Trump Tax Plan Would Shift Trillions From U.S. Coffers to the Richest

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s proposal to slash individual and business taxes and erase a surtax that funds the Affordable Care Act would amount to a multitrillion-dollar shift from federal coffers to America’s richest families and their heirs, setting up a politically fraught battle over how best to use the government’s already strained resources.

The outline that Mr. Trump offered on Wednesday — less a tax overhaul plan than a list of costly cuts with no price tags attached, rushed out by a president staring down his 100-day mark in office — calls for tax reductions for individuals of every income level as well as businesses large and small.

But the vast majority of benefits would accrue to the highest earners and largest holders of wealth, according to economists and analysts, accounting for a lopsided portion of the proposal’s costs.

“The only Americans who are very clear winners under the new system are the wealthiest,” said Edward D. Kleinbard, a law professor at the University of Southern California and former chief of staff of Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation, which estimates the revenue effects of tax proposals.

Repealing the estate tax, for example, would affect just 5,300 or so fortunes a year. For 2017, couples can shield up to $11 million of their estates from any taxation, leaving only the largest inheritances subject to taxation. Repealing the estate tax alone would cost an estimated $174.2 billion over a decade, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center said.

Reducing the rate on capital gains, noncorporate business taxes and those in the highest bracket, as well as repealing the alternative minimum tax, would also ease the burden on wealthier Americans. So would the repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s 3.8 percent surtax on the investment income of high earners, put in place to subsidize health coverage for low-income Americans.

“These are all afflictions of the affluent,” Mr. Kleinbard said.

There is no way to know how the mathematics of the proposal would work, since the White House offered no cost estimates, no detail about which incomes would be taxed at what levels and no information about tax deductions or other breaks that might be eliminated to make up for the lost revenue.

On Thursday, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, suggested that tax benefits for retirement savings would be rolled back to mitigate the cost of the tax cuts, the kind of tough decision that makes a rewrite of the tax code so politically difficult. But within minutes, White House officials said Mr. Spicer had misspoken.

Officials instead said specifics would come later, as negotiations unfolded with members of Congress to draft legislation.

The administration’s silence on many crucial details of the proposal was by design, to leave room for what promise to be intense negotiations with lawmakers in Congress, said Rohit Kumar, the leader of PwC’s Washington National Tax Services and a former senior Republican Senate aide.

Yet without specifics, he added, “you can’t make anything but a wild guess on what the distributional effects of the proposal would be.”

“What the administration put out yesterday is all of the good news,” Mr. Kumar said. “They’ve withheld on the bad news.”

But estimates of the impacts for some of the cuts that were outlined Wednesday, such as the estate tax and alternative minimum tax repeals, can be made, and they run directly counter to the populist themes that animated Mr. Trump’s campaign. He has often stated his concern for ordinary working men and women who he contends were forgotten under previous administrations but have risen to the top of the priority list under his leadership.

Many economists who analyzed a similar plan Mr. Trump proposed during his presidential campaign found that it would have disproportionately helped the richest. William G. Gale, an economist at the Brookings Institution in Washington, estimated that just over 50 percent of the benefits of that proposal would have gone to the top 1 percent of taxpayers.

The new proposal “loses probably something in the neighborhood of $5 trillion in revenue over 10 years with regressive tax cuts that exacerbate the inequalities that already exist in our economy,” said Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities who was a top economist in the Obama administration.

Mr. Trump’s economic team argues that there is no disconnect; the tax reductions they are seeking, they argue, will ultimately help all Americans, including the poorest, by spurring growth that will translate into more jobs and better wages.

Still, it seems almost inevitable that the blueprint, should it eventually yield legislation, would violate the vow Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, made that the administration would provide “no absolute tax cut for the upper class.”

That axiom, uttered by Mr. Mnuchin in November and quickly named the “Mnuchin rule” by skeptical Democrats, was based on his insistence that any tax reductions at the top would be matched by the elimination of deductions and loopholes.

“It is hard to know what the overall effects would be, but a plan that is intended to reduce taxes on business income and investment income is going to provide substantial benefits to wealthier individuals, and the bulk of the benefits in this plan would go to them,” said Ed Lorenzen, a senior adviser for the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a fiscal policy education group. “It would probably work out to be a significant shift in the distribution of the tax code.”

One major reason is Mr. Trump’s idea to allow the income of owner-operated companies, including his real estate concern, hedge funds and large partnerships, to be taxed at a 15 percent rate — the same rate corporations would pay under his plan — rather than at the individual income tax rate, which now tops out at 39.6 percent and would be set at 35 percent by Mr. Trump.

That would potentially allow doctors, lawyers and others who are part of such firms to structure their compensation as business rather than personal income and effectively enjoy a substantial tax cut. The Tax Policy Center estimated last year that the proposal would cost $1.5 trillion over a decade.

Higher earners also appear likely to reap the greatest benefit from repealing the alternative minimum tax, which is set at a marginal rate of 28 percent and falls most heavily on those who earn between $250,000 and $1 million. In 2013, President Barack Obama and Congress reached agreement on a “fix” that shielded middle-class families from the tax. So any repeal now would benefit wealthier taxpayers.

Only a fifth of taxpayers who earn above $1 million were affected by the provision, a parallel tax system that limits the deductions and other tax breaks available to them, in part because interest and investment income are exempt.

