White House staff in "survival mode ... scared to death" - Axios
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White House staff in "survival mode ... scared to death"

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Here's a twist that has top GOP sources buzzing:

  • On Jan. 26, Sally Yates, then the acting attorney general, tells the White House that national security adviser Mike Flynn — who has just been grilled by FBI agents — had, in fact, discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador during the transition, despite denying it, and therefore is vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
  • Four days later, on Jan. 30, Trump fires Yates, citing her unwillingness to enforce his border order.
  • Two weeks after her heads-up to the White House, the Flynn secret explodes.

"They had to know she was radioactive, and that there would be consequences," said a West Wing confidant. "It was either reckless, or total incompetence. It leads back to the fact that nobody is in charge."

A top source described "borderline chaos" in the White House.

"Some staff is in survival mode ... scared to death," the source said.

Internal leaks distract a White House. What we're seeing now is something much more consequential: leaks from throughout the government, plus a host of Obama alumni emptying their clips.

The news eruptions are gaining a Watergate aura — constant, complicated revelations from intelligence agencies and federal law enforcement; White House denials; frenzied competition among the great news organizations.

Chuck Todd said at 5 p.m. on MSNBC (as quoted by Brian Stelter): "Welcome to Day 1 of what is arguably the biggest presidential scandal involving a foreign government since Iran-Contra. ... [H]unker down, because this is a Class 5 political hurricane that's hitting Washington."

Hours later, first from The New York Times, and then from CNN: "Trump aides were in constant touch with senior Russian officials during campaign."

And Trump has known that since the transition, per CNN's Pamela Brown, Jim Sciutto and Evan Perez: "President-elect Trump and then-President Barack Obama were both briefed on details of the extensive communications between suspected Russian operatives and people associated with the Trump campaign and the Trump business."

The Russia connection now becomes a consequential, ongoing story -- with not just threads for Dems to pull, but a whole new big ball of yarn.

Axios's Jonathan Swan reports that Pence's spokesman, Marc Lotter, said the V.P. only learned of Flynn's misleading statements from the Washington Post's story Thursday night. And Swan reminds us of an overarching unanswered question: "Why did it take so long for the President to request Flynn's resignation?"

Bloomberg's well-wired Eli Lake takes up for Flynn (and gets a "POLITICAL ASSASSINATION" Drudge banner): "[F]or a White House that has such a casual ... relationship with the truth, it's strange that Flynn's 'lie' to Pence would get him fired. It doesn't add up. It's not even clear that Flynn lied."

So does this change now? An AP overnighter ... "For GOP, a dimmed zeal for investigations in Trump era," by Erica Werner: "Rather than go along with Democrats' call for an independent outside investigation [of Flynn resignation -- what Trump knew, and when], Senate Republicans insisted ... that the Intelligence Committee could look at the circumstances as part of an existing probe into Russia's interference in the presidential election."

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Toyota claims a leap that would vastly increase electric-car range

Lazaro Gamio / Axios

In an unusual statement, Toyota says it is nearing a breakthrough in a type of lithium-ion battery system that has vexed researchers for decades, and that it will unveil a family of electric cars with a jump in currently available range in the early 2020s.

Why it matters: Given the high stakes and risk of embarrassment if something goes wrong, Japanese companies virtually never flag a big tech breakthrough before it is actually produced and delivered to the market. Hence, Toyota's comparatively specific announcement suggests it is reasonably confident that it really has mastered a new battery technology, said Venkat Viswanathan, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Toyota says its battery is solid state, which is what has piqued the interest of the battery community: If Toyota really has figured out solid state, that would allow the company sometime in the future to make a second big breakthrough — to swap in an anode made of ultra-energetic lithium metal, a substance that researchers have tried without success to get safely into lithium-ion batteries since the early 1990s. The trouble with lithium metal is its volatility — it can catch fire on contact with liquid electrolyte or even the air. But solid state eliminates that problem because it has no liquid.

