WASHINGTON - The feud between President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats reached new heights of animosity Wednesday after Trump angrily walked out of a White House meeting on the nation's infrastructure, insisting he would not work with Democrats unless they abandon their inquiries into his businesses, presidency and personal finances.
"Get these phony investigations over with," Trump told reporters in the Rose Garden, moments after he spent three minutes in the Cabinet Room raging against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and other Democrats.
Afterward, Pelosi called the spectacle a "temper tantrum" intended to obscure Trump's "lack of confidence . . . that he really couldn't match the greatness of the challenge that we have" to pursue a sweeping infrastructure deal.
Trump in turn accused Pelosi of a "takedown attempt," and railed about her allegation Wednesday morning that he is ducking congressional subpoenas to act as a "coverup" for his own misbehavior.
Left in grave doubt were hopes for bipartisan agreement in looming battles over budget and trade, as well as the $2 trillion infrastructure package that had been set for discussion.
In truth, the infrastructure talks were already on thin ice, with congressional Republicans and Trump's own chief of staff balking at any hefty increase in government spending to improve bridges, roads, mass transit and bring broadband to rural America. On Tuesday, hours before the meeting, Trump sent a letter insisting Congress would have to pass his North American trade deal before he would agree to pursue infrastructure.
Some of the theatrics on display Wednesday were spontaneous, while others were premeditated, according to White House aides - inspired by Trump's reaction to coverage of a Wednesday morning closed-door meeting of House Democrats. Inside the Capitol, lawmakers chewed over their pending investigations into Trump, as well as the possible launch of the impeachment process.
"The I-word - can you imagine?" Trump later said.
Leaving the meeting at 10 a.m., Pelosi told reporters Trump was "engaged in a coverup" by blocking House subpoenas - a comment that infuriated the president, who was watching on television. About an hour later, reporters were summoned to the Rose Garden, where aides hastily prepared for a news conference just as the infrastructure meeting was set to kick off at 11:15 a.m.
Entering the Cabinet room, Trump never shook hands with the lawmakers and never sat down, instead standing at the head of the table to lecture before leaving the room. Pelosi and others returned to Capitol Hill, where they delivered a lecture of their own - declaring that the walkout proved that Trump was not serious about compromising with Democrats on major legislation.
"He just took a pass, and it just makes me wonder why he did," said Pelosi, who maintains that Democrats remain committed to improving infrastructure. "In any event, I pray for the president of the United States, and I pray for the United States of America."
Some Democrats, including Schumer, openly postulated that the entire White House episode Wednesday had been planned to obscure the fact that Trump was not willing to finance an ambitious infrastructure bill. They pointed to telling details, such as the fact that the Cabinet Room drapes had not been drawn or that a sign reading, "NO Collusion, NO Obstruction," was posted on the presidential lectern in the Rose Garden.
"I think they can't figure out a way to do infrastructure, and they came up with a very inelegant way to get out of it," Schumer said.
A senior administration official said dissent remained in the administration on how to pay for infrastructure - and whether Trump should have agreed to $2 trillion in spending weeks ago. In one way, the official said, some aides were happy with the blowup because it avoided any further policy promises they saw as detrimental.
But another official denied that the walkout had been planned before Pelosi made her "coverup" comments - the sign, the individual said, had been printed weeks before, around the time special counsel Robert Mueller III completed his report. And this official said the Rose Garden statement was not planned before Wednesday morning and was only orchestrated after press secretary Sarah Sanders said shortly before the legislative meeting began that an impromptu Rose Garden event was needed.
Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss private talks.
Other congressional leaders watched the spectacle unfold and braced for a potential 18 months of stalemate.
On Tuesday, bipartisan budget talks held in the offices of Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made surprising progress. Less than 24 hours later, the White House blowup threw those talks in doubt, with a potential government shutdown and federal default on tap for the fall.
"It seems like we've got a little bit of an issue right now," said Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D. "It's hard to see how anything gets done around here unless the atmospherics change."
House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., also said he feared the worst for the fiscal talks: "It's not a good sign that the president is acting like a toddler."
