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Tax Plan Push, Trump's Call To Fallen Soldier's Family And George W. Bush Chimes In


A week in which a political dispute may have overshadowed the memory of a soldier who gave his life. President Trump got into an ugly public battle over what he did or didn't say to the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, who died on duty in Niger. This morning on Twitter, the president said the Florida congresswoman who criticized him was quote, "wacky." Former President George W. Bush gave a speech that seemed a direct rebuke of President Trump's leadership. And the Senate passed a budget blueprint, possibly a first step to a tax overhaul. NPR senior political editor Ron Elving joins us.

Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: And a pause to note and recall that Sgt. La David Johnson is being laid to rest today.

His widow says that President Trump called her and told her that her husband, quote, "knew what he signed up for." A Florida congresswoman says she heard the call and was outraged. And then the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, himself a Gold Star father, got involved and said the president's words were meant to be warm and admiring. Where does this leave us?

ELVING: As of this morning, the president seems to be at war with Congresswoman Wilson. He is going on Twitter, as you say, to call her wacky and saying he hopes that the fake media will continue to pay attention to her because he says that she's destroying the Democratic Party. So what should've been a moment of shared mourning and tribute to Sgt. Johnson this week and today has turned into another difficult and depressing episode. And this one has ensnared even the chief of staff, John Kelly, in ways that he surely did not wish.

SIMON: Yeah. John Kelly made some - in addition to delivering, I think, very moving remarks about what it's like to be a parent and lose a child, he stepped into the controversy by directing criticism at the congresswoman, didn't he?

ELVING: He had been present at the dedication of a building in Florida. And he said that she had taken credit for the funding of that building. The videotape shows she did not do that. She took credit for speeding the naming of the building for a couple of agents who had sacrificed their lives. The White House was also poking fun at the congresswoman's dress and hat. And this just turned out to be the sort of thing that, if they were trying to distract from the original questions about what these soldiers were doing in Niger, why we were suddenly taking casualties in this part of the world where most people don't think the United States is engaged - and of course, the controversy over why it took so long for the president to acknowledge these deaths or to say anything to the families or to send any kind of message to them at all - if that was the purpose, well, I guess that has been accomplished.

SIMON: Former President George W. Bush spoke out this week about what he called the casual cruelty of discourse today. He didn't mention President Trump by name. But it was hardly necessary. What did you note in his remarks?

ELVING: He was saying that this administration appears to be intentionally divisive - that it used divisive tactics to win in 2016 within the Republican Party and then, of course, in the general election and that it pursues these tactics even now, despite the need to foster some unity in order to govern. Now, particularly talking about immigration, President Bush used the word cruel. And former President Obama also used that word. He also gave a speech this week that was pretty much his first outing in the political sphere, campaigning for a gubernatorial candidate.

And both the former presidents were arguing that immigration had been a positive force in American history, building the country as we know it today. And both of them said that this current emphasis in this administration on nationalism was verging into nativism, the ultimate narrow vision of who is an American.

SIMON: Senate passed a budget blueprint yesterday. They were determined to get this done, weren't they?

ELVING: Yes, absolutely. Now, of course, this is necessary to set guidelines. The actual spending bills will come later. But the reason they were so eager to get this done is that it sets the stage and the rules for the tax overhaul bill that is going to dominate the rest of the year on Capitol Hill. And now, because of the rules that they pass, it is immune from a filibuster. And that means it can pass with just 50 votes, where they use vice president's tiebreaking vote to win. And that means that this tax bill actually has a fighting chance of happening later this year or early in 2018.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 21, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
In an earlier audio version of this conversation, Ron Elving incorrectly stated that White House chief of staff John Kelly had been given the wrong information about Rep. Frederica Wilson's remarks at the 2015 dedication of an FBI office. Kelly, in fact, said he attended that ceremony in person.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.