Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (left) and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak met with President Trump last week in the Oval Office.
Updated at 7:17 p.m. ET
President Trump revealed “highly classified information” to two top Russian officials during a controversial Oval Office meeting last week, according to a report from The Washington Post.
The Post, citing current and former U.S. officials, reported Monday evening that the information relayed by the president to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak “jeopardized a critical source of intelligence” on ISIS:
“The partner had not given the United States permission to share the material with Russia, and officials said Trump’s decision to do so endangers cooperation from an ally that has access to the inner workings of the Islamic State. After Trump’s meeting, senior White House officials took steps to contain the damage, placing calls to the CIA and the National Security Agency.
” ‘This is code-word information,’ said a U.S. official familiar with the matter, using terminology that refers to one of the highest classification levels used by American spy agencies. Trump ‘revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies.’ “
Trump also reportedly boasted to the Russians about the intelligence he was receiving, telling the two men, “I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day”:
“Trump went on to discuss aspects of the threat that the United States learned only through the espionage capabilities of a key partner. He did not reveal the specific intelligence-gathering method, but he described how the Islamic State was pursuing elements of a specific plot and how much harm such an attack could cause under varying circumstances. Most alarmingly, officials said, Trump revealed the city in the Islamic State’s territory where the U.S. intelligence partner detected the threat.
“The Washington Post is withholding most plot details, including the name of the city, at the urging of officials who warned that revealing them would jeopardize important intelligence capabilities.”
BuzzFeed also confirmed The Post‘s report, with one U.S. official saying that the disclosures from the president to the Russians were “far worse than what has already been reported.”
The New York Times also noted that “Trump’s disclosure does not appear to have been illegal — the president has the power to declassify almost anything. But sharing the information without the express permission of the ally who provided it represented a major breach of espionage etiquette and could jeopardize a crucial intelligence-sharing relationship.”
Trump’s meeting with the Russians came last Wednesday, the day after he fired FBI Director Jim Comey, who was overseeing an investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. elections and possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The visit was fraught with bad optics, and Kislyak’s attendance — only confirmed by photos from Russian state media — was especially notable because he has been at the center of many of the Trump administration’s controversies involving Russia. Only TASS, Russia’s official news agency, was allowed in to photograph the meeting; no U.S. media was allowed.
Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced to resign after just over three weeks on the job after it was revealed he had discussed Russian sanctions with Kislyak and then subsequently misled Vice President Pence about those conversations. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions was forced to recuse himself from any involvement in the FBI’s investigations into Russia after it was revealed that he twice met with Kislyak despite testifying during his confirmation hearing that he had had no contact with Russian officials.
National security adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters outside the White House that the “story that came out tonight as reported is false.”
“At no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed, and the president did not disclose any military operation that were not already publicly known, McMaster said. However, The Post story and other subsequent reports didn’t say that it was sources, methods or military operations discussed, but simply classified information.
“I was in the room, and it didn’t happen,” McMaster said at the end of his abrupt statement. He departed without taking questions.
“During President Trump’s meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, a broad range of subjects were discussed among which were common efforts and threats regarding counter-terrorism,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement. “During that exchange the nature of specific threats were discussed, but they did not discuss sources, methods or military operations.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., said that if The Post‘s report was true, it was “inexcusable.”
If true, this is a slap in the face to the intel community. Risking sources & methods is inexcusable, particularly with the Russians. https://t.co/CRiSC024F7
— Mark Warner (@MarkWarner) May 15, 2017
Eliot Cohen, a former counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice under President George W. Bush, said on Twitter that if Trump had given the classified material to the Russians deliberately, “it would be treason.”
This is appalling. If accidental, it would be a firing offense for anyone else. If deliberate, it would be treason. https://t.co/iWevZMIFt6
— Eliot A Cohen (@EliotACohen) May 15, 2017
Mexican journalist Javier Valdez speaks at the International Book Fair in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2016. He was killed by a gunman on Monday.
Hector Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images
Hector Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images
One of Mexico’s most respected journalists has been shot to death in his home state of Sinaloa, in northwestern Mexico, and a large group of gunmen has attacked seven other journalists traveling in the southwest.
A wave of attacks, several of them fatal, targeted reporters in Mexico over the last few months, NPR’s Carrie Kahn reports from Mexico.
