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News Brief: 'Middle Class Miracle' Unveiled, Puerto Rico In Dire Need Of Aid


There are a whole lot of questions still about how President Trump and GOP lawmakers are going to pull off what the president calls a, quote, "middle-class miracle."


Yeah, that miracle is the tax overhaul plan that the president unveiled just yesterday. It'll fall to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to determine a lot of the specifics and also to try to sell it to other lawmakers - so a lot to unpack about what could be in store for taxpayers. And meanwhile, Rachel - one other political story to keep an eye on, and that is the president's response to how one of his cabinet members reportedly used taxpayer dollars to pay for private jets.

MARTIN: OK, we're going to get to all that with NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro.

Hey, Domenico.


MARTIN: All right, let's get into a little bit of fact-checking to start the day. The president says his tax overhaul plan is not about helping wealthy people get tax breaks. So based on what we know about it so far, is that true?

MONTANARO: No. I mean, first, we should say there are things that do benefit the middle class. The biggest thing - a doubling of the standard deduction, so most people, you know, wouldn't have to figure out all those pesky itemized deductions, most likely. And some people would see a reduction in their tax rate, but some will likely pay more because of the new structure.

As for whether or not this benefits wealthy people and business owners like President Trump, of course it does. I mean, there's a decrease in the tax rate for the highest-income earners. The repeal of the estate tax, a tax on wealthy families that leave money to their children - that tax only affects those with estates of $5 1/2 million or more. There's a repeal of the alternative minimum tax aimed at high-income earners and a massive reduction in the corporate tax rate. Trump, of course, wealthy and a business owner - so either the president doesn't know what's in his plan or he's lying.

MARTIN: All right, so let's talk about the political implications of all this because I imagine there's a lot at stake here. The president has been unable to get Republicans behind some kind of overhaul of the health care plan - repeal and replace - so he needs this. But what does the path to passing a tax overhaul bill look like at this point?

MONTANARO: Well, they're going to start work on this next week, and that's kind of the big piece of it. Of course, this is already shaping up to be a big partisan fight. You know, there's money - money is always a sharp dividing line within the parties. It indicates priorities, and Democratic leaders are calling this a big giveaway to the rich.

But it's also very possible that some Democrats are going to sign on. There are 10 Democrats up for re-election next year who are in states that Trump won, including Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who was with Trump yesterday at his speech on this plan.

MARTIN: All right, before I let you go, let's get to this kerfuffle with Tom Price, the secretary of Health and Human Services. He's being investigated for using taxpayer-funded private jets for government business, and now President Trump has weighed in on this.

MONTANARO: Yeah, it - look, he said he's not happy with Price. When he was asked if he'd fire him, he said, we'll see - huge red flag if you're in the administration, never a good sign, especially in the Trump orbit. And remember, Trump threatened Price's job during a speech before the Boy Scouts over the summer. He said that if Price didn't get the votes on health care, he'd be fired. They didn't get the votes on health care. And now, you know, it appears that he's sort of threatening his job. He's trying to pass a tax plan too, and he can't have the optics of someone who's appearing to try and take advantage of taxpayers for his own gain. And he's not the only cabinet member with a private plane problem, Rachel.

MARTIN: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thanks so much for talking with us, Domenico.

MONTANARO: Oh, you're welcome, as always.


MARTIN: All right, we're going to turn now to Puerto Rico, where it has been just over a week since Hurricane Maria ravaged the island. Conditions there are still very dire. Everything is made worse because people can't get fuel.

KELLY: And Rachel, we're talking fuel, not just the lack of gasoline, but the few places that do have electricity are running on diesel-powered generators. And that's also in scarce supply. Lack of diesel is coming - is emerging as a real problem for hospitals and others in need of lifesaving equipment. One doctor, Pedro Escobar (ph), who works at a hospital in San Juan, was saying they had power yesterday, but he is still worried.

PEDRO ESCOBAR: We have hundreds and hundreds of patients who are either schedule or they're getting chemo. So then after that, they need to get operated within four or five weeks. Otherwise, you know, the outcomes are not going to be good.

KELLY: So some big challenges ahead for medical facilities across Puerto Rico.

MARTIN: Yeah, OK, NPR's Greg Allen has gotten a firsthand look at a hospital in San Juan. He's on the line now.

Greg, tell us what you've seen.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Well, you know, this is a health care system that's stretched very thin right now. The only thing that's still open on this island for health care are hospitals. Doctors' offices and walk-in clinics are all closed, and they're starting to see a rise in storm-related cases here, things like accidents but also things like respiratory problems and people who haven't treated their diabetes because they can't keep their insulin refrigerated.

