Unfiltered Political News

Trump unlikely to get his health care vote this week

A victory on health care continues to elude President Donald Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan in the first 100 days of the new administration.

House GOP leaders are falling short of the support needed to muscle their newly revised bill to repeal Obamacare over the finish line by Saturday, Trump’s 100th day in office. White House officials, after striking a deal with conservatives, had publicly raised expectations that the vote would occur this week. And they privately pushed Ryan (R-Wis.) to hand Trump something he could tout as a major legislative victory.

But GOP leaders are still struggling to get enough critics of the bill to back it, and a floor vote is not likely until next week. By Thursday afternoon, at least 15 lawmakers — most of whom opposed the original draft that Ryan yanked from the floor last month — had publicly declared their opposition to the latest plan. Just as many, if not more, said they were undecided.

More foreboding for House leaders, several centrist Republicans who backed earlier versions of the proposal, including Reps. Mike Coffman of Colorado and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, said they were now undecided. Some even came out against the bill.

“Protections for those with pre-existing conditions without contingency and affordable access to coverage for every American remain my priorities for advancing health care reform, and this bill does not satisfy those benchmarks for me,” said Rep. Ryan Costello, a centrist Pennsylvania Republican who voted for an earlier version of the bill in committee. “I remain a no vote on this bill in its current form.”

Multiple senior House Republican sources said Ryan and his top lieutenants have made progress and are increasingly confident that they’ll eventually garner enough support to force the bill through the chamber. They’ve locked down the most recalcitrant conservatives in the 238-member House GOP conference. And they say they’re making headway with some moderate Republicans wary of a constituent backlash if they support the health care overhaul.

Case in point: Three senior House Republican sources sounded confident Thursday that they’ve now secured a “yes” vote from House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, who came out against the bill several weeks ago. The influential New Jersey Republican’s office did not return multiple requests for comment.

But leadership still has a ways to go until they hit 216, the number of votes Ryan needs to pass the bill. Since no Democrats are expected to support the measure — which would gut some of Obamacare’s central consumer protections, repeal its taxes and phase out its massive expansion of Medicaid — Ryan can afford to lose only 22 members.

Moderates appeared to be the biggest headache for GOP leaders on Thursday.

Coffman told POLITICO that if the vote on the measure were called today, “I’d vote no.” Coffman said he has serious concerns about whether the latest draft does enough to protect coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, concerns echoed by just about every centrist opponent of the bill.

Reps. Pat Meehan of Pennsylvania, Jamie Herrera Beutler of Washington state and John Katko of New Yorkalso came out against the bill in statements Thursday, with Meehan specifically citing concerns about those with pre-existing condition as the reason for his opposition.

Meanwhile, a slew of House GOP moderates steadfastly refused to reveal their position on the measure. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, told a reporter to “contact my office” when asked about her position. Rep. Darrell Issa of California, who represents a district Hillary Clinton won handily in November, paused outside the House chamber for a reporter’s question only to ignore it and walk away when asked about the health care bill.

Moderates aren’t the only problem for leaders. A small number of staunch conservatives are also holding their ground against the latest plan despite Wednesday’s endorsement by the conservative House Freedom Caucus. Caucus member Andy Biggs of Arizona said he was a “no.” Rep. Rod Blum of Iowa said he was waiting to decide how to vote until he had read a study about how the legislation would affect premiums for group health insurance.

Meanwhile, other conservatives not in the Freedom Caucus, including Rep. Walter Jones, also said they’d vote against the bill Thursday. The North Carolina Republican said he couldn’t back something that had not been scored by the Congressional Budget Office.

“I’m still going to vote no,” Jones said. “I don’t see how anybody, with our nation going financially broke, can vote for a bill of such consequences without knowing the score.”

The Congressional Budget Office is not expected to release the latest score of the new draft for a few weeks, congressional sources said Thursday. The CBO score for an earlier version of the text estimated that 24 million more people could go uninsured over the next 10 years.

House leaders spent almost all Wednesday and Thursday buttonholing members, attempting to round up every vote possible. House vote counters such as deputy whipPatrick McHenry of North Carolina were seen roaming the chamber, corralling members who opposed the health care measure — including even Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, one of the most ardent opponents of earlier versions of the health care plan. Amash, a Freedom Caucus member, has told reporters he’s still reviewing the bill despite the Freedom Caucus’ endorsement.

Vice President Mike Pence also trekked to Capitol Hill to meet with members of the Tuesday Group of moderate Republicans, though the meeting did not appear to yield any new votes for the measure.

Some mainstream and moderate Republicans stewed that the White House had rewarded what they see as bad behavior by the Freedom Caucus. After trying to work in good faith with leadership, the skeptics said they’re now being pressured to vote for a more conservative bill.

At the heart of the revised health care measure are changes negotiated by Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows or North Carolina and New Jersey Rep. Tom MacArthur, a second-term lawmaker and co-chair of the Tuesday Group. Under the proposal, states would be permitted to waive some of Obamacare’s minimum coverage requirements and consumer protections, so long as they certified that they could offer an alternative that reduces premiums, enhances competition or increases the number of people with coverage.

Though the measure would technically preserve Obamacare’s guarantee of coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, it also allows insurers in those states to jack up premiums for sick people if they have a gap in coverage. To offset that risk, the bill includes a $130 billion fund meant to help keep premiums down for people with pre-existing conditions. But advocates like the American Medical Association, AARP and the American Hospital Association worry that it isn’t enough to do much good.

MacArthur said Thursday his goal in negotiating with the Freedom Caucus was to “make sure everybody has health insurance” and make sure health care “costs are under control.”

“I’m simply looking at which Republicans can we get to support a compromise that is helpful for moving along health care reform, which is desperately needed,” he said.

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Will Trump Release the Missing JFK Files?

The nation’s conspiracy-theorist-in-chief is facing a momentous decision. Will President Donald Trump allow the public to see a trove of thousands of long-secret government files about the event that, more than any other in modern American history, has fueled conspiracy theories – the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy?

The answer must come within months. And, according to a new timeline offered by the National Archives, it could come within weeks.

Under the deadline set by a 1992 law, Trump has six months left to decide whether he will block the release of an estimated 3,600 files related to the assassination that are still under seal at the Archives. From what is known of the JFK documents, most come from the CIA and FBI, and a number may help resolve lingering questions about whether those agencies missed evidence of a conspiracy in Kennedy’s death. As with every earlier release of JFK assassination documents in the 53 years since shots rang out in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, it is virtually certain that some of the files will be seized on to support popular conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s murder; other documents are likely to undermine them.

There is no little irony in the fact that decision will be left to Trump, long a promoter of so many baseless conspiracy theories about everything from his predecessor’s birthplace to the notion that the father of one of his campaign-trail rivals was in league with JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.

For the first time, the Trump White House is acknowledging that it is focused on the issue, even if it offers no hint about what the President will do. A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Politico last week that the Trump administration “is familiar with the requirements” of the 1992 law and that White House is working with the National Archives “to enable a smooth process in anticipation of the October deadline.”

Under the 1992 JFK Assassination Records Collection Act, the library of documents about Kennedy’s death must be made public in full by the deadline of this October 26, the law’s 25th anniversary, unless Trump decides otherwise. It is his decision alone.

The prospect of the release of the last of the government’s long-secret JFK assassination files has long tantalized historians and other scholars, to say nothing of the nation’s armies of conspiracy theorists, since no one can claim to know exactly what is in there.

Martha W. Murphy, the Archives official who oversees the records, said in an interview last month that a team of researchers with high-level security clearances is at work to prepare the JFK files for release and hopes to begin unsealing them in batches much earlier than October – possibly as early as summer.

Beyond releasing the 3,600 never-before-seen JFK files, the Archives is reviewing another 35,000 assassination-related documents, previously released in part, so they can be unsealed in full. Short of an order from the president, Murphy said, the Archives is committed to making everything public this year: “There’s very little decision-making for us.”

Many of the documents are known to come from the files of CIA officials who monitored a mysterious trip that Oswald paid to Mexico City several weeks before the assassination – a trip that brought Kennedy’s future killer under intense surveillance by the spy agency as he paid visits to both the Soviet and Cuban embassies there. The CIA said it monitored all visitors to the embassies and opened surveillance of Oswald as soon as he was detected inside the Soviet compound for the first time.