Javier Valdez, who was shot to death in Culiacan, Sinaloa, on Monday, was a veteran reporter admired for his dogged coverage of drug trafficking, organized crime and life in Mexico’s underworld, Carrie reports. He was a correspondent for a national newspaper, La Jornada, and also “founded the respected Riodoce publication and authored several books delving into narcotrafficking and organized crime.”
A gunman pulled Valdez from his car and shot him multiple times, according to La Jornada.
“Valdez was a nationally and internationally recognized journalist who authored several books on the drug trade, including Narcoperiodismo and Los Morros del Narco,” The Associated Press reports. “The latter chronicled the lives of young people swept up in Mexico’s underworld.”
A spokesman for a Mexican human rights organization, CNDH, tellsLa Jornada the killing “affects freedom of expression, and the very heart of Mexican democracy.”
“Sinaloa, Valdez’s home state is infamous in Mexico’s drug world,” Carrie says. “It’s also home to the Sinaloa cartel, which until recently was headed by Joaquin ‘Chapo’ Guzman” — the infamous drug lord who, after a high-profile escape and recapture, has been extradited to the U.S. and is awaiting trial.
The attack comes a day after a group of around 100 gunmen attacked sevenjournalists traveling through southwestern Mexico.
Carrie reports on the Sunday attack for our Newscast unit:
“The attack occurred on a highway near the town of Iguala in the state of Guerrero. According to reports, about 100 armed men attacked the reporters traveling together in two SUVs.
“The reporters were in the region covering a security operation. It is one of the most dangerous in the country, fueled by drug cartel violence. Three years ago, 43 teaching students were kidnapped and disappeared in the area.
“According to the national newspaper, La Jornada, two of its employees were among the journalists attacked. The gunmen, who the paper say appeared to be drugged, roughed up some of the reporters then stole their cameras, cellphones, and other personal effects.”
Mexico is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist, the Committee to Protect Journalists says.
Members of the South Asian community and others attend a peace vigil for Srinivas Kuchibhotla, the 32-year-old Indian engineer killed at a bar Olathe, Kansas, in Bellevue, Washington on March 5, 2017.
Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images
Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images
Since the February death of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, the first bias fatality of the Trump era, one question has been coursing through South Asian-American circles: was this hate-crime killing in Olathe, Kansas their “Vincent Chin moment”?
Chin was a Chinese-American in Detroit who was beaten to death by two white men in 1982. His death is credited with sparking a pan-Asian-American activist movement.
In “The Making of Asian America: A History,” author Erika Lee quotes activist Helen Zia as saying, “Suddenly people who had endured a lifetime of degrading treatment were wondering if their capacity to suffer in silence might no longer be a virtue.”
Like Chin, Kuchibhotla was an immigrant, and had moved to the country from India.
Both men were victims of ethnic mis-identification: Chin’s killers thought he was Japanese, and that he was somehow to blame for U.S. auto manufacturing jobs being lost. In Kuchibhotla’s case, the alleged shooter told a bartender that he’d killed two Iranians, including Kuchibhotla’s friend Alok Madasani, who survived.
But for all the similarities, there is one important difference: Chin was working class, while Kuchibhotla was an engineer who was, in the words of his widow, able to buy their “dream home” in suburban Kansas City.
This fact, however, may help explain why Kuchibhotla’s death has generated an unusual degree of alarm in the Indian community, including segments that have not otherwise been politicized.
Unlike many of the Sikh and Muslim victims of past hate crimes, including those which occurred after 9/11, Kuchibhotla was Hindu. He was, in other words, an everyman figure in the eyes of many in India, and just as importantly, his death comes against a backdrop of rising white nationalism and disaffection.
For Bay Area activist Anirvan Chatterjee, the shootings in Kansas served as “a huge wake-up call” for Hindu Americans.
“They thought they were safe,” he said. “They thought their bindis would protect them, they thought their last names would protect them, they thought their advanced degrees would protect them, and something changed.”
Another factor is wealth. Indian Americans have the highest median income of any ethnic group, and this attribute may have helped inoculate the community against a sense of threat.
After his death, several candlelight vigils for Srinivas Kuchibhotla were held around the country. This one took place in front of the Gandhi statue in Union Square in New York City.
“I think there was a sense of ‘Look at the tremendous success’ and there was perhaps a complacency that we didn’t have to do the basic building blocks” of organizing, said Raj Goyle, a former state legislator from Kansas who now runs a tech firm in New York.
