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“Tweeting” Away a Tax Bill

President Donald Trump took to the road Wednesday to rally popular support for the congressional Republicans’ attempts to pass a tax bill, which so far are widely unpopular, but as is his wont he first undermined the effort with a street of outrageous “tweets.” His even busier-than-usual thumbs “re-tweeted” some links to anti-Muslim videos, expressed the usual complaints about the “fake news,” gloated about the firing of a network news anchor for alleged sexual improprieties, and seemed to suggest that another of one of media critics might be guilty of murder.
The outbursts not only gave all the media plenty to talk about other Trump’s sales pitch for whatever tax bill the Republicans might come up, they also made those arguments harder to believe.
Those anti-Muslim videos that Trump “re-tweeted” came from a fringe group calling itself Britain First, which the British government blames for a recent spate of hate crimes against its Muslim citizens, so some controversy ensued. The leader of the the fringe group and former Ku Klux Klan leeader David Duke both “tweeted” their appreciation for the “re-tweet” to to Trump’s millions of “Twitter followers,” but British Prime Minister Theresa May “tweeted” her own opinion that “It is wrong for the president to have done this,” and that seemed more in line with the mainstream media’s reaction.
Then the government of the Netherlands “tweeted” its objection that the video purporting to show a handicapped Dutch youth being savagely beaten by a Muslim immigrant was misleading, because although the depicted attack did occur the crime was not committed by a Muslim immigrant, and that assaulters has since been severely punished by Dutch law. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders would not vouch for the authenticity of any of the videos, and was reduced to defending their “re-tweeting” by insisting the president was making a valid point by arguing that mass Muslim immigration has resulted in problems for Europe.
That is indeed a valid point, and there is plenty of valid evidence for it, and it doesn’t need to be couched in hateful terms, so we would have to hear Huckabee-Sanders why Trump chose to cite some phony-baloney videos from a far-away fringe hate group that’s lately become a problem for a key American ally, and wind up annoying another American ally in the process.
Another big story of the day was the National Broadcasting Company firing longtime “Today Show” host Matt Lauer after a co-worker accused him of sexual harassment and assault, so of course Trump couldn’t resist the chance to insert himself in the middle of that. Even though Trump also stands credibly accused of similar charges, and is championing a Republican Senate candidate down in Alabama who stands credibly accused of even worse, and had just been called out by the Dutch for disseminating inaccurate informations, Trump gloated about Lauer’s firing and wondered “when will the top executives at NBC & Comcast be fired for putting out so much fake news” and urged his followers to “check out” the past of the news division’s chief for some unspecified dirt.
Then he took aim at the NBC-affiliated MSNBC network’s Joe Scarborough, host of the “Morning Joe” program and a frequent target of of Trump’s ad hominem criticism, writing “And will they terminate low ratings Joe Scarborough based on the ‘unsolved mystery’ that took place in Florida years ago. Investigate!” So far as any one can tell, Trump was referring to the 2001 death of a 28-year-old employee who died in Scarborough home district office when he was Florida congressman.
Of course the incident was thoroughly investigated by both the local authorities and the local press, with the local medical examiner concluding the the poor woman had died when an abnormal heart rhythm caused to her to lose consciousness and strike her head on a desk, and the local reporter who’s know a journalism professor at Duke University recalls he could find no evidence of foul play, and for the past 16 years only the kookiest conspiracy theory web sites have suggested that Scarborough had anything to with it.
Trump’s “tweets” don’t offer any reason to suspect Scarborough, either, so it looks an awful like Trump’s suggestion that one time political rival Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s father had something to do with the Kennedy assassination. Which is hardly how to begin a speech making all sorts of dubious claims whatever tax bill the Republicans might come up.
