One of the oddities of the whole Trump Foundation scandal is the fact that at least a few of the donations to the foundation were actually fees owed to Trump personally. Comedy Central, for example, gave the foundation $400,000 in lieu of paying Trump for a televised roast he attended. The Washington Post's David Fahrenthold is on top of this, of course, and asked one of Trump's campaign advisors about it:

“He’s never directed fees to the foundation,” said Boris Epshteyn, a senior adviser to Trump, who responded on the campaign’s behalf in a phone interview on Saturday. Epshteyn said that what Trump did was provide a service, renounce any fees, and then merely suggest that the other party make a donation to a charity of their choosing.

I swear I don't know whether to laugh or pound the keyboard at stuff like this. Epshteyn sounds like the godfather here. Trump merely "suggested" that folks donate to some charity somewhere, and it all just happened to end up at Trump's charity.

Legally, the issue here is that if the money is owed to Trump, he has to pay taxes on it. If it goes straight to his foundation, he doesn't. And apparently one of Eric Trump's assistants pretty much admitted this is what happened:

Last week, an employee of the Trump Organization, the candidate’s private company, offered an explanation. “A lot of times Mr. Trump will give a speech somewhere or he’ll raise money in some way and he asks that entity, instead of cutting a personal check to him, cut it to his charity,” said Lynne Patton, an assistant to Trump’s son Eric, who is also an officer of the Eric Trump Foundation. “That’s money that otherwise would’ve been in his personal account, right?”

Trump aides threw Patton under the bus ("she wouldn’t know or understand") and then offered a more convoluted version of the excuse that Trump never told anyone which charity to give his fees to. Legally, that meant Trump didn't owe any taxes on the money. And then, by an enormous coincidence, the donors just happened to choose the Trump Foundation:

Trump, Epshteyn said...had not exercised control over where his money went. Indeed, Epshteyn said, when Trump helped someone, he never asked specifically for a gift to the Donald J. Trump Foundation — but rather suggested a gift to some charity, somewhere.

But sometimes, Epshteyn said, a gift arrived at the Trump Foundation. “He’s Donald J. Trump,” Epshteyn said, explaining why donors had chosen this particular charity.

....So which of the Trump Foundation’s donations came in this way? Epshteyn could not cite a specific example. He then challenged The Post to find an example that proved him wrong.

The Post asked about the 2011 gift from Comedy Central....Epshteyn conceded that Trump had, indeed, controlled where this money went. It was his income. And, Epshteyn said, he paid taxes on it.

Could he provide proof of that tax payment?

“Absolutely not,” Epshteyn said.

No one sentient can possibly believe this nonsense. It's obvious that Trump has long treated his foundation as a sort of personal slush fund, a handy way to have a bit of tax-free cash around to hand out like walking-around money. How is it possible that Fahrenthold is still the only reporter around who seems interested in this?

Donald Trump refuses to release his tax returns, as every presidential candidate has done for decades. The excuse varies. Lately he's claimed that he's being audited, so he can't release them. But he's also said the audit wouldn't hold him back if Hillary Clinton released all her emails, so that excuse seems a little thin. When pressed, Trump adds that no one but a few media losers are interested in his taxes. More recently, though, Donald Trump Jr. has said the real reason is simpler: not only are people interested in Trump's taxes, but they're too interested. Releasing his tax returns would "detract" from his father's message.

Whatevs. But let's suppose that Trump really does have some good reasons for being wary of releasing his entire 10,000-page tax return. Over at Emptywheel, tax attorney Bob Lord asks some obvious questions:

First, what tax years are under audit? Does it go back beyond 2012? If not, can the 2011 return be released?

....Second, why haven’t the audit notices been released?...There’s nothing so sensitive in such a generic notice that it could not be made public. At this point, Trump has not even offered up this most basic evidence that he is really even under audit. Why hasn’t proof been demanded?

....Third, for the tax returns that are under audit, why can’t the first two pages be released? After all, those first two pages simultaneously contain the information most relevant to the public about a presidential candidate and contain no information that reveals the issues under audit.

There's more at the link, including Lord's belief that Trump might genuinely have some decent reasons for not wanting to make his entire return public. But at the very least, Trump could release the first couple of pages of his 1040, plus the summary page of Schedule A, for the past decade or so. This would tell us his business income, real estate income, capital gains, total income, charitable contributions, etc. Does he really have any plausibly good reason for not releasing this much, other than the fact that it might be personally embarrassing because it would show that he's been lying about how much he's worth and how much he gives to charity?

Bob Somerby reminds us today about the power of post-debate spin from the media. The teachable moment is October 3, 2000, the first debate between Al Gore and George Bush. Here's a real-time reaction from Time's Matt Cooper:

Bush looks slightly awkward to me. He's flubbed a couple of lines....Gore, although looking like he's made out of rawhide, is doing pretty well. His answers are more cogent....Bush just not getting off the lines he needs.....W. keeps sniffing during the off moments. It's weird.

