Good morning, Power friends. Happy Chinese new year! 2019 is the Year of the Pig, which represents wealth and treasure in Chinese culture. So gong hay fat choy (wishing you happiness and prosperity) to everyone celebrating 😊. In less promising news for our prosperous futures, today is also the State of the Union address. Tips, comments, recipes? Reach out and sign up. Thanks for waking up with us.
At the White House
STEPPING ON THE SOTU: President Trump is supposed to own the news cycle today, when he will deliver his third joint address to Congress. The occasion is prepackaged to allow the president to sell a positive message around his administration's successes and lay out a compelling agenda for the year ahead — something for Congress to rally around.
The State of the Union might be a constitutional obligation but it's a speech that Trump has been looking forward to, according to the New York Times's Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman, for “all of the pomp and circumstance that accompany it with some reverence.” But behind-the-scenes, chaos is roiling the White House once again after a prolific leak to Axios on Sunday of Trump's private schedule for the past three months. It showed the president spends 60 percent of his scheduled hours in what former Chief of Staff John F. Kelly dubbed “Executive Time.”
But Trump might want to apply Marie Kondo's method to tidy up his White House, keeping only those staffers who "spark joy."
This West Wing is distinguished by its prolific leaks. But most notable about this one to aides inside and outside the West Wing is not the substance of the leak, but the tremendous amount of effort it must have taken to execute it. Clouding aides attempts to sell Trump's “sincere appeal to broaden his governing coalition,” White House officials instead spent much of Monday defending the president's work ethic and downplaying the nature of the leak.
- “President Trump has a different leadership style than his predecessors and the results speak for themselves,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said, elaborating on the standard justification White House staffers have advanced to explain Trump's large chunks of unstructured time. “While he spends much of his average day in scheduled meetings, events, and calls, there is time to allow for a more creative environment that has helped make him the most productive President in modern history.”
There are several different schedules available to various contingencies who work with Trump, according to White House officials who said the ones leaked were the most basic and widely available. The other schedules include a planning one detailing confirmed and proposed events one to two months in advance and a classified scheduled, which lists additional, private details of Trump's day, and is only available to a little over “maybe two dozen” staffers, according to a former White House official familiar with it.
- “Three hundred eighty-eight people have access to that broader schedule, but very few have access to that other [detailed] schedule,” Kellyanne Conway told reporters on Monday. "[Trump] does many different things here throughout the day. For example, the New York Times's 90-plus-minute interview. I didn’t go back and look at that particular schedule, but it might have said 'meeting, engagement.' It might have said 'Executive Time,' but you all know what happened.”
- “The Tom Brady of leaking”: “This person has been the most prolific leaker of all time. The Tom Brady of leaking,” a former White House staffer told Power Up. “To do that every single day since November, that's some real commitment and dedication. But I don't think it's a big deal relatively speaking. The schedule that was leaked goes to a bunch of people across the administration. If the classified/long-term schedule had been leaked, that would have been more of a problem,” the former staffer explained.
- More: “You have to imagine they're making a conscious effort to subvert the president on a daily basis instead of doing their actual job. Regardless of whether you support Trump or not, he at the very least deserves a White House that will have his back.”
- Damage control: “The leaks are just selfish, period,” a current White House official told us. “Anyone who leaks information like this is just out to try to make themselves seem more important than they actually are,” the official added.
Those who work around the White House interpreted the “breach of trust” as yet another example of the mayhem inside a difficult-to-work with West Wing.
- GOP strategist: “Everything is very scattershot. They're out of sync with their department heads and leaking on each other when they're not leaking the president's schedule. The discipline this new environment requires is just not there,” a Republican strategist with ties to downtown told us.
- Former Obama official: “I spent 8 yrs. in and out of the last @WhiteHouse and received the daily schedules. The notion that executive time includes important calls or meetings is wrong. Internal policy meetings, calls with important people were always on the schedule,” Jen Psaki tweeted.
See below for a page reproduced from a screenshot of Trump's planning schedule (from October 2017) obtained by Power Up. The red font indicates the events that were proposed or being considered. The classified schedules, not pictured below, were usually marked as "classified" on a cover sheet.
Nonetheless, Trump does intend to preach unity when he steps to the podium in the House chamber tonight. Some expected highlights:
- “Trump is also expected to reaffirm his demand for Congress to support his hard-line immigration agenda and offer a robust defense of foreign policy initiatives that have engendered fierce criticism from Democrats,” writes The Post's David Nakamura.
- Trump's threat to declare a national emergency to build his border wall is still very much on the table, but he's not explicitly expected to declare one tonight.