Trump’s oration before a mid-sized crowd of adoring fans in St. Charles, Missouri, was largely devoted to bragging about his overwhelming electoral victory and how he’s since been making America great again even more rapidly than even he expected, but for the most part he focused on how America would be even greater after he signs whatever tax bill the Republicans might come up with. He touched on all the venerable Republican arguments about tax cuts freeing up money for investments that spur economic growth and thus winds up helping everybody, rightly noted that America’s corporate tax rate is the highest in the industrialized word and thus hinders American competitiveness and create perverse incentives for doing business elsewhere, and all things considered we expected worse.
We’re old enough to remember when President Ronald Reagan was making those arguments, though, so we hoped for better. Back when good ol’ Ronnie Ray-Gun was making the pitch for a Republican tax bill the economic circumstances were starkly different, he thoroughly understood the complicated theories underlying the legislation that had been carefully crafted through hotly-debated hearings and thorough analysis by various nonpartisan agencies, and he had the sunny disposition and a sufficient command of the English language to persuade quite a few Democratic congressmen and a sufficient majority of the American to go along without resorting to any bald-faced lies. This is a different time, though, and Trump is a different president.
One of the obvious reasons that whatever tax bill the Republicans might come up with is so polling so horribly is because it is perceived as giving a massive tax cut to the richest Americans, which is inconveniently but undeniably true according to every analysis we’ve seen by any credible nonpartisan agency or think-tank or business publication on either the left or the right margins of the reasonable middle. Rather than winsomely explaining the complicated theories about why that’s actually a good idea for everyone, as Reagan did back when it was undeniably true of his plan, which worked out well enough for everyone, Trump prefers to deny it.
Trump assures the public that such a famously and fabulously wealthy person as himself is going to take a real hit with whatever tax bill the Republicans might come up with, and he mimics the slightly Jewish-sounding exasperation of his accountant at what he’s doing, and he brags about all the rich friends he has who are angry at him. He then adds his catchphrase “Believe me.” He tells the fans in St. Charles and elsewhere that he doesn’t mind losing all that money or any of those phony rich friends because he’s got the love of all the pipe fitters and coal miners and construction workers out there in the real America, and says “believe me” twice.
We’ll have to take his word for it, of course, because Trump hasn’t released his tax returns or given a full public accounting of the complex world-wide business he continues to hold, and there’s no telling what all those rich friends of his might be up to. All of the credible nonpartisan agencies and think-tanks and business publications are saying that Trump and his dues-paying pals at Mar-a-Lago will come fine, though, and at this point they seem more credible than the guys who’s often “re-tweeting” fake news from all sorts of kooky conspiracy theory internet sites. Most of the analysis from the serious sources we’ve seen suggest that the sorts of lower-income workers who voted in large numbers for Trump are going to take a hit, but we can’t say for sure if that’s fake news, so we’ll leave it to lower-income Trump voters to decide.
Back when Reagan was around the top tax rates were truly exorbitant and the economy was deep into an era of stagflation, while today the top rates are still halved and Trump can’t stop talking about how great the stock market and everything else is going just because he’s there, but there’s still an honest argument to be made for Republican economics. Perhaps Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or House Speaker Paul Ryan will stun us by persuasively making that case, but Trump’s obviously dishonest arguments are unlikely to nudge those awful poll numbers upwards, and his “tweets” about “Chuck and Nancy” and the rest of the congressional Democrats are even more unlikely to win any of their much-needed votes.

