Monday, September 28, 2020
Behind the White House Effort to Pressure the C.D.C. on School Openings
Documents and interviews show how senior officials sought to play down the risks of sending children back to the classroom, alarming public health experts.
WASHINGTON — Top White House officials pressured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this summer to play down the risk of sending children back to school, a strikingly political intervention in one of the most sensitive public health debates of the pandemic, according to documents and interviews with current and former government officials.
As part of their behind-the-scenes effort, White House officials also tried to circumvent the C.D.C. in a search for alternate data showing that the pandemic was weakening and posed little danger to children.
The documents and interviews show how the White House spent weeks trying to press public health professionals to fall in line with President Trump’s election-year agenda of and the economy as quickly as possible. The president and his team have in their demand for schools to get back to normal, even as coronavirus cases have once again ticked up, in some cases linked to school and college reopenings.
The effort included Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, and officials working for Vice President Mike Pence, who led the task force. It left officials at the C.D.C., long considered the world’s premier public health agency, alarmed at the degree of pressure from the White House.
One member of Mr. Pence’s staff said she was repeatedly asked by Marc Short, the vice president’s chief of staff, to get the C.D.C. to produce more reports and charts showing a decline in coronavirus cases among young people.
The staff member, Olivia Troye, one of Mr. Pence’s top aides on the task force, said she regretted being “complicit” in the effort. But she said she tried as much as possible to shield the C.D.C. from the White House pressure, which she saw as driven by the president’s determination to have schools open by the time voters cast ballots.
“You’re impacting people’s lives for whatever political agenda. You’re exchanging votes for lives, and I have a serious problem with that,” said Ms. Troye, who left the White House in August and against Mr. Trump.
According to Ms. Troye, Mr. Short dispatched other members of the vice president’s staff to circumvent the C.D.C. in search of data he thought might better support the White House’s position.
“I was appalled when I found out that Marc Short was tasking more junior staff in the office of the vice president to develop charts” for White House briefings, she said.
After Ms. Troye went public this month, Mr. Short told MSNBC that she had a vendetta against the president and that she left the White House because “the strain was too much for her to do the job.”
Several former officials said that before one task force briefing in late June, White House officials, including Ms. Troye, spoke to top C.D.C. officers asking for data that could show the low risk of infection and death for school-age children — “a snazzy, easy-to-read document,” one former senior public health official recalled.
The White House seized on a bar chart the C.D.C. distributed that week to other agencies, which showed that 60 percent of coronavirus deaths were people over the age of 75. Officials asked the C.D.C. to provide a new chart to show people 18 and under as a separate group — rather than including them as normal in an under-25 category — in an effort to demonstrate that the risk for school-age children was relatively low.
In another instance, Dr. Birx took a direct role in an effort to push the C.D.C. to incorporate work from a little-known agency inside the Department of Health and Human Services, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
The document worked on by the mental health agency struck a different tone from the cautious approach being proposed by the C.D.C., warning that school closures would have a long-term effect on the mental health of children. It said that “very few reports of children being the primary source of Covid-19 transmission among family members have emerged” and asserted that children who were asymptomatic “are unlikely to spread the virus.”
In a July 19 email, Dr. Birx asked Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the C.D.C. director, to incorporate the document “as background in the introduction section” of the C.D.C. guidance.
C.D.C. scientists pointed out numerous errors in the document and raised concerns that it appeared to minimize the risk of the coronavirus to school-age children, according to an edited version of the document obtained by The New York Times. The C.D.C. was successful in beating back some of the proposed changes, and the line about asymptomatic children was not included in its final guidelines.
Brian Morgenstern, a White House spokesman, said the coronavirus task force brought together public health officials “who offer different expertise and views on a variety of issues” in setting policy.
“President Trump relies on the advice of all of his top health officials who agree that it is in the public health interest to safely reopen schools, and that the relative risks posed by the virus to young people are outweighed by the risks of keeping children out of school indefinitely,” Mr. Morgenstern said.
The C.D.C. did not immediately provide a comment.
The internal battle began in July, weeks after a group of C.D.C. career employees began drafting what would become the agency’s guidance to assist parents in making decisions about whether to send their children back to school. Mr. Trump had . “We want to get them open quickly, beautifully, in the fall,” he said, adding that “young people do extraordinarily well” in avoiding the disease.
