Wow, Donald Trump really is all over the place.
On Tuesday he had dinner with a few moderate Democrats and completely retooled his tax policy before dessert. This is the man who is having such a famous fling with the minority leaders, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, that they no longer need identifying. Really, “Chuck and Nancy” are as famous as Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Victoria and Albert. Antony and Cleopatra.
But about the tax policy dinner. The Democratic senators described their discussion as so harmonious it sounded ... kind of boring. “Very collegial and very businesslike,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said on a radio interview back home with talk show host Joel Heitkamp.
Democrats have been demanding that no tax cuts go to the wealthy, and over beef medallions, Trump gave the impression that was exactly what he wanted, too. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia reported that “the president was adamant from the get-go: ‘This is not a tax cut for the rich, and I repeat that, this will not be a tax cut for me or any rich people.’ That kind of started off the conversation and it went pretty good from there.”
Now Manchin and Heitkamp are two of the most conservative senators from their party. But still, this seems like an awful lot of agreeing. Trump has spent the last month howling about the need to cut the corporate tax rate in half, and he’s been adamant about getting rid of the estate tax, which is imposed only on inheritances of more than $5 million.
Do you think he’s changed his mind? That the Democrats misheard? That the spinach was spiked with hallucinogens?
No, on Wednesday Trump not only ditched his tax-cuts-for-the-wealthy plans, he claimed the rich might take a hit. “If they have to go higher they’ll go higher,” he told a bipartisan congressional group with the adorable name of the Problem Solvers Caucus. This seemed like good news except for the part about the president appearing to be sort of off his rocker.
The only actual written-down Trump tax plan is a one-pager that includes what Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, calls a new “lunar-crater-size loophole” on income for the wealthy. Plus the corporate tax cuts and the estate tax repeal.
Hard to know when there will be something more substantial, with all this presidential hopping around. The Republicans claim they’ll have a real tax bill done soon. A while back, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn promised a detailed version would be done “by the end of the summer.” I guess if you wanted to be stupendously technical, that could mean they’ve still got until next week, when the autumnal equinox occurs as the sun crosses the celestial equator. Perhaps the president will watch it happen, shielding his eyes with a new two-page bill.
It’s ironic that an administration so money-centric has so many inept Cabinet members handling financial policy. Even in a group full of negative star power, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin stands out. Last week, when the Republicans were angrily reacting to the Trump-Democrat deal on raising the debt limit, he asked the irate legislators to do it “for me.” This plea went over well in the sense that nobody actually pummeled Mnuchin with tomatoes.
Still, Trump is ready to roll. Details, schmeetails. “With Irma and Harvey devastation, Tax Cuts and Tax Reform is needed more than ever before,” he tweeted. “Go Congress, go!” Negative thinkers pointed out that the hurricane devastation required federal spending, not revenue reduction. Also that “is needed” was grammatically ... tragic.
Plus, again, the no-plan thing. “It’s really important for people to understand — the administration is urging Congress to vote fast on a proposal that doesn’t exist,” said Howard Gleckman of the Tax Policy Center. The center made a rather heroic effort to figure out what the consequences would be if you cobbled a proposal out of all the tax stuff Trump has mentioned, and concluded it would add about $8 trillion to the national debt over the next 10 years.
There’s really a plus side to all this craziness. It’s better to have a president who flips around like a jumping bean to one who has a disciplined, well-thought-out strategy for handing corporate America and hedge fund owners more tax breaks. You don’t want all that much consistency when you’ve got a chief executive whose recent triumph in regulatory reform was to roll back the requirement that new highways be protected against flooding — 10 days before the first hurricane.
And of course there are people like Wyden who dreamed of doing something useful and bipartisan this term, and all the chaos makes them feel sad and hopeless.
Still, things could be worse. Pass the biscuits.