Other documents are known to identify, by name, American and foreign spies and law-enforcement sources who had previously been granted anonymity for information about Oswald and the assassination. At least 400 pages of the files involve E. Howard Hunt, the former CIA operative turned Watergate conspirator who claimed on his deathbed that he had advance knowledge of Kennedy’s murder.

The documents were gathered together by a temporary federal agency, the Assassination Records Review Board, that was established under the 1992 law. In an interview last month, its former chairman, Judge John R. Tunheim of the Federal District Court in Minnesota, said he “wouldn’t be surprised if there’s something important” in the documents, especially given how much of the history of the Kennedy assassination has had to be rewritten in recent decades.

He said he knew of “no bombshells” in the files when the board agreed to keep them secret two decades ago, but names, places and events described in the documents could have significance now, given what has been learned about the assassination since the board went out of business. “Today, with a broader understanding of history, certain things may be far more relevant,” he said.

Murphy, the Archives official, said she, too, knew of no shocking information in the documents – but she said her researchers were not in a position to judge their significance. “As you can imagine, we’re not reading them for that, so we’re probably not the best people to tell you,” she said. “I will say this: This collection is really interesting as a snapshot of the Cold War.”

The Review Board, created by Congress to show transparency in response to the public furor created by Oliver Stone’s conspiracy-minded 1991 film “JFK,” did force the release of a massive library of other long-secret documents from the CIA, FBI, Secret Service and other federal agencies, as well as from congressional investigations of the assassination.

Many showed how much evidence was withheld from the Warren Commission, the independent panel led by Chief Justice Earl Warren that investigated the assassination and concluded in 1964 that there was no evidence of a conspiracy in Kennedy’s death.

The documents showed that both the CIA and FBI had much more extensive information about Oswald—and the danger he posed to JFK—before the assassination than the agencies admitted to Warren’s investigation. The evidence appeared to have been withheld from the commission out of fear that it would expose how the CIA and FBI had bungled the opportunity to stop Oswald.

Under the 1992 law, agencies may make a final appeal to try to stop the unsealing of specific documents on national security grounds. But the law grants only one person the power to actually block the release: the president. The law allows Trump to keep a document secret beyond the 25-year deadline if he certifies to the National Archives that secrecy was “made necessary by an identifiable harm to military defense, intelligence operations, law enforcement or conduct of foreign relations” and that “the identifiable harm is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”

Both the CIA and FBI acknowledged in written statements last month that they are reviewing the documents scheduled for release; neither agency would say if it planned to appeal to the White House to block the unsealing of any of the records. “CIA continues to review the remaining CIA documents in the collection to determine the appropriate next steps with respect to any previously-unreleased CIA information,” said agency spokesperson Heather Fritz Horniak. The FBI said it had a team of 21 researchers assigned to the document review.

According to a skeletal index of the documents prepared by the Archives, some of the files appear to involve, at least indirectly, a set of conspiracy theories that Trump himself promoted during the 2016 campaign – about possible ties between Cuban exile groups in the United States and Oswald.

On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly promoted an article published last April in the National Enquirer that suggested a connection between Oswald and the Cuban-born father of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, one of Trump’s rivals for the Republican nomination. The article was based entirely on a 1963 photograph that showed Oswald, a self-proclaimed Marxist and champion of Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution in Cuba, handing out pro-Castro leaflets in New Orleans with a man who, the tabloid suggested, was Cruz’s father, Rafael.

The Cruz family denied that the senator’s family was the man depicted in the photo and that Rafael Cruz had any connection to Oswald; there is no other evidence of any connection.
The National Archives index shows that the documents to be released this year include a 86-page file on a prominent CIA-backed anti-Castro exile group that Oswald appears to have tried to infiltrate in New Orleans, his hometown, in order to gather information that might be of use to the Castro government.

Judge Tunheim said that Oswald’s trip to Mexico City in September and October 1963 figures directly or indirectly in many of the documents that remain under seal, including the internal files of CIA operatives who worked at the American embassy there.

Historians agree that the trip, which Oswald apparently undertook in hopes of obtaining a visa to defect to Castro’s Cuba, much as he had once tried to defect to the Soviet Union, has never been fully investigated.

“I still think there are loose threads in Mexico City that no one has ever explored,” Tunheim said. “It was a bizarre chapter – there’s no question about it.” Previously declassified CIA and FBI documents suggest that Oswald openly boasted to Cuban officials there about his intention to kill Kennedy and that he had a brief affair with a Mexican woman who worked in Cuba’s consulate. The American ambassador to Mexico at the time of the assassination said later that he believed the woman had probably been working for the CIA.

Tunheim said the Review Board agreed to keep the Mexico-related documents secret in the 1990s at the request of the State Department, the CIA and other agencies that warned that their release could do damage to relations with the Mexico government, which worked closely with the CIA and FBI during the Cold War. “Mexico City was where everybody spied on everybody else,” the judge said.

But given the chill in relations between the United States and Mexico following Trump’s election and early moves by his administration to build its long-promised wall along the Mexican border, a similar plea to keep the documents secret may not go very far with the new president. Said Tunheim: “I guess we don’t have much of a relationship with the Mexican government to protect anymore.”

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Why Trump may never get his wall

President Donald Trump was supposedly girding for battle. Not even a week ago, ahead of a possible government shutdown, his aides said the president would insist on funding his border wall and the president himself was prepared to sabotage Obamacare to gain leverage.

But after several days of chest-beating from his administration, Trump backed away from both positions in short order, ending the game of chicken before it began. Democrats were not forced to take a single tough vote and suffered no defections from their ranks. The president deferred his fight for wall funding until the fall and grudgingly agreed to continue funding Obamacare subsidies.

The episode has left Democratic leaders with the impression that Trump may never go full bore to get his wall funding, no matter his administration’s future threats. Indeed, Democrats believe that Trump himself is coming to the realization that he won’t get Congress to pay for the wall.

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he spoke to Trump several times during the monthlong funding saga, but Trump never brought up his public demands that Schumer give the president a down payment on the wall as a condition of funding the government.

“He’s called me a few times during this. But he never brought it up,” Schumer said in an interview. “I have found that to be a pattern. He talks to me occasionally now, but it’s not on the main issues.”

As for the broader funding standoff, “I thought one of two things. I thought he’d either back down. Or he’d do [a shutdown], and it would be a fight we’d win,” said Schumer. “When the president just puts together his own plan, which is almost always hard-right given who the people around him are, he has problems.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment. But in a tweetstorm Thursday, Trump excoriated Democrats for wanting “illegals to pour through our borders” and trying to “bail out their donors from insurance companies,” a reference to the party’s insistence on continuing Obamacare payments.

“I promise to rebuild our military and secure our border. Democrats want to shut down the government. Politics!” Trump wrote.

Lawmakers in both parties are struggling to reconcile Trump’s blustery public persona with his flexibility on his signature campaign pledge of getting Mexico to pay for the wall, which has morphed into a demand that Congress do so. Schumer deliberated this winter over whether to make public his caucus’ specific opposition to the wall, ultimately deciding to send Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) a letter vowing explicitly to block a spending bill that includes funding for it.

Now that that strategy has succeeded, with little more required than sticking to their message, emboldened Democrats say they’re taking the president’s threats with a big dollop of salt.

“His folks are beginning to recognize that getting a deal done in Congress requires listening, engaging and sometimes strategic or tactical retreats,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). “The more he does draw red lines that aren’t reasonably accomplishable, the more he simply harms his own credibility with his own party.”

Republicans, and even some moderate Democrats, are hoping the president is transforming from an erratic candidate into a more deliberative commander in chief. They view his retreat from a potential government shutdown over the wall as a cause for optimism.

“He’s evolving,” said a Republican senator. “Somebody told him you don’t have to build a wall next to the Rio Grande River.”

“I’m going to cut him slack. I don’t know if caved is the right term. Maybe it is,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). In the fall, “there’s a possibility he’ll get more educated and make the right decision” and not inject the issue into funding talks again.

If Trump does forgo such a fight, the president could face a backlash from the likes of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, who are frustrated that the president gave in this time around.

Trump’s moves on the wall and Obamacare subsidies could be instructive as to how he’ll square off with congressional Democrats in the future. There are at least two more major leverage points this year, the debt ceiling and a September spending bill, that will allow both parties to try to insert their priorities in must-pass legislation.

But if Trump does demand money for the wall or other priorities later this year, Democrats say they won’t take his public statements at face value.