Democrats show no signs of abandoning their multifaceted probes of Trump in the face of his legislative threats. They got fresh boosts Wednesday outside of Washington, with a federal judge in New York backing a Financial Services Committee subpoena of Deutsche Bank, Trump's longtime lender, and the New York State Assembly passing a law that could allow Democrats to request Trump's state tax returns.
Ironically, inside the morning meeting of House Democrats that so angered Trump, a presentation from Pelosi and a host of committee chairmen seemed to defuse a tide of impeachment sentiment that had risen over the past week due to new instances of Trump administration stonewalling.
Pelosi and most of the chairmen focused on recent successes in court battles aimed at forcing the administration to comply with subpoenas, and they counseled for a measured course, according to multiple people in the room.
The meeting "reflected where most of this caucus is at," said freshman Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn. "Have faith in the courts and have faith in process, and impeachment only if absolutely necessary."
Even some of the most ardent advocates of opening an impeachment inquiry tempered their enthusiasm in the face of Pelosi's persuasive onslaught Wednesday. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., who spoke up forcefully for such an inquiry in a private leadership meeting Monday, would not say definitively Wednesday that one should now be launched.
"I just think we need to have a conversation about all the constitutional means that are available to us, and we're having that conversation," Raskin said.
Speaking Wednesday afternoon at a Washington event hosted by the Center for American Progress, Pelosi questioned the practical value of opening an impeachment inquiry at this point: "I'm not sure we get more information if we do an impeachment inquiry. But if so, that's a judgment we have to make."
"It's not just the substance that we're after," she added. "The coverup is frequently worse than the crime."
While Democrats vowed to plow forward with their investigations, they were also questioning whether it was worth continuing to even try to negotiate with a president who has yet to reach a major compromise with them. Trump's most ambitious legislative accomplishment, his 2017 tax cut, was passed exclusively with Republican votes. A bipartisan deal on criminal justice reform that passed last year enjoyed broad Democratic support - Trump's challenge was convincing fellow Republicans.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., declared the infrastructure push "dead" Wednesday. "Without him, that's not happening," he said, pointing to the political hurdles in the GOP-controlled Senate.
McConnell, upon entering a GOP meeting at the Capitol, was asked by a reporter whether the White House drama blew up other agenda items besides infrastructure. He paused for a couple seconds, smiled and walked away without commenting.
Thune said he was hopeful the clash would be fleeting and recalled previous blowups between Trump and Democrats - including a similar walkout Trump staged during the record-long government shutdown that ended earlier this year.
"Everyone had kind of their moments where they went and did their genuflecting to their audiences and eventually came back to the table, and eventually the deal got done," he said. "There's stuff that we just have to do, no matter how bad it is around here."
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The Washington Post's Ashley Parker, Felicia Sonmez, Erica Werner and Paul Kane contributed to this report.
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Video: During an impromptu news conference May 22, President Trump claimed the Mueller investigation was an "attempted takedown."(The Washington Post)
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Video: A growing number of House Democrats are calling for a formal inquiry into President Trump's impeachment, applying new pressure to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)(The Washington Post/The Washington Post)
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Six words - increasingly met with cheers on the campaign trail - have come to encapsulate Elizabeth Warren's position as the leading ideas candidate in the crowded Democratic presidential primary: "I've got a plan for that."
In town halls across the country, Warren has promoted her plans to offer Americans free college, universal child care, student debt cancellation and more - all paid for by raising taxes on the superwealthy.
Taken as a whole, the Massachusetts senator's transformative slate of social programs and tax increases could amount to the largest transfer of wealth from the richest Americans to the middle class in U.S. history.
But Warren's ambitious agenda relies on two assumptions that defy a long history of U.S. policymaking: First, that the country's wealthiest taxpayers won't find ways to evade the targeted tax hike she proposes, and second, that new entitlement programs won't result in ballooning costs that plunge the federal government deeper into debt.
"She's gone big. There's nothing small about these proposals," said Mark Zandi, who, as chief economist at Moody's Analytics, has analyzed policies for Warren and other presidential candidates. "Will the wealthy do things that wealthy people can do to avoid paying the tax? That's the real concern that I have. . . . A lot of other countries have tried this and backtracked because of tax avoidance issues."
