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Republican Tax Reform: A Windfall If Done Right – Updated

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Tax reform will be the litmus test for Republicans and President Trump and will be decisive in determining the latter’s re-election. With repealing and replacing Obamacare now relegated to the shed and progress on the border wall looking sluggish, tax cuts across the board might become the ace in the hole.

November 2 saw the unveiling of the new tax reform bill, entitled ‘Tax Cuts and jobs Act of 2017,’ in the Congress (House of Representatives). The New York Times did a great round up of the bill and what it entails, if it were to pass through the Congress and signed into law.

In a move to streamline the tax brackets in individual income tax, the new bill sets out four easy brackets, some of which involve merger of existing brackets. The bill also revises the income ranges for the brackets. Under the new bill, the top tax rate will be applied to households making $1 million and above as compared to $480,050 under the existing structure, thus relieving the burden on six digit earners. While low income earners ($0 – $19,000) will be taxed at 12%, up 2 percentage points from the existing 10%, a larger child tax credit for low income families might make up for the earnings lost in the mark-up.

Repealing the estate tax, which might double the amount of tax exempted inherited wealth to $11 million, seems like a huge windfall for the rich. Critics of the tax reform bill will and have certainly used this giveaway to label the bill as ‘tax cuts for the rich.’

But the real bonanza lies in the bill’s proposal to double the standard deduction – fraction of income immune from taxation. This is applicable to all but married couples with multiple children.

On the other hand, the bill proposes to eliminate local and state tax deductions – a move touted to negatively affect blue state residents more than red state residents, as the former have higher taxes. Could this be an attempt to pressure blue states into reducing their state and local taxes? The next few weeks might answer this question.

Pass-through businesses (sole proprietorships, partnerships, and S corporations) will be taxed at a new single tax rate – 25%. Although a fine streamlining measure, the flat tax rate seems high given the fact that most of pass-through businesses are small and medium enterprises that operate domestically and contribute a lion’s share to the economy. Taxing them lower than the proposed flat tax rate for corporations might make it reasonable and might win over at least one Senate Republican – Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis). Winning Senate Republicans over is critical for the passage of the bill, as we shall see later.

The corporate tax rate, under the bill, will be slashed to 20% from the current 35% – one of the highest in the world. The 35% tax rate doesn’t include taxes imposed by the state and local councils. The existing tax burden means more and more US corporations park their money abroad in ‘tax havens.’ The only way to lure that money back and earn taxes on it is to become competitive and incentivize firms to hold their money in the US. The change will have to be coupled with closure of all possible tax loopholes to make sure that the new policy delivers the proposed goodies.

The connection between tax relief to corporations and job creation and better wages is tenuous, yet widely leveraged. But it sounds sanguine and gets the masses to rally around such proposals – an indirect measure to influence the voting patterns of the elected representatives.

On the other hand, there might be some wisdom in cutting taxes for small businesses in a bid to create jobs, as these businesses hire locally and cannot replace human labor with automation due to the high costs of the latter. That’s one more reason to lower the tax rate for pass-through businesses.

The Senate has its own version of tax reform, which if passed, will need to be reconciled with the House version. The Senate version agrees with the House version on most of the key elements. Notable differences include further lowering taxes on overseas profits, an unreasonable tax to begin with, as the profits were made elsewhere and probably have been taxed locally.

The Senate has also added a repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate that requires everyone to get health insurance or else pay a tax penalty. This is a huge boon for those who don’t want to buy health insurance or can’t afford the ever-increasing costs of O-care. This might also save the government some money, as there will be fewer people requiring health subsidies. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that repealing the individual mandate will earn the federal government $338 billion in revenue, which it would otherwise spend on health subsidies.

On a conspiratorial note, the Senate’s repeal of the mandate might be a cloaked attempt to gradually chip away at Obamacare.

The tax bill has passed the House and is awaiting the Senate’s consensus over its own version, following which the complicated ‘reconciliation’ process will begin. Although the tax bill made it through the House without breaking a sweat, its Senate counterpart might have to struggle, given the fact that the Democrats are unanimously opposed to it and only three Republicans need to vote ‘nay’ for the Senate version to fizzle out. Given the current mood, the Senate version seems to be hanging by a thin thread.