In a statement to Axios, Toyota said it will commercialize "sulfide system all-solid batteries" that it hopes will have increased durability and improve the range of electric vehicles in which they are installed.

Go deeper: Toyota declined to say whether it's using a lithium metal anode. But solid state is extremely expensive to manufacture costing hundreds of dollars per square meter, versus the $10 price needed if battery costs are to drop low enough for electric cars to challenge combustion head to head.

Hence, Viswanathan told Axios, even if Toyota's first-generation pure electrics do not start with lithium metal anodes, the company clearly is establishing a pathway to get there. "You need more energy density to bring down the cost," he said.

  • An electric car with a lithium metal anode would go about 20% further than current technology, or almost 300 miles on a charge, he said. As a comparison, the new Chevy Volt goes 238 miles without recharging.
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Scaramucci appears to want Priebus investigated by FBI

Alex Brandon / AP

Minutes after Politico reported that new White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci stands to profit from his stake in his investment firm while in the West Wing, based on previously undisclosed financial disclosure forms, Scaramucci tweeted:

It was no accident that Scaramucci tagged Reince Priebus in the tweet. Per the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza: "In case there's any ambiguity in his tweet I can confirm that Scaramucci wants the FBI to investigate Reince for leaking."

Our thought bubble: It appears that Trump is deploying Scaramucci to rip the band aid off with Priebus. He has been fed up with his chief of staff for a while and has totally empowered his new communications director. Remember, shortly before this all happened, Scaramucci was having dinner with Trump, Sean Hannity and Bill Shine. Priebus wasn't at the table.

Minutes after Scaramucci's tweet, the Department of Justice issued a statement reiterating that leakers will be investigated, and even jailed:

Worth noting: financial disclosure forms aren't classified.

Behind the scenes, per the Washington Post's Philip Rucker: "Some in White House are trying to build a case that Priebus is a leaker — 'a diagram' charting leaks, per senior official — to show Trump."

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Scientists edit human embryos for first time in the U.S.

Paul Sancya / AP

Researchers in Oregon have become the first in the U.S. to edit the genome of human embryos, MIT Technology Review reports.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University and his team reportedly used the gene-editing technique CRISPR to change "the DNA of a large number of one-cell embryos" and to target a disease-related gene.

"Although none of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days — and there was never any intention of implanting them into a womb — the experiments are a milestone on what may prove to be an inevitable journey toward the birth of the first genetically modified humans," per Tech Review.

Why it matters: The goal is to see whether genes that cause inherited diseases can be corrected. Three previous studies on editing embryos, which took place in China, found errors from CRISPR and that the edited changes were only seen in some of an embryo's cells. Mitalipov and his colleagues are believed to have shown both of those effects can be avoided.


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Maggie Haberman: Trump's attacks on the press are a 'game'

Women in the World / YouTube

Maggie Haberman, the NY Times reporter whose relationship to the president dates back to years covering Trump in the New York tabloids, dished about covering his presidency on the Longform podcast.

She was fresh off an interview with Trump in which the president told her and two other Times reporters, among other things, that he never would have nominated Jeff Sessions if he knew he'd recuse himself from the Russia probe.

The highlights

  • Whether Trump is strategic: "This whole idea that he doesn't know what he's doing, that's stupid. He always has a plan in his head. Now the plan might be impulsive, but he does have some plan. It might not make sense to me or you or whomever, but it isn't like the New York Times led him to water when we were talking to him about Bob Mueller and James Comey and Sessions. He knew what he was doing...What I don't think he always understands is the impact."
  • What he's like in person: "He can seem very engaged with whoever he's talking to, even though I suspect he doesn't remember most of what gets said back to him...Dinners with him are said to be pretty short affairs because he loses interest pretty quickly...He just has no attention span."
  • On Trump's Twitter: "He doesn't actually really get Twitter...the joke of this whole 'he's such a genius at Twitter', he doesn't actually really understand Twitter. He doesn't surf Twitter. He's not pulling the memes that get used."
  • On sourcing within the White House: "A lot of people talk late at night in this administration. There's a real fear for most people that they're being monitored in some way. Some people use different kinds of phones...It has been the case since like Day 20...People are scared."
  • On those sources: "The way they talk about this stuff, not all of them, but some of them — it's not about enacting policy or doing what's best for the country. It's winning — winning their little corner of power."
  • Do you take his attacks on the press seriously? "Yes, because people don't realize he's playing a game" to get his base to distrust what they're reading and hearing.
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Transgender troop ban is victory for Bannon, social conservatives