One of the guidance documents the C.D.C. produced was a “decision-making tool” urging parents to “consider the full spectrum of risks involved in both in-person and virtual learning options,” according to a draft reviewed by The Times that reflected the language later published by the C.D.C.
The seven-page draft conceded that scientists were “still learning about how it spreads, how it affects children and what role children may play in its spread,” and that limited data suggested that children were less likely to get the virus than adults.
At the same time, it warned of deaths caused by multisystem inflammatory syndrome and of some children being at increased risk of severe illness. It recommended that parents consider whether others in a household might be at increased risk.
D.C.’s overly stringent recommendations. “The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but it is important for the children and families,” he . “May cut off funding if not open!”
Hospitalizations of children over the summer remained relatively low, and some outside organizations were also advocating for schools to open, as long it could be done safely. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement that policymakers “should start with a goal of having students physically present in school,” though it warned that areas with high infection rates would not be able to open safely.
The perils for school districts that have tried to reopen have become clearer this fall. At least one coronavirus case in more than 100 school buildings and early childhood centers in the New York City school system by the first day of limited in-person instruction last week.
In the weeks after Mr. Trump’s public statements, the administration was working to counter the C.D.C.’s cautious position.
The White House drafted materials that C.D.C. officials originally believed were intended to be posted on the White House website, including an illustrated slide presentation emphasizing the “high costs of keeping schools closed,” while asserting that school-age children face minimal risks from the coronavirus.
The C.D.C. raised objections to the presentation, and it was never published.
In mid-July, after the C.D.C. had distributed its proposed guidance to the White House and other health agencies, the agency received a formal rejection of its work: a “non-concur” decision by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the agency that White House officials saw as a counterweight to the C.D.C.’s position.
Officials at the mental health agency told the C.D.C. that there was “too much information” in the guidance, and that information was “presented in a negative way,” according to an email distributed to C.D.C. officials.
“Our message on this is that this is a recipe for schools to stay closed,” the agency wrote.
The agency had helped prepare a five-page document supportive of reopening schools, the document that Dr. Birx sent to Dr. Redfield on July 19. It repeatedly described children as being at low risk for being infected by or transmitting the virus, even though the science on both aspects was far from settled.
By then, the position by the mental health agency had been embraced by top White House officials.
“It was seen as an argument to open up the country by getting kids back in schools,” Ms. Troye said.
Ms. Troye said she tried to blunt the political offensive against the C.D.C. scientists the best she could.
“It was hard to walk away from that,” she said, “knowing that it was going to get even harder for them after I left.”
After the C.D.C. scientists successfully managed to get some material they considered objectionable out of the document, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget cleared the C.D.C.’s guidance.
But then the White House abruptly reversed course, telling the C.D.C. that it wanted to add, as a preamble to the guidance, language that the mental health agency had worked on listing the benefits of sending children back to school. That document, with some C.D.C. edits, was given a new title: “The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools This Fall.”
On July 23, with hours to go before the new guidance was to be published, the White House staff secretary further stunned C.D.C. officials by emailing the guidance to a long list of top White House officials, asking for any “critical edits” by 1 p.m. The list included Mark Meadows, the chief of staff; Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser; Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council; and Stephen Miller, a White House policy adviser.
The Private Trump Angst of a Republican Icon
James Baker thinks Trump is “nuts,” but he voted for him once—and may soon do so again.
Over lunch a few blocks from the White House on a bright, sunny day in the summer of 2019, one of the architects of the modern Republican Party admitted he was thinking the unthinkable. If Joseph R. Biden, Jr., won his party’s nomination, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III confided that he might vote for the Democrat over President Trump. For Baker, that would be a profound break with the Party he spent decades building. Until Trump came along, every Republican President for four decades had relied on Baker. Baker ran their campaigns or their White Houses, brought them to power or helped them stay there.
Not Trump, the antithesis of everything Baker stood for during his storied career as Washington’s indispensable man: the sitting President was a boorish, dishonest carnival barker who was tearing down everything Baker’s party and generation had accomplished—free-trade pacts, international alliances, American leadership in the world, nuclear-arms treaties. The words Baker kept coming up with to describe Trump to us were “crazy” and “nuts.”
But when we sat down in the fall of 2019 to talk it over again, at his office in Houston, he had changed his mind. “Don’t say that I will vote for Biden,” Baker cautioned. “I will vote for the Republican—I really will. I won’t leave my party. You can say my party has left me, because the head of it has. But I think it’s important, the big picture.” What was the big picture? Republican control of the levers of power. Even if it means another four years of Trump in the White House.