(The story is developing and so will the commentary. Check back periodically for updates.)

(Update: December 18, 2017)

President Trump must come through on his promises on tax, economic growth, jobs, and employment and the tax reform bill seems like the ace card. If nothing else, this bill upon passage will grant him the much-needed brownie points.

The bill sailed safe through the House and recently, the Senate voted on it. Here’s a brief, yet comprehensive, outline of the bill that passed the Senate.

The individual income tax remains tiered and progressive, but the brackets have been adjusted such that the highest rate (37%) is applicable to those earning half a million or above. Whether middle and upper middle-income families save the extra income, spend it, or invest it depends on a host of factors, including interest rates, stock market, and real estate. Nonetheless, it’s a significant tax cut for the middle class and a re-definition of the middle class through re-sizing of tax brackets.

A similar trend is seen in the alternative minimum tax (AMT) – a provision to ensure that individuals contribute their fair share – depending on how you define fair share. The trigger point for AMT and the threshold for phase-out have been scaled up significantly to move this burden to higher income individuals/couples, while lessening the burden on middle-income earners.

The bill is also a giant tax cut for corporations of all sizes – a point that has been used to malign the proposal as a ‘tax cut for the wealthy.’ Corporate tax will be diminished to 21% beginning 2018 and corporate AMT will be repealed. Repatriation of earnings will attract a modest 15.5% tax, which seems like an effort to not only lure businesses to keep their domestic earnings in the US, but to also move their overseas revenues stateside. Whether this move will deliver the proposed outcome depends on not just the tax rate, but also cost of compliance and scrutiny and any other regulations that may or may not burden the corporations. As I have said before, whether this influx of money will translate into more jobs is a highly questionable premise.

Business owners will have another means to increase their tax-free income – the pass through deduction of 20% applicable until $315,000 for joint filers and half that for single filers.

Repeal of Obamacare individual mandate, i.e. the unconstitutional requirement and the resultant penalty, stays.

The Senate version has left in state and local tax deductions, but has capped their net value at $10,000. This is a departure from the House version that proposed a complete repeal. A complete repeal could adversely affect the lives of mostly blue state residents and might perhaps, put pressure on state and local governments to reduce spending/taxation. If the House provision in this regard is rolled back to make way for the Senate provision, the chances of blue states controlling the growth of their governments seem fewer.

Mortgage interest deductible has been reduced to loans of $750,000. Upon researching into this scheme, I am not entirely convinced about its prudence. The deductible is just a means by which the government fiddles with the real estate market, contributing to a bubble. A total repeal of this deductible will be in line with free market principles.

The threshold for medical expense deduction has been brought down to 7.5%, which is a relief for the elderly and those with chronic illnesses. Additional measures to moving towards a free-market for healthcare hold the promise of making healthcare affordable for all.

The tax brackets for estate tax have been re-sized to re-define middle income families and to also provide relief to upper middle class. In addition, a sunset date has been put on this provision leaving room for amend.

The bill is currently being looked over for resolution of differences, following which it will reach the President’s desk. Trump has signaled his support for the bill and it is certain it will receive his assent.

Overall, although Republicans in Congress and representatives of Trump administration have skirted being quizzed about the windfalls the bill brings for the wealthy, it is increasingly clear that that tax reform bill is a tax cut for almost all.

The coming few weeks will be critical in deciding the direction of the economy for the next few years.

(Update: December 20, 2017)

The tax-reform bill passed the Senate 51-48 in a party-line vote. Sen. John McCain of Arizona was absent during the vote on account of medical circumstances. The cost of the bill is estimated to be $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years, i.e. individuals and corporations, in total, will save about one and a half trillion dollars over the next decade.

Americas

US diplomacy of re-engagement continues: From ‘intent’ to withdrawal from Paris Agreement to ‘COP23’

Abhishek Trivedi

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In a major setback decision taken by Trump administration on June 1, 2017, showing his intention to withdraw in future from the Paris accord has diplomatically pushed the world community one step back in climate negotiation regime as almost all major players in climate regime have registered their disappointment with this decision. Joint statement by France, Germany,and Italy says the deal can not be renegotiated, while other countries reaffirm commitment to carbon reduction. China sees the USA withdrawal as an unfortunate development, and implications of it will be global. In the words of UN Secretary-General that “The decision by the United States to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change is a major disappointment for global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote global security.” However, Secretary-General has shown his confidence in the US including cities, states,and businesses within the US that will continue to demonstrate vision and leadership by working for the low-carbon, resilient economic growth that will create quality jobs and markets for21st-century prosperity.The Secretary-General also looks forward to engaging with the American government and all actors in the United States and around the world to build the sustainable future.

