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Politics In The News: Tax Bill Implications And Russia Probe

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Trump's staff and his allies in the media are voicing a common theme. They want the investigation of Russia's interference in the presidential election to end. Marc Short, the White House legislative director, spoke Sunday on "Meet The Press."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

MARC SHORT: Taxpayers have spent millions and millions of dollars on this investigation that has not yet proven any sense of collusion with the Russians. I think the American people are ready to turn the page.

INSKEEP: The message has been amplified by hosts on Fox News and elsewhere. It comes near the end of the year when President Trump had once insisted the probe would end, although there is no sign that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is finished.

All this is the beginning of our talk with Jonah Goldberg of National Review and the LA Times. Jonah, good morning.

JONAH GOLDBERG: Great to be here, Steve.

INSKEEP: I should mention, there are reasons to debate the investigation right now. There's a member of the investigation who had to be removed because of some private text messages. There's a dispute over emails that the special counsel collected. There are things to discuss. But why drive to discredit Robert Muller right now?

GOLDBERG: Oh - well, as someone who is a minor partisan in the later Clinton scandals, this has Ken Starr deja vu all over it. It is a shoot-the-messenger strategy.

INSKEEP: Oh, because Ken Starr, the special counsel, was attacked in the 1990s...

GOLDBERG: Right. I mean...

INSKEEP: ...As he investigated Clinton.

GOLDBERG: ...The Clinton team perfected the art of slandering, of demeaning, demoralizing and attacking a special prosecutor on the principle of, if you don't have the facts, shoot the messenger kind of thing. And it seems to be the exact same strategy here.

I don't quite understand yet why they are acting as if they're terrified by what Mueller will come out with. And I do think that there is legitimate reason to criticize Mueller for some of his hirings. He's done the right thing after finding out about some of these stories. But it seems a little politically naive, the way he set this thing up.

But to listen to some of my friends at Fox News talk about how this is a coup and that this is worse than Watergate, it really sounds like they are just trying to prep the battle space for bad news, which I'm not sure is the best political strategy - unless there is bad news coming.

INSKEEP: The president has said, in the face of speculation, that he's not going to fire the special counsel. Do you believe him?

GOLDBERG: I believe he believed it when he said it (laughter).

INSKEEP: OK.

GOLDBERG: I mean, pick a topic where he hasn't, you know, veered around - with the exception of saying nice things about Vladimir Putin, he's taken different positions on different things.

INSKEEP: Said more nice things about Vladimir Putin over the weekend.

GOLDBERG: Yeah.

INSKEEP: The president of the United States and the president of Russia had another phone call. They talked about cooperation in an antiterror operation. There were nice words from Putin and nice words from Trump for Putin and also for the entire intelligence community for a job well done, exclamation point, according to the White House statement.

What do you make of their continuing friendly relations?

GOLDBERG: I think they're very hard to fathom. I do think that as a - to give President Trump a little bit of the benefit of doubt, he has a fixation with this idea that many of our problems could be solved through a better relationship with Vladimir Putin. It seems to be sincerely held.

Is that the only motivation for why he cannot bring himself to better criticize or more criticize Vladimir Putin? I don't know. Vladimir Putin seems to have Donald Trump's number in a certain way. And praising Donald Trump seems to pay off big time for the president of Russia. So it's a very strange thing.

There is this idea that Vladimir Putin really understands America very well. I'm not sure that's true. Remember, he thought the George W. Bush fired Dan Rather. But he does seem to know how to, like, manipulate the news cycle.

INSKEEP: Dan Rather lost his job but, of course, wasn't fired by George W. Bush. The president - President Trump, we should say, is nearing a big victory this week - could end up signing a tax bill. Do you feel you understand this tax bill's effects?

GOLDBERG: No, and I don't think anybody else does either - on either side of this debate. I think there's been some bad reporting about how the middle class is going to have their taxes raised. I don't think that's true. I think the corporate side is a good idea and will actually have some serious pro-growth consequences.

But ultimately, I think this is a lot like Obamacare. The Republicans are making a ideologically grounded bet on the results of a piece of legislation they don't fully understand and that they passed in an ugly way, very much...

INSKEEP: And that's very hard to explain to the public.

GOLDBERG: And is very hard to explain to the public - very much like Obamacare. You know, they did it on a on a partisan basis. And the results of that bet didn't pay off great for Democrats with Obamacare. The results of this may or may not pay off well for Republicans. But anyone who can guarantee they know what the results of all of this is going to be - I think - is fooling themselves or somebody else.

INSKEEP: One of the big critiques of this tax bill is that it worsens inequality. People who are wealthy get a break on the estate tax. They get a bigger break on their income tax in terms of absolute dollars and that it will make inequality worse. That is a liberal critique. Do you, as a conservative, acknowledge that inequality is a problem? And what is a conservative way to approach it?

GOLDBERG: I've never been all that plagued by inequality. What bothers me is a lack of social mobility. It doesn't bother me when some people get much richer than other people. And part of the assumption of the question assumes that that money that is going to people in terms of tax breaks starts out as the government's money. I don't see that - you hear all the time this is a giveaway to rich people. It was the - the money originated from the people. It doesn't originate from the government.

I do think inequality is a problem. I'm not sure it is in the government's realm of expertise to do as much about it as a lot of people think.

INSKEEP: Although something like the estate tax, at least, makes sure that the same family doesn't stay so wealthy for generation after generation after generation.

GOLDBERG: Yeah. But, I mean, if you look at the way in which rich families become poorer families over time, it happens organically through capitalism already.

INSKEEP: OK.

Jonah, thanks very much for coming by. Really appreciate it.

GOLDBERG: Great to be here.

INSKEEP: Jonah Goldberg of National Review and the LA Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.