A glimpse of Mr. Trump’s 2005 tax returns revealed that the alternative minimum tax cost him roughly $31 million by setting a floor that even a stack of individual loopholes could not reduce. Repealing it would cost $412.8 billion over a decade, the Tax Policy Center has estimated.

At the same time, lower- and middle-income families could be in a worse position. The White House proposes to reduce the number of tax brackets from seven to three: 10, 25 and 35 percent. But no one yet knows where the income cutoff lines are being drawn. People who end up being pushed into a lower bracket would be better off, but those kicked into a higher bracket would not be.

Families with after-tax income between roughly $19,000 and $76,000, for example, are now in the 15 percent marginal tax bracket, which is slated for elimination.

“That’s where the middle of America is,” Mr. Kleinbard said. While some may drop into the new 10 percent bracket, others could be nudged up into the 25 percent range.

Increasing the standard deduction to about $24,000 for couples might also appear to help most families, but that is not necessarily the case, Mr. Kleinbard pointed out. Larger families, which now benefit from being able to add a deduction for every additional member of their household, could lose out.

“At the bottom end, the typical family will be worse off if personal exemptions go away,” he said.

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Trump Can’t Win His Battle Against the Judges

President Donald J. Trump is fuming at yet another federal judge. Earlier this week, San Francisco District Judge William H. Orrick temporarily enjoined the Trump administration’s simultaneously grandiose and ultimately toothless plan to strip federal funding from sanctuary cities. The president, as is his wont, apparently decided it’s pointless to threaten and undermine an individual jurist when he could go after an entire federal appellate court. So off he went on a boilerplate Twitter rant in which he wrongly blamed the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for his loss at the trial court level; wrongly characterized that appellate court’s reversal record; and wrongly faulted a city and county in California for “judge shopping” (not an actual legal term) for opting to file in the jurisdiction in which they exist, as opposed to filing in, say, Texas or Georgia, where they do not exist. (Circuits are geographic, not ideological.) No matter what you do to the 9th Circuit, California will still be California. And Trump’s fury at the 9th Circuit ignores the fact that he has also been thwarted by federal judges on courts in various other jurisdictions, including the 2nd and 4th Circuits, where thinking jurists also roam free.

Dahlia LithwickDAHLIA LITHWICK

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate, and hosts the podcast Amicus.

Never one to let actual facts or geographic reality stand between himself and his grudges, Trump escalated his war on the federal judicial branch Wednesday with an interview with the Washington Examiner in which he pledged to revisit plans to break up the 9thCircuit, presumably because he thinks breaking up a federal circuit court will magically change his badly drafted executive orders into legally sound ones: “Everybody immediately runs to the 9th Circuit. And we have a big country. We have lots of other locations. But they immediately run to the 9th Circuit. Because they know that’s like, semi-automatic,” Trump said. I am frankly shivering in delicious anticipation of Trump’s forthcoming executive order breaking up the 9th Circuit.

 

The president doesn’t seem to realize that his newest attack on the courts, by its own terms, simply strengthens Orrick’s case—that the order, read as Trump’s lawyers now suggest, reinforces the status quo, or, read as Trump characterizes it, is unconstitutional. Every time he talks, he makes things worse. Even his own administration formally stopped using the phrase Muslim ban when it tried to salvage his first executive order, so Trump’s decision to call it a “ban” again in his Wednesday tweetstorm and interviews just doesn’t much help him. Consider also that Trump’s defense of his vague and sloppily drafted executive orders consists, at bottom, of celebrating the fact that they are vague and sloppy. As he told the Examiner of his travel ban: “The language could not be any clearer. I mean, the language on the ban, it reads so easy that a reasonably good student in the first grade will fully understand it. And they don’t even mention the words in their rejection on the ban.”

Time and again, the president fails to comprehend that the reason a reasonably smart first-grader can understand his executive orders is because they appear to have been written by a different reasonably smart first-grader in orange crayon on the back side of a Red Lobster children’s menu. Time and again he asserts that there is some virtue in stripping away all nuance and legal meaning from his official acts as president. Time and again he complains bitterly when federal judges, searching for nuance and meaning, look to his words as a means of filling out the vague nonsense of his lawyers’ unerringly incoherent work product. First-grade homework may be clear to Trump, but that does not make it useful when it comes to practical application for governing our nation. As Garrett Epps notes, Trump’s sanctuary cities order fails even the most basic principles of interpretive clarity: “[I]t announces measures against ‘sanctuary jurisdictions’ but provides no definition of that term.” The fact that Trump’s own lawyers defended the order in court by saying it was essentially meaningless posturing helps him not at all. If the total force of the order was to create a “bully pulpit” that will later allow the president to say things that alternately have legal force or do not, Orrick cannot have been mistaken in enjoining it. Like the travel ban before it, the thing was nothing more than a Snapchat order, an executive action that could fade into nothing—or could be surreptitiously screenshotted to be preserved as something, at the president’s whim and pleasure.