The letter sent to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres by the US representative to the UN Nikki Haley reads as:

“The is to inform the Secretary-General, in connection with the Paris Agreement, adopted on December 12, 2015 (“the Agreement”), that the United States intends to exercise its right to withdraw from the Agreement. Unless the US identifies suitable terms for reengagement, the US will submit to the Secretary-General, in accordance with Article 28, paragraph 1 of the Agreement, formal written notification of its withdrawal as soon as it is eligible to do so. Pending the submission of that notification, in the interest of transparency for parties to the Agreement, the United States requests that the Secretary-General inform the parties to the Agreement and the States entitled to become parties to the Agreement of this communication relating to the Agreement.”

Interestingly, it must be noted that Article 28, paragraph 1 of the Paris Agreement does nowhere suggest that a State party to the Agreement can circulate such type of ‘written notification showing its intent to withdraw from the Agreement.’ Article 28, Paragraph 1 reads as “At any time after three years from the date on which this Agreement has entered into force for a Party, that Party may withdraw from this Agreement by giving written notification to the Depositary.”

It is clear from the language of Article 28, paragraph 1, that under the terms of the accord, no State can withdraw until November 2020 and cannot even formally notify the UN of its intention to leave until 2019. So the communication serves only for Donald Trump to remind the world that he is seeking ‘suitable terms for re-engagement.’The United States accepted the Paris Agreement on 3 September 2016, and the Agreement entered into force for the United States on 4 November 2016. Therefore, according to Article 28, paragraph 1, US will not be eligible to withdraw from the Agreement till November 4, 2019.

The USA’ ‘suitable terms’ for re-engagement

The US in his written submission to the Secretary-General highlighted that,unless it identifies ‘suitable terms for reengagement,’ it will submit to the Secretary-General aformal written notification of its withdrawal as soon as it is eligible to do so. Now, it is far from theclarity that what would be the suitable terms for theUS to make it re-engage again in climate change negotiation regime. Till now, there is no explicit indication, neither from the USA official statement including press release nor its submission to the UN Secretary-General, that on what ‘suitable or most favourable’ terms Trump administration will agree for reengagement that will, perhaps, be more in tune with his popular political slogan ‘make America great again.’However, there might be four possible speculative ways in which theUSA could establish different terms for participation. These may include:

That US could seek to renegotiate few aspects of the Agreement itself. Though several countries have made it clear that the Agreement is ‘irreversible.’ In this background, this option would hardly work for the USA. However, theoffice of UN Secretary-General welcomes any effort to re-engage in the Paris Agreement by the United States.  Secretary-General has also shown his interest in engaging with the American government and all other actors in the US. Meanwhile, Secretary-General of the UNFCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) said that the Paris Agreement remains a historic treaty signed by 194 and ratified by 147 countries. Therefore, it can not be renegotiated based on the request of single Party. However, Secretary-General (UNFCC) showed her interest in engaging in dialogue with the United States government regarding the implications of this decision of withdrawal.

That US could also seek to modify its ‘nationally determined contribution,’ i.e., the US emission target. The media-note also appears to be addressing this issue when it refers to the Administration’s support to “climate policy that lowers emissions while promoting economic growth and ensuring energy security.”The US further affirms that it will continue to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions through innovation and technology breakthroughs, given the importance of energy and security in many nationally determined contributions.

That, thirdly, US could seek ‘more favourable’ terms within the Paris-related guidelines that are still being negotiated for reporting and review. Such guidelines are due to be completed in 2018. It is perhaps this reason that the media note states that the US will continue to participate in the Paris-related negotiations, to protect US interests and ensure all future policy options remain open to the administration.” And possibly,for this reason, US has shown his intention to walk out only from the Paris accord, not also from the UNFCC convention.