So this - health care is still a real issue here. As you say, hospitals right now are all running on emergency power, which are diesel-fueled generators. The hospital I visited yesterday had run out of power and actually had to discharge patients earlier this week because they didn't have any electricity on at all. So the - it's a real problem here.

There are some local hospitals the federal government is working with the Commonwealth to set up. But the question is, what about chronic patients who need this ongoing care - dialysis, diabetes treatments, that kind of thing? Also, as Dr. Escobar said, surgeries are being postponed, chemotherapy treatments. So lot of questions right now about people going to get health care here in Puerto Rico.

MARTIN: Wow. So as you know, the federal response to this crisis has been criticized as being so slow. What have you been able to learn about why it's taken so long to get fuel and other supplies to the people who need it?

ALLEN: Well, some of that you can't really pin on the federal government. So the belief is that it's really up to governor and (unintelligible). They're moving to give (unintelligible) to the mis-palleted (ph) pier. And containers are just piling up at the port. They're not getting out. Part of the issue is that the (unintelligible) fuel out...

MARTIN: Oh, you're - I'm going to interrupt you for a second, Greg, just to paraphrase what you're saying. You are on a rough phone line from San Juan. You're saying that the port is just full of these containers and just the layout of the island is making it difficult to just get the supplies where they need to go.

ALLEN: But the governor said yesterday the problem is, there's just not enough trucks here on the island to do - to get the material out. And they're right now still concerned about fuel. They can't even get the diesel and the gasoline delivered to all the places that need it. So logistics is a major issue. The armory reserve is exporting deliveries. We'll see if the military takes a larger presence here in the days to come.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Greg Allen has been reporting from San Juan, Puerto Rico, on the aftermath of the Hurricane Maria that passed through there. Greg, thanks so much for your time this morning.

ALLEN: You're welcome.


MARTIN: OK, President Trump's Supreme Court pick - that would be Justice Neil Gorsuch, the newest member of the court - he is expected to give a speech today to a conservative group here in Washington, D.C.

KELLY: Yup, and nothing unusual about that - about a Supreme Court judge addressing a group with a particular political bent. This speech is controversial because of where Gorsuch is going to be talking. He will be at the Trump International Hotel here in D.C.

ROGER REAM: We did not select the hotel because we were trying to send a message of support to President Trump, as some have suggested. We just thought it was a new, elegant hotel, and we'd try it.

KELLY: That's Roger Ream of The Fund for American Studies, which is the group that is putting on this event. But there are a lot of other groups who are calling on Gorsuch to back out.

MARTIN: NPR's Jackie Northam is following all of this.

Hey, Jackie.


MARTIN: First, tell us, is Trump's hotel going to profit in any way from this event?

NORTHAM: Oh, sure, yes. There'll be about 180 invited guests to hear Gorsuch's speech. And then, you know, the Trump hotel will make money off the room where it's being held, food, drinks, parking. And this is an expensive hotel, just a - you know, a few blocks from the White House.

MARTIN: And we should say, money that goes into the hotel ultimately finds its way back to the Trump family who is running all of the Trump enterprises.

NORTHAM: That's right.

MARTIN: So are there any rules that Neil Gorsuch is breaking by appearing at this event?

NORTHAM: No, he's not crossing any legal lines, certainly. And the legal experts I spoke with said they didn't really think he was violating any ethical rules. But, Rachel, the problem here is the optics. You know, Justice Gorsuch was President Trump's Supreme Court nominee, and now he's delivering a speech at Trump's hotel. And there are cases involving the Trump administration that could come before the high court, such as the travel ban, and the Trump hotel itself is in the center of several lawsuits. So there's concern Gorsuch's speech at the hotel could undermine the public's confidence in the independence of the court.

I spoke with Stephen Gillers, and he's an ethics professor at New York University law school. And he said, Gorsuch isn't breaking any rules, but the appearances are all wrong. In other words, just because Gorsuch can do it doesn't mean he should do it.

MARTIN: Any sign Gorsuch himself has had second thoughts about this because of all the criticism he's been getting?

NORTHAM: No signs, no. It looks like he's a justice who's going to go his own way. You know, last week, he was just down at the University of Kentucky where he was introduced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for a speech. And it was McConnell who helped secure a speedy vote to get Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, and he got criticism for that. So - and then Gorsuch is due to speak with the Federalist group, which is a conservative legal group, sometime in November.

MARTIN: All right, NPR foreign affairs correspondent Jackie Northam - she's been covering all of the ethics concerns when it comes to the Trump International Hotel here in D.C. The newest member of the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch - scheduled to give an address there to a conservative group this afternoon. Hey, Jackie, thanks so much.

NORTHAM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOBACCO'S "OUT THE DUNES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.