Trump’s repeated—one might almost call them semiautomatic—presidential speech acts that contradict his formal orders as written cannot be excused as just further bloviating from an overtalkative and underinformed president. Both his travel ban and his sanctuary cities order have suffered in court because, in the absence of clarity and detail, federal judges may look to the president’s campaign promises, television appearances, and tweets to understand his intent in promulgating them. There is a robust and heated academic debate about whether judges should be in the business of probing what’s in the president’s heart of hearts, but wholly apart from that lies another problem: Do the president’s actual words matter at all? This isn’t about judicial efforts at mind-reading, a practice against which Justice David Souter famously warned about in McCreary County v. ACLU: a “judicial psychoanalysis of a drafter’s heart of hearts.” What’s in the president’s heart of hearts is unknowable and not remotely interesting.

But what he actually says, when the words come out of his face? What he writes, be it in pen or Twitter? These are still presidential actions. The dangerous judicial psychologizing here would be for reviewing courts to attempt to differentiate between those instances when the president means what he says and when he’s just blathering recreationally. In Josh Blackman’s excellent meditation on this subject in Politico, he warns judges not to treat Trump differently than they would treat other presidents. I agree. And that means when Trump says things about his policy goals, presumably to bolster or refine or undermine his sloppy legal orders, they have some legal force. The alternative is a jurisprudential Escher staircase of meaningless words on paper, in an unending shifting dialogue of meaningless presidential words that shift from bird to fish and back again. Trump has always spoken publicly as if his words have not only no meaning but also no lasting consequences—walking back his preposterous claims as soon as they become untenable. But as president of the United States, his words have both meaning and consequences, whether he wants them to or not. And as Orrick pointed out: “While the President is entitled to highlight his policy priorities, an Executive Order carries the force of law.”

Here is one thing I can say for certain about judges: In addition to having a generalized and free-floating anxiety about public attacks on their legitimacy and authority, they resent deeply any efforts to say that words—the sole implement of their craft—have no meaning or that those meanings are inchoate and shifting and may expand or contract with the president’s hastily tweeted words or fleeting feelings. So when President Trump and his administration attack the judicial branch with authoritarian threats to break up the federal appeals court that has nothing to do with the ruling he disputes or insults individual “unelected” federal judges based on race or geographic region, sane judges, regardless of their personal politics, will recoil. They will feel, as Neil Gorsuch once put it, demoralized and disheartened by the president’s contempt. And when Trump insists on taking legal positions that suggest his executive orders are inherently lawful merely because he is the president or because their written-by-a-7-year-old clarity makes them obvious, that is an insult to the judicial project, a threat to both separation of powers and judicial intelligence.

But when the president takes the posture, time and again, that his words and orders have meanings that are fluid and mutable and known only to himself, it is a surefire way for him to continue to lose in court. Trump and his advisers have long smugly intoned that the media, the public, and Congress must learn to take his words “seriously but not literally.” Sadly for him, the courts have no choice but take his words literally. There is, literally, no other option.

The executive branch is more than a gauzy dream sequence of a four-year “bully pulpit.” The check on lawless, shifting bullying has always been and will continue to be the judicial branch.  But when the history books try to explain why the courts mattered most in the Trump era, I hope they note this as well: The judicial branch served as great check not only on Trumpism but for our sanity, each time a judge affirmed that, God be thanked, words and language still do have meaning and consequences.

Donald Trump’s Art Of The Retreat

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-trump-art-of-the-retreat_us_590202bde4b0026db1def782

 

WASHINGTON ― Just three months into his presidency, Donald Trump’s bestselling The Art of the Deal might be due for a sequel: The Humility of the Failed Bluff.

The boastful businessman who claimed that his negotiating skills were unsurpassed appears to have met his match a number of times already.

Trump went from accusing the Chinese of manipulating their currency to agreeing that they didn’t. He has not made any visible progress in forcing Mexico to pay for a border wall. He was talked out of abandoning the North American Free Trade Agreement by the leaders of Mexico and Canada. And he was unable to bully Democrats into working with him to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

 

“He has folded like a lawn chair at the slightest hint of pressure, and he’s getting played like a violin by enemies like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un,” said Adam Jentleson, former deputy chief of staff to retired Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

In Mexico, the country Trump has vilified since the start of his campaign nearly two years ago, a senator told The New York Times that political leaders there have started to see Trump primarily as a “bluffer.”

“In front of a bluffer, you always have to maintain a firm and dignified position,” Armando Ríos Piter told the Times.

 

Some Trump supporters challenge that view. Michael Caputo, a western New York political consultant who worked for Trump’s primary campaign last year, said Ríos and others who underestimate Trump will be sorry.

“Bluffers win. And they win big,” Caputo said. “At the end of the poker game that the senator is speaking about, we’ll end up with more chips. The senator is going to be awful surprised and out of the game early.”

But other Trump allies, including radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, are starting to fret about Trump’s strategy. “I’m not happy to have to pass this on,” Limbaugh told his listeners earlier this week. “But it looks like, from here, right here, right now, it looks like President Trump is caving on his demand for a measly $1 billion in the budget for his wall on the border with Mexico.”

 

On the campaign trail, Trump marketed himself as the ultimate closer, a tough-talking businessman who could renegotiate trade deals and international agreements to better benefit the American worker. He regularly disparaged “weak” and “stupid” leaders in Washington for failing to accomplish what someone who had actually sat at a boardroom table could easily do once in the Oval Office.

JONATHAN DRAKE / REUTERS
Donald Trump promises to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico at a campaign rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on March 9, 2016. His vows to make Mexico pay for it have fallen silent.