Evan Vucci / AP

Trump's decision to ban transgender troops was the furthest he has waded into culture wars since taking office — and perhaps his most polarizing decision since the original travel ban. This issue had been quietly burning for months, with social conservative leaders pressing the White House on why it hadn't made a decision.

In May, the Conservative Action Project released a memo calling for Trump to end the "social engineering" of permitting transgender people to serve and paying for gender re-assignment surgeries. Influential movement leaders wondered what the heck was taking so long, why Defense Secretary James Mattis seemed to be stalling rather than reversing the Obama-era policies.

After an amendment to reverse those policies failed, House conservatives, especially Rep. Mark Meadows of the House Freedom Caucus, started threatening not to vote for the military appropriations bill unless the transgender issues were resolved.

Internally, Rick Dearborn, Marc Short, Steve Bannon and Paul Teller were pushing to overturn the Obama-era policy on transgender troops. Meadows' late intervention empowered Bannon and others to make the point to Trump that the security bill, which included Trump priorities like the border wall, could be derailed unless they handled this issue now.

(This article and headline has been updated.)

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Trump discussed recess replacement for Sessions

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Donald Trump has raised the idea of using a recess appointment to replace Jeff Sessions as Attorney General without needing Congressional approval, the Washington Post reports, adding that Trump "has been warned not to move to push him out because of the political and legal ramifications."

Sessions seems disinclined to resign, and Trump has resisted firing him. I he did, it would be hard to replace him as...
  1. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley tweeted tonight that there was "no way" his committee could take up hearings for an Attorney General nominee this year.
  2. Trump's preferred picks, like Rudy Giuliani, would struggle to gain Senate approval anyways.
  3. Democrats have said they'll keep Congress from going into a formal recess, making recess appointments impossible.
The current state of play, per the Post: Trump and Sessions "now seem to be heading toward an uneasy detente."
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First U.S. case of Zika transmission by mosquito this year reported in Texas

Pat Sullivan / AP

The first known instance of local mosquito transmission of the Zika virus in the continental U.S. this year was reported late today by health officials in the state of Texas. The Zika transmission likely occurred sometime in the past few months in South Texas, they said.

The Zika infection occurred in a Hidalgo County resident who had not traveled outside the area, and also did not have any of the other risk factors for Zika infection identified by public health officials monitoring the spread of Zika in South, Central and now North America.

For this reason, the Texas Department of State Health Services said that the infection was "probably transmitted" by a mosquito bite in South Texas. Further lab tests showed that the Hidalgo County resident was no longer at risk of spreading the virus via mosquito populations.

Texas health officials began increased Zika testing of pregnant women and people with Zika-like symptoms in six South Texas counties this past spring. (There were six locally-transmitted Zika cases in Brownsville last November and December.) The local transmission case announced today was a direct result of that increased testing regime.

What's next: Texas officials said that there is no evidence of ongoing Zika transmission in the state, but the news today will almost certainly lead to even more human and mosquito surveillance testing in the southern part of the state. Local health officials had already been going door to door in South Texas counties to share information about Zika with pregnant women and people with symptoms to make sure they were tested.

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Republicans remain unsure how their health care effort ends

Carolyn Kaster / AP

Both the Senate's Affordable Care Act replacement plan and its partial repeal bill have now failed by significant margins, leaving their best chance at passing anything a "skinny" repeal bill, which some members openly say is just a vehicle to a conference committee with the House. But it's hard to see where all of this ends.

