She wanted to get some furniture. I said, 'I'll show you where they have some nice furniture.'"

Incredulous, a senior campaign official asked Trump: "You took a woman furniture shopping?"

Trump immediately replied: "I just want to make one thing clear: I've never taken anyone furniture shopping."

The room broke out laughing. Not long after, the Washington Post put the video online. There'd be a lot less laughter after that.