....Here in the last 15 minutes of the debate, I'm stuck by the different confidence levels of the two guys. Bush, who can be commanding on the stump, seems faltering, hesitant. Gore is brimming with confidence....The other thing that strikes me is the way that Gore has beat up the guy without seeming to be too mean.....I'm writing this in the closing the moments of the debate. My guess is that post-debate polls will show Gore winning the debate 55-45. Bush needs to really study up before the next one.

Wow. Gore kicked ass! Bush kept sniffing! He also seemed a little lost—a fairly common real-time assessment. As it turns out, Cooper's prediction was pretty close: Gallup's overnight poll had Gore winning by 48-41 percent and others gave him an even bigger margin. So why is Gore widely remembered as the big loser in that debate? Here is Alfredo Lanier of the Chicago Tribune a couple of weeks after the debate:

Polls scored both candidates just about even, but that shifted after media analysts picked over the inconsistencies in some of Gore's statements—and nitpicked about his annoying huffing, puffing and eye-rolling while Bush spoke.

Huffing, puffing, and eye-rolling? You mean sighing, don't you? Here is CNN recapping what happened years after the fact:

Focus groups right after Al Gore and George W. Bush debated seemed to give a slight edge to Gore because he was more articulate, he had better answers, but once the television cameras caught that sighing, that constant look on his face where he seemed annoyed by the whole idea of having to be there with Bush, it seemed to underscore, as somebody said, as a teacher's pet who knew all the answers but was annoying and irritating. And they kept playing it over and over again and it became parodies on the comedy shows and late night TV. Then people began to project onto Gore a personality trait of just annoyance and irritation of people in general and it became devastating for him to live that down.

Among people who actually watched the debate, Gore seemed fine. He knew his stuff, he attacked without seeming mean, and no one seemed to notice any sighing. But then the analysts put together a mix tape of every one of Gore's sighs, and it was game over. Gore was a laughingstock.

Overnight polls are hardly infallible. But there's not much question that the media reaction in the two or three days after a debate can make a big difference. Gore won the first debate in 2000, but only for a few hours. He lost it in the following week.

I'm always intrigued by polls that produce truly inexplicable results, and today we get one from Pew. They asked Trump supporters how they'd feel if Trump won. Most would be happy, but 11 percent would be disappointed or even angry. Among Clinton supporters, 7 percent would be disappointed if she won.

Now, when you get out to the end of the homo sapiens bell curve, there's no telling what you're dealing with. These folks might not be the sharpest pencils in the box. Still, I wonder what they're thinking? That they're just congenitally disappointed and will stay that way no matter who wins? That they're supporting a candidate they don't like? They they didn't really understand the question? What's the deal here?

Over at the Corner, Patrick Brennan suggests that political journalists are lousy at fact checking, and debate moderators shouldn't try to do it in real time. There's a case to be made for this, but he sure picks a weird example:

Liberal Twitter was all a-huff about how the [debate] commissioner cites the unemployment rate as an area where the facts are up for debate — har har, they say, you know there literally is an official unemployment rate the government publishes, right?

Except anyone smart saying this is being remarkably coy: People of good faith and serious economic training debate about whether the “official” unemployment rate is a good representation of the unemployment rate all the time!

How absurd is it to complain about the commissioner’s statement here? Say Trump says something along the lines of “the real unemployment rate is much higher than the government tells you.”

This might well be true — although it all depends on what you mean by the real unemployment rate....The people braying for fact-checking in debates are thus asking for moderators to attempt, in real time, to adjudicate disputes that divide Ph.D. economists and of course, a whole range of other such disputes on which the respective experts — trade economists, classification experts, presidential historians, whatever — often don’t agree.

Brennan suggests this is all a high-minded argument about U3 vs. U6 and the declining labor force participation rate and so forth. Silly liberals! Who are they to say that the unemployment rate is a clear fact when even professional economists argue about it?

And, sure, fair point—if this is what Trump was talking about. He's not. He's said on multiple occasions that the unemployment rate is "really" 42 percent or 21 percent or 35 percent. The headline figure from the BLS (currently 4.9 percent) is a "hoax" and a "conspiracy." In fact, it's "one of the biggest hoaxes in politics." This is presumably because Donald Trump doesn't waste his time with anything other than the very best hoaxes.

This is not an academic argument about what unemployment "really" is. It's idiocy. It's a lie. It's a shameless extension of Trump's juvenile populism, and Brennan knows it. If he thinks debate moderators shouldn't even push back on something this rank, he's showing a contempt for the truth every bit as casual as Trump's.

The FBI reported today that the murder rate in the US was up 11 percent in 2015. That's a pretty big jump, and I don't want to minimize it. Before we panic too much, however, it's worth noting that the overall violent crime rate was up only 3 percent. The absolute number of murders is fairly small, which means that it tends to be more volatile than the overall violent crime rate.