“You can’t trust anything that comes out. Because he’s going to change his position on everything,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.). “He flip-flops on so many things.”

The wall fight was always going to be difficult for Trump to win. He faces significant skepticism among border-state Republicans, and the GOP has been divided as Trump and his emissaries demanded that Congress provide funding.

It’s a stark contrast to a confrontation in 2015, when Republicans were mostly united behind a hard-line approach aimed at gutting former President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration. That gambit failed, but the House at least passed a bill with such a provision, and McConnell forced Democrats to vote on it.

The fact that few Republicans in the Capitol backed Trump’s strategy for the wall only strengthened Democrats’ resolve.

“Republicans in Congress don’t want the wall. And that is the most under-reported aspect of this whole skirmish,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “Republicans in the leadership of both chambers actually hate that idea. They know it’s dumb.”

If Trump forces the issue again in September, when a new spending bill must be negotiated, the political dynamics on Capitol Hill will be the same.

“I don’t see the Democrats getting more agreeable,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas).

Cornyn said he is working with Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly on developing a comprehensive border security plan that would rely on technology and manpower rather than only a massive concrete physical barrier intended at keeping out undocumented immigrants.

Eventually, Democrats are prepared to vote on whether to fund the border wall, but not as part of a government spending bill. They expect that there will be bipartisan opposition to it, revealing the lack of support for one of the president’s top priorities.

“It certainly won’t get 60 votes. It wouldn’t get 50,” Schumer predicted.

For all his administration’s talk about Trump’s insistence on the border wall in spending bills, Trump never used his strongest piece of leverage: A threat to veto any bill that didn’t include a down payment on his wall. But even if he does, Democrats say the result will be the same.

“The wall is broadly unpopular in the public. People would rather spend money on other priorities. And there’s unified Democratic opposition,” added Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “None of that changes in September.”

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NAFTA talks after Trump's turnaround: What each country wants

President Donald Trump said Thursday he’s going to start talks “very soon” with Canada and Mexico to improve the North American Free Trade Agreement — a day after his aides said he was thinking of withdrawing completely.

But sitting down at the negotiating table won’t be easy. Each country wants something from the others. And the three-way negotiation could lead to months of give-and-take over everything from lumber subsidies to immigration policy.

Trump also will have to work within the complex negotiating structures set out by law — and appease the many competing American interest groups that will be jockeying for a good deal for themselves.

Here’s POLITICO’s look at what each country wants as Trump tries to make a deal with our neighbors to the north and south — after insulting both countries in recent weeks.

United States

He’s blamed NAFTA for a loss of American jobs, but Trump hasn’t been very specific about what he wants from a new agreement. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Thursday the U.S. is looking to better the pact’s agricultural, manufacturing and services provisions, and give it an overall modernization.

He said “some trade imbalances” have come up, referring to the deficits the U.S. runs with Mexico and Canada, and that the White House wants to talk about areas outside of NAFTA, like access to Canada’s dairy market.

The administration is consulting with Congress over precise negotiating objectives, but a draft notification letter circulated among key lawmakers in late March revealed its initial thinking.

Market access: In a nod to U.S. farm and business groups worried about losing valuable sales to Canada and Mexico, the draft said Trump will “seek to maintain and expand current market access” between the three countries.

Trump also wants to reduce or get rid of non-tariff barriers to U.S. exports. An example of such a barrier: Canada’s controls on the prices and supply of poultry and dairy, which affect whether U.S. producers can sell their products there.

Rules of origin: In one potentially challenging area, the letter said U.S. negotiators will seek changes in the “rules of origin” that dictate how much of a final product must be made from material produced in the U.S., Canada or Mexico to qualify for duty reductions.

Digital trade: The administration would seek commitments from Canada and Mexico to refrain from imposing customs duties on digital products and avoid discriminating against products delivered electronically. It also wants a pledge to prohibit any restrictions to the cross-border flow of data or local data-storage requirements.

There also are a host of other U.S. objectives — from investor protections comparable to U.S. law, to a safeguard mechanism that allows for tariffs to be re-imposed in response to an import surge.


In Mexico City, officials have stood firm against Trump as he has flirted with a pledge to implement a hefty tariff on imports and called for Mexico to pay for a wall along the U.S. southern border. They are not eager to get engaged in a renegotiation — officials say they prefer the term “modernization” — but will work with the U.S. administration, particularly on areas that were not covered in the original NAFTA agreement, such as telecommunications, energy and e-commerce.

Mexico has put few specifics on the table. It will be entering with some demands, rather than maintaining a purely defensive posture, said Moises Kalach, a Mexico City-based businessman who helps lead private-sector engagement with government on trade issues. But officials are trying to hold off on outlining what they want before they see Trump’s objectives.

Keeping quotas and tariffs as-is. Mexico’s main goal at this stage is to avoid going backwards, so any attempt to change standards to a degree considered to be worse for Mexico than what is laid out in the deal would be unacceptable. The idea of revisiting tariff levels or quotas is likely off-limits, said Antonio Ortiz-Mena, who was on Mexico’s original NAFTA negotiation team.

Going beyond NAFTA to include security. Mexico has had fairly frequent meetings with U.S. officials. During those get-togethers, Mexican officials have been reminding their U.S. counterparts that the bilateral relationship is about more than just trade — something Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has highlighted as a guiding principle of the talks. Mexican officials are aiming for “comprehensive negotiations” that also include talk of migration, security, counterterrorism and drug trafficking, among other issues.


Canada is likely to make its own demands in the negotiations.

Access to the U.S. market. At the top of Canada’s list is maintaining the deep access to the U.S. market that NAFTA has provided Canadian firms. But Ottawa is also looking for improvements, especially in terms of access to U.S. government contracts. Canadian firms would like more exemptions to “Buy America” requirements — though that may be unlikely, given that Trump has made domestic procurement a marquee issue.

Easier U.S. immigration for workers. Canada is expected to push to get high-skilled workers better access to the U.S. labor market — another demand that could get pushback, in light of the Trump administration’s desire to reform the temporary-worker visa program. Canada also wants the U.S. to provide better recognition of Canadian professional credentials.

Reformed dispute resolution for companies. Ottawa may also push for improvements to NAFTA’s investor-state dispute mechanism, a system through which individual companies can sue countries for alleged discriminatory practices. This arrangement is commonly found in trade and international investment agreements, including most U.S. trade deals. In a separate deal with the European Union, Canada agreed to major changes to the process that would improve transparency and accountability, which it may want to see in NAFTA.

What’s next?

Trump said Thursday that the timeline for talks is “actually starting today.” But it is not that simple.

Legal requirements surrounding re-opening trade deals have slowed down the White House. Consultation procedures laid out by Congress in the 2015 trade promotion authority law require the president to follow certain steps if he wants to submit a trade agreement to Congress for a straight up-or-down vote, without any amendments.

Trump can’t formally begin negotiations with Canada and Mexico until his administration gives Congress 90 days’ notice. And the law requires him to consult with panels in both houses of Congress on details of the notification letter before it is sent. That’s where things have gotten tricky.

Trump trade officials have met with a House advisory group, but not with the Senate one. One reason: Senate Democrats have argued that the 2015 law requires the president to have a confirmed U.S. trade representative before the meeting can take place, and confirmation of Trump’s USTR pick, Robert Lighthizer, has been delayed by multiple disputes, including Democrats’ assertion that he needs a waiver to serve as USTR because of past work for foreign governments.

But a Senate vote on Lighthizer could occur soon if those issues are dealt with in spending legislation that lawmakers must pass this week to avoid a government shutdown.

Formal negotiations won’t begin until August, in all likelihood. A key event in the lead-up to formal talks could be the annual North American Leaders summit, which typically takes place in the summer. But it’s not clear whether the three governments intend to hold the meeting this year.

Whenever talks begin, they will be made more complicated by Trump’s ever-present threat to withdraw from the agreement if he feels his demands are not being met.

“The fact that he reversed himself once doesn’t mean that he’s gone all soft and cuddly,” said Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “This is the eternal card … He can turn it over again and again.”

Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.

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The education of Donald Trump

The 70-year-old leader of the free world sat behind his desk in the Oval Office last Friday afternoon, doing what he’s done for years: selling himself. His 100th day in office was approaching, and Trump was eager to reshape the hardening narrative of a White House veering off course.

So he took it upon himself to explain that his presidency was actually on track, inviting a pair of POLITICO reporters into the Oval Office for an impromptu meeting. He sat at the Resolute desk, with his daughter Ivanka across from him. One aide said the chat was off-the-record, but Trump insisted, over objections from nervous-looking staffers, that he be quoted.

