THE MORNING PLUM:
The Republican Congress has essentially built a protective wall around President Trump — and at times, this can make efforts to bring transparency or accountability to his unprecedented conflicts of interest and serial shredding of democratic and governing norms appear hopeless.
But now Democrats have a new opening to try to chip away at that protective wall: the debate over tax reform.
This will come at a critical moment — with the White House struggling to regain its footing amid Trump’s sliding approval numbers and the fallout from the health-care debacle, tax reform is the next big shot at a legislative win. What’s more, the White House is planning to sell Trump’s first 100 days as a success in part by emphasizing his alleged draining of the swamp in Washington, which will be crying out for a major reality check, and this could help in that regard.
The New York Times reports that Democrats are coalescing around a strategy that would use the White House’s desire for tax reform to try to leverage more transparency about Trump’s business holdings. The basic idea — which your humble blogger suggested back in January — is that tax reform is particularly ripe for conflicts of interest, given Trump’s refusal to divest from those holdings. So Democrats can use the reform measures the White House pushes to demand that he reveal the specific ways in which his holdings might benefit from those measures, while using the broader attention to the issue — which impacts the tax bills of millions of voters — to renew the demand that Trump generally release his returns.
In an interview with me this morning, former Obama ethics chief Norm Eisen noted that GOP divisions on health care have shown that Republicans struggle to pass legislation on their own, despite GOP control. “You’re going to see similar fractures,” Eisen said, meaning Democrats may end up with “substantial leverage.”
“Democrats can use questions about the multiple conflicts raised to drive attention to the issue and to insist on concessions,” Eisen continued. “One is specific disclosures related to any policies he’s pushing for. We’re looking at corporate rates. What is the rate differential going to be into his pocket? We’re looking at particular areas of cuts. Will there be a cut relating to real estate? Will the alternative minimum tax be eliminated?”
Eisen points out that Rachel Maddow recently revealed that Trump would have paid far less in taxes in 2005 without the AMT in place. The Times piece catalogs other specific policy changes relating to reform from which Trump might personally benefit, and notes delicately: “Tax provisions that have proved costly to Mr. Trump could be on the table.”
“When he signs this bill, he may be giving himself a huge financial transfer,” Eisen told me. “He may be directly benefiting himself with some of these tax policies, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars or more.”
Eisen conceded that the White House is not showing signs of backing down in the face of the broader push to get Trump to release his tax returns. But he added that pressure is mounting. “We’re going to have a big burst of attention to his taxes this week, with the tax march,” Eisen said, adding that recent disclosure documents revealing that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump continue to benefit from an enormous array of holdings could increase the pressure to recuse themselves from policy debates that could impact them — such as tax reform.
“In addition to hanging together, Democrats should also try to make common cause with Republicans,” Eisen continued. “You’re going to see angry constituents in the districts applying pressure as well. It’s going to be a continued festering wound for Trump. I believe eventually he’s going to have to make some concessions on this. It’s part of his low approval ratings. There’s been a constant miasma of scandal because he won’t provide this information and won’t divest.”
It’s hard to say how well this will work. But at a minimum, it could draw increased attention to the fact that congressional Republicans continue to look the other way while Trump continues shredding basic norms of ethics and transparency.
What’s more, Politico reports today that the White House is planning a P.R. strategy designed to sell Trump’s first 100 days as a major success. One of the key claims, Politico says, will be in the area of “accountability,” which will entail making the case that Trump is “following through on swamp-draining campaign promises such as lobbying restrictions.” So any boost in attention to Trump’s untold conflicts of interest, lack of transparency around his holdings and refusal to release his returns — and to the ways in which those things are intertwined — could help counter White House spin with the hard truth about the swamp, which is that it has become a veritable cesspool.