- “White House officials insisted that Trump will not use the speech as a cudgel to pummel Democrats over the wall and play solely to his conservative base” and will instead focus on possible areas of common ground like an infrastructure bill and an effort to tackle prescription drug prices, Nakamura reports.
- BUT: The speech-writing has been overseen by Stephen Miller, Karni and Haberman report.
On The Hill
DISUNITED STATES, CONT.: Trump has good reason to embrace tonight's big speech. The description of the address, outlined by the congressional Research Service in 2015, reads like Trump's ultimate constitutional fantasy: “Standing before the American public to deliver the annual address, the President combines several constitutional roles: chief of state, chief executive, chief diplomat, commander-in-chief, and chief legislator. Besides delivering the State of the Union, there is no other annual opportunity for the President to showcase his entire arsenal of constitutional powers.”
But the speech, which is “not primarily a partisan speech or document” is supposed to be framed in a consensus-building way -- a difficult task for a president (and speech writer) laser focused on the divisive topic of immigration or a potential national emergency declaration. The Post's Paul Kane writes that in the battle between the forces of unity and partisanship, there's little doubt which side has been winning:
- “Rather than finding your bipartisan seatmate, rank-and-file lawmakers now get strategic advice about how to use their one guest ticket as a political message to show their opposition to the opposing party,” PK writes.
- “We have an important opportunity to highlight how President Trump and Washington Republicans are harming the American people — and how Democrats are fighting for the people,” the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee wrote to lawmakers in mid-January, PK reports.
Democrats and Republicans have tailored their guest lists for maximum impact.
- The Intercept's Aida Chavez reported that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's (D-N.y.) State of the Union guest will be Ana Maria Archila, "the Queens woman who famously confronted Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake in a Capitol Hill elevator."
- One of Trump and first lady Melania Trump's guests will be a sixth grader named Joshua Trump who has been bullied because of his last name. Along with, “Elvin Hernandez, a special agent at the Department of Homeland Security who focuses on human trafficking; and Debra Bissell, Heather Armstrong and Madison Armstrong, family members of a Nevada couple who authorities say were killed by an undocumented immigrant,” The Post's Eli Rosenberg reports.
- And then there are the Democrats who are refusing to attend Trump's address altogether. The Post's Elise Viebeck reports that Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) are skipping Tuesday's event.
- “The thought of spending Tuesday night in the House Chamber listening to the reckless, self-centered man who occupies the White House holds no interest for me,” Blumenauer said in a statement. “Just like in past years, I plan to skip a speech that will be filled with lies, deception and divisiveness.”
TRUMP INAUGURAL'S FOREIGN TIES: Federal prosecutors executed a sweeping request for documents related to donations — specifically anything related to foreign contributors — and spending by President Trump’s inaugural committee on Monday in New York, The Post's Rosalind S. Helderman and Michael Kranish report. ABC News's John Santucci, Josh Margolin, and Matthew Mosk first broke the news.
- The subpoena: “A wide-ranging subpoena served on the inaugural committee Monday seeks an array of documents, including all information related to inaugural donors, vendors, contractors, bank accounts of the inaugural committee and any information related to foreign contributors to the committee, according to a copy reviewed by The Washington Post.” [Federal law prohibits foreign contributions to campaigns, inaugurations and PACs.]
- Key: “The subpoena — issued by the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York — indicates that prosecutors are investigating crimes related to conspiracy to defraud the United States, mail fraud, false statements, wire fraud and money laundering,” Kranish and Helderman report.
- Singled out: “Only one individual was named as part of the subpoena’s demand for documents: Imaad Zuberi, a former fund-raiser for President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton who was seeking inroads with Mr. Trump, and whose company, Avenue Ventures, gave $900,000 to the inaugural committee. The subpoena also seeks documents related to his company,” per the New York Times's Maggie Haberman and Ben Protess.
In the Agencies
NOW HIRING: Trump finally nominated David Bernhardt to be Ryan Zinke's permanent replacement as interior secretary. But the vacancies in this administration have piled up and top congressional Republicans are starting to worry. The Post's Juliet Eilperin, Josh Dawsey and Seung Min Kim report on the swollen number of “top positions filled by officials serving in an acting capacity — or no one at all,” from Trump's acting chief of staff, to attorney general, EPA chief, etc. Republicans looking to blame Senate Democrats for slowing down executive branch nominees might find themselves in need of a new talking point to explain the vacancies:
- By the numbers: " . . . according to an analysis by the Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post, the White House has not bothered to nominate people for 150 out of 705 Senate-confirmed positions," the trio reports.