That US might also seek improved terms of negotiation outside the framework of the agreement, such as bilateral or multilateral energy-related cooperation. As it is perhaps precisely indicated from the media-note that the US will “work with other countries to help them access and use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently, and deploy renewable and other clean energy sources.

Continuation of policy of re-engagement in COP23

COP23/CMP13 was decided to be hosted in Germany and presided over by Fiji from November 6 to November 17, 2017. In its opening joint plenary meeting held on November 6, US retreated its earlier position regarding withdrawal from the Paris accord unless it finds suitable terms for renegotiation. US said that “the US will withdraw from the Paris Agreement unless he can identify terms for reengagement that are more favourable to the American people.” “The Administration’s position remains unchanged.” Again, in the closing joint plenary session held on the last day of the conference,i.e., November 17, 2017, US said that U.S. participation in COP-23, including negotiations at this session relating to the Paris Agreement, does not indicate a change in the U.S. position.

One more political-cum-legal aspect to note here in COP23 that theUS has very smartly carried on its monetary diplomacy for future climate negotiation. The US has made it clear in very explicit terms that the financial pledges made under by the last administration are not legally binding. Moreover, with regard toeconomic matters, and in particular the $100 billion collective finance goal, the US has already taken a position that the finance goal is aspirational in nature, is not legally binding, and does not create rights or obligations.And it remains a domestic decision of the US or any other country for that matter.

As Trump administration said in media note that it will continue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through innovation and technology, and enhance resilience activities where mutually beneficial to its broader foreign policy, economic development, and national security objectives, it reaffirms its endeavor to work closely with other countries to help them access to clean and efficient renewable energy sources. Here, US seems to be more in futuristic diplomatic engagement on climate issues, to bargain either bilaterally or multilaterally, perhaps outside of the UN Climate negotiation regime. From here, it would be not easy to assess which way US position will be tumbled precisely.

However, keeping in mind the dangerous multi-dimensional ramifications and impacts of climate change on the existence of human being and their future survival, it becomes imperative for the world community including USA to come together and address the multi-faceted issues of climate change taking place around the world. The USA must take the lead in tackling climate issue since it also emits world most substantial greenhouse gases. In addition to that, US also possesses themore financial capability, technological access, and infrastructure facilities along with thecapacity to mitigate greenhouse gases.

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Americas

Combating the Deep State Online

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Now that President Donald Trump has declared an outright and open war on international terrorism all around the world, joining forces with Russian President Putin and Chinese Premier Xi, and scores of other world leaders to combat this enemy of civilization, in order to absolutely decimate violent actors around the planet who use destructive and disruptive means and methods other than political discourse to settle their differences, so too must he begin to now do, with regards to internet terrorism, slander, libel, defamation, terrorist threats, incitement to violence, and targeted harassment online.

As President Trump knows only too well, as he is a prime target of the Deep State/Oligarch/Global Terrorist Network online, with their relentless attacks on him, his wife, his family and his administration, when he developed the term “Fake News,” he is also the only one who can finally find the balance between the U.S. Constitution First Amendment and terrorism carried out online.

Trump has repeatedly promised to “look at the libel laws,” but what he should specifically look at is how to hold websites, their hosts, and their advertisers responsible and liable for their egregious taking advantage of the broad based immunities and protections afforded by the Communications Decency Act of 1996 Section 230 (aka “CDA 230“), drafted and passed by U.S. legislators such as Ron Wyden and Christopher Cox, which literally opened the floodgates to trillions of dollars of damage to individuals, small and large business, domestic and global relationships, national security, and global cohesion.

True enough, freedom of speech is paramount, and essential to the American constitutional experiment – but after 20 years of this “wild west” of internet speech, we know and have learned many things.

Various organized criminal enterprises have sprung up all over the world, extorting and blackmailing innocent people and businesses to pay them exorbitant amounts of money to remove/challenge anonymous, cowardly, false, defamatory, slanderous, libelous, terroristic, and incitement to violent threats online, always hiding behind the immunity and protection afforded by CDA 230 to both their own mafia-like “reputation management” websites, their web hosts, and their advertisers.

