US President threatens NFL and attacks ESPN host

Trump said that Congress should eliminate a law that has allowed the NFL central office to avoid paying taxes as a nonprofit entity.

In one of a series of combative early morning tweets, Trump said that Congress should eliminate a law that has allowed the NFL central office to avoid paying taxes as a nonprofit entity. “Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country?” he wrote. “Change tax law!”

The tax break for the NFL has been a point of controversy for years, and other conservatives have taken up the cause in recent weeks as the president has repeatedly assailed the league over the player protests. But the idea would be more about symbolism than impact. The tax break applies only to the central office, not the teams, which already pay taxes as for-profit organizations, and the NFL voluntarily gave up the tax exemption for its league office in 2015.

The latest blast against the league was only one of several topics the president addressed on Twitter on Tuesday morning. He attacked Congress for rejecting his plans on health care, Democrats for their stance on immigration legislation and the ESPN sports network for a commentator who criticized him.

Among his targets, Trump focused his fire again on Jemele Hill, the “SportsCenter” host on ESPN who previously called the president a white supremacist. Hill was suspended Monday for suggesting that fans boycott advertisers of the Dallas Cowboys after the team owner, Jerry Jones, threatened to bench players who knelt during the national anthem.

“With Jemele Hill at the mike, it is no wonder ESPN ratings have ‘tanked,’ in fact, tanked so badly it is the talk of the industry!” Trump wrote on Twitter.

In a magazine interview released Tuesday morning, he also challenged his own secretary of state to an IQ contest.

Speaking with Forbes magazine, Trump was asked about reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called him a “moron.” Trump said he was smarter than Tillerson. “I think it’s fake news,” he said. “But if he did that, I guess we’ll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win.”

Tillerson held an extraordinary news conference last week to deny reports that he had considered resigning but did not deny the “moron” comment. He later had a spokeswoman tell reporters he had not said that, but within the White House it is widely assumed that he did. Trump is scheduled to have lunch with Tillerson on Tuesday at the White House, along with Jim Mattis, the secretary of defense.

In his string of Twitter messages Tuesday morning, Trump foreshadowed again his plan to sign an executive order Thursday intended to make it easier for some Americans to purchase less expensive health insurance. “Since Congress can’t get its act together on HealthCare, I will be using the power of the pen to give great HealthCare to many people - FAST,” he wrote.

He also accused the Democrats — with whom he has been trying to negotiate an immigration deal — of being soft on border security. “The problem with agreeing to a policy on immigration is that the Democrats don’t want secure borders, they don’t care about safety for U.S.A.,” he wrote.

Trump this week demanded that Democrats agree to a series of hard-line immigration enforcement measures, including construction of hisoft-promised wall along the Mexican border, in exchange for legislation protecting younger immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. Democratic leaders called the demands unacceptable.

The president continued to be animated by his fight with the sports world. He has enthusiastically kept up his attacks on the NFL, with which he has a long history of antagonism. A onetime owner of the New Jersey Generals in the upstart United States Football League, Trump persuaded other owners to sue the NFL using antitrust law. The USFL won the suit on the law but the jury awarded only $1 in damages — tripled to $3 by law — and Trump’s league ultimately folded.

The NFL’s tax exemption has long been controversial. The league’s 32 teams are for-profit businesses that pay taxes accordingly, but the central office was set up as a nonprofit organization. In response to the criticism, the league in 2015 voluntarily gave up its tax-exempt status because of what it called the “distraction.”

It is not clear that it cost the league much money. While the league as a whole generates billions of dollars in revenue a year, the league office ran a deficit of $13.5 million in the fiscal year that ended a year before the decision to give up the tax-exempt status. But the change meant the league no longer had to disclose what it paid its commissioner, Roger Goodell.

Last month, after the kneeling controversy erupted, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., introduced legislation stripping professional sports leagues of tax-exempt status, an idea that has been proposed on Capitol Hill for years.

Joe Lockhart, the NFL spokesman, was not immediately available for comment Tuesday morning.

Sports teams have benefited in other ways under tax law. Many franchises have built new stadiums in cooperation with cities and states that floated bonds to finance construction. Municipal bonds are exempt from federal taxes, leading critics to complain that taxpayers are subsidizing profitable private businesses.

A study by the Brookings Institution last year concluded that three dozen sports franchises from the NFL, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League have financed stadiums since 2000 using tax-exempt municipal bonds.

The biggest beneficiary was not a football franchise but the New York Yankees, the president’s hometown baseball team, which Brookings estimated saved $492 million as a result. Among football owners who have benefited from such bonds was Trump’s friend Jones, whose Dallas Cowboys saved $88 million in building AT&T Stadium. But it was not clear that Trump would support trying to take away the power of cities to build stadiums using their own bonds.

The federal government has limited room to act against the NFL in other areas. The league has all but abandoned its policy of blacking out games in home markets when teams fail to sell out their stadiums, giving the Federal Communications Commission less oversight over professional football. The league, however, does have something akin to an antitrust exemption, thanks to a 1966 law, that allows every team to band together to negotiate television deals.

As part of his campaign against sports figures who have criticized him, the president on Tuesday will host the NHL champions at the White House. He invited the Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins a day after disinviting the Golden State Warriors of the NBA because its star, Stephen Curry, said he would vote against attending.

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