Who You Know
Nobody Trumps Mike Allen, The Washington Power Whisperer
Mike ‘Mikey’ Allen and his colleagues at Axios are aiming to scoop their competitors with the hottest gossip surrounding the Trump administration’s power players.
Former Goldman Sachs partner Steven Mnuchin, Donald Trump’s choice for treasury secretary, woke up Tuesday morning to upsetting news: He’s made formidable enemies on the president-elect’s transition team—senior Trump advisors who would just as soon see someone else get the job.
Mnuchin, who presumably spent his day dislodging knives from his back as he girds for a sticky Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday, learned the extent of his problems with colleagues from Mike Allen’s morning newsletter for the fledgling news outlet Axios Media, which aims to provide insider info, in easily digestible bites, on politics, technology, business and other subjects.
“Transition officials tell us they are worried about Steven Mnuchin’s readiness for his Thursday confirmation hearing to run Treasury,” reported the lead item of “Mike’s Top 10,” which hit email inboxes at 6:48 a.m. “In early prep sessions, he came off as uneven and stiff, so extra people were brought in to help get him ready. (One spy at the transition office told me that all the suits surrounding a conference table during one of Mnuchin’s prep sessions made it look like a Fortune 500 board meeting.)”
The item continued: “And some insiders worry about how he’d react to demonstrators. Democrats hope to derail at least one pick, and Mnuchin still tops the list. Insiders weren’t thrilled when he leaked word of his selection and then went on CNBC to talk about it. So it’ll be interesting to see how hard Trump fights for this one, if needed.”
The Mnuchin takedown percolated through the media-political complex and did its dirty work. At 10:20 a.m., barely three hours after “Mike’s Top 10,” Vanity Fair’s “Hive” posted a story based on Allen’s scoop. “WILL STEVEN MNUCHIN BOMB HIS CONFIRMATION HEARING?” screamed the headline. “The ‘Foreclosure King’ may be cracking under the pressure.”
A start-up whose product is aimed at influencers and insiders with ever-decreasing attention spans (and ever-burgeoning wallets to pay as much as $10,000 for a subscription), Axios—meaning "worthy,” in Greek—formally commences on Wednesday with an everybody-who’s-anybody launch party at downtown D.C.’s trendy restaurant of the moment, RPM Italian.
The 52-year-old Allen—like Axios execs Jim VandeHei, Kim Kingsley and Roy Schwartz, a refugee from Politico—is executive editor of the new venture and best known for his former job as major domo of Politico’s gossipy “Playbook” newsletter, with which he is now competing for attention along with a host of other Washington newsletters, to say nothing of the president-elect’s early-morning tweets.
The incoming Trump administration is likely to provide plenty of fodder for all, and the high-profile Allen is positioned to become a conspicuous beneficiary.
“I think this administration is going to leak like a sieve, and I think all of the inside players will be angling for their own betterment,” predicted a longtime political operative who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to antagonize Team Trump. “It’s not about serving someone they believe is a meritorious leader. So the cohesion that would usually drive discretion and confidentiality is going to be absent here. The Mnuchin item is an example. Someone within the Trump ranks doesn’t like Mnuchin, and doesn’t want him to be treasury secretary. And it’s a senior person—otherwise Mikey wouldn’t have run it.”
Members of the Washington establishment like to call Allen “Mikey,” a sign of the strange affection in which many Beltway insiders hold him.
As New York Times Magazine writer Mark Leibovich noted in an epic 8,000-word profile six years ago, “Mikey” is a world-class cultivator of relationships with the powerful, a ubiquitous presence on the Washington cocktail party circuit (though he’s apparently a teetotaler himself), a virtuosic flatterer and massager of big egos, and a relentless workaholic.
They call him “Mikey” even though they know that the day may come when it’s their turn to receive the Mnuchin treatment.
“You ignore or write off Mikey at your own peril,” Democratic strategist Tracy Sefl told The Daily Beast. “He channels all kinds of voices—that’s the beauty of Mike. He’s willing or attempts to understand anybody who has a perspective on what’s happening in Washington and politics. The question is, how will this be different? He’s just a piece of company that’s trying to figure out, how do you share news with people who have no attention span?”
“There are a lot eyeballs on the Axios newsletter right now, and everybody is waiting to see what’s different about the secret sauce and the role they’re going to play in the conversation,” said veteran lobbyist and public affairs consultant Juleanna Glover.
She has already appeared in “Mike’s Top 10” (opining about how Trump will affect the corporate merger climate in an item last Wednesday), and plans to pitch Mikey, and not Playbook, on her scheduled op-ed in the New York Daily News arguing that President Trump should keep Obama appointee Brett McGurk at the State Department so he can continue battling ISIS.
“Playbook is still great,” Glover explained, but “Mike’s Top 10” is the bright new shiny object. “I’d love to have it in Axios right now.”
Longtime Republican operative Rick Tyler is also a becoming a loyal fan.
“I get the ‘Top 10’ every morning. every morning, and you know when you start to read it that this isn’t going to drag on forever and ever,” said Tyler, a former Newt Gingrich staffer who advised Sen. Ted Cruz’s abortive presidential campaign this election cycle and is currently on on-air analyst for MSNBC. “I trust Mike enough to know that these are the top 10 things I need to know this morning. As someone who has to consume news, I find that very comforting.”
At a moment when Trump inveighs against the Beltway elite and claims he wants to “drain the swamp,” Allen is essentially a creature of the swamp, albeit a usually friendly creature. Tyler described Allen’s role as that of “concierge” to the Washington establishment. “He’s the keeper of the keys.”
“On a personal level,” Tyler added, “any time you talk to Mike he’s always a gentleman, always kind, always grateful. ‘Grateful’ comes through loud and clear. He’s happy that you called. And when Mike was back at Politico, if you could get him to use something, it would definitely drive the news cycle for you.”
Allen, for his part, apparently didn’t feel like doing an interview for this story, but instead answered a couple of questions via email. Writing “Thanks for asking” and “Thanks for checking” in the subject lines, Allen emailed that he draws on a staff of 50 to produce the newsletter along with other Axios content, but was uncertain how many people are getting “Mike’s Top 10” in their inboxes.
“Sorry not sure yet—growing!” he wrote. Allen’s emailed “Playbook” at Politico boasted more than 30,000 recipients, and, according to Leibovich, brought in an estimated $750,000 in annual advertising revenue from bluechip corporate sponsors. (“Mike’s Top 10” newsletters, which Allen began producing in beta on Jan. 9, have included sponsored messages from Bank of America.)
And typical of Allen, a long-ago Washington Post colleague of this reporter before Allen left for Time magazine and eventually Politico, he didn’t refrain from sending along a compliment and a greeting.
“You did the best job on PropOrNot,” Mikey emailed, referring to a Daily Beast story from December. “Happy almost-birthday,” he added.
“That’s the seduction of Mike,” Tyler noted with a laugh. “He is so seductive…The other thing is, if you’ve ever met with Mike off the record, the first thing he’s going to do is buy you your favorite beverage, whether it’s a sauvignon blanc, a cabernet or a stiff cocktail. And he will order exactly the same as you for himself. But he will never drink it.”