“I’ve watched the politicians. I’ve dealt with them all my life,” Trump said in 2015. “If you can’t make a good deal with a politician, then there’s something wrong with you. You’re certainly not very good.”

 

Nearly 100 days into his presidency, however, Trump appears to be finding the job is much tougher than he imagined. He has issued bold ultimatums in negotiations on health care, immigration and trade only to have to back down. While his predecessor once said he never bluffed on the world stage, Trump has embraced the risky tactic on both foreign and domestic fronts ― with little to show for it.

 

“People put in for the TV character of Donald Trump, a hyper-confident negotiator, a wheeler-dealer mogul,” said GOP strategist Rick Wilson. “The real Donald Trump is a 70-year-old man who inherited a bunch of money who’s been bankrupt four times and who basically turned into a branding company.… He’s intellectually sloppy and temperamentally unsuited for the job.”

 

In the health care debate, Trump has been all over the map. He first warned Republican lawmakers that he would leave the Affordable Care Act in place and move on to other priorities unless they approved a bill to repeal and replace it. The ultimatum failed to sway skeptical conservatives in the House, and lawmakers bolted town for a two-week recess without voting on the measure. He and his aides then threatened to reach out to Democrats to resuscitate his stalled agenda, but that too went out the window. This week, the administration is once again pushing for a party-line vote on an Obamacare repeal bill.

 

Trump’s bluster toward Democrats also fell flat. Earlier this month, he threatened to sabotage Obamacare if they didn’t agree to proposed changes regarding the law. White House budget director Mick Mulvaney announced Wednesday that the administration was considering cutting off crucial payments to health insurance companies ― a move that would be devastating for people who buy coverage on their own, rather than through employers. Later that day, less than 48 hours before a crucial government funding deadline, Trump backed down and said he would honor the payments after all.

People put in for the TV character of Donald Trump, a hyper-confident negotiator, a wheeler-dealer mogul.GOP strategist Rick Wilson

Trump didn’t fare any better on funding his proposed border wall, either. Facing likely odds of a government shutdown, the president on Tuesday backed off demands that Democrats agree to fund the construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border ― the same wall he said Mexico would pay for on the campaign trail. Trump maintained that the wall remained a priority and that it would eventually get built. But it’s hard to see what more he could do to persuade Democrats to vote to fund the wall between now and the next round of budget talks in September.

 

That issue, because it was a promise repeated throughout his campaign, could do Trump serious damage if he doesn’t deliver, said Ari Fleischer, a press secretary to former President George W. Bush.

“I think Trump must demonstrate this year, not necessarily now, progress toward building the wall or his base will be disappointed,” Fleischer said. “He went too far in saying Mexico will pay for it, but I believe his base cares far more about it being built and a lot less about who pays.”

 

Trump’s efforts to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement may yet bear fruit. His threat to pull the U.S. out of the agreement brought Canada and Mexico to the negotiating table this week. But it’s less clear what kind of concessions he’ll be able to wring out of them. Even Trump admitted that withdrawing from the trade pact would amount to a “shock to the system.”

“If I’m unable to make a fair deal for the United States, meaning a fair deal for our workers and our companies, I will terminate NAFTA. But we’re going to give renegotiation a good, strong shot,” he said at the White House on Thursday.

Trump Says He Thought Being President Would Be Easier Than His Old Life (WHITE IDIOT!)

He misses driving, feels as if he is in a cocoon, and is surprised how hard his new job is.

President Donald Trump on Thursday reflected on his first 100 days in office with a wistful look at his life before the White House.

 

“I loved my previous life. I had so many things going,” Trump told Reuters in an interview. “This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.”

A wealthy businessman from New York, Trump assumed public office for the first time when he entered the White House on Jan. 20 after he defeated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in an upset.

 

More than five months after his victory and two days shy of the 100-day mark of his presidency, the election is still on Trump’s mind. Midway through a discussion about Chinese President Xi Jinping, the president paused to hand out copies of what he said were the latest figures from the 2016 electoral map.

 

“Here, you can take that, that’s the final map of the numbers,” the Republican president said from his desk in the Oval Office, handing out maps of the United States with areas he won marked in red. “It’s pretty good, right? The red is obviously us.”

He had copies for each of the three Reuters reporters in the room.

 

Trump, who said he was accustomed to not having privacy in his “old life,” expressed surprise at how little he had now. And he made clear he was still getting used to having 24-hour Secret Service protection and its accompanying constraints.

“You’re really into your own little cocoon, because you have such massive protection that you really can’t go anywhere,” he said.

 

When the president leaves the White House, it is usually in a limousine or an SUV.

He said he missed being behind the wheel himself.

“I like to drive,” he said. “I can’t drive any more.”

 

Many things about Trump have not changed from the wheeler-dealer executive and former celebrity reality show host who ran his empire from the 26th floor of Trump Tower in New York and worked the phones incessantly.

 

He frequently turns to outside friends and former business colleagues for advice and positive reinforcement. Senior aides say they are resigned to it.

 

The president has been at loggerheads with many news organizations since his election campaign and decided not to attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington on Saturday because he felt he had been treated unfairly by the media.

“I would come next year, absolutely,” Trump said when asked whether he would attend in the future.

 

The dinner is organized by the White House Correspondents’ Association. Reuters correspondent Jeff Mason is its president.