* THE RESISTANCE REGROUPS FOR NEXT FIGHTS: The New York Times has an interesting look at the grass-roots groups who helped defeat the GOP repeal-and-replace bill and are now wondering whether their energy can be sustained:
Many resistance-group leaders worry about sustaining their momentum into 2018 … members of the new resistance have a host of next priorities: pushing an investigation of ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, getting Mr. Trump to release his tax returns, and reversing his executive orders to restrict immigration and loosen environmental protections.
Something tells us that Trump will do plenty of things in the coming weeks and months to keep rank-and-file Democratic voters very engaged.
* OSSOFF’S STRATEGY TO WIN BIG SPECIAL ELECTION: NBC News’s Alex Seitz-Wald reports that Democrat Jon Ossoff’s strategy to win the April 18 special election in the Atlanta suburbs is to tell voters to send a message about Trumpism. As he told one group:
“We have the first chance in the country to make a statement about what we stand for. The eyes of the nation are on us…We can win this thing on April 18 and send a message that will be heard across metro Atlanta, across Georgia, and across the country.”
The district went for Trump by 1.5 points. This is a first test of whether Trump’s abysmal ratings (now that he’s actually governing) will allow Democrats to pick off GOP districts he barely won.
* TRUMP VOTERS OVERWHELMINGLY BACK SYRIA STRIKES: A new HuffPost/YouGov poll finds that 51 percent of Americans support Trump’s missile strikes on Syria, though only one-third think they’ll deter future chemical weapons use. Note this:
Voters who supported Trump in last year’s election are overall deeply supportive. Eighty-three percent say they support the strikes, with the majority, 62 percent, strongly in favor. Just 11 percent say they’re opposed.
There has been some chatter that Trump voters might not back the strikes because he supposedly campaigned as “antiwar” or “isolationist,” but that seems deeply fanciful.
* AMERICANS WANT TRUMP TO GO TO CONGRESS: A new CBS poll finds 57 percent of Americans support Trump’s Syria strikes, but:
Seven-in-ten Americans think Mr. Trump needs to get authorization from Congress before any further action against Syria; more than half of Republicans agree.
Trump himself thought going to Congress was essential, back when Barack Obama was president. Maybe he should adopt the popular and correct position now, too.
* WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS? The special election for a House seat in deep-red Kansas is tomorrow, and CNN reports that Republicans are calling in major reinforcements, because the Democratic candidate — an attorney and a veteran — has made it a real race:
Vice President Mike Pence recorded a robo-call backing the GOP candidate, Ron Estes. The National Republican Congressional Committee is spending nearly $100,000 … This should not be a competitive district. Trump won there by 27 points, and Mitt Romney carried it by 8 points in 2012.
It would take an earthquake for Democrats to win here, but the margin of the GOP victory bears watching.
* WHAT’S NEXT ON SYRIA? E.J. Dionne Jr. focuses our attention on what should matter:
When you watch Trump speak on the subject, it’s hard to escape the sense that he has absolutely no idea what he’s doing … What comes next, and will Congress be involved? How do Trump’s approaches to Russia, Iran and Syria fit together? If Trump is moved by the suffering of Syria’s people, how can he keep blocking refugees from our shores? Trump’s opponents should … put their skepticism to work in pressing for a coherence on international matters that Trump has, to this point, been incapable of delivering.
All the more reason for Congress to hold a debate and vote to authorize any further Trump action.
* AND THE MEDIA GUSHES OVER TRUMP’S STRIKES: Paul Krugman reminds us of all the times the media has gushed over Trump’s isolated theatrical triumphs, only to watch him devolve into pettiness and lunacy once again:
The media reaction to the Syria strike showed that many pundits and news organizations have learned nothing from past failures … One might have expected that experience to serve as a lesson. But no: The U.S. fired off some missiles, and once again Mr. Trump “became president.” Aside from everything else, think about the incentives this creates. The Trump administration now knows that it can always crowd out reporting about its scandals and failures by bombing someone.
Maybe learning this lesson isn’t in the job description?