By Nancy Cook | PoliticoPro
President Donald Trump is on the precipice of signing a sweeping tax reform bill, his first major piece of legislation since taking office 11 months ago, the result of a strategic decision to do one simple thing: focus on the hard sell. Trump has spent weeks wooing, prodding, cajoling and personally calling Republican lawmakers to pass sweeping tax legislation in time for Christmas – a deadline Trump himself set months ago – but he and his staff have left many of the policy decisions up to Republican lawmakers and top congressional staffers.
In the final weeks of negotiations, Trump has acted as the cheerleader and closer. He’s personally phoned lawmakers whose support of the bill wavered at times — including Republican Sens. Bob Corker, Ron Johnson and Steve Daines — while staying in close touch with congressional leadership to check on progress toward a win, according to several White House aides, congressional officials and people close to the administration.
When the legislation came under fire from independent tax experts and Democrats for doing more to help the wealthy and businesses than average Americans, the White House organized a 30-minute speech in the grand foyer to showcase the way the tax bill would help families. Like the reality show host he was before running for the nation’s highest office, Trump called five families to the lectern to describe what they’d gain by the yet-to-be-unveiled Republican bill.
The tax bill “belongs to people like the Glicks, the Kovacs, the Giampolos, the Benjamins, the Howards, and the millions of Americans just like them across our nation, who pour out their hearts and souls every single day to take care of their families and the country they love and that we love,” Trump said last week, barely acknowledging the legislation’s signature business tax cuts.
As a real-estate developer, Trump knew that it was easier to put his name on other people’s buildings than to construct the edifices himself. And now, it seems, he’s discovered the same approach works in Washington, too.
“That is what businessmen do. They focus on the deal,” said Stephen Moore, an informal economic adviser to Trump and distinguished senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “The president has not been engaged on the specifics of the tax bill, but that is fine.”
The results of Trump’s strategy have been instructive for an administration stung by its failure to repeal Obamacare and in need of a major Republican victory ahead of the 2018 mid-terms. If the bill passes this week as expected, the president may have a playbook to follow for other battles in 2018 and beyond — be it infrastructure, welfare reform or revisiting health care.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Randy Hardock, who served as the tax counsel to the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Lloyd Bentsen, during the 1986 tax overhaul. “It has only been six-and-half weeks since the first statutory language was released.”
The haste was partly strategic — it short-circuited lobbyists by leaving many unable to understand the bill’s nuances, and it gave Democrats little time to pinpoint areas to target and criticize. Even Republicans throughout Washington were kept in the dark about the contents of the final bill, which was released on Friday ahead of planned votes early this week. But the Christmas deadline also allowed the president to frame the legislation as a feel-good, end-of-year bonus, something lawmakers could take home to their constituents amid a dramatic escalation in the probes into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
This time around, the White House formed a dedicated internal team to ensure the administration closely coordinated on all tax questions.
The group met weekly for months, eventually unveiling in late September a nine-page framework that nailed down many of the broad ideas of a tax bill, such as a target corporate rate and the move to a territorial tax system. Many of those concepts had already appeared in the various campaign and transition tax plans the Trump team had developed.
Meanwhile, members of the administration pitched the broad parameters of the tax overhaul around the country. Ivanka Trump made tax-related appearances in California, Maine, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. She also privately met with over 20 lawmakers on Capitol Hill and hosted several bipartisan dinners on taxes at her home in the Kalorama neighborhood in Washington.
Trump himself gave public speeches in Missouri and North Dakota, and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue promoted the overhaul in places like upstate New York that had strong farming communities. Trump, Pence, Cohn and Mnuchin stayed in touch with individual lawmakers, with whom each had developed one-on-one relationships. Some White House officials tried to keep Mnuchin away from House Republicans, sending him to California to deliver speeches the week the House unveiled its version of the bill, according to one White House official. Mnuchin did, however, develop ties in the Senate including to Corker — one of the Senate’s final remaining Republicans to publicly get on board with the final bill.
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia had told Short, Cohn, and Knight in a meeting on Capitol Hill with other Democratic senators that he would consider supporting the Republican tax plan if, among other asks, the corporate rate rose to 25 percent; the middle class cuts were made permanent; and Republicans scrapped their plan to repeal Obamacare’s individual mandate for as part of the tax bill, according to a Manchin aide.
The White House tentatively plans to sign the tax bill later this week on Wednesday or Thursday before Trump departs for his Christmas break at Mar-a-Lago in Florida.
Part of the administration challenge for next year will be continuing to sell the bill, which—despite being a sweeping and historic achievement for Republicans not seen since 1986—does not fulfill all of the policy goals originally laid out by Trump during the campaign.