Jewish refugee aid group criticizes Trump’s hotline on undocumented criminals

(JTA) — A new government program to aid victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants unfairly singles out minorities, says a Jewish refugee aid group.

HIAS, which runs refugee resettlement programs, criticized the new Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement Office, or VOICE, which was created Wednesday. VOICE, which will be run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, will provide counseling to victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, as well as information on the immigration status of the perpetrator.

A statement announcing VOICE’s launch said “ICE wants to ensure those victimized by criminal aliens feel heard, seen and supported.” An existing state-level program, Victim Information and Notification Everyday, already provides counseling to crime victims without focusing exclusively on undocumented immigrants, according to the New York Times.

In a statement Thursday, HIAS said VOICE discriminates against a vulnerable population.

“Singling out certain people based solely on their immigration status sets a dangerous new direction for our society,” the statement said. “This new, taxpayer-funded government office only serves to marginalize minority communities, demonize newcomers and divide us.”

HIAS compared the office’s work to accusations a century ago that Jewish immigrants were committing widespread crime. Other critics have gone further. Democracy Now!, a news program seen as progressive, has compared Trump’s emphasis on crimes by undocumented immigrants to reports in Nazi German papers on Jewish crime.

“For example, during the early part of the twentieth century, HIAS-assisted Jewish refugees who fled persecution in Europe were blamed for the majority of crimes in New York City,” the HIAS statement said. “It is unfair to demonize immigrants based on the actions of a few while failing to recognize the overwhelmingly positive contributions new members of our society make to our economy and our communities.”

‘Major, major conflict’ with North Korea possible, Trump says

US President Donald Trump said his military could be headed for a “major” confrontation with North Korea Thursday, as tensions continued to ramp up in a standoff over the Asian country’s nuclear missiles.

“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely,” Trump told Reuters.

The Trump administration has declared that all options, including a targeted military strike, are on the table to block North Korea from carrying out threats against the United States and its allies in the region. But a pre-emptive attack isn’t likely, US officials have said, and the administration is pursuing a strategy of putting pressure on Pyongyang with assistance from China, North Korea’s main trading partner and the country’s economic lifeline.

Trump told Reuters he’d like to see the conflict solved through diplomatic means “but it’s very difficult.”

Earlier Thursday, a senior US Navy officer overseeing military operations in the Pacific said the crisis with North Korea is at the worst point he’s ever seen.

“It’s real,” Adm. Harry Harris Jr., commander of US Pacific Command, said during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

US Pacific Command Commander Adm. Harry Harris Jr. testifies before a House Armed Services Committee hearing on North Korea on April 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Harris said he has no doubt that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un intends to fulfill his pursuit of a nuclear-tipped missile capable of striking the United States. The admiral acknowledged there’s uncertainty within US intelligence agencies over how far along North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are. But Harris said it’s not a matter of if but when.

“There is no doubt in my mind,” Harris said.

In a show of military might, the US has sent a massive amount of American weaponry to east Asia. A group of American warships led by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson is in striking range of North Korea “if the president were to call on it,” Harris told the committee. A US missile defense system called Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense is being installed in South Korea.

In this April 23, 2017 photo released by the US Navy, the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson transits the Philippine Sea while conducting a bilateral exercise with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Z.A. Landers/US Navy via AP)

Harris said he has adequate forces to “fight tonight” against North Korea if that were to become necessary. But the admiral also said he lacks all the attack submarines he needs and has no capable defense against the thousands of artillery pieces North Korea has assembled near the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea. There are about 28,500 US military personnel serving in South Korea.

“We do not have those kinds of weapons that can counter those rockets once they’re launched,” Harris said in response to a question from the committee’s Republican chairman, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Trump said he hoped North Korean leader Kim was rational, noting that he had managed to take over the regime at 27 years old when his father died.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) arriving for a military parade in Pyongyang marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung, in an April 15, 2017 picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on April 16, 2017. (STR/AFP/Getty Images via JTA)

“I’m not giving him credit or not giving him credit, I’m just saying that’s a very hard thing to do. As to whether or not he’s rational, I have no opinion on it. I hope he’s rational,” he said

He also lavished praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping for his efforts to thwart Pyongyang.

The interview came as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that China had threatened to impose sanctions on North Korea if it conducts further nuclear tests.

“We know that China is in communications with the regime in Pyongyang,” Tillerson said on Fox News Channel. “They confirmed to us that they had requested the regime conduct no further nuclear test.”

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, right, waves after he and Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh posed for  photos in the Treaty Room of the State Department in Washington, DC on April 20, 2017. (AFP/ MANDEL NGAN)

Tillerson said China also told the US that it had informed North Korea “that if they did conduct further nuclear tests, China would be taking sanctions actions on their own.”

With international support, the Trump administration said Thursday it wants to exert a “burst” of economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea that yields results within months to push the communist government to change course from developing nuclear weapons.

Susan Thornton, the acting top US diplomat for East Asia, said there’s debate about whether Pyongyang is willing to give up its weapons programs. She said the US wants “to test that hypothesis to the maximum extent we can” for a peaceful resolution.

But signaling that military action remains possible, Thornton told an event hosted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies — the Washington think tank that has advocated tougher US policies on Iran and North Korea — that the administration treats North Korea as its primary security challenge and is serious that “all options are on the table.”