The bottom line: The Senate seems to have proven definitively that Republicans can't agree on an ACA replacement plan. It's very hard to see any reason why that would change in conference. So that leaves the option of the House passing the Senate's skinny repeal plan — which sources aren't ruling out — which has major policy flaws and could cause premium increases right before next year's elections.

Yet no Senate Republicans have come out against the skinny repeal plan yet. "This is like a car crash. Everyone will slow down to look at the carnage but no one will get out to help," said one senior GOP aide.

A skinny repeal package would most likely get rid of the ACA's individual and employer mandates as well as its medical device tax, although some members are pushing to add more. While these are unpopular provisions — and therefore easy repeal targets — the mandates help balance out the marketplace so premiums don't rise too much.

But some Senate Republicans openly acknowledge they're not thinking of this package as something that could become law; they're viewing it merely as something that can get 50 votes and keep the process going. "I think people would look at it not necessarily on its content, but as a forcing mechanism to cause the two sides of the building to try to solve it together," said Sen. Bob Corker.

The problems:

  • Almost every GOP aide I've talked to — both House and Senate — are skeptical that a conference committee will come up with something that can pass the Senate. If the Senate couldn't accomplish this feat itself, the reasoning goes, why would a conference committee that must bridge the gap between Senate moderates and the House Freedom Caucus?
    • "Obamacare replace policy is not making it through the United States Senate at this step of the process," a senior Senate GOP aide emailed me last night, referring to the bill as "Corpsicle."
    • The alternative argument is that going to conference can't hurt anything.
  • No one is saying exactly what will happen if and when the Senate passes a skinny repeal package.
    • House aides are saying it all depends what's in it, and Sen. Rand Paul is openly saying he doesn't want a conference committee because it'll probably produce something else like the House or Senate replacement plans.
    • But Mark Meadows, chairman of the Freedom Caucus, says he doesn't support skinny repeal, meaning it probably couldn't pass the House at this point.
  • Still, it could be their only choice. As one former Senate GOP aide put it, "What happens if the ping pong ball is over on the House side and that's all that's left?"
  • And if this does become law, it most likely causes big disruptions in the individual market — right before the 2018 elections, which are already hairy for House Republicans.
What we're watching: Is anyone going to come up with an alternative direction? If not, are any Senate Republicans going to oppose a skinny repeal bill solely because of this lack of clarity about where this is all going? When asked this question, one of the current GOP aides answered, "Nope. Because [Majority Leader Mitch} McConnell has some mystical power to convince people he knows what he is doing."
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Hewlett-Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman steps down as chair of PC spin-off

AP Photo/Richard Drew

What was once known as Hewlett Packard created quite some confusion on Wednesday as it announced that Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO was stepping down as chair of HP Inc, the PC-making unit that was spun off from the enterprise IT company. Axios has confirmed that Whitman, who is rumored to be a candidate for the vacant top spot at Uber, remains CEO of HP Enterprise.

"Meg is fully committed to HPE and plans to stay with the company until her work is done," a company representative told Axios.

The two HPs: The venerable computer maker split in two in November 2015. Whitman, who had been CEO of the combined company, was named CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise and chair of the PC unit, which took the name HP Inc.

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"Clean" repeal bill fails in Senate

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

The Senate has voted down a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act without replacing it — the leading alternative to the Senate repeal-and-replace bill, a version of which got shot down last night. Seven Republicans voted with the Democrats to defeat the bill, which was supported by Sen. Rand Paul and leading conservative groups. President Trump has also suggested straight repeal as a strategy if the Senate couldn't pass a replacement.

Why it failed: Conservatives were putting heavy pressure on Republican moderates to support it, since most of them voted for a similar bill Congress passed in 2015 (then-President Obama vetoed it). But some moderates, including Lisa Murkowski and Shelley Moore Capito, have said they couldn't support repeal this time without a replacement. Other "no" votes — like John McCain — were a surprise.

Republicans who voted no: McCain, Murkowski, Capito, Lamar Alexander, Susan Collins, Rob Portman, Dean Heller.

What's next: The search continues for a repeal bill the Senate can pass.