The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Sorry, suckers: Trump didn’t actually shift on taxing rich and minimum wage

Yo, chumps, I’m shifting my positions. Really, I am! By the way, I got an awesome steak here to sell ya… (Reuters/Chris Tilley)


There’s a lot of chatter out there to the effect that Donald Trump is shifting his stances on taxing the rich and on the minimum wage. He’s moderating his positions for the general election! He’s going to get to Hillary Clinton’s left on economic issues!

The only problem with this reading — which is based largely on what Trump said on the Sunday shows yesterday — is that it didn’t actually happen. The only way to conclude that he’s actually shifting his positions in any real sense is to treat the idea of having a “position” as if it’s utterly meaningless.

First, the minimum wage. On ABC’s This Week, Trump said that “I am looking at it and I haven’t decided in terms of numbers,” adding that “people have to get more.” Asked whether this was a “change,” Trump said, “well, sure, it’s a change.” But in the context of the policy debate, these phrases mean exactly nothing. Trump is saying generally that people’s wages have to rise, not that he intends to work with Congress to raise the federal minimum wage.

When Trump says this is a “change,” the most plausible reading is that this is a change from his general statement during the primaries that wages are “too high.” In fact, later in the ABC interview, he says that his “real” rise in the minimum wage will result from his success in bringing “companies back into this country,” presumably due to his trade wizardry and ultra-tough busting of CEO heads. When he says wages have to go up, he means this is his general goal, and that he’ll realize it not with a minimum wage hike, but by making the country filthy rich again.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

Indeed, on NBC’s Meet the Press, Trump made this even more explicit. He said both that he wants to see wages go up and that the minimum wage should only be set by states. Trump was asked directly by Chuck Todd whether the federal government should “set a floor.” Trump replied: “No, I’d rather have the states go out and do what they have to do.” In other words, in Trump’s mind, the general goal of seeing wages rise does not necessarily translate into support for a federal minimum wage hike.

Now, taxes on the rich. On ABC’s This Week, Trump repeatedly said his tax plan — which delivers a massive windfall to the wealthy — would ultimately be “negotiated” with Congress. After that negotiation, Trump said, taxes on the wealthy will “go up a little bit,” adding: “by the time it’s negotiated, they’ll go up.” Pressed on whether Trump actively wants taxes on rich people like himself to go up, he said that the “wealthy are willing to pay more,” and that “I have a feeling we may pay some more.” This shouldn’t need to be said, but that isn’t actually a position. Taken on its own terms, it is a declaration about what the wealthy want to do of their own accord, and merely a “feeling” that something “may” happen in terms of policy to make it so.

Indeed, on NBC’s Meet the Press, Trump further clarified that when he said businesses may pay more after negotiations with Congress, he really meant that “they might have to pay a little bit more than my proposal” (emphasis mine). That could easily mean that in the end, businesses may get less of a tax cut than he has proposed for them.

Do these things signal that Trump is “open” to changing his positions, as many have suggested? Maybe, but even if so, this, too, is largely meaningless. Trump did not say he is open to a federal minimum wage hike — he said there should not be any federal floor. On taxes, in both interviews, Trump hedged on the core point of whether he actually thinks the wealthy should bear a larger tax burden than they do now. Given that his plan cuts their taxes dramatically, this supposed “openness” to a shift is meaningless.

There is, understandably, a strong temptation on the part of political and media observers to catch candidates out for flip-flopping or changing their positions. In the case of Trump, however, the eagerness to do this risks obfuscating more than it clarifies. Trump is playing a game here: He wants to signal flexibility on high end taxes and the minimum wage to the general election audience, while trying to reassure those GOP elites who might still plausibly support him, and who care about these issues, that he’d hold the line on them. Claiming that Trump is shifting his positions may seem like it’s damaging to him or pinning him down, but it allows him to pull off the former, while those who don’t want him to shift — and are listening carefully — will understand that he isn’t signaling anything meaningful at all.