“We are not seeking regime change and our preference is to resolve this problem peacefully,” Thornton said, “but we are not leaving anything off the table.”

Tillerson took a similar stand in the Fox News interview Thursday, saying: “We do not seek regime change in North Korea. … What we are seeking is the same thing China has said they seek — a full denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

Korean People's Army (KPA) soldiers march on Kim Il-Sung square during a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017.  (AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES)

In a separate interview with National Public Radio, Tillerson said the US remains open to holding direct negotiations with North Korea.

“But North Korea has to decide they’re ready to talk to us about the about the right agenda, and the right agenda is not simply stopping where they are for a few more months or a few more years and then resuming things,” he said, according to excerpts of an interview that will air Friday morning. “That’s been the agenda for the last 20 years.”

Multi-nation negotiations with North Korea on its nuclear program stalled in 2008. The Obama administration attempted to resurrect them in 2012, but a deal to provide food aid in exchange for a nuclear freeze soon collapsed.

After weeks of unusually blunt military threats, President Donald Trump’s national security team briefed lawmakers Wednesday on North Korea’s advancing nuclear capabilities. A joint statement from agency heads made no specific mention of military options, though it said the US would defend itself and friends.

Harris told the committee that the financial sanctions imposed against the North Korean regime by the US and other countries have done nothing to slow North Korea’s quest for weapons of mass destruction. He also said he’s been skeptical of China’s willingness to exert its influence over Pyongyang. But Harris said he’s become “cautiously optimistic” following recent talks between Trump and Xi.

“It’s only been a month or so and it’s too early to tell,” Harris said. “I wouldn’t bet my farm on it.”

Congressman: In Israel, Trump will announce embassy move

WASHINGTON — Florida Rep. Ron DeSantis (R) said Thursday that US President Donald Trump will announce the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem when he visits Israel at the end of May, fulfilling a campaign promise he appeared to walk back after assuming office.

Trump’s planned visit — his first to the Jewish state — coincides with Jerusalem Day, when Israel will celebrate 50 years since the reunification of the city under Israeli control after the 1967 Six Day War.

“What better time could there be to announce the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem than when you are over here celebrating with our Israeli friends this very important 50th anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem?” DeSantis said.

Israeli officials confirmed on Thursday that Trump’s team is planning a visit on May 22. The White House told The Times of Israel that it is “exploring” the visit, but did not flesh out any further details.

US President Donald Trump smiles during a national teacher of the year event in the Oval Office of the White House April 26, 2017 in Washington, DC. (AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski)

“I think the announcement of that trip is a signal that it is more likely to happen than not, and will send a powerful signal to other countries around the world that America is back and will stand by our allies and will not let folks cower us into not doing the right thing,” added DeSantis.

The Florida congressman’s remarks were made at an event on Capitol Hill launching the Congressional Israel Victory Caucus, a group made up of several staunchly pro-Israel Republicans.

DeSantis, who is chairman of the House Oversight National Security Subcommittee, has oversight on American embassies around the world. A Trump ally, he has been adamant the president will follow through on this campaign pledge.

Last month, the congressman visited Jerusalem touring potential embassy sites and told reporters Trump would eventually authorize the relocation, or, at the least, allow it to happen. Indeed, on that trip, he also predicted the president would announce the move around the anniversary of the Six Day War.

Donald Trump speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, March 21, 2016. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images via JTA)

“He’s in a position where he’s either going to follow his campaign promise or he’s actually going to have to sign this waiver, and I just think knowing the president, he has been a man of his word,” he said.

“I don’t think that he’s going to, on the same month where people here in Jerusalem are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem Day, sign the waiver. I would bet that he would not do that and he would announce that the embassy would be moving.”

Indeed, Trump’s trip to Israel also coincides with an important decision he will have to make on whether to move on the status of the US Embassy in Israel.

Congress passed a law, in 1995, mandating the embassy be moved to Jerusalem, but allowed the president to exercise a six-month waiver on national security grounds. Every president since, including Barack Obama’s predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, signed such a waiver every six months.

The last waiver, signed in December by Obama, expires at the end of May, when Trump will have to decide whether to sign it or follow through on his campaign promise and allow the change.

Republican Reps. Ron DeSantis of Florida, Keith Rothfus of Pennsylvania, Doug Lamborn of Colorado and Alex Mooney of West Virginia, speak at the launch of the Congressional Israel Victory Caucus on Capitol Hill on April 27, 2017 (Courtesy, Middle East Forum)

The move would be a highly symbolic gesture, valued by Israel as confirmation of the city as its capital, but strongly opposed by Palestinians and the Arab world.

After vowing to move the embassy practically immediately, Trump changed course at the onset of his presidency.

Following meetings with Arab leaders, and especially Jordan’s King Abdullah II at the National Prayer Breakfast, Trump said he would like to see the move take place eventually but that he wouldn’t go through with it right away.

Trump’s pick to serve as US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, was also highly vocal in his resolution that the president would move the embassy, saying in an announcement of his nomination that he expected to carry out his duties in Jerusalem.

Friedman is due to arrive in Jerusalem on May 15 and to present his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin in June.