For five years, ever since Trump first announced his Presidential candidacy, we’ve had a running conversation with Baker as he wrestled with conflicted feelings about the President, appalled by his erratic leadership yet unwilling to publicly break with him. We watched as Baker initially dismissed the reality-show veteran as a joke who would never win, then searched for reasons to embrace his party’s choice and ignore his own personal misgivings. We saw him try to help Trump with advice and personnel recommendations only to find a President impervious to counsel. Eventually, Baker started rationalizing the outrages and forgiving the mistakes, focussing instead on those Trump Administration policies he supported.
Baker’s struggle these last five years is a parable for the Republican establishment that he once embodied, a political leadership that ultimately chose to reconcile itself to what Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, recently called a “hostile takeover.” Rather than reject a President they fear has damaged their party and may drag it down to defeat in the election five weeks from now, Republicans like Baker have doubled down on Trump without ever fully accepting him—even as the costs that Baker feared from a Trump Presidency have become all too real for the country and for Baker personally. With a pandemic raging in the U.S. that has now claimed more than two hundred thousand lives, Baker, ninety years old, and his wife fell ill last month with the coronavirus that the President had denied was a serious threat.
Few did more to build the modern Republican Party before Trump than James Addison Baker III. A courtly lawyer with a Texas twang, a genial manner, and an ear for gossip, Baker hails from Houston aristocracy but was an unlikely national and international power broker. His grandfather, one of the architects of modern Houston, had long enforced a family maxim: “Work hard, study and apply yourself closely, stay on the job, and keep out of politics.”
Baker ultimately disregarded that maxim thanks to a chance friendship forged on the tennis courts of the Houston Country Club with an ambitious oilman named George H. W. Bush. Through much of the nineteen-seventies, eighties, and early nineties, Baker was one of the dominant forces in both American politics and policymaking. As a delegate hunter, campaign manager, White House chief of staff, Treasury Secretary, and Secretary of State, he played a leading role in some of the most critical junctures in modern American history, capped by the peaceful end of the Cold War.
Baker had only a passing acquaintance with Trump before the 2016 Presidential campaign. When Baker was Treasury Secretary and laboring to overhaul the tax code for President Ronald Reagan, Trump was among those with special interests who objected to losing provisions that benefitted him. When the New York developer arrived at Baker’s office at the Treasury Building for an appointment on July 9, 1986, he raised hell about the impact of the tax proposal on real estate. “He came in there like a Storm Trooper,” Baker recalled. The Treasury Secretary’s patience finally wore thin, and he pointed out the window to the White House next door. “Look,” he told Trump, “you’re at the wrong building. This building right across the street here, a guy that wants to do this is in that building, and you need to go there.”
The next time he recalled hearing much about Trump was a couple of years later, when Baker was stepping down from the Cabinet to manage Bush’s campaign for President, in 1988. Trump sent word through Bush’s campaign adviser Lee Atwater offering himself up as a Vice-Presidential running mate—a proposal that Bush dismissed as “strange and unbelievable,” an assessment Baker shared. It was no less strange or unbelievable when Trump kicked off his own campaign for President in 2015 and promptly demolished a field of experienced Republican rivals, including Jeb Bush, a son of Baker’s friend. As he found himself falling short, Jeb warned, presciently, that Trump was a chaos candidate who would become a chaos President. But Baker was not ready to give up on the Republican Party just because it was embracing this crude outsider.
In March, 2016, at a memorial service for Nancy Reagan, where Baker delivered the eulogy, he found himself talking politics with former Secretary of State George Shultz, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, of Canada. “I see some eerie parallels to the way Reagan came up and the way Trump is coming up,” Baker recalled telling them over lunch. Not that they were precisely the same but they were both disruptors feared by the establishment, not to mention entertainers before they became politicians. They both appealed to disaffected Midwest Democrats who flocked to the “Make America Great Again” slogan first used by Reagan and later adopted by Trump. “We thought he was a grade-B movie actor, ‘Bedtime for Bonzo,’ he was going to get us in a nuclear war, and we were scared to death,” Baker recalled saying to the other lunch guests, as he reflected about the initial fears of Reagan. “And look at the people he brought into the Republican Party, and then I see somewhat the same kind of phenomenon at work here.”