“Three departments are facing a particularly high number of vacancies: Only 41 percent of the Interior and Justice departments’ Senate-confirmed posts are filled, and just 43 percent of such positions have been filled at the Labor Department.”
“The third-highest-ranking position at the Justice Department — which, like the Interior Department, has been operating without a permanent secretary for weeks — has been vacant for nearly a year, with no nominee in sight.”
On Sunday Trump expressed a preference for “acting” Cabinet secretaries over permanent ones, citing increased “flexibility. “I like acting because I can move so quickly,” Trump told “Face the Nation's” Margaret Brennan.
DoD concerns: Republican senators have been particularly alarmed by the vacancy at the Pentagon (Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned in December) and have urged Trump to pick his permanent replacement, Eilperin, Dawsey and Kim report:
- “Some Senate Republicans have lobbied on behalf of potential Mattis successors. In a private phone call shortly after Mattis announced his impending departure, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) urged Trump to nominate Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, who would be the first woman to head the Pentagon.”
- Acting auditions: The Wall Street Journal's Gordon Lubold and Michael Bender report that current acting Pentagon chief, Pat Shanahan, is "on what many officials and experts consider an extended audition to become the permanent secretary."
- Other candidates: “Although Mr. Shanahan appears to be the front-runner for the permanent post, Vice President Pence has been tasked with identifying other candidates. Under consideration are financier David McCormick; Navy Secretary Richard Spencer; Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson; Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats; and former senator Jim Talent (R., Mo.), according to people familiar with the deliberations,” Lubold and Bender report.
Outside the Beltway
NORTHAM IS STILL GOVERNOR: We have to admit this one surprises us. Mostly because the news cycle moves so fast and a controversy like this is toxic (and everyone except Joe Lieberman says he should step down). But the Virginia governor was hanging on, if only by a thread, this morning.
- Northam gathered staffers Monday morning and told them he was “still weighing options,” according to my colleagues Gregory S. Schneider and Laura Vozzella, who added the governor asked his aides not to quit.
- “Northam is trying to assemble evidence to prove that he was not in that racist photo and is exploring whether he has enough support in the government to continue to be effective, according to several people who have spoken with the governor. Feedback from constituents has begun to shift, becoming more positive, one person said,” report Greg and Laura.
- Not happening: “I know people are speculating that Ralph is going to resign and still considering it, but I can tell you he is not going anywhere,” said state Sen. Richard H. Stuart, a Republican and Northam's closest friend in the legislature. “He’s dug in, and he is going to fight this thing out.”
Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D), who would replace Northam if he steps down, fiercely denied allegations he sexually assaulted a woman in 2004. The allegations surfaced on the same conservative website that broke the Northam story.
- Pushback: Fairfax held a news conference in Richmond charging that Northam's supporters had created the allegation as a “smear” to stop him from ascending if the governor steps down, saying the encounter with the woman was "100 percent consensual.” From the New York Times's Jonathan Martin: “'Does anybody think it’s any coincidence that on the eve of potentially my being elevated that that’s when this smear comes out?'” Fairfax asked.
- Palace intrigue: Fairfax added he had “no indication” Northam was involved in the allegations surfacing, but seemed to throw shade at Levar Stoney, the Richmond mayor who could be a 2021 challenger for the governorship, JMart reported. Stoney denied it.
- By the way: The Post investigated the claims by a Stanford fellow when she originally brought them to my colleagues after Fairfax was elected in November 2017 and before he was sworn-in in January 2018.
- Upshot: “Fairfax and the woman told different versions of what happened in the hotel room with no one else present. The Washington Post could not find anyone who could corroborate either version.”
Shot: Eastern Virginia Medical School, Northam's alma mater, banned yearbooks after 2013 following an edition in which students posed in Confederate grab, nearly 30 years after a photo of a person in blackface and a person in a Ku Klux Klan robe appeared on Northam's yearbook page. Northam denies he was in the photo.
Chaser: The Richmond Times-Dispatch explained how photos ended up on students at EVM's yearbook pages. Seniors “were allowed to submit up to three photographs in a sealed envelope to appear alongside a formal school picture on their personal pages in the 1984 yearbook, according to a former student who said he helped design most of those pages.”
- “To the best of my remembrance — and anything is possible — but it’s not probable that was another student’s picture. We didn’t take the kind of security you do in the military with some things, but we did our best to make sure they were photos that people submitted,” said Dr. William Elwood, who served on the yearbook staff in 1984, according to the paper.
- “In my experience, the most likely thing is he submitted that picture. ... Is it possible somebody could’ve switched the pictures after the fact? Yes. Is it probable? No.”