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The White House admits that the GOP’s tax cuts are, in fact, aimed at the wealthy.

The tax reform bills moving through Congress right now are gigantic corporate tax cuts that, according to experts, would raise taxes for tens of millions of individual Americans over the next ten years. But while these bills are designed to give breaks to rich people and corporations, Republicans have followed the standard GOP playbook of insisting that what they’re really doing is helping the middle class. In the House version, over half the cuts would go to the richest fifth of all taxpayers, so Republicans are essentially arguing that these benefits will trickle down in the form of more jobs and higher wages. But the trick is to not say this, and instead pretend that the bill directly provides benefits to middle class taxpayers.

“The focus is on middle class tax relief,” Paul Ryan said a week ago. “The focus is on directing that tax relief to the people in the middle and the people who are trying to get there. And that is why we put our emphasis on that tax relief for those people who are in the middle.” President Trump, who clearly doesn’t have a great handle on the legislation, has echoed this line in his inimitable way, reportedly wanting to call the bill the Cut Cut Cut Act.

But White House adviser Gary Cohn struggled with this simple piece of obfuscation in a conversation with CNBC’s John Harwood:

Harwood: You’re not saying, as you did a few weeks ago, that the wealthy do not get a tax cut under your plan?

Cohn: No. I’m saying there’s unique situations to everyone out there. Everyone has their own story. It’s not our intention to give the wealthy a tax cut.

Harwood: But they’re getting one.

Cohn: I don’t believe that we’ve set out to create a tax cut for the wealthy. If someone’s getting a tax cut, I’m not upset that they’re getting a tax cut. I’m really not upset....

Harwood: Your old colleague, Steve Bannon, says, “Ask him why they didn’t design a tax plan focused on average Trump voters.” And when I talked to Larry Summers, who’s your predecessor at the NEC, also Treasury secretary, he said, ‘Look, they’re doing what their money wants.’

Cohn: They’re entitled to their opinions.

Harwood: Why are they wrong?

Cohn: We have achieved our objectives. We are delivering a middle income tax cut.... We are lowering corporate taxes to make ourselves competitive with the world....

We create wage inflation, which means the workers get paid more; the workers have more disposable income, the workers spend more. And we see the whole trickle-down through the economy, and that’s good for the economy.

Here Cohn exemplifies the convoluted intellectual justification for this bill, which is that lowering the corporate tax rate will trickle down to middle-income earners, even though there’s no real evidence that this will happen. Cohn’s belief, expressed elsewhere in the interview, that cutting taxes will mean that corporations will return to the United States is similarly overly optimistic, if not downright cynical. But what’s really notable here is that Cohn gives the game away: This is a trickle-down bill, in which the majority of the benefits go to the wealthy.

April 16, 2018

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Michael Cohen’s mystery client is none other than Sean Hannity.

The Fox News host is infamous for his zealous defense of President Donald Trump against all manner of foes and scandals. The bond between the two men now appears to be more than ideological: Cohen’s lawyers revealed in a federal court in New York City on Monday that Hannity is the previously unnamed third client of the president’s longtime personal lawyer (the other two are former RNC official Elliott Broidy and Trump himself). The legal matters on which Hannity received counsel from Cohen are currently unknown.

The revelation comes as Cohen and Trump try to convince a judge to shield their communications from federal investigators, who carried out a surprise raid on Cohen’s office, home, and hotel room last week for evidence in a criminal investigation. That probe began with a referral from special counsel Robert Mueller to the federal prosecutor’s office in Manhattan. That office is now reportedly looking into potential bank fraud and campaign-finance violations by Cohen.

Hannity is the Russia investigation’s most persistent and misleading critic, using his nightly television perch on Fox News to accuse Mueller and other Justice Department officials of acting as a “deep state” working to illegitimately bring down Trump’s presidency. Trump occasionally urges his supporters via Twitter to watch the show when it airs. During his first episode after the raid last week, Hannity described the search of Cohen’s office in similarly bombastic terms.

This is an unprecedented abuse of power,” Hannity warned in his opening monologue. “It needs to be countered and countered immediately.” Later, he declared that it was vital to “investigate [Mueller’s] team of partisan witch hunters” for “trying to overturn a duly elected president.” At no point did Hannity note that he had also sought and received legal advice from Cohen, or that his own legal affairs could be caught up in the investigation.

Updated on April 16 at 5:21 p.m. ET

April 13, 2018

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Trump’s politicized pardons are the rule, not the exception.

