It was an announcement that there will be another announcement.
Even by the standards of the Trump administration, Wednesday afternoon’s political theater was absurd. Reporters and photographers packed into the White House briefing room for the unveiling of the president’s tax proposal. The presentation was led by National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, with White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer looking on.
The event was scheduled after Trump said on Friday that he would have a “big announcement on Wednesday” about “massive” tax cuts. Apparently this was news to many on the Hill, and within his own administration.
“People are a little panicked. They’re confused right now,” one administration source told me on Monday. “Trump is saying he’s got a tax reform coming out, and these guys are saying, ‘What is he talking about? This thing’s way more complicated than just saying you have a tax reform coming out!’” Trump’s objective was to appear productive ahead of his 100th day in office, the source added, but it left his own officials “scrambling.”
A senior administration official told me Trump “really took the lead” on the tax reform proposal, in terms of both “timing and content.” Yet he was otherwise engaged during Wednesday afternoon’s rollout, first by a lunch with Vice-President Mike Pence, and then by a meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Earlier in the day, he’d visited the Department of Interior, signing an executive order and joking about Maine Governor Paul LePage’s weight (“I knew him when he was heavy and now I know him when he’s thin. And I like him both ways,” he said, according to the pool.).
In the president’s absence, what we learned about his tax plan is that we will be learning things in the future. Officials said the administration is doing big things, ambitious things, and at the moment they can’t get bogged down in the minor details that will explain how those big and ambitious things will happen, such as funding or congressional support. We were assured that we will learn all of that at another, unspecified time.
“I never thought so many people would be turning out for the Antiquities Act, but thank you all for being here!” Spicer began, drawing some laughs. He introduced Cohn and Mnuchin as “two people here who are going to explain” the tax plan in terms of “why we’re doing what we’re doing” and “the personal side of the tax,” as well as “the business side of and the corporate side of what the president is doing.”
Meanwhile, a sheet of paper that Spicer said “provides the top-level aspects of the plan” was passed out to reporters. Under the headline “The Biggest Individual and Business Tax Cut in American History” were a series of bullet points listing the administration’s “Goals for Tax Reform,” such as “grow the economy and create millions of jobs.” The lone bullet explaining their “process” for achieving this said the month of May will be devoted to “listening sessions with stakeholders” and meetings with the House and Senate “to develop details of a plan” that can pass both chambers.
Spicer promised that Cohn and Mnuchin would “go into further detail.”
Cohn, a longtime Democrat who until earlier this year was the COO of Goldman Sachs, approached the lectern. Tall and broad like a retired athlete who now coaches Pop Warner football, he explained that America is facing “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something really big.” He said the administration had “been working on this for a long time” and had been a part of “great meetings” wherein leaders from the House and Senate, which are both controlled by Republicans, “agreed” on many important things.
Cohn complained that corporate tax rates were out of date and rendered the U.S. uncompetitive with other first-world countries. Plus, the tax code is too long and confusing for people to do their taxes themselves and must be simplified. Cohn said the administration would fix this with its proposal to reduce the corporate tax rate to 15 percent, and consolidate the number of individual income tax brackets from seven to just three: 10 percent, 25 percent, and 35 percent.
“This isn’t going to be easy. Doing big things never is,” he admitted. “We will be attacked from the left and we will be attacked from the right.” And then he added a curious remark, given this administration’s recent failures on health care and the travel ban: “But one thing is certain: I would never, ever bet against this president. He will get this done for the American people.”
Mnuchin, another Goldman Sachs alum with an estimated net worth of $500 million, took over, speaking in what another reporter remarked was a “Muppety” voice. Like Cohn, he complained that corporate tax rates were “uncompetitive.” He promised a “massive tax cut for businesses,” including small and medium-size businesses, and “massive tax reform and simplification.”
Expanding on the list distributed to reporters, Mnuchin said the “listening sessions” would be productive because “one thing this president has done very well is listen.”
Mnuchin, who has previously said that Trump’s tax plan would pay for itself, added that he believes “we can get back to 3 percent or higher GDP that is sustainable in this country.” Analysts have said that Trump’s proposal to cut the corporate tax rate to 15 percent will reduce federal revenue by $2 trillion, which could only be offset by increasing the GDP by 5 percent.
Nevertheless, Mnuchin said, “We will unlock the economic growth that’s been held back for too long in this country.”
Reporters pressed Cohn and Mnuchin for details during the question-and-answer period, but they mostly reiterated that they are “working very diligently with the House and Senate” as “we turn this into a bill that will get signed by the president.”
At one point, Cohn noted that a question was “going into very micro-details,” prompting the reporter to explain that the specifics are “very important.” “They’re very important, I agree,” Cohn answered.
“We will get back to you with definitive answers on all these details,” Cohn added. “We have outlines, we have a broad-brush view of where they’re gonna be. We’re running an enormous amount of data on the proposals right now. We will be back to you with very firm details. We are very confident of where they’re gonna be — we just wanted to get out and give you a broad-brush overview of where we are.”