The Trump Trifecta

October 26, 2018

Since taking office in January 2017, Donald Trump has stood with House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to proclaim various ‘victories’ for the American people.  Here are what seem to be the top three, A.K.A. “The Trifecta”:

  1. Complicit with Russia, Saudi Arabia and several other suspect regimes. Trump has continued to send public messages which downplay and/or absolve bad actors from behaviors which are contrary to existing international standards.

One clear reason:  Trump — and his close advisor Jared Kushner —  is involved in highly leveraged real estate development.  Neither Trump nor Kushner have the liquidity or availability of traditional financing sources to invest their own money.  Instead, they are forced to chase shady money from around the world, including huge sums of money sourced from Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, etc.

Essentially, Trump (along with the Kushner Companies) is beholden to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; Vladimir Putin; various Chinese investors; along with ‘dark money’ sources in Cyprus, Panama and the Cayman Islands, among others.

2. The “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” (TCJA) was passed in late 2017 incorporating some modest temporary individual and small business tax cuts while focusing in on very substantial big business and corporate tax cuts.

Traditional economic models, developed and refined over countless economic cycles, encourage tax cuts and deficit spending during economic downturns as a means to stimulate economic growth.  During times of economic expansion, increased government revenue from tax collections is then used to pay down public debt and help stabilize the economy.

N.B.  There was a strong case to be made for a modest corporate tax cut as the U.S. economy began to improve post 2012; there was zero legitimate case to be made for the magnitude of the corporate tax cut which was a cornerstone of the 2017 TCJA.

The foundation of the TCJA was a promise that slashing corporate taxes from a maximum 35% rate to a 21% cap would result in dramatic increases in capital investment, resulting in job creation and wage growth.  Americans for Tax Reform, a vocal advocate for the plan, generated promises of employee bonuses, increased wages, increased retirement contributions and/or expanded business operations as a result of the TCJA.

Actual outcomes of the Tax Cuts?  Record stock buybacks; extraordinary executive compensation; flat employee compensation; and continued failure of venerable American corporations.

Definitive proof of the foolishness of cutting taxes in a time of economic expansion?  A rapidly expanding federal budget deficit.  According to the final monthly Treasury Statement for Fiscal Year 2018 (the year that ended on 9/30/2018), the deficit was $779 Billion — a $113 Billion (17%) increase over the$666 Billion deficit recorded from FY 2017.

Perhaps most egregious to the American people?  Mitch McConnell is blaming self-funded safety net programs [Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid] as the root cause of our rising federal deficit.  Visualize McConnell as he does a little smile; looks straight into the camera; and then blatantly lies to the American people.  Was he also lying when he took the Oath of Office?

3.  Incendiary, Irrational and Emotionally-Inspired Immigration Policy:

Right or wrong, the U.S. economy depends on immigrant workers – documented or undocumented. Industry sectors which rely on immigrants for between 1/4 and 1/2 of their employment needs include: agriculture; hospitality; construction; textile, apparel and leather manufacturing; food manufacturing; and private households.

Through a series of small moves that add up to dramatic change, the Trump administration has bypassed Congress to create new process and procedures which could have lasting effects on how the US welcomes and evaluates immigrants.

In his election campaign in June 2015, Trump told us, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists…”

By painting virtually all immigrants with a broad brush as criminals; as a national security threat to the U.S.; as bad people; as people who steal jobs from Americans;  he has created a hostile environment on the world stage, offering fear and fallacies with no attempt to find viable and sustainable solutions.

In late October 2018, facing a ‘caravan of migrants’ moving north from Central America toward the U.S. Southern border, Trump has proclaimed that there are ‘criminals and people of Middle Eastern descent among the migrants within the caravan’ and has pointed to it as evidence that the U.S. has weak immigration laws. He has also threatened to cut off aid to Central American countries in response to the caravan.

An internal report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General found that the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” crackdown at the border in early 2018 was troubled from the outset by planning shortfalls, widespread communication failures and administrative indifference to the separation of small children from their parents.

It has been said that the Trump Child Separation Policy is related to the worst abuses of humanity in history.  Child separation is connected by the same evil that separated families during slavery, and which dislocated tribes and broke up Native American families.

What’s the point?

The point is that differences of opinion are a cornerstone of society, and a critical ingredient of humanity.

The very essence of Debate relies on formal discussion on a particular topic.