Baker’s effort to see Trump in the best light struck Mulroney, who was friendly with the real-estate developer in Palm Beach, Florida, where they both lived part of the year. When Mulroney returned home, he called Trump and told him about what Baker had said. “I think that you should put in a call to Jim Baker and visit with him,” Mulroney told him. “He’ll give you nothing but the straight talk and good advice.” Trump agreed. A call was set up, and they ended up speaking for twenty minutes.
“I really think you need to be thinking about pivoting to becoming more Presidential,” Baker told the candidate.
“I hear that a lot,” Trump said. “But, when I’m under attack, I have to fight back.” And as far as Trump was concerned, he was always under attack.
Not long after their phone conversation, Trump’s campaign Convention manager, Paul Manafort, called Baker. Manafort had worked for Baker during the 1976 Republican Convention counting delegates for President Gerald R. Ford before going on to a long and ultimately criminal career as a big-money lobbyist for an array of Russian-aligned interests. At that point, though, Manafort was the bridge between an insurgent candidate and the G.O.P. establishment. Manafort asked Baker to meet with Trump. Baker agreed, reasoning that he had met with other Republican candidates. One afternoon, he slipped into the offices of a Washington law firm that worked for Trump’s campaign and the two sat down for about twenty-five minutes. Baker handed Trump a two-page list of suggestions for what to do now that he was becoming the nominee.
“You do not need to abandon your outsider/rebel persona,” Baker’s memo said. “But you do need to bring on board other voters if you expect to win.” Stop attacking people who might be allies, Baker urged. Don’t feed the “shoot-from-the-lip big mouth” narrative. Reach out to women, minorities, and establishment Republicans. Steer clear of isolationism; embrace a more balanced immigration plan; stop talking about getting rid of nato; do not advocate a new arms race.
Baker, the master of compromise, recommended negotiating with Democrats, much as he had done brokering a landmark Social Security deal in 1983 and the tax overhaul in 1986. “These suggestions,” Baker concluded, “come to you from one who, at the age of eighty-six, doesn’t want anything except a Republican president in 2017 who is like the four I was privileged to have served.”
The meeting was supposed to be off the record, but naturally it leaked almost immediately. That was why Baker gave Trump the two-page paper in the first place, so that the campaign could not spin the meeting as a quasi-endorsement. Baker had, in effect, laid out conditions for his support, conditions that Trump would never meet. Baker was recommending that Trump abandon the political formula that had taken him to the brink of the Republican nomination, that had enabled him to triumph over sixteen other candidates. Trump would never do that. He would not pivot to the center, as the candidates of Baker’s day had invariably done. He did not care about being Presidential. He would never be like the four Republican Presidents Baker had served.
Baker’s flirtation with Trump was enough to cause heartache among his friends and family. He got a call one day from Tom Brokaw, the now-retired NBC anchor who had become a close friend. “Jim, you do not want to do this,” Brokaw warned him. “You served your country nobly and your party admirably and you’re at an age and stage, I’m telling you, as a friend, that this is not a good move.” Baker was hardly convinced by Trump. “He’s probably his own worst enemy,” he reflected to us one day shortly before the 2016 Republican Convention. “I don’t think he’s disciplined enough to do what he needs to do.” But, he added, “I’m a Republican and I will tell you this—I’ve always believed at the end of the day there has to be a really overriding reason why you wouldn’t support the nominee of your party.”
A few months later, on Halloween, with the election days away, we sat down with Baker in his favorite suite at the Willard Hotel, near the White House. “The guy is nuts,” he sighed. “He’s crazy. I will not endorse him.” He ticked off some of the ways that Trump was promising to upend everything Baker had built. “He’s against free trade. He’s talking about nato being a failed alliance. He’s dumping all over nafta,” a trade agreement that Baker had a role in forging. “That was a hell of a deal,” he said, shaking his head.
So could Jim Baker, the very definition of the establishment, really vote for Donald Trump? Baker looked stricken. “Well,” he said, almost pleadingly, “I haven’t voted for him yet.”
Baker had a ready-made excuse to vote against Trump, given the candidate’s vilification of the Bushes. The Bush family loathed Trump. One day, when we met with them in the midst of the 2016 campaign, Barbara Bush scrunched her face in horror at the thought of Trump as President. “We’re talking about ego that knows no bounds,” she said. Months later, she wrote in her son Jeb’s name on her ballot while her husband and her eldest son, George W. Bush, also voted against Trump, the elder former President casting his ballot for Hillary Clinton and the younger for “none of the above.”
