Friday, March 23, 2018
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Fire and Fury, by Michael Wolff

Fire and Fury

Much Sound and Fury, No Substance

‘Fire and Fury’ is an entertaining read. Wolff’s rendition of palace intrigue and various goings on has been widely parsed and many have weighed in on the likely accuracy of Wolff’s account.

The problem with ‘Fire and Fury’ is that, like much of the media, the book fails to distinguish between insults, annoyances and short term pain and what will be the very real and harmful legacy of the Trump presidency.

One of the many ridiculed claims Trump has made is that he has accomplished more in his first year than any other president. The claim is, of course wrong if  measured by legislation passed, but Trump has frequently bypassed the legislative branch and has governed by executive order. Unlike Wolff, who portrays Trump as a doddering fool, I find Trump’s claim credible.

Here are just a few of Trump’s  achievements that will have a negative impact for years to come.

1. The Environment

In the largest giveaway of federally protected land ever, Trump has opened up over 2 million acres of federal land to exploitation and possible ruin in Utah alone. His move was so unpopular in Utah that some speculate it is the reason Utah Senator Orrin Hatch has announced he will not be seeking reelection.

Trump has declared all coastlines other than the North Aleutian Basin (protected by President Bush) open to oil and gas drilling. The potential harm of this has been compounded by Congress’ lifting of safety regulations put in place after the Deepwater Horizon Spill. Congress also voted, as part of the tax bill, to open the  Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. As an additional insult, Trump has rescinded the rule that added regulations for fracking on federal and tribal lands. Trump’s contempt for environmental concerns (he is  nonbeliever in climate change) has completely altered the regulatory balance in the oil and gas industry.

It is worth remembering here that the much-vilified President Nixon enacted the environmental protection act.

2. Taxes

In a tax act that is almost as deceptive as Trump himself, and which Fortune magazine called ‘the biggest wealth grab in modern history,” Trump and the Republican Congress lowered taxes dramatically for the upper echelons of  the 1% whose income comes from investment.  Although the overall tax rate saw a modest decrease, those in high tax states will be hurt by the corresponding end to deductions for state and local taxes. This change in deductibility does not apply to corporations or to those wealthy enough to hide their income in corporations. The tax cut will net about $900 for those earning between $49,000 and $86,000. The majority of  taxpayers with incomes of less than $49,000 will save an average of $60. The new tax avoidance mechanisms are open only to the wealthiest.

Under the new tax bill,  many pass through corporations  (LLCs to mean here LLCs and similar pass through corporations) at the new low corporate rate.  Until now, LLCs were formed for non-tax reasons. Owners of LLCs were taxed on the income of the LLC as ordinary income. The new tax bill’s rate on ordinary income goes up to 39% for income over $500,000. The new corporate rate is 21%. 

LLCs whose income comes from the owner’s work such as  doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects, etc. will get a small and quite complicated deduction, but are basically taxed at the higher individual rate.  But those whose income is from buying and selling investments can take advantage of the new corporate rate. That means on $100 of income, working people will pay between $25 and $39 in federal tax. Investors like President Trump who can best afford more, will pay only $ 21 on the same  $100 of income.   (As an aside, LLCs,  whose owners work for a living are not permitted to declare bankruptcy in their corporations, as Trump has so often done.)

There are other benefits for those who reside in the upper reaches of the 1%, such as lowered dividend tax rates, an extremely high threshold ($11 million) before estate tax is imposed and favorable long term capital gains rates.

Also note that the IRS has sharply reduced audits due to budget cuts arranged by Trump. Taxpayers who make an error in matching their 1099s or W4s to their returns will still be audited since this is matched up by computer, but there has been a large reduction in the  number of examiners able to examine a complicated tax return.

3. Federal Judges

Federal judges are granted lifetime tenure to shield them from political pressures and have had, as compared to the other branches of government, very few scandals.  Leonard Lee, an officer of the Federalist Society, who has been deeply involved in Trump’s picks for judicial nominations boasted last year that he would make, “the courts unrecognizable.” In that, the little-known Mr. Lee has achieved remarkable success.  Partly by chance and partly because the Republican Congress refused to act on any of Obama’s nominations in his last year in office, Trump will be filing more judgeships than any president has before him.

Trump’s picks of conservative judges would be expected, but he has gone beyond conservatism and has primarily selected men who are ideologues, including Thomas Farr the go-to lawyer for challenging African American voters and Gregory Katsas who advocates expansive powers for the executive branch, has provided legal advice to Trump and who, as judge in the DC Court of Appeals, could hear cases involving Trump’s administration. Two of Trump’s worst nominees had never tried a case before a judge and even the triumphant tea party Republicans refused to approve them.

4. Israel

It is in his reporting on the Trump administration’s treatment of the  Israel/ Palestine conflict that Wolff’s book is at its weakest. Wolff depicts Kushner as an unwilling dupe forced to deal with the peace process essentially because he is Jewish.  I have no more idea of Kushner’s motivations than Wolff does, but Kushner and his partner in negotiations, Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, have each in the past supported the right wing settler movement in Israel. In addition, just before Kushner left for Israel to negotiate peace, Kushner’s family’s business received a $30 million investment from Menora Mivtachim, a prominent Israeli firm.

And the outcome of these negotiations? Well, Trump unnecessarily declared that he would move the US Embassy to the divided and disputed city of Jerusalem.

Trump’s declaration in itself may not have had any serious effect. No one really considered the US to be a neutral mediator of any peace process. The harm of Trump’s Jerusalem declaration is that it has widely and likely accurately been seen as support for the further expansion of Israel and the denigration of Palestinian rights.

So whether or not Trump’s declaration was a catalyst, Israel has had the support of the US as it moves with ever increasing harshness to take land from the  Palestinians and the Beduins. Gone is any pretense that its rapidly expanding settlement movement does not have the full support of Israel’s government.

5. Racism and intolerance

‘Fire and Fury’ does not, except in passing, address the number of times Trump has attacked a black, a Hispanic or a woman in a vicious and prejudiced way. His go to philosophy encourages racism and divisiveness. Suppose that Trump had refrained from calling players ‘sons of bitches’ and advocating that they be fired and instead had said something like, “We have a problem.

The police seem to feel under threat and too often shoot especially black men for what may be insufficient cause. When you take a knee some see it as disrespecting our military. What can we do to address this problem?”  Such a statement or one like it gives nothing away, but does not frame the issue as black disrespect vs white uncaring.

Why work to inflame already edgy racial divisions? Trump plays to his perceived base by portraying himself as a member of the working class, one who might have joined the military or the police force.  In fact, Trump  has never been anything but rich and often failed to pay the workers in his business ventures.

One can only hope that Trump is not an accurate reflection of the United States and that we can, as soon as possible, work to change the harms he has inflicted.

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