While other candidates have offered general platforms and principles, Warren has outpaced the field in outlining specific policies and detailing how she would pay for them. As her "I've-got-a-plan" mantra has caught fire with voters in recent weeks, her poll numbers have also risen, highlighting the hunger many Democratic primary voters have for fleshed-out policy prescriptions.
Since launching her presidential campaign, Warren has rolled out a domestic platform that, so far, her campaign estimates would cost a combined $3 trillion over 10 years - plans that include canceling student debt for almost every American, building 3 million affordable housing units, reducing rents by 10 percent nationwide, shrinking the black-white wealth gap by 4 percentage points, subsidizing child-care for all young families, offering universal prekindergarten, providing universal opioid treatment and eliminating the National Park Service's maintenance backlog while making all national parks free.
The centerpiece of Warren's agenda is a 2 percent annual tax on household assets above $50 million, hitting the wealthiest 0.1 percent of Americans. Underscoring the populist themes that drive her candidacy, Warren often spends several minutes describing the "wealth tax" before laying out her ideas for free college, child care and pre-K.
"Think about that. That's how badly out of whack our economy has gotten - that two cents on the greatest fortunes in this country would yield an investment in every one of our kids across this country," Warren said earlier this month at a Kermit, West Virginia, town hall on the opioid crisis. "I'm tired of freeloading billionaires."
The crowd broke into cheers several times as Warren described how a 2 percent tax on "the diamonds, the yachts and the Rembrandts" of multimillionaires would pay for a host of new social programs - including a $100 billion plan to combat the opioid epidemic.
But some economists are beginning to question the math behind Warren's proposals.
Warren's campaign claims that the wealth tax would raise $2.75 trillion over 10 years, enough to cover her spending plans with hundreds of billions of dollars to spare. She also has proposed a $1 trillion corporate tax on the most profitable companies.
In a Washington Post op-ed last month, former Obama administration economic adviser Lawrence Summers and University of Pennsylvania professor Natasha Sarin wrote "such a wealth tax will not yield the revenue that its proponents hope for," citing figures from the current estate tax that show how the wealthy have proved adept in avoiding the 40 percent levy on their assets after death.
"The problem with their estimate is that they fail to engage with the fact that wealthy people do a lot of things that make it very hard to tax their estates, and will make it equally hard to tax their wealth," said Sarin, who teaches finance at the Wharton School of Business.
A recent poll of about 40 top economists by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business found that 73 percent believed a wealth tax"would be much more difficult to enforce than existing federal taxes" because of tax evasion. Only 7 percent disagreed. Several cited the experience in Europe, where most countries have abandoned their wealth taxes in recent decades. Wealth taxes in the world's richest nations have brought in far less revenue than expected due to tax avoidance, according to a 2018 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Warren declined a request to comment. A campaign aide cited research by University of California at Berkeley professors Gabriel Zucman and Emmanuel Saez, who came up with the wealth tax proposal and calculated the revenue estimate.
In an interview, Zucman said Warren's numbers are well-founded.
Zucman said Warren's plan is specifically designed in a way that limits tax evasion - allowing no exemptions, increasing enforcement by the IRS and imposing heavy fines on people who try to skirt the tax by undervaluing assets, hiding their wealth abroad or renouncing their U.S. citizenship. The $2.75 trillion estimate includes an allowance for 15 percent tax avoidance, said Zucman, whose work with Saez on wealth concentration is respected by other economists.
"If it's properly enforced and there's a serious effort at having no exemptions and enforcing it strongly, then it can collect a lot of tax revenue," he said of the wealth tax. "Tax avoidance, tax evasion - these are not things that happen out of the blue. The government chooses to make taxes work, to enforce them well, or to not enforce them properly."
Even as economists debate the feasibility of an "ultra-millionaires tax," Warren has found it to be an effective political weapon on the stump. She talks about taxing the "wealthiest 75,000 families in the country" to illustrate how the wealth gains in recent decades have disproportionately flowed to the top 1 percent.