“Indians, We are the white people of brown people,” said Indian comedian Vir Das on a recent episode of Conan. Das waited for the laughter to die down before adding, “Because when we get shot there’s an investigation, ladies and gentlemen.”
In other words, we’re dark enough to be the targets of hate crimes, but connected enough that the powers that be actually pay attention.
That paradox explains why even the wealthiest Indian Americans are now mobilizing: Goyle is co-founder of the Indian American Impact Project, an organization that is encouraging Wall Street executives, venture capitalists and others to invest in progressive political candidates and civil rights groups, and to align with other communities of color.
“There are people who have very significant net worths who I think are willing to now write seven-figure checks, perhaps even eight-figure checks,” said Goyle. “The resources in the community are there.”
Suman Raghunathan, executive director of the civil rights group South Asian Americans Leading Tomorrow (SAALT), thinks this is a significant change because, unlike in the post-9/11 era, the fear is now reaching into every corner of the Indian-American community.
“There’s a blanket sense and understanding among folks that we are all in the crossfire.”
Arun Venugopal is a race reporter with WNYC and a contributor to “The United States of Anxiety” podcast. Find him on Twitter @arunNYC.
Girls are treated for a suspected cholera infection at a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen, on May 15.
On Monday, authorities in Yemen declared a state of emergency due to a sharp rise in cholera deaths.
Yemen has been at war for more than two years — a Saudi-led coalition has been battling Shiite Houthi rebels aligned with Iran — leaving a reported 10,000 dead. The fighting has decimated much of the country’s infrastructure, including its medical facilities. The World Health Organization said in April that fewer than half of Yemen’s medical centers were functioning to capacity.
From Aden, Yemen, Dominik Stillhart, director of global operations at the International Committee for the Red Cross, talked with NPR’s Ari Shapiro about the cholera outbreak and the dire state of health care in Yemen.
How bad is this latest outbreak?
Well, I have just spent the past four days here. The latest figures in the cholera outbreak show that there have been more than 11,000 cases, 187 people have died and the disease seems to be spreading like wildfire.
It is spread through water. Do people have access clean water and to medical care?
This is precisely one of the problems here after two years of brutal conflict that has brought this country to its knees. Not only were 8,000 people killed in the conflict and 44,000 wounded, in addition there is all the vital infrastructure like public services — health, water, sewage, sanitation, garbage collection — that are running dangerously low and creating conditions for the spread of the disease.
What do you see in the hospitals?
I visited two hospitals, actually, and both have received hundreds of new cases of people affected by watery diarrhea and suspected cholera. The scenes were heartbreaking. We saw up to four people in one single hospital bed. Patients waiting in the garden outside. I even saw one man was sitting in his car with an IV drip attached to his window because there was no place in the hospital.
What are groups like the Red Cross doing to address the cholera crisis?
We have immediately diverted all the material in our warehouses to help health centers and hospitals address the current epidemic. We are particularly concerned in places of detention, the central prison in Sanaa, which has seen the first cases. They’re very crowded places and perfect situations for the spread of cholera. So we are there with our teams to ensure that cholera doesn’t spread.
What’s the impact of the fighting on efforts to fight cholera?
The conflict has seriously affected health here. Our estimation is that the health system is running at 45 percent of its capacity. In many ways, the conflict has made matters worse. Now what is needed is a collective effort from international organizations supporting health authorities here to address the crisis.
Do you expect things will get worse before they get better?
It’s always difficult to say. It depends not only on the response, it also depends, for instance, on … garbage collection. There is also urgent need to address the question of clean drinking water.
Yemeni authorities are asking aid organizations for help. What kind of help can they reasonably provide in a situation as chaotic as this one?
It’s really a question of supplying health centers and hospitals with the necessary medical supplies such as IV fluids, rehydration salts and chloride tablets. It’s a question of accelerating garbage collection in some of the towns where garbage has been piling up for weeks. And we need to ensure that in places of detention, which are very crowded, that cholera doesn’t spread.
This image — taken via satellite in January 2015 — depicts what the State Department says is the crematorium at Saydnaya prison, including snowmelt on the facility’s roof that acting Assistant Secretary Stuart Jones says is proof of building’s higher temperature.
The U.S. State Department laid out a new case against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime on Monday: Not only has the Syrian government committed mass atrocities at its military prison complex outside Damascus, but for years it has also added to the structure in order to burn and secretly dispose of thousands of its victims’ remains.
