August was supposed to be the month that President Donald Trump sold tax reform.
White House officials, including then-press secretary Sean Spicer, said in July that Trump would be hitting the road to lay the groundwork for tax reform before administration and congressional negotiators wrapped up their high-level work in September.
But with less than two weeks to go before Congress returns, and Republican leaders hoping to launch a major push to get tax legislation to the president’s desk by the end of the year, Trump has barely mentioned the subject.
Part of the month went to important foreign policy issues, like Trump’s war of words with North Korea and announcing an increased troop presence in Afghanistan.
But domestically he’s picked fights with the top Republican in the Senate, stewed over how his response to racially tinged violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, was received, and mused about shutting down the government over funding for a border wall.
“It’s utterly inexplicable,” said Michael Steel, a Republican communications veteran of the House Ways and Means Committee and former Speaker John Boehner’s office.
Steel, now a managing director at Hamilton Place Strategies, a public affairs firm doing work in support of tax reform, singled out Trump’s antagonistic tweets toward Republican senators, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as especially counterproductive.
A House GOP aide put it more bluntly.
“Doing anything other than the f—ing Charlottesville equivocating would be lovely,” the aide grumbled.
The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at a press briefing Thursday that tax reform could be a public focus for the White House as soon as next week.
“Tax relief and the focus on tax relief for middle-class Americans is a huge priority for this administration, and certainly going to be a big focus in the fall,” Sanders said. “And we’re going to look at a lot of different ways in which to talk about that and present that to the American people, working with Congress to make sure that that happens.”
She added: “I think that you can expect some of that to take place in the very short order, probably next week and following through to the fall.”
Trump’s lack of focus so far also seems to be undercutting the concerted efforts of congressional Republican leaders, business executives and conservative activists to build public support for tax reform before Congress reconvenes.
At a tax reform event Wednesday in Oregon hosted by Intel, House Speaker Paul Ryan took more questions from reporters and workers about Trump’s remarks on border security and immigration than on the topic du jour. The event came the day after Trump held a raucous political rally in Phoenix, where he talked about a border wall and hinted at a pardon for former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, recently convicted of criminal contempt for ignoring a court order to stop detaining people he suspected of being undocumented immigrants.
The most pointed comment Trump made at the rally about tax reform was a jab at Democrats. “I hope some of the Democrats that are going to lose their election will come over and give everybody a big beautiful tax cut, which is going to be great for the economy,” he said.
House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady and many other Republicans have stressed that it will take presidential leadership to get tax reform over the goal line. At an event in Texas last week, Brady called tax reform “the signature issue” of Trump’s presidency and said Trump “will be incredibly crucial to the success of this.”
But some longtime tax activists question whether Trump’s leadership on the issue is that important.
“He’s not Mr. Communicator,” said Grover Norquist, president of the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform and the country’s most well-known anti-tax advocate.
“It is not necessary for him to sell this, it is necessary for him to agree with the House and Senate,” Norquist said.
White House aides have said that, as a businessman, Trump is naturally more interested in — and more knowledgeable about — taxes than other issues. That line emerged more strongly after the Republicans’ Obamacare debacle, and it may still prove to be true and a boost to tax reform.
The House GOP aide said Trump’s lack of engagement recently isn’t fatal to the tax reform effort. But Republicans will need cover when special interests bear down to protect their deductions and carveouts in the tax code.
“When we need you to be on message, can you be on message please?” the aide said, adding that he wished Trump were more focused like Ryan.
Steel said Trump “absolutely still has the ability to make the case on tax reform to his dedicated base of voters. And I hope he starts to do so vigorously.”
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