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News Brief: Trump Taxes, Amy Coney Barrett, TikTok Ban Blocked

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump's whole sales pitch to voters has been about money. He has falsely claimed that he's a self-made billionaire, and that record of financial success makes him well-suited to be president. He was able to spin that story in large part because the public couldn't see his tax returns - until now.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

That's right. The New York Times says it has obtained about two decades worth of Trump's financial records. And it shows that in both 2016 and 2017, President Trump paid just $750 in federal income tax in each of those years. And he didn't pay anything in 10 of the last 15 years because he was losing much more money than he was making. The president was asked about The New York Times exclusive reporting yesterday. He tried to claim that it was made up.

MARTIN: We've got NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez with us. Franco, good morning. First, we should just say NPR has not been able to independently confirm this ourselves, but you have been digging into the Times report. What more does it say?

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Well, you know, it shows how he racked up and leveraged substantial losses in order to avoid paying taxes and, as David noted, including no taxes for many years. Trump was asked about the bombshell report yesterday. He claimed it was all fake news.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, first of all, I've paid a lot. And I've paid a lot of state income taxes, too. The New York state charges a lot, and I've paid a lot of money in state. It'll all be revealed. It's going to come out.

ORDOÑEZ: It's not entirely new, though. You know, the president has previously bragged about not paying taxes. Some will remember Hillary Clinton accusing him of not paying federal income taxes in a 2016 debate. At that time, he said it made him smart. Now, a lawyer for the Trump Organization, Alan Garten, did give a statement to The Times. It said the facts appear to be inaccurate and that Trump did pay personal taxes. But he kind of sidestepped directly saying what the president had paid and kind of conflated income taxes and other federal taxes. That's according to the report.

MARTIN: So last night, the president said he wants to release his taxes. I mean, he notably hasn't. This has been the norm in modern American history - that presidential candidates and presidents release their tax returns. This president has refused to do so. Now he says he wants to. Why doesn't he just do it?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. He cites an ongoing audit as an excuse for not releasing his tax returns. It is interesting. The report notes that he's been in this long fight with the IRS over the legitimacy of a $73 million tax refund. Now, that could have some financial consequences, costing him over $100 million. But as you note, there is no prohibition on releasing the returns, as presidents and presidential candidates have done for decades - before Trump, obviously. And this reporting raises a lot of questions - maybe why. It paints the president as a slick businessman who took advantage of all kinds of write-offs to avoid paying taxes, while at the same time, living a lavish lifestyle, even writing off 70,000 dollars' worth of haircuts. He wrote off consulting fees that The Times says appear to be those paid to his daughter, despite her role as a top employee in his business.

MARTIN: I mean, the Times report also suggests that Donald Trump knew that he was in financial distress and that running for president was a way to kind of burnish his brand because he had all these debts coming due, right?

ORDOÑEZ: Right. And you know it may not just be political for Trump. The Times is suggesting that he could face hundreds of millions of dollars in personal debt coming due in the next few years and potentially legal consequences. But the president has faced explosive stories before that haven't necessarily stuck. And I was in touch with a senior administration official last night who felt this, too, would pass. The official argued that the amount of people who may be swayed to change their votes is likely very small. But that official did note that it will likely be a point during the debate tomorrow, and it could be useful for Joe Biden if used effectively.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Thank you so much, Franco. We'll be covering the repercussions of this. We appreciate you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

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MARTIN: All right. There are only 36 days until the election. And between now and then, Senate Republicans and President Trump are going to push hard to appoint a new Supreme Court justice.

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TRUMP: She's one of our nation's most brilliant legal minds. And I think she'll do very well. We're moving along very quickly.

GREENE: That is the president there praising his choice for the job, Judge Amy Coney Barrett. Now, despite cries of hypocrisy from Democrats who are still mourning the justice who never was, Merrick Garland, the GOP-controlled Senate looks ready to push through Barrett's confirmation process quickly. And she could be approved before November 3.

MARTIN: We've got NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales with us this morning. Good morning, Claudia.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right. So the president and some Republicans - a lot of them - want to get Barrett confirmed before the election. What can you tell us about the timeline?

GRISALES: South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham laid out the timeline just yesterday on Fox News. He's chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He said they'll start the hearing on October 12 and then have two days of questioning and then report out this nomination out of committee on October 22. So that's about 10 days later. Graham said Barrett would get a, quote, "full, fair hearing" in that time. And then it'd be up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to schedule a vote on the floor of the full Senate perhaps 10 or so days before the election. And it appears McConnell has all the Republican votes he needs to confirm, even if all Democrats oppose this move. But that time frame doesn't leave a lot of time for the panel to finish the FBI background check and review answers to the committee's lengthy questionnaire that nominees submit ahead of the hearings.

MARTIN: So do Democrats have any leverage even just to slow the process down?

GRISALES: So they don't have much leverage here. Dick Durbin, who's the Senate minority whip and a member of the Judiciary Committee, was asked about this on Sunday. And he conceded there aren't a lot of options here. He was on ABC's "This Week." Let's take a listen.

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DICK DURBIN: We can slow it down perhaps a matter of hours, maybe days at the most. But it can't stop the outcome.