Her plan offers an aggressive path to shrinking the wealth gap and has proved popular among broad swaths of the public.
A February Politico-Morning Consult poll found that 61 percent of voters supported the wealth tax, while only 20 percent oppose it. Among Republicans, 50 percent supported it and 30 percent were opposed.
And even if the wealth tax proves more complex in practice than in theory - it would certainly face legal challenges - voters give Warren credit for offering fresh ideas to address such major issues as income inequality. Many are seeking a contrast to President Donald Trump, who ascended to the presidency with a campaign heavy on slogans and light on policy details.
"They really have a good team," said Zandi, who has worked with Warren's aides to analyze plans for affordable housing and universal child care. "That's why they're coming out with the most in-depth proposals."
Warren's campaign has indicated that it will continue to roll out new policies. While Warren has voiced support for universal health care, paid sick leave and an expansive federal response to climate change, her campaign - like others - has yet to describe how those programs would be structured and funded.
Some of the plans Warren has described in detail would create massive new entitlements, with the risk of overshooting budget estimates.
Warren has promised that the government would pay all tuition and fees for students to attend public colleges. And she has proposed a universal child-care and pre-K program that would cap costs at 7 percent of family income. She also pledged to cancel student loan debt for 95 percent of borrowers who have it.
"College is a basic need that should be available for free to everyone who wants to go," Warren wrote in a Medium post describing her plan.
Warren's estimated cost for her college and student loan plan totaled more than $1.25 trillion over 10 years.
Sandy Baum, a higher education fellow at the Urban Institute, said costs for free two- and four-year college could quickly spiral beyond estimates.
Using the example of a student in Pennsylvania contemplating where to go to college, Baum said a free public college program might incentivize more students to take advantage of the government benefit, raising potential costs.
"Right now, you might decide 'I'm not going to college in Pennsylvania. I'm going to go to a private college in Massachusetts,' " she said. "If it suddenly becomes free to go to Penn State, then that's going to be a very different choice. And some of those students are definitely going to say 'Penn State - it's free.' "
The Warren campaign did not provide an analysis of how it estimated the cost of its free-college program, which includes increasing Pell grants and creating a $50 billion fund for historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions.
"It's a lot of money," said Baum. "If it accomplishes its goal of getting more people to go to college and stay there for a longer time, it'll be more expensive."
Warren's child care and early education proposal is one of her most costly initiatives. Citing estimates from Moody's, Warren's campaign said providing free child care for families below 200 percent of the federal poverty line and subsidizing care for almost everyone else would cost about $1.1 trillion over 10 years. That total is reduced to $700 billion if you include the benefits of economic growth, the campaign said.
But Zandi, who wrote the Moody's analysis for the campaign, acknowledged that the child-care program could ultimately be more expensive. One risk is that the free benefit could attract more users than forecast, driving up costs.
"It's very possible the takeup could be more significant that what I've anticipated," Zandi said, adding that there's also a chance that economic growth could be greater than forecast, canceling out additional costs.
Warren's conservative critics have chafed at her claim that such a major expansion of government benefits could be financed only by taxing the wealthy. Some also predict that higher taxes on the rich - quickly compounding at 2 percent annually - will have unintended consequences for the economy, shrinking growth.
"That's one of the things about taxes - they change behavior," said Michael Strain, an economist at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. "If you tax savings, you'll get less savings. That will hurt investment, which will hurt productivity. And that will hurt wages."
But Warren is banking on the idea that voters are ready to reject the kind of supply-side economics that have dominated much of U.S. policymaking for decades and embrace a new system aimed at reorienting the economy around the middle class.
During a campaign stop last week in Philadelphia, Warren talked about how working families had fallen further behind as politicians catered to millionaires and large corporations. Then she described her push to fundamentally restructure government with an expansive social program financed by a historic tax increase on the wealthy.
"We need to make not some nibbles around the edge, not like one statute over here and a regulation over there in a little piece. What we need is big structural change in this country," she said to applause. "And I've got a plan for that. In fact, I've got multiple plans for that."
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The Washington Post's Annie Linskey contributed to this report.