He addressed the idea that his senior aides weren’t getting along. He called out their names and, one by one, they walked in, each surprised to see reporters in the room—chief of staff Reince Priebus, then chief strategist Steve Bannon, and eventually senior adviser Jared Kushner. “The team gets along really, really well,” he said.

He turned to his relationships with world leaders. “I have a terrific relationship with Xi,” he said, referring to the Chinese president, who Trump recently invited for a weekend visit at his Mar-a-Lago resort.

Finally, he rattled off the biggest hits of his first three months and promised more to come.

It was classic Trump: Confident, hyperbolic and insistent on asserting control.

But interviews with nearly two dozen aides, allies, and others close to the president paint a different picture – one of a White House on a collision course between Trump’s fixed habits and his growing realization that this job is harder than he imagined when he won the election on Nov. 8.

So far, Trump has led a White House gripped by paranoia and insecurity, paralyzed by internal jockeying for power. Mistrust between aides runs so deep that many now employ their own personal P.R. advisers — in part to ensure their own narratives get out. Trump himself has been deeply engaged with media figures, even huddling in the Oval Office with Matt Drudge.

Trump remains reliant as ever on his children and longtime friends for counsel. White House staff have learned to cater to the president’s image obsession by presenting decisions in terms of how they’ll play in the press. Among his first reads in the morning is still the New York Post. When Trump feels like playing golf, he does — at courses he owns. When Trump feels like eating out, he does — at hotels with his name on the outside.

As president, Trump has repeatedly reminded his audiences, both public and private, about his longshot electoral victory. That unexpected win gave him and his closest advisers the false sense that governing would be as easy to master as running a successful campaign turned out to be. It was a rookie mistake. From the indignity of judges halting multiple executive orders on immigration-related matters—most recently this week—to his responses to repeated episodes of North Korean belligerence, it’s all been more complicated than Trump had been prepared to believe.

“I think he’s much more aware how complicated the world is,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who serves as an informal administration adviser. “This will all be more uphill than he thought it would be because I think he had the old-fashioned American idea that you run for office, you win, then people behave as though you won.”

Trump has had some successes. He nominated and saw confirmed a new Supreme Court justice, rolled back Obama-era regulations, and oversaw dramatic military actions in Syria and Afghanistan. He has signed rafts of executive actions, unilateral decisions familiar to the former Trump Organization president.

Yet he approaches the 100-day mark with record-low approval ratings and no major legislative accomplishment to his credit. Nothing hit Trump harder, according to senior White House officials, than the congressional defeat of his first major legislative package—the bill to repeal Obamacare. As he sat in the Oval Office last week, Trump seemed to concede that even having risen to fame through real estate and entertainment, the presidency represented something very different.

“Making business decisions and buying buildings don’t involve heart,” he said. “This involves heart. These are heavy decisions.”


More than 200 of Trump’s campaign promises are scribbled in marker on a whiteboard in Steve Bannon’s West Wing office, which he calls his “war room.” Other pledges are printed and taped beneath a poster that says: “Make America Great Again.”

“Deport 2 million criminal illegal immigrants,” reads one pledge. Others call for all of President Obama’s executive orders to be reversed and for the U.S. to exit the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. A few have large check marks next to them. Another sign notes 11 have been delayed. It’s a visual encapsulation of how Bannon sees the presidency about keeping promises.

In Kushner’s office, just steps away, there’s no “Make America Great Again” memorabilia. Instead, the whiteboard lists deadlines for bipartisan projects in his newly-founded Office of American Innovation on infrastructure and veterans’ affairs. Kushner often talks about the presidency like it’s a business, describing it privately as “entrepreneurial” and in “beta mode.” He often doesn’t mind when Trump flip-flops, if it’s in the service of striking a deal.

The gap in worldview and temperament between the two has produced the most combustible, and consequential, conflict in the West Wing. In the first days following Trump’s inauguration, it was Bannon who pushed to speed through a blitz of executive orders, including the ill-fated travel ban. And it’s been Kushner, a 36-year-old real estate scion, who’s leaned the other way, encouraging his capricious father-in-law to espouse less divisive positions.

“It’s an ideas and ideology battle every day,” one senior administration official said.

Perhaps the defining and unanswered question of the Trump presidency is what he truly believes in. Is he the inflexible immigration hardliner who described undocumented Mexican immigrants as “rapists” in his June 2015 kickoff speech or the president who recently said those brought here illegally as children should “rest easy” because he doesn’t plan to deport them? Will he try to make deals with Democrats? Or will he devote himself to Bannon’s nationalist agenda? And, other than winning, what does Trump really want?

No single day was more telling about the ambiguity of Trumpism than April 12. It was that day that Trump not-so-quietly reversed himself on at least four of his campaign promises. He canceled a federal hiring freeze imposed in his first week. He flipped on labeling China a currency manipulator. He endorsed the Export-Import bank that he had called to eliminate. He declared NATO relevant, after trashing it repeatedly on the campaign trail.

“I said it was obsolete,” Trump said. “It is no longer obsolete.”

Trump’s critics and supporters alike are equally flummoxed about what this president stands for.

White House communications director Mike Dubke told staff in a recent meeting “there is no Trump doctrine” when it comes to foreign policy. The president was moved to send missiles into Syria in part based on gruesome images of dead Syrian children he saw on TV. But he’s maintained the same hardline that those suffering children should not be accepted into America as refugees. Trump has overseen the use of the largest bomb short of a nuclear weapon in Afghanistan and talks tough about obliterating the Islamic State. Yet in a recent chat in his West Wing office, Priebus backed away from the idea of greater troop engagement, saying the administration doesn’t want to engage in “long-term ground wars in the Middle East.”

“He is not a movement conservative. He is definitely not an establishment Republican,” said Ken Blackwell, who headed domestic policy during Trump’s transition. “He’s transactional and makes calls based on his gut. Those of us who are accustomed to an ideological framework — it takes getting used to.”

But Trump’s ideologically noncommittal approach has bumped up against the constraints of a hyperpartisan Washington where the letters on congressional vote cards — D or R — are paramount.

Some are whispering that Trump should work with Democrats on infrastructure. Others say he must forge ahead only with Republicans on health care. Maybe he should work with both on taxes. Trump, it seems, is just looking for success.

“I am flexible,” as Trump said recently in a Rose Garden appearance. “And I’m proud of that flexibility.”


When Donald Trump gets angry, he fumes. “You can’t make them happy,” he said. “These people want more and more.”

He was complaining to friends that he had negotiated for weeks with Freedom Caucus members and he couldn’t believe the group was still against the health care legislation. Trump and his advisers were buzzing about making an enemies list and wanted to force a vote. But it was Trump, a man who hates to show weakness, who had to blink. As support flagged, the bill was shelved.

“I kind of pooh-poohed the experience stuff when I first got here,” one White House official said of these early months. “But this shit is hard.”

Nowhere has Trump’s learning curve been steeper than Capitol Hill. According to people close to the president, Trump believed that in selecting Priebus as chief of staff he was getting a deeply connected Washington wise man, someone who could guide his agenda through Capitol Hill.

Between Priebus and Vice President Mike Pence, who once served in House leadership, Trump thought he had the experts he needed and wouldn’t have to worry about Congress that much. But Priebus is a political insider, not a congressional one. And Pence, who was governor of Indiana before joining Trump’s ticket, has been absent from the Hill during the rise of the House Freedom Caucus, the ideological hardliners who delivered Trump the most stinging defeat of his young presidency.

House Republicans’ rejection of his plan to repeal-and-replace Obamacare served as a wake-up call — and a clarifying moment when he realized he couldn’t leave Congress to others, even Speaker Paul Ryan.

Trump had campaigned in generalities — “repeal-and-replace with something terrific,” he’d promised — and after the election Trump and his team decided to let Ryan take the lead on health care. Trump just wanted to sign a bill. He didn’t necessarily care what it said.

But the Freedom Caucus did. They felt left out of the process—and they hated Ryan’s bill. They complained to the White House almost every day and made threats. They seized on the bill’s anemic public approval.

So Trump personally got involved, just as he had long negotiated with business partners, offering a mix of wooing and threats. He even dispatched his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, a former House GOP hardliner himself, to threaten a particularly outspoken critic, Rep. Mark Sanford.