Much has also been revealed about the “ties” by and between these “reputation management” websites, and the offending websites themselves, so that if one pays one of these extortionate websites for “arbitration” or “challenging offending posts,” one will suddenly find a dramatic increase in the exact same or similar postings on other offending websites, thus increasing damages, exposure, and of course, the “costs” attendant to getting these offensive and threatening posts off of the internet.

This is a classic racketeering enterprise, and each and every country has their own rules and laws governing such type of criminal activity, and in the United States, the most lax and forgiving of all of these types of crimes, it is called “RICO,” or the Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organization act.

This RICO law is a United States federal law that provides for extended criminal penalties and a civil cause of action for acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organization.

The RICO Act focuses specifically on racketeering, and it allows the leaders of a syndicate to be tried for the crimes which they ordered others to do or assisted them in doing, closing a perceived loophole that allowed a person who instructed someone else to, to be exempt from the trial because they did not actually commit the crime personally.

Under RICO, a person who has committed “at least two acts of racketeering activity” drawn from a list of 35 crimes – 27 federal crimes and 8 state crimes – within a 10 year period can be charged with racketeering if such acts are related to an “enterprise.”

Those found guilty of racketeering can be fined up to $25,000 and sentenced to 20 years in prison per racketeering count.

In addition, the racketeer must forfeit all ill-gotten gains and interest in any business gained through a pattern of “racketeering activity.”

This statute could easily be used against most of the “reputation management” websites which, like the Mafia, literally aid and abet, if not “create” the online internet threats, targeting, harassment, incitement to violence, and terrorist threats in order to then charge a hefty “fee” to either “eradicate” or “combat” those self-created threats.

Indeed many business, banking, financial, communication, personal, and professional relationships can easily be discovered by and between these “reputation management” organized crime websites, and the other “offending websites” containing such illegal and unethical content.

The problem is that since at least 1996, the “Deep State” has successfully used the protections afforded by the CDA 230 to target their enemies online, discrediting and hobbling them at will, while simultaneously being able to weather the proverbial storm against themselves, because they are directly connected to the international central bankers with unlimited amounts of cash to survive personal or professional online destruction, while their targeted Deep State enemies are, by definition, “swimming upstream” against them, struggling barely to survive.

This is by no means a fair fight, and hundreds of millions of “dead” businesses and individuals have washed up on the shore in their wake, while Deep State connected individuals and businesses always seem to stay afloat.

So if President Donald Trump, arguably the greatest victim of the above referenced type of global online criminal activity on behalf of the Deep State, which is still relentlessly trying to destroy him, his family, his administration and his legacy, as well as average American individuals and businesses that he professes to care so much about, and if he is truly serious about “looking at the libel laws” as he has repeatedly stated/promised, then perhaps this is the best place for him to start.

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A Review of Last Week in Trump-ville: TPS, DACA, Immigration, And Excrement Metaphors

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On TPS …

On January 8, 2018, the Trump administration ordered the end of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designation for El Salvador, putting the lives of 200,000 Salvadorans in the balance.

The incident didn’t spark much outrage, as the media was busy relishing and reporting the tidbits from Michael Wolff’s exposé of Trump team – ‘Fire and Fury.’

The Salvadorans were granted TPS in 2008 by president George W. Bush in the light of the disastrous earthquake that rocked the Central American nation in 2001. A review of the eligibility requirements for TPS pops up some questions. One of the requirement states that applicants must “have been continuously physically present (CPP) in the United States since the effective date of the most recent designation date of your country …” Note the ambiguity the statement leaves around the immigration status of the individual.

Indeed, both legal and illegal immigrants can apply for TPS. In fact, an illegal alien’s stay in the US becomes legal post acceptance into the TPS program. While the switching of statuses doesn’t do away the past immigration law violation, it certainly makes a mockery of the rule of law.

Also, it’s important to note that while TPS enrollees may seek employment and avail themselves of some benefits, there is no pathway to citizenship or green card under the program.

El Salvador’s infrastructural condition has improved since the earthquake devastated the nation at the start of the 21st century. And it is high time to put the ‘T’ in TPS into action and send the immigrants back, lest TPS comes to be construed as a means to prolong stay in the US until such time as a leftist legislature decides to amend the law to hand out citizenships and grow their voter base.