Yet Baker could not bring himself to follow their lead and bolt from the Party. “I’m a conservative,” he explained, almost with a shrug. Better to have a conservative in the Oval Office than a liberal, “even if he’s crazy.” His compromise was not to publicly come out for Trump—no statement, no joint appearance. But, in the privacy of the voting booth, Baker later told us, he voted for Trump.
Still, the ambivalence with Trump that we found in all our conversations with Baker was real, too. During the succeeding four years, Baker would be offended by the new President’s sheer incompetence even more than the outrageous tweets and statements. The failure to hire an effective staff, the myriad ethical scandals, the gratuitous insults to allies—it all grated.
Baker recommended the new President appoint his friend, Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil, as his first Secretary of State. “I’m hopeful Trump will listen to him,” Baker told us. Trump did not. Tillerson was cast aside just as so many others would be. Every few months, we sat down with Baker again, and he would roll his eyes or make a face when asked about the latest Trump outrage.
By the time the House brought impeachment charges against Trump, Baker had all but given up. As the elder Bush’s White House chief of staff in 1992, Baker had rebuffed attempts to seek campaign help from Russia and Britain. Now Trump was charged with leveraging military aid to force Ukraine to help him denigrate his domestic rivals. “Egregious. Inappropriate. Wrong,” Baker told us. But then he added, “Not a crime.” As the hearings proceeded toward the inevitable trial, Baker assumed correctly that the Republican-controlled Senate would not convict the President. “But, boy, it’s hard to defend the antics,” he allowed. “That’s the only way to say it.”
In the end, Baker was against Trump but could never bring himself to become an outright Never Trumper. If Trump was Republicanism now, then rejecting the President meant rejecting the Party. Baker saw that clearly from the start. What he had learned in a lifetime of wielding power was that on the outside you have none. Becoming a Never Trumper and publicly embracing Biden would have meant giving up whatever modest influence he had left; whether he actually needed it anymore was not the point. He had succeeded by working within institutions, not by blowing them up. He worked fundamentally with the world as he found it.
Within a couple of months, Baker stopped even trying. As the country was suddenly ravaged in early 2020 by a virus that Trump had blithely predicted would simply vanish on its own, Baker went into isolation with his wife, Susan, at their ranch, where he celebrated his birthday, in May, via a video call with his family. The economy collapsed, millions were put out of work, and the police killing of an unarmed Black man touched off months of street demonstrations. Among those who caught the coronavirus were Baker and his wife. It knocked them for a loop as they isolated at their Houston home. But, even after he recovered enough to go hunting and return to his ranch, Baker decided that he had nothing more to say about Trump or Biden or the election. He would not reconsider and he would say nothing more in public. He was done. At long last, he opted to keep out of politics, as his grandfather had urged him so many years ago.
This story is adapted from “The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III,” by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, to be published this week.
Trump’s Seventy-Three-Million-Dollar Tax Refund Is the Biggest Outrage of All
By John Cassidy
After doggedly pursuing the story of Donald Trump’s taxes (or non-taxes) for years, the New York Times has hit the motherlode with its latest investigation, which revealed that the self-proclaimed billionaire paid a grand total of seven hundred and fifty dollars in federal income taxes in 2016, when he was elected President, and the same sum in 2017, his first year in the White House. In ten of the fifteen years before 2016, he paid no federal income taxes at all. If you haven’t yet read the lengthy Times report, I won’t spoil it by spilling all the juicy bits. Instead, I’ll focus on one that is arguably the most Trumpian of all.
Because of previous reporting, including a couple of significant Times pieces in October, 2016, and May, 2019, as well as contributions by Trump biographers, such as David Cay Johnston, we’ve known for a long time that the President is a serial tax avoider. Between 1984 and 2004, he used actual losses, loss write-downs from previous years, and other accounting dodges to pay virtually nothing in federal income taxes. From 2005 to 2007, this latest Times scoop reveals, he did finally pay about seventy million dollars to the Internal Revenue Service. But then, in 2010, he demanded a full refund for those tax payments. And the I.R.S. acceded to his request: it paid him $72.9 million, including interest. This 2010 refund seems to be at the center of an auditing dispute between Trump and the tax authorities that has dragged on for almost a decade. It also appears to be the money that Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, was referring to in his 2019 testimony to Congress, when he recalled Trump showing him a huge check from the U.S. Treasury and remarked that Trump “could not believe how stupid the government was for giving someone like him that much money back.”
