Trump and the GOP’s very big mixed bag of a week
Taxes and aliens
The past seven or so days constituted one of the most consequential weeks in the US in all of 2017, in terms of the effect moving forward. Which is saying a lot, I realize, but think for a minute about what’s just happened:
- The GOP finally passed its tax legislation on Wednesday morning, the most significant shift in the tax code since 1981. It also contains the biggest corporate tax cut ever. President Trump went ahead and signed it into law on Friday, fulfilling his pledge to cut taxes by Christmas.
- The CDC released some grim new figures on Thursday, viscerally illustrating the intensifying opioid crisis: deaths from drug overdose shot up 21 percent last year, dragging down the average American life expectancy for the second straight year, just the first time that’s happened in the last 55 years.
- On Thursday, the UN repudiated Trump’s Jerusalem move, with 128 countries voting in favor of a resolution condemning the embassy transfer despite threats from the White House.
- The Pentagon disclosed the existence of an official UFO program, along with the existence of ‘alien alloys’ in a building somewhere in Nevada and footage of an oblong aircraft moving in ways our current technology does not allow for.
Vice President Pence lavishes Trump with praise in cringeworthy manner after the tax plan passes Congress.
Big companies are ‘passing along’ tax savings in a coordinated effort to confirm trickle-down economics.
Sen. Bob Corker, who’d been the lone Republican to vote no on the initial Senate tax bill, can’t really explain why he changed his vote in an interview with Wolf Blitzer.
Two of these things are connected: the new tax bill, which by all estimates – save the unserious one-page analysis posted by the Treasury Department days ahead of the vote – will tack more than a trillion dollars onto the national debt over the next decade. That hemorrhaging of revenue will dictate what the FY2018 budget looks like, including CDC funding and funding for efforts to manage and solve the opioid crisis. The silver lining here, for folks who depend on things like Medicare and food stamps, is that the Republicans included a “paygo” waiver in their stop-gap budget bill on Thursday.
Paygo was enacted into law back in 2010, and says “if Congress enacts net deficit-increasing legislation before it adjourns for the calendar year, then automatic, across-the-board cuts will be triggered the following January.” Paygo cuts are the reason that Trump had originally planned to wait until January to sign the tax bill into law. The waiver buys Republicans some time to decide what to do about welfare reform, something Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, has announced he would like to work on (an idea which Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader, just nixed.
At WikiTribune, Lydia Morrish details what’s in the finalized bill.
At the National Review, Kevin D. Williamson argues that “the growth fairy is not going to save us” from our “unsustainable fiscal trajectory.”
In an op-ed at the Washington Post, Catherine Rampell claims the reason the tax bill is so unpopular is simple: most people care more about others paying their fair share than they do about a tax break that “appears in dribs and drabs over the course of the year through paycheck withholding.”
The resounding vote on Jerusalem in the UN only serves, meanwhile, to further isolate an administration that’s already profoundly isolated, geopolitically, thanks to a number of things, including: its stance on climate change, Trump’s schoolyard strategy toward North Korea and his tendency to gravitate toward autocratic types like Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte, his ‘America First’ foreign policy, and Rex Tillerson’s dismantling of the State Department. Diplomatic isolation, it should go without saying, puts our national security at risk: without bilateral and multilateral relationships to leverage, the US will struggle with global trade, which will shrink the economy, which means less tax revenue, which then means a smaller defense budget. And it may affect intelligence sharing operations, which are really important to snuffing out terrorism threats.
It also doesn’t help that Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador, vowed the White House “will remember this day,” echoing a threat President Trump had made a day earlier when he said “they take hundreds of millions of dollars and even billions of dollars, and then they vote against us…well, we are watching those votes…let them vote against us, we’ll save a lot.”
At the National Interest, Paul R. Pillar observes that “the result of the vote is one more illustration of how much less is the capacity of the United States to push the rest of the world around” than Trump and his allies seem to believe.
Now, finally, to that news about the Pentagon’s UFO program: despite its X-Filesish nature, this is real, and it’s a bit unsettling: for years, reported the New York Times last Saturday, the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program “investigated reports of unidentified flying objects.” Funding for the program was obtained by Sens. Harry Reid (D-NV), Ted Stevens (R-AK), and Daniel K. Inouye (D-HI), and went primarily to a private aerospace research company run by Reid’s billionaire friend Robert Bigelow, “who is currently working with NASA to produce expandable craft for humans to use in space.”
The interesting information stemming from the Times’ report is, of course, the footage of fuzzy, oblong-shaped UFOs moving in strange ways – seeming to hover and then accelerate, or fly quickly and effortlessly against heavy winds and then rotate, like a spinning top in zero-g – and the revelation that “metal alloys and other materials” recovered from UFOs are housed in a “modified” building in Las Vegas and have physically affected people who have encountered them.
