This is precisely how not to interview Donald Trump on tax reform – Washington Post


Washington Post
This is precisely how not to interview Donald Trump on tax reform
Washington Post
Fox News has come under some scrutiny for its generous treatment of President Trump. The most recent example was a series of tweets Saturday — Trump's 100th day in office — purporting to compare Trump's economic performance with that of other recent …
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Fox News has come under some scrutiny for its generous treatment of President Trump. The most recent example was a series of tweets Saturday — Trump’s 100th day in office — purporting to compare Trump’s economic performance with that of other recent presidents. Setting aside the assertion that there’s a link between what the government does and job creation (which employees of the network reject or embrace depending on the president and the jobs under consideration), this bit of data obviously and immediately doesn’t tell the story that the network seems to wish.

Why is the unemployment rate 4.5 percent 100 days into Trump’s administration compared with the 9 percent under Barack Obama? Because it fell more than 4 percent over the other 2,800 days of Obama’s two terms, which began at the tail end of the recession. Trump had nothing to do with it.

That tweet (and another, looking at jobs added in the first 100 days) gained Fox a lot of unfavorable attention. Lamentably, this clip from an interview that aired Friday did not.

That Fox’s Martha MacCallum, interviewing the president on a range of issues. During the conversation, Trump hailed his election win, said he “couldn’t care less about golf” and casually mentioned making Congress more pliable. The segment above, though, stands out as a remarkable abrogation of the network’s responsibility when talking to this highly unorthodox president.

Here’s the transcript. It’s long, but necessary.

TRUMP: I have two guys — I mean, I have the president of Goldman Sachs, Gary Cohn, I have Steve Mnuchin, one of the most successful guys — never made a bad deal. These are very smart guys. But I said, fellas, you keep forgetting to mention — because I’m the one that set the numbers, I’m the one that did this to a large extent — you keep forgetting to say that the biggest beneficiaries are the middle-class people who have been absolutely hurt.

MACCALLUM: But your critics are going to say, well, real estate companies like President Trump’s company will benefit along with that middle class. So is it — is it going to make it harder…

TRUMP: Well, I’ll tell you what, if I’m paying…

MACCALLUM: … for you to make that big cut in the middle, from 39.6 to 15?

TRUMP: … Okay, if I’m individually paying 35 percent…

MACCALLUM: Yeah.

TRUMP: … I will tell you, that’s more, okay? I’m going to end up paying more than I pay right now in taxes, all right? I will pay more than I pay right now. The reason I’m going to pay more is because I lose all the deductions. They have deductions on top of deductions. They have hundreds and hundreds of pages of deductions…

MACCALLUM: Right. So eliminate those, and then it will even out.

TRUMP: … things that you’ve never heard of before. I have great accounting firms. I’m sure you do. They come in, “well, you’re entitled to a deduction for geese flying over America, you’re entitled to this, you’re entitled to” — by the time they give all these — all of that stuff goes away.

All of it goes away, other than charitable deductions, which we think is important to keep, and interest deductions, which we think is important to keep. But all of the stuff goes away.

MACCALLUM: Yes.

TRUMP: So I predict I will probably pay more than I’m paying right now.

Unwrapping a Trump interview response is always a bit like enjoying a good mystery movie: Repeat examination will unearth new details you missed the first time around. Like that “I’m the one that set the numbers, I’m the one that did this to a large extent” at the front end. That’s an apparent response to reporting that has suggested that the two smart guys he mentioned were the architects of the (still admittedly vague) proposal.

MacCallum’s response to that first statement from Trump was not, as you might expect, to challenge the assertion that the middle class will benefit. After all, consider that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin himself wouldn’t assert that taxes for the middle class would drop. Instead, she questions the extent to which someone else might benefit: people like Trump.

What does Trump say? “I’m going to end up paying more than I pay right now in taxes, all right? I will pay more than I pay right now” because he will lose deductions.

To which MacCallum says “right,” helping to explain why that might be true, and then “yes.” And then, like that, she goes on to something else.

While the net effects of tax changes on an individual can be speculative, Trump also said something more concrete: “If I’m individually paying 35 percent, I will tell you, that’s more.”

Well, is it? Is that what you will pay? How much are you paying now? We have no idea because Trump has continuously refused to release his tax returns, insisting without evidence that the returns are under audit — and then providing no explanation for why older returns, no longer under audit, can’t be turned over.

He’ll often brush aside questions about his tax returns by citing the results of the election. If he won, it proves that Americans don’t care about his tax returns, right? Well, no. Past presidents have released tax returns not simply to check a box on a pre-election list, but so that when they later discuss the subject of taxes, Americans can feel confident that they’re not acting solely to benefit themselves. Trump’s taxes are simultaneously far more complicated than past presidents’ tax returns and far less open to the American public.

The most recent return for which we have any information comes from 2005. That’s the one that was revealed during Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC last month. From that, we learned that Trump’s personal tax rate was not 35 percent. Instead, it was effectively 24 percent, paying out $38 million on $153 million of income.

We also know that 85 percent of the income tax he paid was from the “alternative minimum tax.” Among the several broad details about its tax proposal announced by the administration last week was this line item, worth considering in light of that 2005 document.

In 2005, Trump’s tax rate under this part of his proposal would likely have gone from 24 percent of his income to something more like 4 percent. That’s not Trump “end[ing] up paying more.” For him to have then gotten back up to 35 percent would require a herculean amount of deduction-elimination.

Perhaps, in this regard, Trump’s returns could be exculpatory! Perhaps his deductions mean that he really would jump from wherever he is now to 35 percent. We have no way of knowing, of course, and that’s the point. There’s every reason to assume that Trump is being dishonest in his response to MacCallum and little indication that what he says will pan out. He can help clarify the question by offering more information. And a good point at which to extract more information from a president is when you’re sitting across from them in an interview as a journalist. That’s the point at which to demand that the public’s need to know if Trump is self-dealing necessitates the immediate release of tax information.

Instead, Fox News’s MacCallum gave us “right” and “yes.” As the tax reform debate unwinds on Capitol Hill, we’re going to need far more robust responses than that.