In tax debate, Trump saw himself as marketer in chief

  • Josh Dawsey
  • The Washington Post
Dec 21, 2017
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room at the White House on Wednesday.

The Washington Post · · NATIONAL, CONGRESS, WHITEHOUSE · Dec 20, 2017 - 5:45 PM 

WASHINGTON - In the debate over the just-approved tax overhaul bill, President Donald Trump saw himself primarily as the marketer in chief - focused on pressuring Republicans to drop the jargon and sell the legislation in a way the public would understand. 

When he met with Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel earlier this fall to talk taxes, he said she should stop calling it tax "reform" - which is vague and hard to understand. Trump instead told her to say "cut" - and say it repeatedly. McDaniel obliged. It was a request Trump made to most everyone. 

When Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., tried to sell Trump on a border adjustment tax (BAT) for imports, he didn't like the name. It's one reason the plan was scuttled, senior congressional leadership aides said. The White House said Trump also didn't like the policy. 

And when Trump met with Capitol Hill lawmakers and his own aides, he didn't understand why the upper tax bracket was 39.6 percent or, under a later proposal, 38.5 percent. Who would come up with such arbitrary numbers, Trump asked. "He always wanted the individual rates to be multiples of 5," said one senior GOP aide involved in the negotiations. 

"Twenty is a pretty number," Trump said at one point, explaining his preference for the new corporate tax rate, according to an aide who heard his comments. The final rate ended up being 21 percent. 

"He drew a pretty bright line," Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said. "I'm sure he wasn't real pleased with going to 21 percent." 

On Wednesday Trump's marketing job entered its next phase at a White House rally with congressional Republicans to celebrate the passage of the tax bill - the party's biggest achievement during this first year in office. 

At the Rose Garden ceremony, Trump brought hundreds of Republicans to the south portico, with a band in the background. He called lawmaker after lawmaker to the microphone to laud the bill - and him. 

"It's the largest, I always say the most massive, in the history of our country," Trump said of the tax cuts. 

But despite Trump's focus on how to best market the tax bill, it remains highly unpopular with the public, according to recent polls. The sharp cuts for corporations and the wealthy, including Trump and many of his friends, have dominated much of the debate, and the effort has been tarnished for its lack of transparency: handwritten scribbles on the bill hours before a vote and the perception it was excessively influenced by lobbyists. 

"We believe you're messing up America," Senate Minority Leader Chareles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday evening. 

The bill's unpopularity will be a major problem for Republicans in the upcoming midterm elections, which already look like a daunting challenge. But GOP leaders have expressed confidence voters will embrace the tax package once they begin to see its effect on their paychecks early next year. In a briefing with reporters Wednesday, senior White House officials said previous tax plans, including those passed under President Ronald Reagan, were unpopular at first. 

"If we can't sell this to the American people, we ought to go into another line of work," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday. 

A big part of that sales job will fall to Trump, often an effective salesman of himself who will now be challenged to sell the public on a complicated piece of public policy. 

Trump has said he plans to talk about the tax cuts at rallies, and he was already planning the White House celebration before the bill passed, advisers said. He has constantly given aides and legislators guidance on how to discuss the bill. Several aides said he loves the phrase "rocket fuel" when explaining how it would affect the economy. 

A White House official said Trump also likes short phrases that tested well, such as "fairer and simpler" and "bring it home." 

Trump was also invested in the policies contained in the bill aides said, including the repeal of the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate. 

At a Cabinet meeting Wednesday, where Vice President Mike Pence lavished the president with praise, Trump told advisers the tax bill was successful in recent days because the White House and Republicans had been so effective at selling the legislation. 

"We have done a job like no administration has done," Trump said. He further attributed the bill's success to his labeling it a "cut" instead of other politicians labeling it a "reform." 

Trump's tendency to focus on the framing is not new. Tim O'Brien, a longtime Trump biographer, said the president has always been focused on "how he is going to be perceived and the theater and atmospherics." 

"You see him always testing slogans," O'Brien said. "He is very good at relentlessly promoting a singular point of view and holding tight, easily digestible messages." 

Trump bristled at times with how Republicans marketed their effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. He complained that the Senate bill was called the "skinny" repeal. Why would anyone label a bill that? "Skinny repeal, what does that even mean?" he asked, according to one senior White House official. 

When the tax bill ran into trouble in recent weeks, Trump felt his marketing sense helped prevent its demise. 

He became convinced that the criticism the bill wasn't helping the middle-class could tank it and began repeatedly emphasizing that it would, even while huddling with his wealthiest friends at the Park Avenue triplex of Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman. Trump told aides they should sell it as a "middle-class miracle," senior advisers said. They listened. 

"It's a middle-class miracle," Pence told donors at a recent event, according to audio of the gathering obtained by The Washington Post. GOP aides said they were also implored to use that phrase. 

Republicans did not take all of the president's marketing advice. 

He told aides and lawmakers they should call the legislation "big and beautiful" - it didn't catch on with others. 

Trump did not like the name of the tax bill - one of his biggest hang-ups. He wanted to call it the "Cut, Cut, Cut Act," according to advisers and Hill aides. The president did not get his way, and lawmakers settled on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. 

Trump continues to prefer the "Cut, Cut, Cut Act," advisers said. 

"Still think we made a massive strategic blunder in not calling it 'The Cut Cut Cut Act,'" Doug Andres, a senior Ryan aide, wrote Tuesday on Twitter. "But a win's a win."