It backfired. Freedom Caucus members weren’t afraid to say no. In an embarrassing setback, Trump called to pull the bill.

White House officials played down the loss in recent conversations — even as Trump has put immense pressure on Pence and Priebus to resuscitate the bill. “The narrative that somehow or another a signature piece of legislation must be out of the House and Senate in 100 days is a ridiculous standard,” Priebus said.

Trump seemed, at first, not to even understand the scope of his health care failure. He called reporters and spoke about moving on. Top-level aides bragged about his good mood. “No bullshit, I think he’s actually pretty comfortable with the outcome,” a senior White House official crowed.

After the health care fight, Marc Short, the president’s legislative director, had a meeting with his team on “lessons learned,” people familiar with the meeting say. Several administration officials said Trump has told them not to leave the Congressional details to Ryan and others – and that he eventually grasped how damaging the health care defeat could be to the rest of his agenda.

“I don’t think they realized what a big issue this was for the grassroots,” said Jenny Beth Martin, head of Tea Party Patriots, who had met with Trump.

Trump’s team now has another chance to pass the law. They spent several weeks wooing conservatives – and secured the backing Wednesday of the Freedom Caucus, which blocked the first bill from passing. They brought members and outside groups – including those funded by the conservative billionaire donors Charles and David Koch – to the White House.

They successfully convinced the conservatives who don’t like Ryan to get on board. But now, moderates concerned about making health benefits worse for their constituents are balking. White House officials are hoping to have a vote Friday or Saturday, just in time for Trump’s 100-day mark.

The defeat represented an early inflection point for a president who is openly more transactional than ideological. More than anything, it reinforced the president’s conviction that he could only trust the tight circle of people closest to him.

Now, Trump is forging ahead alone on taxes, rolling out a dramatic package of tax cuts on Wednesday without input from Hill leaders. “We aren’t listening to anyone else on taxes,” said one senior administration official, referring to Ryan. “It’s our plan.”


As Trump is beginning to better understand the challenges—and the limits—of the presidency, his aides are understanding better how to manage perhaps the most improvisational and free-wheeling president in history. “If you’re an adviser to him, your job is to help him at the margins,” said one Trump confidante. “To talk him out of doing crazy things.”

Interviews with White House officials, friends of Trump, veterans of his campaign and lawmakers paint a picture of a White House that has been slow to adapt to the demands of the most powerful office on earth.

“Everyone is concerned that things are not running that well,” said one senior official. “There should be more structure in place so we know who is working on what and who is responsible for what, instead of everyone freelancing on everything.”

But they’re learning. One key development: White House aides have figured out that it’s best not to present Trump with too many competing options when it comes to matters of policy or strategy. Instead, the way to win Trump over, they say, is to present him a single preferred course of action and then walk him through what the outcome could be – and especially how it will play in the press.

“You don’t walk in with a traditional presentation, like a binder or a PowerPoint. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t consume information that way,” said one senior administration official. “You go in and tell him the pros and cons, and what the media coverage is going to be like.”

Downplaying the downside risk of a decision can win out in the short term. But the risk is a presidential dressing-down—delivered in a yell. “You don’t want to be the person who sold him on something that turned out to be a bad idea,” the person said.

Advisers have tried to curtail Trump’s idle hours, hoping to prevent him from watching cable news or calling old friends and then tweeting about it. That only works during the workday, though—Trump’s evenings and weekends have remained largely his own.

“It’s not like the White House doesn’t have a plan to fill his time productively but at the end of the day he’s in charge of his schedule,” said one person close to the White House. “He does not like being managed.”

He also doesn’t like managing—or, rather, doesn’t mind stoking competition among his staffers. While his predecessor was known as “no-drama Obama,” Trump has presided over a series of melodramas involving his top aides, including Priebus, Bannon, counselor Kellyanne Conway and economic adviser Gary Cohn.

“He has always been a guy who loves the idea of being a royal surrounded by a court,” said Michael D’Antonio, one of Trump’s biographers.

Many of those aides spent the opening weeks of the presidency pushing their own agendas – and sparring with one another. Priebus brought into the White House his chief of staff, chief operating officer and chief strategist from the RNC; Bannon has his own P.R. person and two writers from Breitbart; Kushner brought allies from the business world, and recently recruited his own publicity adviser; Conway has her own chief of staff; now Ivanka Trump has a chief of staff, too.

For now, all sides seem to have forged a delicate détente. Kushner and Bannon met earlier this month at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate and agreed to work out their differences. Trump aides now downplay talk of a shakeup involving Bannon – talk that, until just a few days ago, had reached a fever pitch. There have been a few changes here and there – Katie Walsh is out as deputy chief of staff, and KT McFarland has been moved off the national security team – but don’t expect any big personnel changes anytime soon, they say.

Yet there is little question that the months of infighting have taken a toll on Trump’s aides. Many are unaccustomed to working for a man who can consult with 20 outside associates a day, change his mind in a minute and change his mood even quicker.

Of late, some Republican National Committee members have become deeply concerned about Priebus, who was party chairman before joining Trump’s team. Priebus, who is distrusted by some rival White House factions and lacks the control previous chiefs of staff have had, has privately complained about the profound frustrations of the job.

Priebus, who is married and has two young children, has vented about the long hours he’s had to spend away from his family. In March, he missed an RNC donor retreat in Florida because, he told friends at the time, he needed to be at home to celebrate one of his children’s birthdays.

Trump the businessman and presidential candidate loved pitting top aides against one another. The internal competition ensured that the best ideas would rise to the top, he believed. Plus, he liked telling people, it made his employees work even harder to impress him.


White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has developed a ritual of sorts: Just before going onstage for his televised briefings, he usually walks down the hall to the Oval Office to ask Trump what he wants to hear on TV that day. Cable news only occasionally carried press briefings from Obama’s secretaries in the later years of his presidency, but Spicer’s almost-daily outings have become a regular, wall-to-wall fixture.

His sessions with Trump were described by people familiar with them as part pep talk and part talking-point seminar. In the early days, Trump criticized Spicer fiercely, prompting him to upgrade his delivery at the podium as well as his wardrobe of suits. Now, people close to the president say, Trump brags about Spicer’s ratings.

Yet Trump continues to see himself as the best guardian of his own image. In New York, he infamously made calls to reporters pretending to be a spokesman. He personally called into the New York tabloid gossip pages as a source for years, and he even dialed cable news control rooms to suggest coverage after he became the presumptive Republican nominee in 2016.

That hasn’t changed in the White House, where Trump continues to crave attention and approval from news media figures. Trump huddled in the Oval Office with Matt Drudge, the reclusive operator of the influential Drudge Report, to talk about his administration and the site. Drudge and Kushner have also begun to communicate frequently, said people familiar with the conversations. Drudge, whose visits to the White House haven’t previously been reported, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Several senior administration aides said Trump loves nothing more than talking to reporters – no matter what he says about the “failing” New York Times or CNN – and he often seems personally stung by negative coverage, cursing and yelling at the TV. Kushner, too, sometimes calls TV personalities and executives, in particular MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, according to people close to the Trump son-in-law. (It didn’t go unnoticed in the West Wing that, at the height of the Kushner-Bannon war, the Drudge Report and Scarborough’s Morning Joe had an anti-Bannon flair to their coverage.)

If the goal of most administrations has been to set the media agenda for the day, it’s often the reverse in Trump’s White House, where what the president hears on the cable morning gabfests on Fox News, MSNBC and CNN can redirect his attention, schedule and agenda. The three TVs in the chief-of-staff’s office sometimes dictate the 8 a.m. meeting – and are always turned on to cable news, West Wing officials say.

Behind the scenes, Trump – who beneath his confident veneer can be deeply sensitive to criticism – has been jolted when lawmakers took to TV to jab the president. If anyone had anything to say to the president, White House aides vented, they should do it with him personally – not from the camera. “If you go on TV and blast him, it’s over,” one senior administration official said.

Since taking office, Trump has 16 times tagged Fox and Friends, the network’s morning show, in his tweets, and countless other times weighed in on whatever they were talking about on air. After Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings went on Morning Joe and asked the president to call him, Trump did. After Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher defended Trump in an early Saturday morning Fox News hit, Trump called him moments later, inviting him to an Oval Office meeting. And after news segments, Trump will sometimes call his own advisers to discuss what he saw.