Israel said pushing for massive East Jerusalem expansion as Trump visits

The Housing Ministry is reportedly pushing forward with a massive plan that would add some 25,000 new homes to Jerusalem, including 15,000 units over the Green Line, in a move that may test the new US administration’s understandings with Israel over building in areas the Palestinians want for a state.

According to a Channel 2 report Thursday, the plan is set to be announced while US President Donald Trump is in the country in late May, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem and the unification of the once-divided city.

Housing Minister Yoav Galant (Kulanu) is pushing the initiative in meetings with Jerusalem city officials.

According to the report, the plan will cost some NIS 4 billion ($1.1 billion).

Parts of the plan were reported by Channel 10 earlier in the week.

Galant’s office and the Jerusalem municipality could not be immediately contacted for confirmation.

Israeli officials confirmed on Thursday that Trump’s team is planning a visit on May 22. The White House told The Times of Israel that it is “exploring” the visit, but did not flesh out any further details. Jerusalem Day, which marks the capture of East Jerusalem during the 1967 war, begins that evening.

Of the 15,000 units planned over the Green Line, the lion’s share would be in two new residential neighborhoods: Atarot in the north of the city and Givat Hamatos in the south.

The Atarot industrial zone, with Ramallah suburb Kafr Aqab seen in background. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Atarot, currently an industrial area near Ramallah that is home to a small abandoned airport, would see 10,000 homes built, marketed for ultra-Orthodox families.

In a statement, the municipality said it had not yet decided how to use the area of the old Atarot airport and was reviewing several options.

Another 2,000 would be built in Givat Hamatos, a mostly empty hill that critics say could cut East Jerusalem off from neighboring Bethlehem.

A mobile home in Givat Hamatos, seen in 2014. (Flash90)

A further 3,000 would be built in Ramat Shlomo, an existing ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in the city’s north.

In 2010, a building plan for Ramat Shlomo was announced during a visit by US vice president Joe Biden, sparking a diplomatic crisis between Jerusalem and Washington.

In addition the plan includes 1,000 homes near Malha, 2,000 in Arnona and Ramat Rahel, and 7,000 in Ein Kerem and other parts of the western half of Jerusalem.

The proposal is slated to be one of the largest housing projects over the pre-1967 Green Line in recent years, a period when Israel faced significant international pressure to halt construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Both the Atarot and Givat Hamatos plans were frozen during the tenure of former US president Barak Obama, a harsh critic of Israel’s building policy in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Trump, seen as more conciliatory on the subject than his predecessor, has nevertheless said that he does not consider settlements “a good thing for peace” and has asked the Israelis to “hold back” on settlement building.

Housing Minister Yoav Galant arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, December 18, 2016. (Marc Israel Sellem)

Israel, which annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 war and considers it part of its undivided capital, does not regard building in the city as settlement activity and has said in maintains the right to build anywhere within municipal boundaries.

During recent discussions between Israeli and US officials over where Washington would tolerate building, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would not “negotiate” on halting construction of new homes in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

Trump: Ask me in month about moving embassy to Jerusalem

US President Donald Trump refused to confirm reports that he would announce the transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem during a visit to Israel next month, but hinted Thursday that he may clarify the issue at that time.

On Thursday, Florida Rep. Ron DeSantis (R), who earlier this year led a one-man fact-finding trip to scout locations for the embassy, said Trump would announce the relocation when he visits Israel at the end of May, fulfilling a campaign promise he appeared to walk back after assuming office.

Asked about the relocation by Reuters, Trump demurred.

“Ask me in a month on that,” he told the news agency.

Trump also appeared to express frustration that Israelis and Palestinians continued to not have a peace deal, saying there was no reason for the conflict to persist.

“I want to see peace with Israel and the Palestinians,” he said. “There is no reason there’s not peace between Israel and the Palestinians — none whatsoever.”

Trump has said several times that he would work to broker an agreement to end the decades-old conflict, citing his business acumen and saying peace would be “the ultimate deal.”

He is due to meet Palestinian Authority President in Washington early next month.

Trump had also promised during his campaign to move the embassy, but has yet to follow through, with initial excitement in Israel dampening as the administration said it was only starting to explore the issue.

Following meetings with Arab leaders since taking office, and especially Jordan’s King Abdullah II at the National Prayer Breakfast, Trump said he would like to see the move take place eventually but that he wouldn’t go through with it right away.

Trump’s visit next month, to begin on May 22 according to Israeli officials, will coincide with Jerusalem Day, which will mark the 50th anniversary since Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in 1967 and the subsequent unification of the capital.

US Congressman Ron DeSantis during a press conference in Jerusalem, March 5, 2017, following a 24-hour tour of congressional representatives studying the possibility of relocating the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“What better time could there be to announce the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem than when you are over here celebrating with our Israeli friends this very important 50th anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem?” DeSantis said.

The trip will also come a week before a waiver signed by predecessor Barack Obama pushing off the embassy relocation for security reasons will expire. Trump will have to decide at that point whether to extend the waiver another six months or let it lapse and move the embassy.

Congress passed a law, in 1995, mandating the embassy be moved to Jerusalem, but allowed the president to exercise a six-month waiver on national security grounds. Every president since, including Barack Obama’s predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, signed such a waiver every six months.

The US embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, June 14, 2016. (Flash 90)

The embassy relocation would be a highly symbolic gesture, valued by Israel as confirmation of the city as its capital, but strongly opposed by Palestinians and the Arab world.