The president on Friday pardoned Scooter Libby, a former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney who was convicted in 2007 for lying to the FBI and a federal grand jury about leaking an undercover CIA operative’s identity. (George W. Bush had partially commuted Libby’s sentence, sparing him jail time, but rebuffed pressure from Cheney and other conservatives to issue a full pardon.)

Trump’s decision fits a distinct pattern. While George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and other presidents all used the constitutional power of mercy to benefit their political allies from time to time, Trump almost exclusively uses pardons to favor his supporters and infuriate his adversaries, not to alleviate injustices.

This trend began last August with the pardon of Joe Arpaio, an Arizona sheriff and enthusiastic political supporter of Trump who had defied a judge’s order in a racial-profiling lawsuit. Last month, Trump wiped away the sentence for Kristian Saucier, a Navy sailor convicted of illegally photographing a nuclear submarine’s top-secret propulsion system. Trump invoked Saucier’s case on the campaign trail to criticize Hillary Clinton, whom he also accused of mishandling classified information. Only Trump’s decision last December to commute a life sentence for an Iowa meatpacking executive enjoyed bipartisan support.

Friday’s pardon of Libby also sends a thinly veiled message of support to Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller in the Russia investigation. Wiping away Libby’s conviction for lying and for obstruction of justice during a special prosecutor’s high-profile inquiry is hardly a subtle move.

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The president is in a rage over James Comey’s book.

A Higher Loyalty drops on Tuesday, but, in keeping with longstanding publishing tradition, the good bits have already been selectively leaked to outlets in advance. We’ve learned that the former FBI director compares Trump to a mafia boss, that Trump’s “leadership is transactional, ego driven, and about personal loyalty,” and that Comey admits that the widespread belief that Clinton would become president may have played a role in his decision to announce that the FBI was reopening an investigation into her use of a private email server less than two weeks before the election.

We also learn that Trump was obsessed with the “pee tape,” the most salacious allegation in the infamous Steele Dossier. Comey writes that Trump “strongly denied the allegations, asking—rhetorically, I assumed—whether he seemed like a guy who needed the service of prostitutes. He then began discussing cases where women had accused him of sexual assault, a subject I had not raised. He mentioned a number of women, and seemed to have memorized their allegations.”

Trump took the bait, sending out two tweets attacking Comey on Friday morning.

But of course, Trump admitted, only days after Comey’s dismissal, that he really fired Comey over the Russia investigation.

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The backlash to the teachers’ strikes has arrived.

The Guardian reported on Thursday that a network of right-wing think tanks has released a how-guide to undermining teachers’ strikes. The State Policy Network, which is financed in part by the DeVos family, has long been antagonistic to teachers’ unions, an agenda reflected in its new messaging. “Top of the list of talking points is the claim that ‘teacher strikes hurt kids and low-income families.’ It advises anti-union campaigners to argue that ‘it’s unfortunate that teachers are protesting low wages by punishing other low-wage parents and their children,’” The Guardian reports.

The manual continues:

Rock star teachers deserve rock star pay. But the truth is, teachers’ unions and associations (name your state’s) fight policies that would allow good teachers to get paid what they deserve.

Forcing teachers onto the same pay scale, and basing that scale solely on the number of years teaching, means that our very worst teachers make just as much as our very best teachers. And it means that young teachers—even if they are the most effective teachers in a school district—make the least. That doesn’t make any sense. We should find a way that teachers and policymakers can agree to measure teacher effectiveness and pay good teachers what they deserve.

In fact, in states where teachers have recently walked out—that’s West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma, for now—new teachers were already paid least, and veteran teachers still weren’t making a living wage. Merit had nothing to do with it.

April 12, 2018

Scott Pruitt borrowed a few paintings from the Smithsonian. Here they are.

The EPA administrator has some museum art hanging in his office in Washington. That was perhaps the most benign detail in two letters released by congressional Democrats on Thursday that contain dozens of new allegations of excessive spending by Pruitt. Nonetheless, I decided to find out what they are.

The letters allege that Pruitt has been “paying leases for art on loan from the Smithsonian Institution” in order to decorate his office. That’s not true, according to Linda St. Thomas, the Smithsonian Institute’s chief spokesperson. She told me that the government has had a loan program for “I don’t know how long—forever,” and that “we do not charge.” Paintings and sculptures not on view in the museums are routinely loaned to members of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the White House, she said. The latter, for example, currently has a bronze sculpture of Martin Luther King, Jr. on display. “I believe there’s a Kennedy portrait as well,” St. Thomas said. She confirmed that President Barack Obama’s EPA administrators also loaned paintings from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

St. Thomas said Pruitt currently has three works of art on loan: A landscape from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and two portraits from the National Portrait Gallery. The landscape is a 1854 oil painting from William Lewis Sontag titled Mountain Landscape. It looks nice. (I don’t know a lot about art.)