How could a person who doesn’t pay taxes get a big refund? As always with Trump, the details of his financial shenanigans are a bit complicated, but the basic outline is fairly easy to grasp. He hates paying taxes. To avoid doing it, he will resort to virtually anything—and that includes exploiting his many business failures.
In the late nineteen-eighties and early nineteen-nineties, Trump’s businesses, some of which he had greatly overpaid for when he bought them, racked up more than a billion dollars in losses, and four of them ended up filing for bankruptcy: three casinos in Atlantic City and his Plaza Hotel, in New York. In 1995, as he emerged from this wreckage, he declared a tax loss of more than nine hundred million dollars, which the I.R.S. allowed him to use in subsequent years as an offset against any profits his businesses made. So even in years when the Trump Organization did well, his loss carryovers reduced his tax bill to zero.
According to the new Times investigation, this basic pattern of heavy losses in parts of the Trump empire offsetting substantial earnings in other parts of it has continued for the past decade and a half. Since 2000, for example, Trump’s fifteen golf courses have together generated losses of $315.6 million, even as other Trump enterprises—including Trump Tower, overseas licensing deals, and an investment in two office towers operated by Vornado Realty Trust—have generated substantial revenues. In 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014, Trump paid no federal income taxes at all. In 2016 and 2017 combined, he contributed enough to the U.S. Treasury for it to buy a new love seat from Pottery Barn.
The only notable exceptions to this pattern of minimal tax payments were the years 2005, 2006, and 2007, when “The Apprentice,” which Trump co-produced with NBC, was doing very well, and the big accounting loss that he had carried over from the nineteen-nineties had run out. “With no prior-year losses left to reduce his taxable income, he paid substantial federal income taxes for the first time in his life: a total of $70.1 million,” the Times report says. This money didn’t stay in the coffers of the U.S. government for very long.
In 2010, Trump declared to the I.R.S. that, during 2008 and 2009, his businesses had lost another $1.4 billion. Exploiting a little-noticed clause in a piece of legislation that Barack Obama had signed into law as part of the efforts to stimulate the economy after the Great Recession, Trump claimed that this huge loss entitled him to a full refund of the income taxes he had paid in 2005, 2006, and 2007. The I.R.S. quickly paid out Trump’s claim pending an audit. The refund “would eventually grow to $70.1 million, plus $2,733,184 in interest,” the Times reports. “He also received $21.2 million in state and local refunds, which often piggyback on federal filings.”
Trump has never been short on chutzpah. At some point, though, someone in the auditing department of the I.R.S. seems to have decided that this latest maneuver was over the line. Under tax law, refunds of more than two million dollars require approval from Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation, which also got involved. In 2014, an agreement between Trump and the I.R.S. appeared to have been reached, “but the audit resumed and grew to include Mr. Trump’s returns for 2010 through 2013,” the Times report says. “In the spring of 2016, with Mr. Trump closing in on the Republican nomination, the case was sent back to the [congressional] committee. It has remained there, unresolved, with the statute of limitations repeatedly pushed forward.”
It isn’t clear why the dispute has dragged on for so long, but the Times highlights one intriguing possibility. In 2009, Trump finally gave up ownership of his financially stricken casinos in Atlantic City, which had filed for bankruptcy again. In the same year, his tax returns included “a declaration of more than $700 million in business losses that he had not been allowed to use in prior years,” the Times says. Proprietors who abandon loss-making businesses are allowed to claim some of the losses they incurred for tax purposes, but they have to give up the businesses entirely and not receive anything of value in return. Trump got something. When Trump Entertainment Resorts was restructured and placed under new ownership, he received five per cent of the stock in the successor company. “The materials reviewed by the Times do not make clear whether Mr. Trump’s refund application reflected his public declaration of abandonment,” the report says. “If it did, that 5 percent could place his entire refund in question.”
Including the interest that has accumulated since 2010, it could cost Trump about a hundred million dollars to repay the I.R.S., the Times calculates. If he were a genuine billionaire, he could raise this sum without very much trouble. But given the evidence that many of his businesses, including the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., seem to make substantial losses, could he even afford to pay out a hundred million dollars?
Trump’s businesses “reported cash on hand of $34.7 million in 2018, down 40 percent from five years earlier,” the Times report says. In theory, he could take out another bank loan to pay a big tax bill. During the past decade, though, he’s already incurred heavy borrowings. He “is personally responsible for loans and other debts totaling $421 million, with most of it coming due within four years,” the Times notes. “Should he win re-election, his lenders could be placed in the unprecedented position of weighing whether to foreclose on a sitting president.”
