Week In Politics: The Tax Bill And The Russia Investigation

Nov 3, 2017
Originally published on November 3, 2017 5:41 pm

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with political commentators Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post and Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor for The National Review and columnist for Bloomberg View, about the tax bill and Mueller's Russia investigation.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And the tax overhaul is the first thing we will tackle in our Friday politics roundup, this week with Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post and Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review, also a columnist for Bloomberg View. Gentlemen, great to have you both here.

RAMESH PONNURU: Thank you.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Great to be here.

KELLY: Fair warning - we're also going to try to make sense of a big week in the Bob Mueller Russia investigation. We'll get to that shortly. But let's talk taxes first. President Trump says he wants to sign this bill by Christmas. Ramesh, how do you rate the chances of that happening?

PONNURU: Well, a lot of folks on the Hill, including the House leadership, thinks that a deadline helps. It makes it - it forces action. It requires the Republicans to get their acts together. That said, this is going to be very, very difficult to do because it is a very complicated piece of legislation, because there are losers, as we just heard, and because when you've got complex tax reform, a lot of people who might not even be losers on that are going to think they're losers.

KELLY: Jonathan...

CAPEHART: And I would add to what Ramesh said. You know, deadlines do help. But the other problem is, they do also add, when those deadlines are blown, to the sense of dysfunction in Washington that Washington can't get anything done. And quite frankly, it's a bit unrealistic to think that some so complicated, so massive could be done in a relatively short period of time. I mean, we've got more than a month before we get to the end of the year when the president would like this to happen. But Congress doesn't work a five-day workweek.

KELLY: Yeah. And we saw one deadline blown this week. This tax plan was supposed to be out in public view on Wednesday. We didn't get it till Thursday.

CAPEHART: Right.

KELLY: Probably doesn't matter at all in the long game but matters in terms of momentum and sense of whether this is actually going to get some traction. The other question is just votes. This House version is expected to get no Democratic votes. It's not clear it's going to get all the Republican votes, either. I'm going to play you a moment from a conversation we had yesterday on the show. This is Republican Congressman Leonard Lance of New Jersey.

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LEONARD LANCE: There is much that I like in the legislation, but the proposed cap on the deductibility of state and local taxes makes the bill unacceptable at the current time.

KELLY: Unacceptable at the current time - so that's a no vote unless this bill changes a lot. As we just heard Tamara Keith reporting, that may happen. But how much do you think it's likely to shift? How much is this a living document, Jonathan?

CAPEHART: Well, I think the Super Bowl of lobbying, as we heard from the reporter earlier - this is one of those things that is going to be one of the many footballs littering the field as this proposal gets debated and mushed around. And yes, it's absolutely a living document that will be constantly changing as it churns its way through, as it should.

But I do think that the problem here between state and local tax deductions, medical expense deductions, student loans, all those things - these are all by themselves very complicated things that need a lot of time to be hashed out and debated. And the fact of the truncated schedule makes all of these conversations even more complicated than they already are.

KELLY: Ramesh, what bits are you watching to change as the days and weeks play out?

PONNURU: Well, I think there is going to be a lot of negotiating over the state and local taxes. That is something that a lot of blue state Republicans - and there are some left, as we just heard - are going to be concerned about. But one of the other sets of changes that Republicans in the House have to be worried about is what happens in the Senate. Are they going to do things like vote for a bill that gets rid of tax breaks for adoptive families and open themselves up to an ad that says, you're voting to hurt adoptive families and then it doesn't even pass in the Senate anyway?

KELLY: I'm going to pivot us, as I warned that I would, to Russia. And Jonathan, I'll throw this first question your way. But to set the stage, this week saw serious criminal charges brought against the man who ran Trump's campaign, Paul Manafort - also brought against his deputy, Rick Gates. They have pleaded not guilty. Meanwhile this week, we also learned special counsel Bob Mueller has a cooperating witness who was inside the Trump campaign, George Papadopoulos, which raises the question - the White House line, President Trump's line that this is a witch hunt. Did that get harder to defend this week?

CAPEHART: A little bit harder to defend. I mean, witch hunt is something that the president has been saying for months now. But the one-two punch of what happened this week is pretty incredible for the White House. Everyone pretty much expected that Paul Manafort - something would happen to him, that he would be indicted.

KELLY: He'd been told he would be indicted, yeah.

CAPEHART: What no one anticipated was that George Papadopoulos would plead guilty. And the other thing that happened this week that hasn't gotten a lot of attention - and that is Sam Clovis, who was also on the campaign, someone who worked with George Papadopoulos, has been - has already testified to Mueller's grand jury. And so that's something else that we have to be watching. Who else has already been interviewed and talked to Mueller and his grand jury? And that will spell out just how much danger the Trump presidency is in on this matter.

KELLY: Sam Clovis, who we should note was up for a top post at the Agriculture Department...

CAPEHART: Right.

KELLY: ...Had to withdraw his nomination after he got tied into the Russia imbroglio himself. Ramesh, you made an interesting point. You were writing about the whole Russia controversy this week and saying this presidency and this controversy are raising all kinds of novel constitutional questions, including just how powerful the president's pardon power is. Explain.

PONNURU: Well, there was an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal by two prominent conservative lawyers, Lee Casey and David Rivkin, arguing that the president should shut down the Mueller investigation by pardoning everybody involved in it. And I was suggesting that that was a very, very bad idea, one that was going to impede our ability to have democratic accountability and to find the truth.

And one of the things that I think we as journalists need to keep in mind when we think about this is how much we still don't know. Very few of us - nobody reported the Papadopoulos plea deal before it came out. And yet when we write and talk about these things, there's this assumption that we're omniscient; we know everything that they're doing. In fact the Mueller investigation has been relatively leak-free. That means he - Robert Mueller - knows a lot of things that we don't yet know.

KELLY: All right, Jonathan...

CAPEHART: And that's something that we as journalists have to keep in mind. But also it's something that the Trump White House is very aware of. Hope Hicks, who is the communications - correct me if I'm wrong...

KELLY: Correct, yep, communications director of the White House.

CAPEHART: ...Right, Ramesh - communications director in the White House. She is due to testify next week. And other people are going to be going in knowing that the man that they're talking to knows infinitely more than they think he does.

KELLY: Very quickly in the moments we have left, the president is leaving all of this behind to go to Asia. He's starting a big two-week trip. What are you watching for, Jonathan?

CAPEHART: I am watching, as I heard my colleague at MSNBC Chuck Todd say, that there are a lot of landmines in Asia for President Trump. And he has a propensity to step on those landmines. I'm just looking to see how many of them he actually sets off.

KELLY: Ramesh - watching for landmines?

PONNURU: Trump is meeting with two U.S. allies, then with China, then with two more U.S. allies. That symbolism will not be lost on the Chinese. Can Trump reassure those allies who are worried about our commitment to the region?

KELLY: Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review and Bloomberg View and Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post, thanks very much to you both for stopping by.

CAPEHART: Thank you.

PONNURU: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARC MOULIN'S "HUMPTY DUMPTY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.