William Louis Sonntag’s “Mountain Landscape” (1854)Smithsonian American Art Museum

The two portraits hanging in Pruitt’s office are of President James Monroe and former Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. Monroe is a relatively uncontroversial choice: founding father, lawyer, namesake of the Monroe Doctrine. Marshall is more indicative of Pruitt’s style, since the justice was, in the words of the conservative Heritage Foundation, “responsible for proclaiming the power of ‘judicial review,’ the authority of the Supreme Court to declare the decisions of other institutions of government unconstitutional.” (Pruitt sued the Obama administration’s EPA more than a dozen times to overturn regulations, often arguing that they ran afoul of the Constitution.)

The Monroe painting in Pruitt’s office in by James Herring, dated 1834, St. Thomas said. The Marshall painting is James Reid Lambdin, done after 1831.

Herring’s portrait of James Monroe (left) and Lambdin’s portrait of John MarshallNational Portrait Gallery

I’m not sure what these paintings say, if anything, about Pruitt’s taste. But they have nothing to do with his spending problem.

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Another bomb just dropped on Scott Pruitt—from a Trump ally.

A former top political aide to the Environmental Protection Administrator who describes himself as a Republican and loyalist to President Donald Trump is coming out swinging against his former boss. His newly public allegations of excessive spending, retaliation, and overall shady behavior at EPA could represent the most significant threat to Pruitt’s job yet.

The New York Times had previously reported that Kevin Chmielewski, Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff for operations, was placed on unpaid administrative leave after refusing to approve Pruitt’s requests expensive office furniture and first-class flights. Chmielewski has now confirmed this story in a wide-ranging conversation with congressional Democrats, the contents of which were published in letters Democrats sent to Pruitt and Trump on Thursday. Chmielewski also provided a wealth of new details about Pruitt’s myriad scandals—including one tense situation that culminated in Chmielewski filing a police report against the head of Pruitt’s security team.

Those details are contained within the letters published below, but a few notable ones: Chmielewski, who was among the first employees of Trump’s presidential campaign before he joined Pruitt’s office, said that he believes Pruitt retaliated against him for raising concerns about excessive spending on security, office decor, and first-class flights. (The decor, apparently, included art leased from the Smithsonian.) He said he overheard Pruitt speaking with Stephen J. Hart, the energy lobbyist who rented part of his condo to Pruitt for $50 per night, about concerns that Pruitt wasn’t paying his rent. Chmielewski said he had evidence that Pruitt knew about the huge raises given to his top aides in defiance of White House orders, despite Pruitt repeatedly claiming he had no idea about them. He also said he cooperated with the inquiry from Democrats because “regardless of political party, ‘right is right, and wrong is wrong,’” according to the letters.

4.12.2018 Letters to Trump and Pruitt from Democrats by Emily Atkin on Scribd

The significance of these claims stems from Chmielewski’s close relationship to Trump, who is the only reason Pruitt still has a job. During a campaign rally in April 2016, Trump personally called Chmielewski to the stage to praise him. “Where the hell is Kevin?” Trump said. “He’s a star.” He’s also not the only Republican raising concerns. Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said on Wednesday that Pruitt has not been adequately cooperating with his investigation of Pruitt’s scandals.

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The Republicans are scared of James Comey.

The Republican National Committee just unveiled a new website, LyinComey.com, to counter whatever allegations the former FBI director levels against President Donald Trump in his new book, which goes on sale next week. As CNN reports, the RNC is also buying digital ads and sending talking points sent to GOP politicians. This counter-information campaign is a sign of how worried Republicans are about Comey’s potential to inflict political damage—and is wholly unconvincing.

For example, the RNC’s Comey site says that he “stated under oath that he never posed as an anonymous source to leak information to the press,” then notes that he “later testified that he ‘asked a friend of [his] to share the content of the memo with a reporter.’” The presentation makes these two factual statements seem contradictory when they’re not. Comey testified in a May 3, 2017, congressional hearing that he had never been an anonymous source; he told lawmakers the following June that he sent his bombshell memos to The New York Times through an intermediary only after his May 9 ouster.