No slight is too small to ignore. West Wing staffers have even fumed about news coverage of the Easter Egg Roll. First, it was that Trump’s White House wouldn’t be smart enough to pull it off. Then, it was that no one would be there. And after the Easter Egg Roll went off without a hitch, “no one wanted to give us any credit,” said one senior administration official.

It is part of a siege mentality that has taken hold, from the president down, with Trump and his associates believing their coverage has stayed just as bad — or gotten worse — since the campaign ended in November. Senior administration officials said they’ve never seen Trump angrier than when the media focused its attention on the crowd size at his inauguration.

The darkest cloud shadowing the West Wing has been continuous questions about the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia.

The FBI director testified he is investigating Trump associates for possible collusion with a hostile foreign power, Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned over his interactions with the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Attorney General Jeff Sessions ultimately had to recuse himself from his own department’s investigation after he failed to disclose his own conversations with Kislyak.

“If we have a good day, then within 48 hours there’s a Russia story,” said another senior administration official. “That’s just how it works.”

The news about Sessions’ interaction with the Russian ambassador came the day after Trump’s widely praised speech to a joint session of Congress. And it stomped on any momentum the White House had, especially Trump’s trip to an aircraft carrier later that week. At the end of the week, after Sessions recused himself from the probe, Trump exploded at his aides about his frustrations.


Yet Trump was grinning in his office last week. He wanted to pose for pictures behind the cleaned-off Resolute desk and in front of his gold curtains. He has posed for hundreds of pictures there – sometimes with a grin, sometimes with a thumbs-up – and has guests stand behind him. He seemed a man of few worries — even though his aides were back out pushing a high-stakes health care vote, the government was one week from shutting down and North Korea was continuing its provocations.

The fact that 100 days, as a marker, has no legal or actual significance outside the media has not seemed to matter to Trump. While he has publicly derided the deadline as “ridiculous” on Twitter, he has decidedly reshuffled his schedule, priorities and agenda in the last two weeks to notch political points, knowing the deadline would get inordinate media coverage.

He has repeatedly pressed aides to have a health care vote before Saturday. He surprised his own staff by promising a tax reform plan by this week and urged them to round out his list of accomplishments. He has maintained an aggressive calendar, wooing conservative outlets and traditional reporters alike.

He told aides this week needed to be a busy one — just as he told them after his inauguration.

In days 1 through 10, it was executive orders on a federal hiring freeze, abortions abroad, withdrawing from an Asian trade deal and the explosive immigration order barring immigrants from certain Muslim-majority countries. He got into a diplomatic row with Australia, one of America’s closest allies. The immigration order sparked international protests and was stopped in court. Trump later told advisers he regretted how it was handled.

In days 90 through 100, it was a flurry of executive orders. He got into a diplomatic row with Canada, one of America’s closest allies, threatening a trade war. He moved toward unwinding NAFTA. “There is no way we can do everything he wants to do this week,” one senior official said.

“Trump is a guy of action. He likes to move,” said Chris Ruddy, a close friend. “He doesn’t necessarily worry about all the collateral damage or the consequences.”

White House officials say they now have a more deliberative process of decision-making. Issues don’t go to his desk until they’ve had a thorough vetting in at least three meetings. Aides have cautioned him to slow down and have told him everything is not possible in his time frame. Sometimes, administration officials say, he listens and takes the news well. Sometimes, he keeps the demands going.

Trump may be learning and adjusting. But he is still Trump. On Saturday, he’ll celebrate his 100th day in office by boycotting the traditional White House Correspondents’ Dinner in favor of a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The rallies, which remind him of the campaign trail, often improve his mood, several people close to him say. “I will be holding a BIG rally in Pennsylvania,” he tweeted by way of announcement. “Look forward to it!”

Ben White contributed to this report.

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Underground Comics on Exhibit at Washington State University

Historians at Washington State University recently discovered a treasure trove of underground culture publications hidden in the school’s archive. The accidental finding consists of comix, as alternative comic books are known, pamphlets and paperback books dating back to the days when the counterculture revolution swept across the United States after World War II.


Adam Whittier was attending a conference at WSU when he learned about the extensive collection of comix and independent counterculture publications kept by the school. Since these are materials that do not conform to the Dewey decimal system of classification, librarians kept the publications in a separate section that is not easily found by the public.


Whittier enlisted the help of a historian to organize the materials into an exhibit named A Life Underground, which will run for three weeks in April. Whittier is a student majoring in WSU’s Digital Technology and Culture program and a fan of comix; he was surprised at the breadth of the collection held by his own school, and his discovery also surprised university historians.


Since the 1980s, two comix collectors have been donating material to WSU: Lynn Hansen, a reviewer of independent press publications, and Steve Willis, a cartoonist. Willis was responsible for introducing comix to the WSU library system, and he initially had to do it in an underground fashion.


Historian Robert Franklin explained that the American counterculture movement was greatly advanced by the U.S. Postal Service and the availability of photocopiers. Many of the topics handled by underground cartoonists were politically subversive and taboo, which meant that traditional publishers would not touch them for fear that of running into censorship or damaging their reputations.


The exhibit of comix and other underground publications aims to motivate WSU students and the public to learn more about this amazing collection and how authors circumvented the government and the establishment to publish and distribute works that would have been subject to censorship. These days, underground authors can easily reach audiences through the internet; this exhibit offers a glimpse at how the counterculture revolution inspired authors to create and distribute thought-provoking materials.


Trump tax plan heavy on promises, light on details

President Donald Trump’s eagerly awaited tax reform plan arrived Wednesday as a one-page sheet of mostly general principles, largely repackaging ideas from his presidential campaign with a promise to deliver the nation’s biggest tax cut ever.

The rollout was hastily arranged after Trump took Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and other White House officials by surprise last week when he promised a “big announcement” on tax reform would be coming this Wednesday. But what Mnuchin and top economic adviser Gary Cohn presented at a White House briefing will do little, if anything, to move the ball forward on tax reform.

The announcement included a big tax cut for businesses, to 15 percent; a more modest cut and fewer tax brackets for individuals; doubling the standard deduction; and providing tax relief to help pay for child and dependent care expenses.

At the same time, the plan would get rid of some taxes that mostly hit the wealthy, and likely Trump himself, including the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax, while promising to “Eliminate targeted tax breaks that mainly benefit the wealthiest taxpayers.”

The plan would retain deductions for mortgage interest and charitable donations but get rid of all others, including for the state and local taxes Americans pay and for health insurance they get from employers — both controversial ideas.

“What this is about is creating jobs and creating economic growth,” Mnuchin said at the White House. “And that’s why massive tax cuts and massive tax reform and simplifying the system is what we’re going to do.”

Throughout the week, officials put out conflicting statements about what would be in the tax package, and one official told POLITICO that the plan hadn’t been written by late Tuesday afternoon. The unveiling seemed intended to give Trump another thing he could point to as the traditional 100-day mark for measuring presidential achievements looms and some of his top priorities — including repealing and replacing Obamacare — remain undone.

As reporters peppered Mnuchin and Cohn with questions about the finer points, Cohn said, “We’ll get back to you with definitive answers on all these details.”

The rollout is likely to underwhelm, or frustrate, House Republicans who have been working on their own tax reform for months and waiting for clarity on where Trump stands on crucial details. That includes a controversial “border adjustment” tax on imports that lawmakers are counting on to generate more than $1 trillion to offset the cost of tax cuts.

Cohn and Mnuchin said they’d be in constant dialogue with lawmakers to remake U.S. tax laws based on four principles: reduced rates, simplification, middle-class tax cuts and getting American businesses with foreign earnings to bring home that money.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch released a statement that said Trump’s outline “will serve as critical guideposts for Congress and the administration as we work together to overhaul the American tax system.”

Democrats were scornful.

“This is an unprincipled tax plan that will result in cuts for the one percent, conflicts for the President, crippling debt for America and crumbs for the working people,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Finance Committee.

Mnuchin has tried to sell the plan as largely aimed at providing tax relief to the middle class. Doubling the standard deduction, for instance, would raise it to $12,600 for single filers and $25,200 for married couples filing jointly, based on the deduction for 2016.

Though mortgage and charitable deductions would remain in place, those higher thresholds for the standard deduction have caused worries in the real estate and charitable communities, which count on the two targeted deductions to boost home sales and incentivize giving. They fear a larger standard deduction would take some of the luster off the mortgage and charitable deductions.

For high-income individuals, the plan would get rid of the 3.8 percent tax on investment income that helps pay for Obamacare.

