Trump could personally benefit from last-minute change to Senate tax bill

  • Damian Paletta
  • The Washington Post
6:45 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017 Politics
TOM BRENNER/NYT
President Donald Trump arrives at the White House in Washington, after spending his Thanksgiving break in Florida at his club, Mar-a Lago, Nov. 26, 2017. In a series of Twitter posts over the weekend and early Monday, Trump criticized CNN?s international arm for representing ?our nation to the WORLD very poorly.? The president praised Fox News and has been complimentary of its coverage of him and his administration.

Last-minute changes to the Senate tax bill could personally benefit President Donald Trump, who has investment stakes in roughly 500 entities that could be impacted by the planned adjustments. 

Republicans are seriously considering expanding a new tax credit these types of entities use to lower their taxable income in a way that benefits most people tied to these firms. Trump and other senior administration officials have been in personal contact with lawmakers about the changes. 

The changes focus on "pass through" entities, which are a type of company that direct incomes through the individual income tax code and not the corporate tax code. There are millions of these entities, and they are most often sole proprieterships, limited liability companies, or partnerships. Trump's stakes in these entities include many large and small ventures, including the Trump Organization. 

Trump's 2005 tax return showed he had more than $109 million in income from businesses, partnerships and pass-through entities, though he has not released updated figures so the precise impact is not known. 

Trump has become the first president in 40 years to refuse to release his tax returns, making it hard to know exactly how much he would gain from his tax policy. But a letter from Trump's lawyers last year said that nearly all of his companies count as pass-through entities. 

"You hold interests as the sole or principal owner in approximately 500 separate entities," Morgan Lewis attorneys Sheri Dillon and William Nelson wrote in a letter released by the Trump campaign. "Because you operate these businesses almost exclusively through sole proprietorships and/or closely held partnerships, your personal federal income tax returns are inordinately large and complex for an individual." 

Many of Trump's most signature properties, including the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., and the Trump-branded golf courses across the country, are linked to limited liability companies, or LLCs, that would qualify as pass-throughs under the tax code, financial disclosure filings show. 

Senate Republicans have proposed changing the way these firms pay taxes, allowing them to deduct 17.4 percent of their income from their taxable income. 

But Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., has said he would not support such a bill, because he doesn't believe its generous enough for pass through entities. Now Republican negotiators, in order to mollify Johnson, are looking at changing the tax bill and expanding it to allow people to deduct 20 percent of a firm's income. 

Such a change could expand the tax benefit for Trump because of his investments, though the precise details of the change couldn't be learned and this would impact what benefit — if any — Trump received. 

"The President's top priorities are delivering tax cuts for the middle class and making our businesses competitive again, both of which will jumpstart our economy. Everyone will benefit when our economy is performing at its best," said Raj Shah, the White House's deputy press secretary. 

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., has privately expressed concerns to White House officials that are similar to the ones raised by Johnson, and Daines personally spoke with Trump about the pass through issue on Sunday night. 

Trump on Monday didn't say what specific changes to the tax bill would look like, though he did say the provision relating to pass throughs would be made "simpler." 

"The Tax Cut Bill is coming along very well, great support. With just a few changes, some mathematical, the middle class and job producers can get even more in actual dollars and savings and the pass through provision becomes simpler and really works well!" Trump wrote Monday on Twitter. 

Democrats have attacked the GOP tax proposals and alleged that they would disproportionately benefit companies, while offering limited and temporary benefits for families and individuals. Trump has said he would not personally benefit from the tax changes, telling senators that his accountant said he would actually fare worse under the tax bill than if no changes were made. But the White House has not offered any details to explain how he came to this viewpoint, and many believe Trump and his family would benefit greatly. 

"He would definitely benefit personally, and in a number of different ways," said Steven M. Rosenthal, senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, an organization that analyzes tax proposals and is often criticized by congressional Republicans for its reports that have found limited benefits from their tax ideas. 

The tax cut bill that passed the House of Representatives would treat pass through entities differently than the Senate bill would. 

The House bill would cut the top tax rate these entities pay from 39.6 percent to 25 percent, while the Senate bill would instead allow these companies to deduct a percentage of their income. 

Firms that pay taxes through the corporate tax code will see their tax rate fall from 35 percent to 20 percent under both the House and Senate bills, a change that many chief executives support because it would lower their taxes. But there has been more hand-wringing over the treatment of pass through entities. 

Johnson has said the tax treatment of these entities in the Senate bill are not generous enough and puts them at a disadvantage. Republicans have looked at ways to grow this deduction, possibly allowing companies to deduct around 20 percent of their income, according to four people briefed on the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss ongoing negotiations. 

Johnson's office has said he did not support an initial version of the Senate bill because it would have roughly doubled the gap between corporate tax rates and the income tax rates that pass throughs pay. Pass-through entities — S corps, partnerships and limited liability companies — are frequently small businesses, but they can also be large entities, such as National Football League teams, Fiat Chrysler, a Koch Industries subsidiary, and big liquor distributors. Johnson also has a personal stake in several pass through entities from his corporate background, but his office has said the changes he is pushing would not benefit him personally. 

There are millions of firms that pay their taxes as pass throughs, but tax writers for months have been concerned that people could easily take advantage of special tax treatment to avoid paying taxes. For example, a hedge fund manager or wealthy doctor could try and design their tax status in a way so they could qualify as a "pass through" and pay a lower tax rate than people who earn much less money. Republican tax writers have said they have tried to develop ways to prevent such tax avoidance, but it's unclear if it would work. 

The support of Johnson is crucial because the Senate controls 52 votes in the 100-seat Senate, and they can only afford to lose two votes if they want to pass their bill with a simple majority. They did receive some good news on Monday, however, when Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., announced he would be backing the measure. 

In an opinion piece published by Fox News, Paul wrote that the Senate GOP tax bill bill wasn't perfect and he hoped for even bigger cuts but said Congress could come back and do more at a later time. He also said he was pleased with the inclusion of a provision repealing the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act, which creates penalties for many Americans if they don't have health insurance. 

"This tax bill is a true test for my colleagues. I'm not getting everything I want — far from it. But I've been immersed in this process. I've fought for and received major changes for the better — and I plan to vote for this bill as it stands right now," Paul wrote. 

"I urge my colleagues to do the same. I urge you, their constituents, to make sure they hear from you."

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