“Beginning in 2013, the Syrian regime modified a building within the Saydnaya complex to support what we believe is a crematorium,” Stuart Jones, acting assistant secretary for near eastern affairs, told reporters at a special media briefing, circulating satellite photographs he says depict that crematorium.
“Although the regime’s many atrocities are well documented,” Jones continued, “we believe that the building of a crematorium is an effort to cover up the extent of mass murders taking place in Saydnaya prison.”
This satellite image depicts the same section of the Saydnaya facility in 2013 (left) and in 2015 (right). “If you look at the earliest photo,” acting Assistant Secretary Stuart Jones said, “this is during the construction phase.” He says construction on the alleged crematorium was finished by 2015.
This satellite photograph taken on April 18 depicts what the State Department describes as a crematorium — in the bottom right of the image — built to dispose of the bodies of victims at Saydnaya military prison outside Damascus.
Citing “credible sources” and data gathered by non-governmental organizations, Stuart stated that between 2011 and 2015, the Assad regime has abducted and detained as many as 117,000 people — and has killed as many as 50 detainees a day at Saydnaya.
An Amnesty International report, titled “Human Slaughterhouse,” detailed the conditions behind these numbers, describing a setting where many detainees “have been killed after being repeatedly tortured and systematically deprived of food, water, medicine and medical care.”
Omar al-Shogre, who says he spent 10 months at Saydnaya, told NPR’s Robert Siegel that this physical torture was compounded by unimaginable psychological torture:
“We were requested by jailers to kill each other. Sometimes the wardens came with a knife or a rope, and they asked prisoners whether they had relatives or friends in prison.
“And once they identified their friends and relatives, they gave them one of two options: either killing their relatives or being killed themselves. And in many cases, being killed themselves included also being tortured before being killed.”
The Syrian regime dismissed the accounts included in Amnesty International’s report as “not based on correct evidence but on personal emotions that aim to achieve well-known political goals.”
In his briefing Jones answered this defense indirectly, saying the alleged crematorium “could dispose of detainees’ remains with little evidence” once they had been hanged or otherwise killed.
Though Jones spoke to U.S. media about the Syrian government, his message Monday did not appear directed at either party so much as at a pair of other countries: Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran.
“The United States is on record, has stated many times, that we are appalled by the atrocities that have been carried out by the Syrian regime,” Jones said. “And these atrocities have been carried out seemingly with the unconditional support from Russia and Iran.”
The Trump administration hit a Syrian airbase with a missile strike last month in retaliation for the regime’s deadly chemical attack in Idlib province — a unilateral strike that prompted a skirmish of words between U.S. and Russian officials.
“My assessment is the U.S.-Russia relationship is at an all-time low, the lowest point it has been since the end of the Cold War,” Tillerson told NPR several weeks after the strike. “And I would tell you that [Russian officials’] response was they didn’t disagree with that.”
“Russia has either aided in or passively looked away as the regime has conducted an airstrike against a U.N. convoy, destroyed east Aleppo and used chemical weapons, including sarin, against civilians in Idlib province on April 4,” Jones elaborated Monday.
He also expressed doubts about a recent Russia-brokered deal to “de-escalate” the 6-year-old Syrian civil war, which bore Russia, Iran and Turkey as guarantors: “In light of the failures of the past cease-fire agreements, we have reason to be skeptical.”
Still, Jones said the State Department has not presented its evidence of the alleged crematorium directly to Russia — and he said they’re not prepared to signal much else publicly.
“At this point we are talking about this evidence and bringing it forward to the international community, which we hope will put pressure on the [Syrian] regime to change its behavior.”
Salako Hunsa lives in a canoe in the Makoko waterfront settlement in Lagos, Nigeria. His home was burned down last month.
Tim McDonnell for NPR
Tim McDonnell for NPR
At 5:30 a.m. on April 9, Salako Hunsa awoke to the sound of gunfire. He left his wife and five children inside the house, and ran out to a shocking scene: A squad of police officers shooting indiscriminately and setting fire to his neighbor’s homes.
“I had to run for my life,” Hunsa says.
By the time the sun rose, the neighborhood was leveled, thousands of people were homeless and one young man was dead. The attack was a dramatic turning point in an ordeal that for Hunsa and thousands of his neighbors is far from over.
Hunsa was a lifelong resident of Otodo Gbame (pronounced BOM-ay), an informal waterfront settlement in Lagos, Nigeria, that is the front line of an ongoing conflict over the rights of some of the city’s poorest residents.
Africa’s most populous city is situated between a large lagoon and the open Atlantic. At dozens of locations across the city’s coastlines, at the boundaries where frantic markets, office towers and high-rise apartments meet the water, more than 300,000 people inhabit slums like Otodo Gbame (which translates roughly from the local Egun language to “community in the bush,” a nod to its origin as a swamp). Most residents eke out a living by fishing from hand-built canoes. They live in makeshift homes made of wood and scraps and elevated on stilts as a precaution against flooding. Access to clean water, electricity, schools and other vital services is scarce or nonexistent.
These communities are perhaps the most visible manifestation of the profound income inequality in Lagos. While the oil and finance industries have buoyed a few thousand Lagosians into stratospheric wealth (marked by gleaming black Escalades and boutique markets selling French oysters), one-fifth of the city’s 21 million residents are either living in or at risk of poverty, according to a 2016 Oxford University study.
Former residents from the waterfront settlement of Otodo Gbame in Lagos. They’ve been displaced and are now living in Makoko, another waterfront slum.
Tim McDonnell for NPR
Tim McDonnell for NPR
Residents of the waterfront settlements represent the city’s lowest socioeconomic tier. But they also happen to occupy prime real estate in the city with Africa’s fastest-growing population, where waterfront property increasingly rivals the prices of New York or Miami.
Now they’re the target of a government eviction campaign that city officials say is motivated by health and security concerns, and because the settlements are “illegal, without any title or appropriate government approval.” But residents and watchdog groups say the evictions are no more than a blatant, and sometimes violent, grab for land that’s been occupied by the same families for generations.
“This is the problem, they are surrounded by wealth,” says Morayo Adebayo, a researcher at Amnesty International Nigeria. That makes the land an attractive acquisition for “the posh places” nearby, she says.
Residents of waterfront settlements have experienced harassment from the police and wealthy neighbors for years. Trouble escalated in October, when Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode issued a warning that he planned to order the “demolition of all the shanties around the creeks in Lagos State and also around our waterways.” His concern was that some communities may have been sheltering suspected kidnappers (a major crime problem in Nigeria). That accusation was vigorously denied by the Justice and Empowerment Initiative (JEI), a local legal nonprofit representing community residents in court.
On November 9, a large fire ripped through the settlement and left 30,000 people homeless. The cause of the fire is disputed, but JEI co-director Megan Chapman believes that “the police prevented residents’ firefighting efforts and actually spread the fire.” The government denied any responsibility for the blaze but didn’t seem to mind its outcome; in a statement on the fire it said that Otodo Gbame “clearly fell within the prime waterfront areas where Lagos State Government would prefer to have better development, befitting of a prime area in a megacity.” The statement added that the government “was mindful of the fundamental rights of the various residents living in the area.”
In January, the Lagos State High Court spelled out those rights in an injunction that found the government’s practice of forced evictions amounted to “inhuman, cruel and degrading” treatment incompatible with Nigerian and international human rights law. The court put a stay on future evictions and initiated a process to mediate some kind of agreement between residents and the government. Nevertheless, in March the police returned with a crew of demolition workers and bulldozers, this time with a mission to “clear” structures “to ensure that the waterfront area is free from environmentally injurious and unsanitary habitation.” Another 4,700 residents lost their homes, according to JEI.
“So you create a humanitarian crisis to avert an environmental crisis?” Adebayo says. “You see the reasons keep shifting.”
The final blow came April 9, when the remaining few thousand residents were chased out and what was still left of the community razed. In the melee, a 22-year-old resident named Daniel Aya was shot in the neck and killed. Residents blame the police or thugs working for them, but the government denied responsibility. An investigation is pending while Aya’s body waits in a morgue, his father, Hungbo Aya, says.
By the time Salako Hunsa realized what was happening that day and rushed back inside to collect his wife and children, they had already fled. Because police had blockaded the shore, there was nowhere to go but the water. Hunsa jumped in and swam for 30 minutes until he was picked up in a friend’s canoe. All of the family’s possessions were left behind and destroyed in the fire, along with virtually every structure in the settlement. Drone footage captured by activists after the eviction reveals the extent of devastation.
A group of former Otodo Gbame residents who are now living in Makoko.
Tim McDonnell for NPR
Tim McDonnell for NPR
Hunsa found himself paddling to the city’s largest waterfront settlement, Makoko, along with most of his neighbors. When they arrived a few hours later, they parked the canoe in one of the countless narrow canals that wind through the neighborhood. He found his family, and they’ve been living there since — inside their canoes.
Makoko is already overcrowded, and the more than 1,000 displaced Otodo Gbame residents who are now living there have no choice but to sleep in the vessels that brought them. Hunsa’s canoe is big enough to accommodate several people; they sleep on mats on the floor underneath mosquito nets hung from a makeshift roof of metal sheeting. A steel oil drum with a discarded satellite dish for a lid serves as a cabinet. The canal inches below where they sleep serves as a public toilet and waste dump.
Getting food is a daily struggle that involves some combination of borrowing it from others, food aid from local NGOs or buying it with cash from the occasional odd job. Hunsa was a rare exception to the prevailing fisherman profession; he washed clothes at a laundromat in a nearby neighborhood and was fired when he didn’t show up after the eviction.
But even the fishermen are unable to find work. Most of their equipment was lost during the eviction. The waters around Makoko are unfamiliar, so they don’t know where to look for fish. And the Makoko fishermen are territorial, so the newcomers aren’t welcome.
There’s a cruel irony to the plight of the displaced peoples: Castigated as squatters in one place, they have been chased to a place where they truly are squatters and admit as much.
“[Otodo Gbame] is our fathers’ land, it is where we were born,” says Pascal Tosinhun, a displaced fisherman now living in Makoko. “Here we are squatters. We can’t do anything here.”
Tosinhun said he knows it’s only a matter of time before they wear out their welcome in Makoko, but that most people don’t know where they will go next. The situation reveals a fundamental flaw in the government’s approach, JEI’s Chapman says.
“Demolitions aren’t a solution to slums. They just push people deeper into poverty, and they move to a different slum,” she says.
The primary legal objective of the residents’ case against the government, she says, is to regain access to their land, although she acknowledges it’s an “uphill battle” given that the land is adjacent to an estate owned by one of Lagos’ wealthiest families, is still blockaded by police and is already being bulldozed to make way for future construction projects.
A hearing in late April got stalled on a technicality and rescheduled, so any resolution would take some time. At a minimum, Chapman says, the government should provide “compensation for lives lost and injuries, and prosecution of people involved in demolition.”
With the governor’s original ominous warning (“demolition of all the shanties”) still lingering, residents of Makoko fear that their waterfront settlement could be next. Chapman’s legal strategy is to think big. “We want to make this as painful as possible for the government as a deterrent to future evictions,” she says.
For Otodo Gbame’s former residents, there’s little more to do than to stand by and hope for the best.
“We have total commitment to that community,” Tosinhun says. “If it was announced today, we would all go back today.”
Tim McDonnell is a multimedia environmental journalist from New York. Currently he is a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow covering climate change in Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda. Follow him @timmcdonnell.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin briefs reporters on President Trump’s tax plan at the White House on April 26.
President Trump has proposed big tax cuts for businesses and individuals — breaks that could reduce federal revenue by trillions of dollars. Economists and tax specialists say that unless they’re paid for, the tax cuts could explode budget deficits and the national debt.
The prospect has prominent Republicans and Republican members of Congress worried.
When he unveiled an outline of the President’s tax proposal in April, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin minced no words: “We will have a massive tax cut for business and massive tax reform and simplification.”
Mnuchin said the tax cut will largely pay for itself by boosting U.S. economic growth, “back to 3 percent or higher.” That’s about double the growth rate in the economy last year.
David Stockman, the budget director in the Reagan White House in the 1980s, is highly skeptical.
“The idea that some combination of loophole closing plus added growth would pay for this 7 1/2-trillion-dollar revenue loss that they’re talking about, I think is just completely fanciful and irresponsible,” he says.
But, Stockman says, the argument does have a familiar ring: “It’s the same story they told back in 1980s when I was there and I never believed it.” Stockman said he believed tax cuts would produce “some additional economic growth.” But, he told colleagues in the Reagan administration, “most of the revenue loss has to be paid for with spending cuts. You have to earn it. You can’t, you know, wave a magic wand.”
The Trump administration says one other place it will get revenue for its big tax cut is by closing tax loopholes. But Stockman is skeptical Congress will go along. Take the $180 billion a year companies deduct for providing health benefits. “Not a chance that would be tampered with,” he says.
How about the $200 billion a year companies and individuals deduct for contributions to pensions and retirement plans? “I can’t believe there’s a remote possibility they would tamper with that,” says the former budget director.
And, Stockman points out, the administration itself has taken popular deductions like the ones for mortgage interest and charitable giving off the table.
Selling tax cuts that aren’t paid for will be even more difficult because the nation’s debt is already projected to move dramatically higher.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says by 2035 it will return to the record levels experienced just after World War II. That’s without the potential trillions in debt that could be added by the Trump tax cuts.
Stockman worries that to finance the debt the government will soak up funds in the economy that would otherwise be invested in businesses “and therefore slow down the growth of productivity.” That could hurt U.S. living standards.
Many Republicans in Congress have made deficit and debt reduction a huge issue. Members of the conservative Freedom Caucus have been vehement about it. And moderate Republicans like Rep. Tom Reed of New York are also concerned. “Until you see the entire picture, I’m going to keep my powder dry,” he says. But, “that type of debt increase is something I would be gravely concerned about.”
Reed, who spoke to NPR while making the rounds back in his district in western New York, says he hopes Trump and the Congress can find a way to pay for the tax cuts. “Hopefully there’s a way we can bridge this difference and make sure that we get to revenue neutrality,” he says. For Reed, that could include supporting a modified form of the border adjustment tax, the tax on imports being pushed by Paul Ryan and other Republican leaders in the House.
People protest outside as the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals prepares to hear arguments on President Trump’s revised travel ban in Seattle on Monday.
Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images
Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images
At a Seattle courtroom on Monday, in the latest battle in the legal war over President Trump’s currently suspended travel ban, lawyers and judges pushed and pulled on the swirling questions over Trump’s intentions and the legal limits on executive power.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments from lawyers for the U.S. government and the state of Hawaii over the executive order that would block travelers from six majority-Muslim countries.
Lawyer for Hawaii: “this is unprecedented.” A president is establishing a disfavored religion, Islam, with “real consequences”
— Joel Rose (@NPRJoel) May 15, 2017
The arguments were carried live on some cable news channels. As the debate unfolded, supporters of immigrants and refugees rallied outside the Seattle courthouse, chanting and carrying “No Ban, No Wall” signs, The Associated Press reports.
There are multiple lawsuits pending against the order; 13 judges with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently heard arguments over a different suit against the order.
In Seattle, the three judges — all appointed by Bill Clinton — threw questions at acting Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall, representing the federal government, and at Neal Katyal, himself a former acting solicitor general who is now representing Hawaii.
Judge Richard Paez asked Wall what separates Trump’s executive order from the World War II-era mass imprisonment of Japanese-Americans, which was also initiated by an executive order from President Roosevelt and justified on national security grounds.
That executive order was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court at the time. It’s now nearly universally recognized as being unconstitutional and profoundly unjust, born of “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership,” as a congressional apology put it.
Wall said that internment then, and the travel ban now, are absolutely different — and that he wouldn’t be defending the executive order otherwise. But he also said he hasn’t read the text of Roosevelt’s order.
The justices also pushed Wall on whether President Trump has ever disavowed his campaign statements about a “Muslim ban” — statements that have loomed large in the legal conflicts over this executive order (which is a revised version of an earlier, chaos-inducing order that referenced religion.)
Wall said the president has clarified his remarks.
Katyal, when it was his turn to speak, said Wall “could not actually point to any disavowal” because “there is no such statement.”
The judges on the panel pressed Katyal about arguments he had made before the court back when he was responsible for representing the federal government. They pointed out that he argued the president has broad authority when it comes to immigration.
And we’re done. In closing, both lawyers say the case has big implications for future POTUS decisions — but disagree on what those are
— Joel Rose (@NPRJoel) May 15, 2017
“Katyal said he stands by those arguments, but that doesn’t mean the president’s authority is unbounded,” the AP reports.
“In closing, both lawyers say the case has big implications for future POTUS decisions — but disagree on what those are,” reports NPR’s Joel Rose, who was in the courtroom.
It’s not clear when the judges will rule. It’s widely expected that one of the pending lawsuits will, eventually, be appealed to the Supreme Court.