Critics of termination cite burgeoning gang violence as a justifiable reason to extend TPS to Salvadorians. But internal security issues, barring civil war, are not qualifying factors. After all, there isn’t a dearth of countries stricken with violence, gang crimes, and lawlessness. The US isn’t and cannot be the care center of the world.

Many news publications have used the word ‘deportation’ to describe Trump administration’s termination order. Deportations are applicable to unlawful immigrants/residents and are effective immediately. The Salvadorans have until September 2019 to get their papers in order and leave, post which they will be ‘deported.’ It’s important to call out the media spin.

Some more facts to be considered while developing an opinion on termination of TPS are encapsulated in this report by Center for Immigration Studies. Per the report, in 2014,

  • Educational Attainment:54 percent of Guatemalan immigrants (ages 25 to 65) have not graduated high school. The figure for Salvadorans is 53 percent, and for Hondurans, 44 percent. The corresponding figure for native-born Americans is 7 percent.
  • Welfare Use:57 percent of households headed by immigrants from El Salvador use at least one major welfare program, as do 54 percent of Honduran households, and 49 percent of Guatemalan immigrant households. Among native households it is 24 percent.3
  • Poverty:65 percent of Honduran immigrants and their young children (under 18) live in or near poverty (under 200 percent of the poverty threshold). For Guatemalan and Salvadoran immigrants and their children, it is 61 percent. The corresponding figure for natives and their children is 31 percent.4

The Salvadorans in the US, among other Central American populations in the US, compared to the natives performed poorly in schools, endured poverty at higher levels, and were more dependent on welfare programs.

In addition, around 70 percent of Salvadorans in the US lacked a degree of English proficiency that would enable them to pursue higher education and get better jobs.

Together the above factors produce a population employed predominantly in blue collar jobs that have been seeing a steady decline in wages not just for native born Americans, but also for recent immigrants.

While the crime rates among Salvadorians in the US might have been lower than native-born Americans, this cannot be a justification for an extended stay, when their chances of climbing up the socio-economic ladder are slim. Sun-setting the TPS is the right move, and while several people will be re-displaced, the TPS was temporary and was never supposed to provide a permanent home.

On DACA, Immigration, and The Wall …

Trump held a televised meeting with select senate and house members to discuss DACA, border security, and comprehensive immigration reform.

He seemed much more confident, composed, and coherent in his articulation. The last two descriptors are important because these are traits that he seems to miss out quite often, giving hatchet-job Internet news outlets fodder to ruminate on.

The meeting started with the sense that DACA and border security were inextricably tied and that a deal on DACA should come with assurances on border security in a quid-pro-quo fashion.

Trump seemed firm on his demand for funding for the border wall with Democrats trying to talk him into divorcing it from DACA bill. The inextricability seemed to change towards the end when the president settled on a step-by-step approach towards DACA and border security, handling them one at a time.

Notwithstanding his amenability to Democrat persuasion, when quizzed by a reporter in the room over whether he will be stubborn about the border wall, he responded with a firm ‘Yes!’ In the light of all this, ‘ambivalent’ is the best way to describe the fate of the border wall.

As for immigration reform, Trump seemed ardent on doing away with chain migration and the diversity lottery – two of the most counterintuitive and counterproductive channels of immigration.

The overall meeting had a cheery and sanguine note to it, although, the Democrats, given their recidivism towards obstructionism, cannot be counted on.

On ‘Shitholes’ …

Yes. Much of the third world is miserable, insufferable, and provides its residents with shockingly low standards of living and progress. The first world can’t be blamed for the quagmire the third world finds itself moored in.

Although, it wasn’t appropriate for the POTUS to be a plain-speaker in describing certain nations in an official setting with members of the opposition, the metaphorical epithet is fitting.

As expected, Trump went into full-defensive mode on twitter, lambasting the Democrats, and endangering the prospects of DACA and border security. I am not sure whether Democrats will use this as an excuse to throw their hands in the air and withdraw from negotiating on DACA. In any case, the deadline for DACA termination is arriving fast and if the Dems don’t do something now, it’s their hands that will be bloodied, as the president made it very clear at the meeting that he will sign into law whatever Congress places on his desk.

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