— Bud Norman

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Summer and the Supremes

Way, way back in our wide-eyed youth we had a swell summer job as messengers for the Supreme Court of the United States, and although most of it was spent lazily in the court’s summer adjournment we got to be there for the big day when it announced its final decisions of the session at the end of June. At this point we can’t recall what any of the cases were about, and are too lazy to look it up, but we well remember how very historic it seemed to our young and hayseed sensibilities at the time.
The latest version of the Supreme Court headed off to its summer vacation by issuing three notable decisions, and we took a livelier interest in that. One had to do with President Donald Trump’s executive order that either restricts or limits or bans travel from six Muslim-majority countries, depending on what you want to call it, and two others that concerned the religious liberty of the dwindling minority of traditional Christians in America. For the most part we were pleased with the results, but noticed enough wiggle room in the majority opinions to suggest that none of these issues have been definitively settled. Most Supreme Court opinions are like that, as we’ve noticed over the past many decades of avid court-watching.
Trump probably isn’t bored with winning yet, but he can claim at least a partial victory in the case of Trump v. International Refugee Assistance Project.
As for the facts of the case, the plaintiff had challenged the defendant’s constitutional authority to impose restrictive new rules regarding travel from the aforementioned six Muslim majority countries. Each of those countries contains a troublesome number of potential radical Islamist terrorists, and the Constitution’s plain language grants the chief executive broad powers to restrict entry to the United States for almost any old reason he chooses, but the underlying statutory authority also mentions some prohibitions on religious discrimination, and the First Amendment has been broadly interpreted to back that up. The plaintiffs argued that Trump’s loudly and clearly stated campaign promises to ban all Muslims from entering the United States for any reason demonstrated the discriminatory intent of the new rules, the defendant’s counsel argued that the rules didn’t amount to a ban at all, but rather were reasonable restrictions and limitations, the defendant himself then “tweeted” that, no, it darned sure was a travel ban, and all the lower courts in all the liberal jurisdictions had found for the plaintiffs.
The highest court found by a surprising unanimous decision that pretty much any old president does indeed enjoy broad powers granted by the plain language of the constitution to restrict entry to the country for any old reason he might choose, and for the most part it lifted the stays that had been imposed by the lower courts. Even when the president is Trump this pleases our originalist Republican souls, and although we don’t doubt he he does have an Islamophobic bias the restrictions on those specific locations seemed reasonable even to the rather Islamophilic administration of President Barack Obama.
Some limits remained on the president’s broad powers to restrict entry to the country, however, and the court conspicuously decided not to weigh in on that matter of whether Trump’s campaign promises proved an intention of religious discrimination, and whether that matters or not, and it seems clear that the first executive order Trump issued would have fared far worse than what he called the “watered-down politically version” that the court eventually ruled on. The first one arbitrarily revoked already-issued green cards even to such well-vetted entry-seekers as translators for the American military who were fleeing for their lives, and was a political as well as a legal disaster, and even Trump was careful not to use the word “ban” when crowing about his victory, which resulted in a better and less controversial policy than the one he wanted.
The high court has put off until next fall any consideration of whether the crazy things Trump sometimes says about his arguably reasonable policies should have any legal bearing, and that will be a decision to watch for. An astute writer for the Venerable National Review compellingly argues that it would be unprecedented for the court to consider a president’s rhetoric in assessing his actions, but we’re sure other astute writers at that publication will admit Trump’s rhetoric is also unprecedented, and there’s no telling how even the most hidebound Republican originalist jurist might come down on the decisions that are no doubt looming during the Trump presidency. That travel ban was supposed to be for the 120 days Trump needed to impose “extreme vetting” on travelers from those countries, and he claims that they’re now in place, although no one can explain what they are, so we can well imagine the court might just leave those unresolved until something more relevant comes along.
There was the same sort of ambiguity in the case of Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, although it was also mostly a win for the good guys as far we’re concerned. The plaintiffs, who operated a religiously-affiliated children’s school in Missouri, alleged that the defendant, a bureaucrat in the state’s educational bureaucracy, had violated their First Amendment rights by declining to pay for some safety-enhancing improvements to its playground. By another surprising margin of seven to two the court found that religious schools providing a good education to tax-paying citizens who also paid for the public schools are entitled to the same taxpayer support as the public schools that are generally providing a lesser education. The decision included some of the same legal weasel room and also deferred broader questions to another date, but it had the effect of doing away with a long discredited but still on-the-books anti-Catholic law, and got two of the more liberal Catholics on the court on board with the Lutherans, so we count it as a win.
In the other big decision the Supreme Court merely decided that come sometime after next fall they will consider the case of Masterpiece Bakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The plaintiffs allege the defendants fined them in the violation of their First Amendment for declining to bake the cake for a same-sex wedding, so that should be a big story sometime next fall. We have friends who are married to people of the same sex, and we have friends who choose for reasons of conscience not to participate in that, so far as we can tell they are all peacefully coexisting, in some cases quite convivially, so we hope the Supreme Court will choose to not interfere with this mostly happy state of affairs, but these days, when even the Republican president is chiding the Republican convention for its reluctance to embrace Gay-Lesbian-Bi-Transgender-and-Questioning causes, there’s no telling.
Another big hubbub on the final day of the Supreme Court’s session was about the possible impending retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who’s currently the last of the swing votes that decide those five to four decisions, and at least one of those reliably liberal justices surely can’t hold out much longer, so Trump seems likely to influence future decisions. We liked Trump’s first pick, who voted for the defendant in that Trump v. International Refugee Assistance Project case, expect he’ll be obliged to appoint similarly originalist justices in the future, and hope they’ll put the constitutional brakes on his craziest rhetoric at some point in the future.
It all starts up again on the first Monday in October, as we still remember from the tours we led as part of our Supreme Court messenger duties, and in the meantime we’ll follow baseball and wait to see how it all turns out.

— Bud Norman