GRISALES: Instead, we can expect Democrats to focus on the timeline. Some polling has found that voters are on their side and preferring to have whoever wins the presidential election to appoint the new justice. And Democrats can focus on the issues - that coronavirus relief is getting sidelined and that Barrett may be a vote to strike down the Affordable Care Act, which is set to be considered by the court just a week after Election Day.

MARTIN: So Joe Biden has been trying to use this as a moment to talk about health care and the fragility of health care. What's he been saying?

GRISALES: So Biden gave remarks yesterday in Delaware. He warned that the court could overturn the Affordable Care Act. Indeed, President Trump tweeted that, quote, "Obamacare will be replaced with a much better and far cheaper alternative if it is terminated in the Supreme Court." But, of course, a replacement plan could've been voted on any time to replace Obamacare if Trump would put one forward. But Biden also tried appealing to his former Republican colleagues in the Senate, urging them to wait on this nomination. Let's take a listen.

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JOE BIDEN: Just because you have the power to do something doesn't absolve you of your responsibility to do right by the American people. Uphold your constitutional duty. Summon your conscience.

GRISALES: So in making his case, Biden was referencing the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself, who said it was her most fervent wish that the nomination not be filled until after the election.

MARTIN: NPR's Claudia Grisales, thank you.

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MARTIN: OK, it was supposed to be gone. TikTok, the popular video-sharing app - it was supposed to have just - disappear from U.S. app stores today.

GREENE: Well, it turns out, if you were interested in downloading TikTok, you don't have to worry. You can still do it, at least for the moment. Last night, a federal judge in Washington sided with the company by blocking President Trump's order banning new downloads of the app. The Trump administration, we should remember, calls the app a national security threat, and they're fighting in court to block TikTok's Chinese parent company, ByteDance, from operating the app in the United States either by banning it outright or forcing a sale to a domestic buyer.

MARTIN: All right. We have got NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn to talk about TikTok's fate here. Hi, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: What did the court decide?

ALLYN: So the judge here is putting the brakes on a ban that would have, like you said, prevented any new downloads of TikTok. And this was supposed to start midnight Sunday. The judge didn't explain his rationale for the ruling, but TikTok's lawyers argued in a hearing over the weekend that shutting it down is like closing the modern-day version of a town square and that that's kind of like silencing speech. And you know, since the pandemic, TikTok has been the fastest-growing app in the world.

So you know, the hundred million TikTok users in the U.S. afraid their app was about to be cut off indeed can, you know, breathe a sigh of relief. You know, they can keep posting their lip-syncing and other ridiculous videos, at least for now.

MARTIN: I mean, I'm trying right now. Let's see if I can get this downloaded before the end of our conversation.

ALLYN: (Laughter) Exactly.

MARTIN: So this isn't the final word for TikTok at all.

ALLYN: No. Yeah, far from it. This breather for TikTok does buy it time until there is, you know, an extensive hearing on Trump's ban, which the White House is not backing down from. So, you know, as this winds its way through the courts, there is one very important date, Rachel, and that is November 12. That is when TikTok has to find a American buyer or disappear for real in the U.S.

MARTIN: Mmm hmm.

ALLYN: TikTok was hoping the judge over the weekend would have pushed back that date too, but the judge said, nope, we're keeping it.

MARTIN: Right. So what's up with that deal?

ALLYN: Yeah. So parties were racing towards an agreement. You know, we've been hearing about it. And things went south very fast. Trump gave the green light for software company Oracle to take a big stake in TikTok and to control its U.S. data. Walmart was also a major investor, but then TikTok parent company ByteDance said, actually, not so fast; we don't want to lose control of the biggest app to ever come out of China. So talks have stalled.

But, you know, I talked to the parties involved, and they say they have not given up. And for TikTok, Rachel, you know, the stakes are just really, really, really high. The app - you know, if it ends up getting banned even temporarily, the company says, like, 90% of its users could quit and then hop over to competitors like Instagram or, you know, one of the many other video apps that have sensed real opportunity here.

MARTIN: I mean, the whole national security threat - this is the thing that President Trump keeps bringing up. Is the data of Americans really safe on TikTok? I mean, if you're the average consumer listening to this, you maybe have concerns about that.

ALLYN: That's the question I get the most; you know, should I be worried about TikTok? That's the crux of the debate (ph). And, you know, the Trump administration says having a Chinese parent company like TikTok does is a national security threat and that China's authoritarian regime, you know, has unfettered access to private business. And there is consensus that that's a legitimate concern.

That said, the particular threat from TikTok - that's a lot shakier. The White House has never offered ironclad evidence that China can definitely get its hands on Americans' data. And TikTok says it just operates completely independent of China. But those assurances are not cooling the heat from the White House.

MARTIN: Well, I'm all set up here. I mean...

ALLYN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: TikTok is still open for business for now. I mean, who knows? All kinds of cool videos, all kinds of cool content coming from my TikTok account.

ALLYN: Yeah.

MARTIN: OK, Bobby Allyn, thank you so much. We so appreciate you keeping us up to speed on all this.

ALLYN: You got it, Rachel. OK, see you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.