In an honest debate, opposing arguments are put forward to argue for opposite  viewpoints. Genuine and honest debate can occur in public meetings, academic institutions, and in legislative assemblies.

A genuine debate requires some ground rules, particularly in the areas of logical consistency and factual accuracy, yet it also allows some degree of emotional appeal to the audience.

Sadly, today’s discussions on topics of importance to the American People seem to lack any rules about civility, logic or even factual accuracy.

Turn on the television and we find absolutism, tribalism and a “win at any cost” approach to delicate yet important societal issues. Dialogue has effectively been replaced by diatribe.

Worse, people can select news sources which support and reinforce their biases, finding comfort in “being right” by selective listening or watching. No time or need to consider other options when the platform has been fully developed to mirror your comfort zone.

Add to this dilemma the continuing disenfranchisement of American adults from the political process.

More adult males in America today are able to recite NFL statistics than are able explain issues facing American society, and women are not far behind.

Voter turnout in the United States fluctuates in national elections. In recent elections, about 60% of the voting eligible population votes during presidential election years, and about 40% votes during midterm elections. Turnout is lower for odd year, primary and local elections.

If we compare national voter participation in the 2016 presidential election to viewership of the 2016 Superbowl, we find a dead heat at around 112 Million.

Not necessarily the same people, but it does strike me that we have a real disconnect between the American public and our governance model, perhaps helping to explain why our system seems to be in need of some serious adjustments at this point in time.

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Since Donald J. Trump announced his candidacy for president in June 2015, there have been many commentaries on his financial history — particularly because he has refused to release his tax returns.

In 2016, David Barstow, Susanne Craig and Russ Buettner of The New York Times obtained Trump’s 1995 tax returns, and for their article published on the front page of The New York Times on October 3, 2018, they worked together for over a year to investigate the wealth that the president inherited from his father.

The narrative in the NY Times investigative piece is compelling.

Like most rules and regulations, U.S. tax law assumes that people will voluntarily comply in the interest of equity and fairness across the board.  If the laws are not fair, they should be amended, not circumvented.

Having worked in the real estate and financial services industry for many years, I am familiar with many of the strategies exposed in the article, particularly the rather arbitrary and capricious use of independent appraisals to determine market value at a point in time.

Where many — if not most — wealthy families and individuals pay their fair share of taxes (perhaps grudgingly), the Trump family has notoriously and conspicuously fought against taxing authorities, continually challenging assessments and levies as a part of their overall family business plan.

Note a recent kerfuffle in Westchester County, NY where a Trump National Golf Club is located.

With a 65,000 square foot club house, private gourmet restaurant, swimming pool, tennis pavilion and courts, the 18-hole, 7,261 yard Jim Fazio designed course is situated on 140+ acres of prime real estate in the Town of Ossining, NY.

This ultra-exclusive private club demands a hefty 5-figure initiation fee from new members, with minimum annual dues of $19,400.

In his 2017 Executive Branch Personal Financial Disclosure Report (filed 6/14/2017), Donald Trump revealed the value of his ownership interest in Trump National Golf Club – Westchester at ‘over $50,000,000.’ with annual personal income attributable to the Club of $9,771,428.

Yet, in 2015, the Trump Organization sued the town of Ossining to lower its assessment from the 2014 value of $13.5 Million to $1.4 Million in order to reduce property and school taxes.

After the feud with Ossining became public, Trump’s lawyers raised the dollar value of the golf course, but it was still nowhere near the official 2015 assessment of $14.3 million and 2016 assessed value of $15.1 million.

The moves are consistent with repeated efforts by the Trump Organization to challenge property valuations in an effort to win massive local property tax reductions, not to mention the potentially illicit impacts on federal, state and local income tax obligations which in many cases are directly linked to these local assessments (valuations).

Over the past several years, Trump has lauded himself as “one of the most successful businessmen in the world,” who paid “no more tax than legally required.”

“I have brilliantly used [the U.S. tax] laws,” Trump said at a campaign event in October 2016. “I was able to use the tax laws of this country, and my business acumen, to dig out of the real estate mess — you would call it a depression — when few others were able to do what I did.”

It was a reported $916 Million net operating loss in 1995 which gave Trump the ability to avoid paying taxes on more than $50 Million in annual taxable income over the following 18 years.

Make America Great Again? Only if others are willing to cough up the tax revenues needed to pay the freight.