Should Trump lose the election, which opinion polls suggest is a more likely outcome, he will have to deal with the I.R.S. and his bank creditors as a private citizen. Could this, perhaps, be one reason that he won’t commit to accepting the election result and leaving the White House without protest if it goes against him?
Whatever happens on November 3rd, the Times story confirms that Trump has been playing the I.R.S. for decades. It also shows that, in the U.S. tax framework, there is one set of rules for the majority and another for the very rich. A confidence trickster from the get-go, Trump exploited this setup to denude the U.S. Treasury, enrich himself, and make a mockery of the entire system. If anything good comes out of the whole thing, it’s that the arguments for meaningful reforms of the tax laws and tougher enforcement are now stronger than ever. Of course, Trump will have to be voted out of office for change to happen.
Donald Trump Barely Pays Any Taxes: Will Anyone Care?
September 28, 2020
Three enterprising reporters for the New York Times published a bombshell report Sunday evening on Donald Trump’s financial life, making it clear that the President of the United States is a desperate, cash-hungry grifter who paid no federal income taxes at all in ten of the fifteen years leading up to his run for office and has, in his frenzied quest to stay afloat, “propped up his sagging bottom line” by exploiting his office.
Readers learn that Trump, who inherited an immense fortune from his father, found countless ways to squander his capital. And, like his old man, he also found countless ways to short the government, including, according to the Times, paying his daughter Ivanka legally dubious consulting fees. At the same time, Trump has accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars in debt that he must soon repay. He is an almost comically inept businessman; he is the sum of his debt and bankruptcies. Nearly everything he touches turns to lead. Were it not for his investments in Trump Tower, “The Apprentice,” and little else—and were it not for the tireless ministrations of his accountants—he would likely be on his back. The question is: Will anyone care?
Readers inclined to think of Trump as a liar and threat to national well-being will doubtless relish every detail in the Times report, not least because it confirms, with documentary evidence, what so many have always suspected and what reporters such as Wayne Barrett and Tim O’Brien were writing decades ago: that Trump is a shady and conniving operator whose practices betray contempt for everyone from his contractors and employees to the federal government. The Times article is hardly the first to provide evidence of Trump’s grift, but its details are particularly numerous and galling. Moreover, it comes two days before Trump’s first debate with Joe Biden and five weeks before the election. Are there undecided voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Georgia, Wisconsin, and beyond who will come upon this new information and finally say to themselves, “This is too much. No more,” and not vote for Trump? It’s hard to know.
The President’s reaction to the story was entirely predictable: deny, deflect, and cast blame elsewhere. Accompanied by his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, he came to the White House press room shortly after the story dropped and attacked the Times (“Everything was wrong; they are so bad”) and the Internal Revenue Service. The Twitter storm saying that he was only playing by the rules of the game is sure to follow.
Trump has long been convinced, as he so memorably put it, four years ago, that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, O.K.?” And it is probably true, that for many of his supporters, his character—the dishonesty, the bigotry, the incompetence—is a given. It’s “baked in,” as the Washington cliché has it. No matter what Trump does, no matter what journalists go on revealing, he has, for the “base,” delivered on his promise to upend “the system” and inflame the élites. Some supporters believe that he has lowered their taxes (he hasn’t), defanged North Korea (he hasn’t), and ironed out the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (he hasn’t). For the Republican leadership, Trump remains tolerable because he appoints right-wing judges and cossets corporate interests.
A reader of the Times bombshell, then, can reasonably ask, how is this different from the last bombshell? How is it different from the memoirs by Mary Trump and Michael Cohen? From calling fallen U.S. soldiers “suckers” and “losers”? From all the generals, intelligence officers, and government officials telling Bob Woodward in “Rage” that Trump poses a threat to national security that is even more grave than anyone imagines? Four years ago, Tony Schwartz, Trump’s ghostwriter for “The Art of the Deal,” told The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, “I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.” This might have seemed overheated at the time—the result of a former collaborator’s guilty conscience—and yet, in Woodward’s new book, we read of Secretary of Defense James Mattis sleeping in his clothes at night for fear that he’ll have to race back to the office because the needless war of words between two erratic leaders, Trump and Kim Jong Un, might lead to an unspeakable conflagration.