Those memos laid the groundwork for allegations that Trump obstructed justice by firing the FBI director. “Comey may use his book tour to push the phony narrative that President Trump obstructed the Russia investigation,” the website warns, citing Comey’s testimony last June in which he said Trump never ordered him to halt the Russia investigation. The framing is somewhat misleading, since legal experts believe the obstruction question instead revolves around Comey’s firing itself.

The website’s release comes after Comey taped an interview with ABC News that’s set to air on Sunday night. Axios quoted an unnamed source present during the interview who said that Comey “answered every question” posed to him. Hopefully that means he’ll respond to genuine lines of criticism against him, including his decision to investigate both Hillary Clinton and the Trump campaign during the 2016 election but only discuss one of those investigations in public.

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Another Trump hush-money scandal raises questions about his hidden debts.

The Associated Press is reporting that in early 2016 the National Enquirer paid Dino Sajudin, a doorman, $30,000 for the rights “in perpetuity” to a story he’d heard about Donald Trump’s sex life: that the president had fathered an illegitimate child with an employee at Trump World Tower, a skyscraper he owns near the United Nations.” The Enquirer never ran a story based on the information it received from Sajudin.

This recalls two earlier efforts by third parties to keep damaging information about Trump from coming to light. The Enquirer similarly paid $150,000 to silence former Playboy Playmate, Karen McDougal, who allegedly had an affair with Trump. And Michael Cohen, a longtime Trump lawyer, has admitted to paying $130,000 to adult-film actress Stephanie Clifford, better known as Stormy Daniels, who alleges she had sex with Trump early in his current marriage.

What’s disturbing about these stories is that they suggest Trump owes unknown chips to his benefactors. The Enquirer and Cohen presumably didn’t pay these settlements out of charity. The president has a personal, and perhaps financial, debt to unknown parties who are protecting him from scandal and possibly blackmail. In the wake of the FBI’s raid on Cohen’s office and residences, where investigators confiscated records pertaining to his payment to Clifford, these payouts could well present a major legal problem for Trump.

April 11, 2018

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Here’s another reason Scott Pruitt might not get fired.

A majority of Americans have no idea about the myriad scandals plaguing the Environmental Protection Agency administrator. Most of them don’t even know who he is, according to a new HuffPost/YouGov survey.

As I reported yesterday, Pruitt has survived these scandals in part because President Donald Trump still sees him as a political asset. “The president cares about his base and how they view Pruitt,” Trump’s former energy advisor, George David Banks, told me. “That may be the most important part of the job in the president’s eyes.” Trump’s supporters in West Virginia apparently told the president last week that they “love” Pruitt and don’t care about the allegations against him of corruption and taxpayer waste.

Pruitt is not just an asset to Trump in coal country. He’s also not a threat to Trump anywhere else. According to HuffPost, “Just a third of Trump voters ... say Pruitt has done anything wrong, and just 7 percent that his behavior casts an unflattering reflection on the president.” In other words, Pruitt’s scandals aren’t damaging Trump in any meaningful way, so the president might not see a compelling reason to fire him.

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Paul Ryan’s legacy will be a lasting one.

On Wednesday, after months of speculation, Ryan made it official: He will retire from Congress at the end of the term. “This morning Speaker Ryan shared with his colleagues that this will be his last year as a member of the House,” aide Brendan Buck said in a statement. “He will serve out his full term, run through the tape, and then retire in January. After nearly twenty years in the House, the speaker is proud of all that has been accomplished and is ready to devote more of his time to being a husband and a father.”

The line being pushed by Ryan’s camp is that, with the passage of last year’s $1.5 trillion tax bill, the Wisconsin Republican has no worlds left to conquer. This is stretching the truth some, given Ryan’s long-held ambition to overhaul entitlement programs like Medicaid. But the deficit increase that will follow the tax cut—a giveaway to corporations and the wealthy—does make Ryan’s dream of a large-scale reduction of public benefits more likely.

This is ultimately about politics. Ryan has been speaker since the fall of 2015, a tenure that has been marked by the rise of Donald Trump and constant threats of civil war within his caucus. For the last two and a half years, Ryan has repeatedly bowed to pressure from the right of his party and has, with the notable exception of the immediate aftermath of the Access Hollywood tape, refused to speak out against the president, let alone act to restrain him. Pressed to respond to the president’s bad tweets—or the status of the Dreamers, whom he had pledged to protect—Ryan has punted.

This will be the legacy of Ryan’s speakership. On the one hand, a massive upward redistribution of wealth and a steady erosion of the social safety net. On the other, a refusal to do anything to stop Trump.