The Cash-Value of Trump's Weakness

Americans are paying it during tax season.

It’s tax season, so I wanted to amplify reporting that might be important to you.

It comes from the peerless Dan Freedman. He’s a national editor for Hearst’s Washington Bureau. He and other reporters from regional papers sat down with Donald Trump to discuss the impact on readers of the GOP tax code overhaul.

Freedman reminded the president the new law limits deductions for state and local taxes to $10,000. (It also raises the standard deduction and child tax credits, but those aren’t enough for people living and working in high-tax high-cost states like New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.) After Freedman said the “the SALT deduction was an issue for middle-class people upstate,” Trump “expressed surprise.”

“It affects wealthy people,” Trump said.

Wrong.

“After a reporter said that working middle-class homeowners looked to the SALT deduction to make ends meet, Trump said that he might be open to making changes.”

Before I go on, let me say Trump is not going to do anything. He punted. He said any change must originate in the House. That’s false. The president can ask Congress to debate any issue he likes. The Democrats might be happy to make changes. Not a single one voted for the overhaul. Would the Republicans? Don’t count on it.

That’s not my point. My point is twofold. One, the president did not understand what he signed into law. He did not understand, or could not understand, that the law would, in effect, raise taxes for those residing in high-cost states, including a lot of Republicans. (I have argued this factor contributed to Democrat Ned Lamont’s victory for Connecticut governor. He was the only candidate willing to fight the law.)

My other point is Trump is profoundly weak. A strong president would not have been so eager to notch “a win” that he believed whatever pap Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell spoon-fed him about consequential details of a law. A strong president would have found ways of bringing in the opposing party so that if things go south, both parties can share the blame and the burden of making things right.

Being a weak president matters in the abstract. You never know how he will act when cornered. He might plunge the country into war to avoid problems at home. But it matters concretely, too. Presidential weakness has cold hard cash-value.

It bears repeating that the candidate who campaigned for president as the only man mighty enough to solve America’s problems is the feeblest president in our lifetimes.

He does not know how to negotiate. He does not bother to persuade. He cannot tolerate correction. He will not permit himself to acknowledge error. Or learn from mistakes. He won’t admit to being humiliated when everyone else can see it.

Important, too, is that he does not put in the work needed to lead a party. (Axios reported over the weekend that 60 percent of his workday is spent watching TV, tweeting or calling friends.) The result has been a political party leading him. Instead of infrastructure or a border wall, he began his tenure with a failed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act followed by massive tax breaks for corporations and the rich.

Worse is that he can’t lead the United States government. Cabinet secretaries self-deal, pursue agendas, or ignore him. The Pentagon does not listen to him. (He said we were fully pulling out of Syria, but we’re not.) White House aides savage him daily in the press, further eroding his credibility among lawmakers. This weakness creates conditions in which bureaucrats make decisions that can lethally wound him.

Which brings me back to taxes. Turns out SALT deductions aren’t the only way Americans are going to feel like their taxes have gone up instead of down. It turns out this feeling is happening in blue and red states. Instead of Congress setting withholding rates on income, the US Treasury Department did. That means that for some, their withholding rate is lower than their tax cut. The result is that some tax-filers who are accustomed to getting tax returns in the spring will owe, bigly.

I trust Vox’s Matt Yglesias is correct. The Department of the Treasury thought these new withholding rates were more equitable. But it’s hard to imagine such a tweak happening under a strong president with real influence over the bureaucracy who would have understood the impact of people owing more in taxes.

The tax law played a larger role in the midterms than is usually noted. Republicans loses in three states feeling the most pain—California, New York and New Jersey—accounted for a third of all GOP loses. Moreover, two of the law’s architects, former US Reps. Erik Paulsen of Minnesota and Peter Roskam of Illinois, were unseated.

That was mostly about SALT deductions. Withholding rates affect every state.

The floor of Trump’s support holds steady at 40 percent. But the president has now given supporters a reason to doubt him. And once doubt sets in, it tends to grow.

—John Stoehr


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—JS


A very special local event!

The Editorial Board is partnering with the New Haven Review and the Institute Library to bring writers and thinkers together to explore key issues in civic life.

We’re calling it Politics in Plain English.

Our first event is titled “Everything You Wanted to Know about Impeachment, But Were Afraid to Ask.” Dan Freedman, Washington, D.C., national editor for Hearst newspapers will join Bill Scher, contributing editor for POLITICO Magazine, to examine the possibilities, prospects, and politics of Trump’s impeachment. 

Date: Tuesday, February 12. 
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Location: 847 Chapel St., New Haven, Conn.
Cost: $10 suggested donation.
RSVPclick here

If you live in the New York metro area, please come if you can.

I’d love to meet you!

—JS


Listen up!

I was a guest on the Rick Smith Show last night talking about Wednesday edition of the Editorial Board, in which I said the biggest thing lacking in the SOTU was trust.

Click hear to listen.

—JS