The Times story does not make for breezy reading, particularly for a reader without a legal or accounting degree. This is hardly the fault of its authors. It is, by nature, a knotty unloading of many years of murky tax schemes, byzantine business deals, devious agreements with foreign partners, and complex legal maneuvers. And yet the reporters, Russ Buettner, Susanne Craig, and Mike McIntire, begin with a memorably simple paragraph:
Donald J. Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes the year he won the presidency. In his first year in the White House, he paid another $750.
The second paragraph is similarly terse: “He had paid no income taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years—largely because he reported losing much more money than he made.”
For years, Trump has advertised himself as a sui-generis brand of populist—the kind who somehow has golden bathroom fixtures, mansions, and private aircraft—and yet pretends to be the champion of the working and middle classes. Perhaps it is also “baked in” that many of his admirers enjoy his sense of spectacle and contradiction. It is hard to imagine, though, that every Trumpist—or, more important, every undecided voter in the swing states—will relish hearing that he paid, while in office, seven hundred and fifty dollars in federal income taxes. That is a stark number. How many teachers, nurses, grocery clerks, farmers, factory workers, bus drivers, truck drivers, and countless others will find that acceptable? How many will fail to compare it to their own tax bill?
Trump knows that he has certain factors on his side. As a demagogue, he is a master. He also operates in a modern information universe in which long, complex investigative articles are often ignored, distorted, or turned on their head. On Sunday night, while Anderson Cooper was talking with a panel on CNN about the details in the Times, Mark Levin, on Fox News, was interviewing Mike Pompeo about the many-splendored wonders of Trump’s foreign policy. The Fox News Web site responded to the Times article with the headline “Everything Was Wrong”—meaning, for millions of readers and viewers, that the news was not the evidence or the charge; the news was the dismissive reaction of the autocrat.
So who cares? How much do these near-daily bombshells change anything? The election is the only way to know. Trump, whose shamelessness knows no limits, seems intent on distorting that process as well.
Let Biden go ballistic against Trump at the debate
September 28, 2020 at 5:01 a.m. CDT
If bed-wetting were an Olympic sport, Democrats would have a lock on the gold, silver and bronze medals. The latest example of this annoying affliction surfaced in a story in The Post with the anxiety-inducing headline “Trump readies a debate onslaught — and Biden allies worry.”
The TL;DR version of the story is that because President Trump is a hissing feral cat who will say anything to get under Joe Biden’s skin, some argue that the Democratic presidential nominee must keep his anger in check at their Tuesday debate in Cleveland. The key quote came from John Morgan, a Florida trial lawyer and major Biden donor:
“When you go at [Biden’s] family, he becomes hotter than hell, which is part of the thing I worry about,” Morgan said. “I think what Biden has to be careful about is not letting his Irish temper blow when that happens.”
Biden should ignore this guy — and anyone else who adheres to this defeatist posture. As I’ve written before, Biden is never more clear, direct or impassioned than when he focuses on the disaster that is Trump and the moral authority of the office. Those issues should be front and center on the debate stage at Case Western Reserve University.
No matter what low blows and lies Trump throws at him, especially if they involve his family and his son Hunter in particular, Biden should let that “Irish temper blow.” But he should do it with purpose. Every time Trump goes low, the former Delaware senator should absolutely get angry and use it for fuel to say something like this:
You’re a liar. At least 204,000 Americans are dead, and about 26 million Americans are claiming unemployment insurance because you intentionally lied about how dangerous the coronavirus is. You told The Post’s Bob Woodward how serious this pandemic would be and how it would spread, and you did nothing.
You’re a thief. Voters have already begun to choose the next president, and you’re stealing a Supreme Court seat. And by doing that, you’re putting more lives at risk by nominating someone who would in all likelihood strip 29.8 million Americans of health care in the middle of the pandemic by ruling in favor of repealing the Affordable Care Act.
So, I’m damned angry that you would personally attack me, my son and my family. But I’m also angry about what your pathetic display signifies. You have no rationale for a second term except your own personal interest in staying out of jail.
I want Biden to deliver this message with his characteristic “C’mon, man” indignation. Whatever anger bubbles up, I want him to put it to work for the American people by going ballistic on their behalf. We’re exhausted by the chaos and the incompetence of a man who has used the bully pulpit of the presidency to browbeat the nation for nearly four years. Trump is woefully unfit for the awesome office he holds. And Biden must hammer this point home without apology every chance he gets it.
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