Trump’s pick to serve as US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, was also highly vocal in his resolution that the president would move the embassy, saying in an announcement of his nomination that he expected to carry out his duties in Jerusalem.

Friedman is due to arrive in Jerusalem on May 15 and to present his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin in June.

Trump says no plan to pull out of NAFTA ‘at this time’

President Trump told the leaders of Canada and Mexico on Wednesday that the United States would not be pulling out of the North American Free Trade Agreement “at this time,” opening the door to future negotiations on the same day that Trump was considering signaling a strong intent to withdraw as a potential way of bringing the parties together at the deal-
making table.

Trump spoke with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau late Wednesday afternoon after reports circulated during the day that the president was contemplating withdrawing from NAFTA.

“President Trump agreed not to terminate NAFTA at this time and the leaders agreed to proceed swiftly, according to their required internal procedures, to enable the renegotiation of the NAFTA deal to the benefit of all three countries,” the White House said in a statement late Wednesday.

News that Trump was weighing withdrawing from NAFTA drew sharp criticism from several Republican leaders, including Sen. Jeff Flake (R) and Sen. John McCain (R). McCain tweeted that Trump “shouldn’t abandon this vital trade agreement.”

Earlier, three people familiar with the matter said Trump is seriously considering signing a document within days that would signal his intent to withdraw the United States from the agreement within six months.

If signed, the letter would begin a formal process that could see the United States exit the 23-year-old trade pact with Canada and Mexico, ratcheting up tensions among neighboring nations.

Signing the document does not require Trump to withdraw from NAFTA after six months, but it is a required step if he plans to eventually do so. The White House is expected to soon take a separate step by signing a letter to Congress that would notify lawmakers of the administration’s intention to renegotiate NAFTA. By taking both steps, the White House would give itself more flexibility to choose a different outcome in several months.

Any move by Trump on NAFTA would not come as a surprise. The president made criticism of NAFTA one of the main topics of his campaign last year, calling the pact “a disaster for our country” and saying it “had to be totally gotten rid of.”

But the NAFTA issue did seem to lose some urgency after the first few weeks of Trump’s presidency as his administration focused on other topics.

“Some people were hopeful that just like he revised his views on NATO, he’d revise his views on this,” said Hoyt Bleakley, associate professor of economics at the University of Michigan. “But clearly he hasn’t.”

In recent days Trump also has taken a harder line with Canada, blasting a recent change in the dairy pricing policy there that mostly dealt with a cheese-making product called ultrafiltered milk. In Wisconsin last week, Trump called Canada’s dairy pricing scheme “another typical one-sided deal against the U.S.” Canada disputed that.

And the Commerce Department said Monday that it would begin charging a tariff on the import of softwood lumber from Canada into the United States, alleging Canada was improperly subsidizing its domestic timber firms.

But there was no panic over the fate of NAFTA in the Calgary offices of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, whose members sell and buy plenty of beef cattle across the border.

“This is his typical way of doing things — saying completely unreasonable things as a negotiating posture,” said John Masswohl, the trade group’s director of government and international relations.

Masswohl said he watched how Trump handled issues at the Carrier plant in Indiana and with Ford’s plans to build car models in Mexico. He sees similar rhetoric in Trump’s approach to NAFTA.

“I’ve got to believe this is a negotiating position,” Masswohl said, because the trade pact might need tweaking, but it has been good for both countries.

Separately, the Trump administration Wednesday made another move on trade that seemed aimed at China, launching an investigation into the effect of aluminum imports on U.S. national security interests.

A similar probe, known as a Section 232 investigation, was announced for foreign-made steel last week.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Wednesday that Trump would be signing a directive today urging the inquiry.

 

Ross said aluminum was a national security interest because the metal in its high-purity form is used in military planes such as the F-35 and F-18, plus armor plating for military vehicles and combat vessels. Just one U.S. smelter makes high-purity aluminum, producing enough for peacetime military needs but not enough if the country enters into conflicts, he said.

“It’s very dangerous from a defense point of view to have only one supplier of an absolutely critical element,” Ross said.

Only two U.S. smelters are fully operational today, with eight others having curtailed operations or closed since 2015. Imported aluminum accounted for 55 percent of the U.S. market last year, the largest market share ever and a steep increase over recent years, Ross said.

The largest importers of aluminum into the United States are China followed by Russia, United Arab Emirates and Canada, Ross said.

Aluminum imports from China, in particular, have been a focus of the U.S. government for months. Late last year, a bipartisan group of 12 U.S. senators asked for a national security review of Chinese aluminum giant Zhongwang International Group Ltd.’s proposed $2.3 billion purchase of U.S. aluminum products maker Aleris, alleging the deal would damage the U.S. defense industry.

In January, days before leaving office, President Barack Obama launched a World Trade Organization complaint about Chinese aluminum subsidies that, the United States claimed, gave Chinese companies an unfair advantage.

And last month, U.S. producers of aluminum foil — including the kind used to wrap kitchen leftovers — filed an anti-dumping complaint against China, claiming the United States was being flooded with unfair, cheap imports. Foil prices have declined significantly in recent years “due to widespread and significant underselling of U.S. producers’ prices,” according to the complaint.

A couple of weeks later, Trump’s Commerce Department announced that it was investigating those and other unfair trade claims.