It proposes three individual tax brackets of 10 percent, 25 percent and 35 percent, the latter being slightly higher than 33 percent called for in the House Republican plan.

Trump’s plan has also broken with House Republicans on other areas, in large measure over how and whether to offset the cost of the tax cuts.

“This will pay for itself with growth and with … reduction of different deductions and closing loopholes,” Mnuchin said.

But the 15 percent tax rate for all businesses seems mathematically impossible without deeply slashing other tax benefits or cutting spending, both politically difficult.

Trump’s low proposed rate for non-corporate companies, down from Ryan’s 25 percent proposal, has also been criticized as potentially ripe for fraud and abuse.

On taxing U.S. companies’ income earned abroad, Trump is pushing to harmonize the U.S. with most of the world, where income is only taxed where it’s earned, not when it’s also brought into the U.S. That marks a shift from Trump’s campaign ideas on the issue.

Also on international income, the Trump plan would require a one-time tax on the estimated $2.6 trillion in earnings that corporations have kept abroad under the current system, but doesn’t include a rate. That kind of detail will require continued conversation with Congress, Mnuchin said, promising a competitive rate.

“We are moving as quickly as we can,” he said.

But what’s not mentioned — Ryan’s import tax idea known as border adjustments – is notable. Ryan signaled he wants to salvage the idea in some form.

“We all agree that in its present form it needs to be modified,” he said.

One thing sure to draw the attention of Democrats and other critics of the plan in coming days is how the plan would affect Trump and the numerous wealthy members of his administration.

Trump, his family and his wealthiest advisers are all in position to personally profit from the new tax plan — through the elimination of the alternative minimum and estate taxes, the lower tax rate for businesses that aren’t incorporated and the elimination of Obamacare taxes.

Deciphering their exact savings is a challenge considering limits on publicly available tax and other financial information. Trump has broken with decades of presidential tradition by refusing to release his tax returns.

“Clearly, getting rid of the AMT is a hands-down winner for all of them,” said Joann Weiner, a former Treasury Department economist and current George Washington University professor.

Trump officials sidestepped questions about the potential personal benefit from their tax plans.

“I can’t comment on the president’s tax situation since I don’t have access to that,” Mnuchin told reporters.

But at the same time, he said Americans have “plenty of information” on Trump’s taxes and should not expect to see the president’s tax returns made public.

Darren Samuelsohn contributed to this report.

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Wall Street unimpressed by Trump tax plan

NEW YORK — Wall Street shrugged off President Donald Trump’s tax plan announcement on Wednesday as investors decided the policies were already well known while the future of a sweeping overhaul remains deeply uncertain even with Republicans in full control in Washington.

Stocks barely moved as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn spoke for 30 minutes about a one-page paper on Trump’s tax plan that largely mirrored what the president promised during the campaign and lacked many key details.

There were some changes from the campaign plan, including a different set of rates for individual taxpayers. Trump also suggested ending the federal deduction for state and local taxes, a change that would slam residents in high-tax states including New York, New Jersey and California. The prospects for such a major change to the tax code are slim. And the boldest elements in the plan, including a cut in the top corporate rate from 35 percent to 15, percent have been known for months.

Details including how to make up for the trillions in lost revenue from slashing corporate taxes were left to another day. The Dow, S&P 500 and Nasdaq indices were all largely unchanged in afternoon trading after the tax announcement.

Market gains may also have been limited by a POLITICO report earlier in the day that Trump could pull the U.S. out of NAFTA, which could affect big companies that rely on Mexico for parts of their supply chain.

But mostly traders and money managers said the announcement was underwhelming.

“There is really not much new here and there still is no clear path to getting this through Congress,” said Douglas Kass of hedge fund Seabreeze Partners. “There is little chance of this being introduced in Congress anywhere near the context in which it’s been proposed today given the likely deficit unfriendly implications. There will be heated opposition including from some quarters within Trump’s own party.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and other Congressional GOP leaders spoke on Wednesday of their broad agreement with Trump’s desire to lower corporate and individual tax rates.

“The principles outlined by the Trump Administration today will serve as critical guideposts for Congress and the Administration as we work together to overhaul the American tax system,” Ryan said in a statement along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and leaders of the tax writing committees.

But the widely held view on Wall Street now is that Congress will only be able to manage a modest cut in the corporate rate funded at least in part with revenue from a repatriation of foreign earnings currently held abroad.

And stock market valuations, which rose sharply after Trump’s election, already reflect the belief that a more modest plan will pass, limiting the ability for any gains following Wednesday’s rollout.

“This was about ticking a box ahead of the first 100 days and overall it’s pretty much a shrug today,” said Michael Obuchowski of Merlin Asset Management. “But this is at least a move in the direction of showing that the administration will put pressure on to get at least something done this year. And if you have generally lower corporate tax rates, money coming back from offshore and less regulation, that’s pretty stimulative.”

While any final tax plan may include some increased revenue, there is also concern among market analysts that giant unfunded tax cuts may not produce the kind of growth Republicans are counting on and could increase deficits and further bloat a federal debt that is already over $19 trillion.

Mnuchin and Cohn pledged that any tax overhaul would reduce the nation’s debt-to-GDP ratio but they offered few details about how that would occur, repeatedly promising to fill in details in the months ahead as they work with Congress on putting together actual legislation. Higher debt and deficits tend to lead to higher interest rates that can limit economic growth.

“Markets are waiting for three things. The first one is details of the plan, the second is prospects for passage and the third is how the high stakes game between growth and debt plays out,” said Mohamed A. El-Erian, chief economic adviser at Allianz. “What we know from history is that tax cuts alone are not sufficient to promote growth.”

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5 things to know about Trump's tax plan

Though it broke little new ground, President Donald Trump’s tax reform outline underscores just how arduous a task overhauling the tax code could be for Republicans this year. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, handed out a one-page overview of the plan Wednesday — and told reporters that the administration had to fill in many of the key details that make overhauling the tax code so difficult that it’s happened only a handful of times over the last century.

Here are five things to know about the newest version of Trump’s tax plan:

What’s in it?

Trump released a couple tax plans during the campaign, with the most recent coming around seven months ago. Many of the details released Wednesday haven’t changed since that September plan, including proposals to cut the top tax rate for all businesses to 15 percent and to repeal the estate tax and alternative minimum tax.

But some changes have been made, including a couple major ones. Trump now proposes a so-called territorial tax system that shields offshore corporate income from U.S. taxation, a key priority for corporate America. The top tax rate on individuals is also slightly higher than in Trump’s last plan, moving to 35 percent from 33 percent, while tax incentives like the deduction for state and local taxes would get the ax. And the Trump team seeks to double the standard deduction claimed by most taxpayers, which is still smaller than what the campaign sought in September.

How’s it different from what Congress wants?

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and the House’s top tax writer, Kevin Brady (R-Texas), have taken to saying that their tax blueprint is about 80 percent in sync with the White House’s. The two sides disagree on the border-adjusted tax — applied to imports but not exports — that is central to the House blueprint, the House plan has a 20 percent rate for businesses and a 33 percent top rate for individuals, and Trump wants to go after an Obamacare tax on investment income for higher earners that GOP leaders would like to tackle in an Affordable Care Act replacement.

But there is quite a bit of overlap between the two plans, including a territorial system and a repeal of the estate tax and the AMT. Ryan, Brady, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch released a statement that said Wednesday’s details “will serve as critical guideposts for Congress and the administration as we work together to overhaul the American tax system.”

How much does it cost?

Short answer: Impossible to say right now. Both the conservative Tax Foundation and the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center projected that Trump’s last campaign plan would cost in the neighborhood of $6 trillion over a decade.

Still, there are projections for individual pieces of Trump’s earlier plan that got carried over to Wednesday — for instance, the Tax Policy Center projects that a 15 percent rate for both corporations and businesses that pay taxes through their owners’ returns would cost a combined $3.4 trillion over 10 years. But Roberton Williams of the Tax Policy Center said that the changes to the plan’s standard deduction and to which tax breaks would be scrapped meant the group’s previous analysis was “no longer relevant.”

Nonetheless, Williams said it’s a fair bet that the Trump plan would pile up more debt, even though there are a lot of details that need to be filled in. And that could cause problems for Republicans’ ability to pass the plan, at least on a permanent basis. Democrats aren’t expected to back a GOP tax overhaul, meaning that Republicans will likely have to rely on budget rules that allow them to pass fiscal measures with 51 votes in the Senate. But because of how those rules are structured, the GOP would also find it very difficult to pass anything that raises deficits outside a 10-year budget window — something which might eventually force the Trump administration to tone down their ambitions.