More interesting, however, is the Pentagon’s decision to confirm the program’s existence and share some details. There’s lots of reasons why they might do this: they’ve concluded there’s nothing ‘alien’ actually occurring, or it’s not a national security threat, or they’re playing politics, or they’re throwing us off the trail of something even more interesting by giving us this UFO thing to be preoccupied with, or etc., etc. Or it could there’s just no plausible way to deny a program that was never actually classified and that its former director, Luis Elizondo, who’s part of To the Stars, a new commercial science venture founded by former Blink-182 front man Tom Delonge (you can’t make this stuff up), seems determined to publicize. The point is, there’s nothing in that Times report, or in the POLITICO report published simultaneously, or in the Washington Post report posted later that same day, to explain the Pentagon’s decision to confirm Elizondo’s claims.
Here’s why you shouldn’t watch cable news.
In a sign of the increasingly embittered politics surrounding the Special Counsel investigation into the ties between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence, Fox News host Jesse Watters suggested the probe was proof of a “coup.”
- As Samantha Schmidt points at the Washington Post, conservative commentators at Fox News – who are keenly aware the president is watching – have been escalating their rhetoric as the investigation has progressed. Just days after Watters’s comment, another Fox News commentator, Kevin Jackson, “hurtled across an even more extreme line” when he suggested that James Comey, while director of the FBI, might have been plotting an assassination attempt on then-candidate Trump.
- Here are some of the other words and phrases used to describe the investigation and the FBI: “illegitimate,” “corrupt,” “on the brink of becoming a banana republic,” “it’s like the old KGB that comes for you in the dark of night,” “a KGB-type operation by the Obama administration.”
- The backlash against Watters’s comment, at least, was swift and bipartisan – though confined, primarily, to Twitter. Here are just a couple of examples, one from a Republican strategist, the other from a Harvard professor:
Trump himself, when asked last Sunday if he was considering firing Mueller, said no, although he did say his legal team was “very upset” about the counsel’s recent acquisition of thousands of emails from Trump’s transition team.
- Trump’s allies have alleged that Mueller’s team acquired the emails unlawfully. Mueller had obtained the emails from the General Services Administration, a government agency “that hosted the transition email system.”
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) banned officials for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from using seven words and phrases in official documents, according to the Washington Post, which got the tip from an analyst who attended the meeting in which the ban was first rolled out.
- The words and phrases are: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based.”
- The banned words are just the latest example of efforts by the Trump administration to impose its worldview on federal agencies. In March, as the Post reports, “HHS dropped questions about sexual orientation and gender identity in two surveys of elderly people.” The agency has also taken information about LGBT Americans off its website, much like how the White House and the EPA both took information about climate change down off their websites.
- Following the Post’s report, CDC Director Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald insisted publicly that “there are no banned, prohibited or forbidden words at the CDC—period.”
In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Monday, Tom Bossert, homeland security advisor to President Trump, publicly accused North Korea of being behind the Ransomware attacks that infected more than 300,000 computers in 150 countries back in May.
- Many security researchers, as well as the British government, had already put the blame on North Korea, Reuters observes. But Bossert’s op-ed was the first time the US government had done so publicly.
- Some researchers believe the attacks were cover for a more insidious operation, while others believe the attacks may have been unleashed accidentally.
- The attackers exploited a flaw in Windows software, which was originally exposed by the NSA and developed into a hacking tool, which was published online after a security breach.
Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) predicted on Wednesday “that an immigration bill addressing the so-called Dreamers, young adults who were brought to the United States as children, would be debated on the Senate floor in January.”
- In negotiations with Senate leadership during the drafting of new tax legislation, Flake insisted a Dreamer bill be allowed to debate on the Senate floor before DACA expires in March.
On Wednesday Minnesota Senator Al Franken officially announced he would be resigning on January 2nd. The announcement ends a week or so of speculation that he would change his mind, “halt[ing] any further push from some of his colleagues to persuade him to hang onto his seat.”
- Minnesota’s Democratic lieutenant governor, Tina Smith, will take his place starting January 3rd.
8.8 million people signed up for health insurance through Affordable Care Act marketplaces, nearly matching last year’s total of 9.2 million signups despite active sabotage efforts by the Trump administration.
The Justice Department has reopened inquiries into the Uranium One deal at the urging of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
- President Trump has repeatedly called the deal corrupt and urged that it – and Hillary Clinton, who was Secretary of State at the time – be investigated.
- What’s contested: the nature of the sale of an American uranium-mining company to Rosatom, a Russian nuclear energy agency. As the New York Times reported back in 2015, people and companies linked to the deal contributed millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation.