explainer
August 9, 2020

One of the coronavirus pandemic-related executive orders signed by President Trump addressed evictions, but critics say it's a weak move that doesn't actually extend a moratorium. Instead, the order merely directs the Treasury Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to consider taking action, Josh Blackman writes for Reason.

In short, the order instructs the two departments to look into identifying federal funds that could potentially provide assistance to renters and homeowners who can't meet their monthly rental and mortgage payments because of the pandemic. There are no guarantees.

Similarly, observers believe the payroll tax deferral order was overplayed, since taxpayers will still ultimately owe the money next year.

Trump has said he'd try to terminate the tax altogether if he's re-elected, but it's unclear if he has the authority do so, and he would likely face bipartisan opposition in Congress. Tim O'Donnell

May 6, 2019

President Trump threw another curveball into ongoing trade talks with China on Sunday, threatening to raise tariffs to 25 percent on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods. Trump was apparently tweeting out of frustration over Chinese resistance to some of his bigger demands; he succeeded in rattling U.S. investors, at least.

In his tweets, Trump again showed he either doesn't understand how tariffs work or, more likely, doesn't seem to think the reality is as politically palatable as his claims that for 10 months, "China has been paying tariffs to the USA," that "these payments are partially responsible for our great economic results," and that "the tariffs paid to the USA have had little impact on product cost, mostly borne by China." He's wrong on most counts.

First, tariffs are taxes paid to U.S. Customs and Border Protection by U.S. importers — that is, U.S. companies or U.S. subsidiaries of foreign companies — not by China. So, for example, Costco would pay the tax on TVs imported for China, explains Howard Gleckman at the Tax Policy Center. "But who really pays the tax on imported goods? The answer, I am sorry to say is, it depends."

Domestic companies typically deal with the extra tax through some combination of cost-cutting, eating the loss through lower profits, passing the cost on to consumers, asking the Chinese exporter to share the financial burden, or finding tariff-free countries to import from. Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Princeton, and Columbia found in February that with Trump's tariffs, the entire burden has fallen "on domestic consumers and importers up to now, with no impact so far on the prices received by foreign exporters."

That study conservatively estimated that the tariffs are costing U.S. consumers and companies $4.4 billion a month. A Congressional Research Report found that Trump's tariffs raised the price of washing machines by as much as 12 percent. And China's retaliatory tariffs have harmed U.S. farmers, especially; despite subsidies to offset those losses, Midwestern farms are declaring bankruptcy at rates not seen since the 2008 financial crisis. Peter Weber

April 10, 2018

Federal prosecutors don't typically raid law offices, because communications between an attorney and clients are generally protected and cannot be used as evidence against the client. So Monday's raid on Michael Cohen's law office, as well as his home and hotel room, was bold and unusual, requiring sign-off from the U.S. attorney in Manhattan — a Trump appointee — a magistrate judge, and the criminal division at the Justice Department, as former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara explained on CNN:

"It's a tactic generally used against organized crime, against very serious, very serious criminals and lawyers who are operating outside of the protections of the law," Alan Dershowitz, who frequently defends President Trump on cable news, told The Daily Beast. The FBI agents likely brought along a "taint team," or a group of government lawyers walled off from the investigation who go through seized documents to determine which ones prosecutors can see.

Trump is Cohen's sole client, and "Cohen is Trump's virtual vault — the keeper of his secrets, from his business deals to his personal affairs," The Washington Post notes. Cohen's lawyer, Steve Ryan, said the search resulted in the "seizure of protected attorney-client communications between a lawyer and his clients," but Trump's communications with Cohen aren't necessarily shielded, The Wall Street Journal explains:

Attorney-client information may not be protected if the communications were in service of an illegal act, under the "crime-fraud exception" to the privilege. If agents were after Mr. Cohen's client files, prosecutors could still use the information if they found an intention of committing or concealing a crime or fraud, a difficult standard to meet. [The Wall Street Journal]

"The only excuse for raiding a lawyer's office is if the lawyer is potentially involved in crime — if there's probable cause to believe that the attorney is either involved in crime or his services are being used for that," white-collar defense attorney Sol Wisenberg tells The Daily Beast. Which isn't great news for either Trump or Cohen. Peter Weber

April 5, 2018

President Trump did not actually order the National Guard to the U.S.-Mexico border in the proclamation he signed Wednesday evening; he ordered Defense Secretary James Mattis to "request use of National Guard personnel to assist in fulfilling this mission." That's because governors command their state's National Guard — as the governors alluded to in their reactions to Trump's memo.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) "appreciates the administration's efforts to bring states to the table as they go about taking steps to better secure our border," said her spokesman, Michael Lonergan. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) noted that in his time as governor, and as far back as 2014, "Texas has maintained a continuous presence of National Guard members along the border," at a cost of millions of dollars. California National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Tom Keegan said on behalf of Gov. Jerry Brown (D) that California will "promptly" review Trump's request, and "we look forward to more detail, including funding, duration, and end state."

Trump could theoretically take the rare step of federalizing the National Guard, though it "requires specific congressional authorization before the president can use the military in a domestic law enforcement capacity," University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck tells Vox. But assuming he sticks with asking states to deploy the Guard, bypassing the Posse Comitatus Act, the states foot the bill — unless they come to some agreement with the feds. "In 2006, [California] Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sent 1,000 additional National Guard troops to the border in response to a request by President George W. Bush, but only after a protracted dispute over who would pay for it," the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Peter Weber

August 15, 2017

"What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right?" President Trump asked the "fake news" media at his Trump Tower press conference on Tuesday, where he blamed "both sides" for the violence at a "Unite the Right" demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend.

"Alt-right" is a thing, a term adopted by white nationalists as a more palatable term of art for white supremacy, and embraced by its best-known progenitor, Richard Spencer, and Breitbart News, the media organization recently led by Trump's chief strategist, Stephen Bannon. "Alt-left," as Trump called it, isn't a thing. The groups who showed up to protest the swasitka-waving neo-Nazis, hooded Klansmen, and khaki-pantsed white supremacists were a diverse bunch that prominently featured about 100 Christian ministers in clerical garb, angry Charlottesville residents, peace advocates, Black Lives Matter activists, and self-styled anti-fascists who call themselves "antifas," which sounds as much like "antiphon" as a fascist-fighting collective.

You can disagree with the fight-force-with-force tactics of the "antifas" — many people on the left do — but fighting against fascism didn't used to be controversial. And as for Trump's "very nice people" on the alt-right who were just there to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, as decided by the democratically elected government of Charlottesville, "the ad promoting the 'Unite the Right' rally, which ran on far-right websites all week, did not even mention the statue," notes John Podhoretz in the New York Post. "It was designed to evoke a Fascist poster with birds similar to the Nazi eagle in the sky over the marchers and Confederate flags taking the place of swastikas." Since Trump says he "likes to know the facts" before "making a statement," he might read the whole article.

There are two sides, kind of, as Trump said, but they aren't both "alt," and they aren't the same — just ask the last two men to run for president as the standard-bearers for Trump's party. Peter Weber

May 15, 2014

The Federal Communications Commission unveiled plans today that will effect the future of the internet. In a 3-2 vote, FCC members approved a plan for an "internet fast lane," which would let large companies pay internet service providers (ISPs) for preferred access to users on their networks. That means companies that transmit tons of data, like Netflix or Amazon, would have their content reach customers faster than those of companies who don't pay the ISPs.

The announcement serves as a big blow for proponents of net neutrality, who say that all internet traffic should be treated equally. (The New York Times has a helpful video that explains the significance of net neutrality.) They say the proposal gives an "unfair advantage" to companies with deep pockets who can afford to pay off ISPs, thus blocking out smaller outlets. "And without competition, those giants would be free to charge you more," notes Business Insider.

It's important to note that today's FCC ruling isn't final, it just means the proposal is up for public comment. It will still be several months before the FCC decides how it wants to patrol the internet, but for now, it sounds like their plan will look a lot like this. Jordan Valinsky

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