If you're wondering how I'll make a connection to lead, here it is: this is probably a sign that we're now firmly in a post-lead crime era. Thanks to the ban on leaded gasoline, the number of teenagers born in a high-lead environment has been falling for 20 years, and that's produced a steady decline in the violent crime rate. But by now, pretty much everyone under the age of 30 has grown up in the unleaded gasoline era, and we've made only modest progress in reducing lead further.

What this means is that lead abatement has run its course. From now on, unless we do something about the remaining lead in soil and paint, crime rates will reflect other factors: drugs, guns, poverty, race, policing, etc. Unleaded gasoline has done what it could, and now the rest is up to us.

POSTSCRIPT: It's worth noting that this applies mostly to North America and Europe. In much of Asia, South America, and the Middle East, leaded gasoline held on a lot longer. In those places, we likely have another 10-20 years of declining crime rates thanks to a reduction in the number of kids who grow up with lead poisoning.

A couple of days ago, NYU law professor Lily Batchelder released a paper that takes a close look at the details of Donald Trump's tax plan. She concludes that several million middle-class families will pay more under Trump's plan than they do now. Jim Tankersley reports the Trump campaign's response:

The Trump campaign called the findings "pure fiction," contending the analysis neglects a crucial benefit for low-income taxpayers....Most importantly, Miller said Trump will instruct the committees writing his plan into law to make sure that it does not raise taxes on any low- or middle-income earners. "In sending our proposal to the tax-writing committees we will include instructions to ensure all low and middle income households are protected," Miller said.

This is obviously spin, but the funny thing is that it's true. The details that Batchelder analyzed really won't matter much once Trump's proposal gets fed into the congressional sausage machine. Rather, his tax plan is essentially a statement of values. It tells the voting public what he believes in.

And that's the problem. If Trump truly cared about the middle class, he and his team would have taken a very close look at the details to make sure his plan benefited the entire middle class. Obviously they didn't. They treated it like a throwaway that Congress would iron out later.

Conversely, does anyone doubt that they were very careful indeed about vetting the effect of his plan on the rich? There's surely not a single person in the top 1 percent who will accidentally end up paying higher taxes under Trump's plan. Why? Because Trump cares about rich people. They're winners.1 Struggling families and single mothers are losers. Why sweat the details for the likes of them?

1Also because his plan is so overwhelmingly favorable for rich people that it's basically impossible for small details to wipe out their average gain.

I know what many of you are thinking. "Is Kevin going to liveblog the debate tonight? If he doesn't, will I actually have to watch this dumpster fire?"

No worries. I'm a dedicated professional, and that means I'll watch the debate so you don't have to. And unlike certain other professionals I could name, I'll try to fact check in real time. This is actually harder than you'd think, and Donald Trump's firehose of lies wrapped in ignorance inside a fog of gibberish doesn't make it any easier. But I'll try.

The debate starts at 9 pm Eastern. I'll start up a few minutes before then.

From the Wall Street Journal:

One-third of voters say the presidential debates will be very important in helping them decide whom to support for president, with slightly more Republicans than Democrats saying so, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll has found.

This is one reason not to take polls too seriously. It's not even faintly plausible that a third of the voting public is undecided enough that the debates will make any difference to them. The true number is probably closer to 5 percent. Maybe 10 percent at the outside. And even that small number will probably break about evenly by Election Day. There's an endless body of research showing that the actual effect of debates is minuscule.

In most polls,1 the fact that people say stuff like this is a far, far bigger source of inaccuracy than the margin of error. The biggest problem with polls is human beings, not statistics.

1Simple candidate preference polls are an exception. They tend to be fairly accurate.

Alex Burns of the New York Times thinks that Howard Kurtz of Fox News was soft on Donald Trump in a recent interview. Kurtz isn't buying it:

Let's go to the tape and see who's right:

KURTZ: Let me move on. You said in many interviews, including with me, that you opposed the Iraq war before it began. Now, I've looked at the forums that you've cited Esquire Magazine, Neil Cavuto's show and don't see any clear evidence of that. And of course, you had the sort of a lukewarm comment to Howard Stern and I guess so to be....

TRUMP: Well, that was long before the war started and I can tell you that was long before the war started with Howard that's the first time the word Iraq was ever mentioned to me....

KURTZ: But why not say...


KURTZ: Why not say you're a private business...


TRUMP: And then I spoke to Neil Cavuto...Sean Hannity...blah blah blah.

KURTZ: Right, but why not say I was a private — I was a private businessman. I had no responsibility to take a public position before the war and I criticized the invasion after it began?

TRUMP: Sean Hannity...Neil Cavuto...blah blah blah.

KURTZ: All right.

I guess you can form your own opinion, but it sounds to me like Kurtz asked about Iraq in a decidedly milquetoasty way, Trump delivered his usual lies, and Kurtz then did his best to play campaign manager and suggest that Trump try a whole new way of misleading the public. Journalism!