Mnuchin reiterated Wednesday the administration’s assertion that the tax plan would essentially pay for itself, though there are doubts that Congress’ official scorekeeper would see it that way.

Who does it help?

Corporations have for years said they are hamstrung by America’s top 35 percent corporate rate, which is among the highest in the industrialized world. The businesses that pay through individual side of the tax code, known as pass-throughs, have said for just as long that they want to pay the same rate as corporations. Both are likely to be thrilled with a 15 percent rate.

And while the Trump administration only calls for a modest reduction in the top rate for individuals, many top earners — lawyers, doctors and hedge fund executives, for instance — would reap the benefit of the 15 percent rate for all businesses. That low rate would also likely help Trump and his family, as would potentially some other proposals in the president’s plan. Trump would scrap the AMT, which his leaked 2005 tax return shows cost him $31 million that year.

The Trump administration has said that cutting taxes for the middle-class is one of its major goals, and Mnuchin vowed Wednesday that the average family would see their tax burden go down. But liberal fiscal analysts have long said that they believe Trump’s plans would raise taxes for many working-class families, largely by ending personal deductions, and that Wednesday’s update did little to change their thinking.

What holes have to be filled?

Lots and lots — and these are the kinds of details that can easily trip up a tax reform effort. Mnuchin and Cohn said Wednesday that the administration was still working through a lot of top-level details, including at which income levels to set their three individual tax rates and whether independent contractors would pay the 15 percent business rate.

But there’s a lot more where that came from. On the territorial tax proposal, the administration would need to write rules to keep companies from stashing income offshore and away from the Treasury’s reach. The House plan used the border adjustment for that purpose, but Mnuchin said Wednesday that provision needs improvements and the administration has yet to publicly offer any alternatives.

Rules would also need to be written to keep taxpayers from gaming the 15 percent business rate, but Mnuchin would only say Wednesday that “what this is not going to be is a loophole for rich people.”

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The big winners from Trump’s business tax cut

Will the Trump administration’s proposed cut in small-business taxes create a windfall for the rich?

The new tax proposal released by the White House today—“the biggest tax cut and the largest tax reform in the history of our country,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin declared—promises to cut the corporate tax rate to 15 percent, and also cut to 15 percent another business rate called the “pass-through” rate. This is how most of America’s small-business owners pay their taxes. By reducing it, Trump promises to put more money in pockets of America’s small business owners, allowing them to expand their operations and hire more workers.

But if it passes, that new lower tax rate is likely to benefit mom-and-pop businesses far less than it helps the ultra-rich. That’s because it’s actually the rich who earn most small business income. In 2016, according to estimates from the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, the top 1 percent of small businesses earned 50.8 percent of all small business income—and the slice at the very top, the top 0.1 percent of small businesses, earned a whopping 22.8 percent of the money. (The bottom 20 percent, in comparison, received just 4.1 percent of such income.)

The secret about small businesses in the United States is that the really profitable ones aren’t your mom-and-pop shops, the kind of local carpenter or family restaurant that politicians love to visit and talk about. Most of the money in the small-business tax category is earned by a tiny subset of extremely profitable businesses—many in finance—whose owners are in the top of the income distribution, and would be the largest beneficiaries of Trump’s tax plan.

When tax experts talk about small business taxes, they have something specific in mind: entities whose income is “passed through” from the business to the individual owner and taxed according to the individual side of the tax code. So-called “pass-through” businesses generally fall into one of three categories—S-corporations, sole proprietorships and partnerships. They aren’t always that small: S-corporations can have up to 100 shareholders, while partnerships can have an unlimited number of partners and hundreds or thousands of employees.

The pass-through structure has proven increasingly popular in the United States because of the country’s high statutory corporate tax rate of 35 percent. Companies structured this way can “pass through” their earnings and have partners pay at their personal rates, which are often lower than they’d pay under the corporate tax system. And the tax rate on corporate owners can stack up: A company first pays its normal corporate taxes and then its owners—shareholders—pay investment taxes on their dividends and capital gains. As individual tax rates have fallen, the ability to pass income through to the individual side of the tax code, avoiding the corporate side entirely, has proven more and more enticing.

Thus pass-throughs have come to represent a growing share of the American private sector. According to a recent paper by Treasury Department economist Michael Cooper and seven co-authors that used administrative tax data, the share of total business income that accrues to pass-throughs rose from less than 25 percent in 1980 to more than half in 2012. In particular, partnerships have grown from near non-existence in the 1980s to a major business structure today.

Who exactly are the owners of these pass-throughs? There isn’t great overall data on this. Many are small proprietors like an auto mechanic or restaurant owner. There’s more clarity on partnerships. Americans might think of local law firms or doctors’ offices when they think of partnerships, but the Cooper paper finds that about 70 percent of partnership income came from the finance industry or holding companies. Just 11 percent came from professional services, which includes lawyers, and 4.1 percent came from the health care industry. It’s impossible to say more specifically about the financial firms or holding companies that are structured as pass-throughs, but it’s clear they aren’t your local corner store. The paper also has another stark finding on partnerships: Of the partnership income, 69 percent accrues to the top 1 percent of households.

Of course, that is only one of the three main types of pass-throughs. It says nothing about sole proprietorships or S-corps. But other data from the Tax Policy Center provide even more evidence for how the rich benefit from pass-throughs. According to its estimates, in 2016, 94 percent of partnership and S-corp income went to the top 20 percent; nearly 70 percent went to the top 1 percent. As for sole proprietorships, which can have just one owner and include many traditional mom-and-pop stores, more than half of income from such entities accrued to the top fifth. The bottom 20 percent received around 11 percent of sole proprietorship income.

For people worried about income inequality, pass-throughs are becoming an important topic. Last week, two economists released a paper that looked at top income inequality over the past few decades, and found that the top 1 percent and top 0.1 percent of Americans haven’t actually been taking home a greater share of the overall American paycheck—wages and other compensation—since 2000; that trend has been surprisingly flat. But the richest Americans—especially the top 0.01 percent—are earning a greater share of pass-through income. If you want to see where the rise in income inequality is located, that’s where to look. “It really comes from a lot of income flowing through S-Corps to the very, very, very rich, said Fatih Guvenen, an economist at the University of Minnesota and a co-author of the paper. “The top 0.01 percent.”

This brings us back to Trump’s proposed cut in the tax rate on pass-throughs. Nearly 70 percent of small businesses already pay taxes at a marginal rate of 15 percent or lower, which means that Trump’s plan won’t help them at all. The businesses poised to reap the biggest return are the small fraction that paid a marginal rate above 30 percent. Though such businesses represent a tiny slice of the total number—just 2.4 percent of pass-throughs, about 910,000 in total—they earned more than 50 percent of pass-through income last year. It’s those businesses that will see huge increases in their after-tax earnings under Trump’s plan.

Stephen Moore, the conservative economist who helped Trump write his tax plan during the presidential campaign, says that the goal of a low pass-through rate is to encourage small businesses to invest more, benefiting workers. “We don’t want rich people to walk off with more money,” he said in an interview. Moore suggested that there could be a penalty for firms that don’t re-invest the tax windfall in their businesses. “You could potentially have a thing where if you take it out, you’re taxed at dividend or personal income tax rate,” he said. “But if you put income back into the company, then you would get the lower rate.” That’s basically how corporate taxes currently work.

Many people worry that changing the pass-through rate will also create a new loophole for the wealthy, encouraging them to reclassify their income as small business income to avoid the now-higher individual tax rates. Trump’s proposal would have just three rates on the individual side, at 10, 25 and 35 percent, so wealthy people could reduce their tax burden by getting paid as small businesses instead. The government promises that this won’t happen, though hasn’t specified rules for how it would be prevented.

Even if those to-be-determined rules work, the overall portrait of American small businesses suggests that Trump’s 15 percent pass-through rate is unlikely to encourage mom-and-pop shops across America to hire new workers or expand their store. Most of them already pay low taxes, and thus won’t benefit from Trump’s plan. The huge windfall—nearly $900 billion over 10 years, according to the Tax Policy Center—would go to the small subset of Americans who have been already been some of the biggest winners of the modern economy.

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