I’m not suggesting that Trump won’t eventually shift on these issues. He very well may. Nor am I suggesting that GOP elites will necessarily conclude that he is reliable on them. But until Trump says he is really open to a federal minimum wage hike and puts a number on it — and says the tax burden on the wealthy should go up — he isn’t actually shifting. Insisting on that is the real way to pin him down.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been repeating some false statements over and over again. (Video: Jenny Starrs, Michelle Lee/The Washington Post)


UPDATE: In the original version of the post, I said that Trump told NBC that taxes on the wealthy would only go up relative to his current proposal. In fact, he was only talking about taxes on businesses at that point. So I’ve adjusted the above for accuracy.

That said, on CNN this morning, Trump has now clarified that he did mean that taxes on the “wealthy,” too, will only go up relative to his current proposal:

Trump told CNN’s Chris Cuomo on “New Day” that he was referring to changes to “my tax proposal” — not the existing tax code — when he said rates could go up. He meant to communicate that he was open to top rates higher than those in his proposal as part of the negotiations to get tax reform passed, but also maintained they would remain lower than the current rate.
“Now, if I increase it on the wealthy, they’re still going to pay less than they pay now,” the presumptive Republican nominee said. “I’m not talking about increasing from this point. I’m talking about increasing from my tax proposal.”

There you have it. Trump is not proposing to raise taxes on the rich.

* NEVER TRUMP REPUBLICANS KEEP UP THE FIGHT: The Associated Press reports that the Never Trump forces are looking to use the party platform at the convention to keep Donald Trump from straying too far on policy:

Many Trump opponents see the Republican platform, the party’s statement of ideals and policy goals, as a place for a stand in Cleveland. The convention’s 2,472 delegates must approve the platform before formally anointing the presidential nominee….Many conservatives say they will use that vote to keep Trump from reshaping GOP dogma against abortion, for free trade and on other issues….”We’d want to make sure the platform is protected from Donald Trump,” said Rory Cooper, senior adviser for the Never Trump political committee.

The notion that the party platform needs to be “protected” from the GOP presidential nominee, at a time when parties seek to project unity, underscores just how messy all this could get.

* CORPORATIONS BALK AT GOP CONVENTION: The New York Times brings us this telling nugget about corporate reluctance to fund the GOP convention in Cleveland:

The large corporations that usually fund both parties’ conventions have grown wary of becoming involved. They are holding back on sponsorships, leaving Cleveland about $7 million short of its $64 million fund-raising goal just 10 weeks before the festivities begin….some previous corporate sponsors, like Coca-Cola and Walmart, have been reassessing their commitments.

It is going to be interesting to see where traditional GOP-aligned constituencies put their money in this cycle.

 * TRUMP PUTS GOP SENATE MAJORITY AT RISK: The Post has an interesting look at the verbal contortions that Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri is employing about Trump. The big picture:

Trump’s unexpected ascension has forced Republican lawmakers across the country…into verbal contortions as they try to distance themselves from Trump’s divisive antics without alienating the millions of GOP voters who nominated him….national Democrats believe they can expand their Senate map beyond the battleground states like Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio and New Hampshire to win the five seats they need. Key forecasters now think Republican incumbents in states like Arizona, North Carolina and Missouri, considered safe a year ago, are now vulnerable.

And remember, you can’t discount the possibility that Trump will say and do ever crazier things as this drags on.

* REPUBLICANS FACE BIG PROBLEM IN COURT FIGHT: A new poll commissioned by the White House-allied Americans United for Change finds that 53 percent of Americans do not trust Trump to nominate the next Supreme Court justice, versus only 38 percent who do.

If this is right, the position of GOP Senators — that Trump should pick the next justice if elected, but Obama shouldn’t — could grow less and less politically tenable, particularly if Trump does grow more loopy as the nominee.

* GOP SENATOR SIGNALS CRACK IN COURT FIGHT: On Meet the Press, GOP Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona was asked if Republicans should confirm Merrick Garland, now that Donald Trump is the GOP nominee. He replied:

“If we come to a point…where we’re going to lose the election, or we lose the election in November, then we ought to approve him quickly. Because I’m certain that he’ll be more conservative than a Hillary Clinton nomination comes January.”

And so, if it does become evident that Trump is losing — perhaps big — to Clinton, you may see more GOP Senators calling for confirmation.

 * CAN DEMS BROADEN ELECTORAL MAP AGAINST TRUMP? A new Channel 2 poll finds that Trump and Clinton are in a dead heat in Georgia, at 42-41. The Clinton campaign believes a Trump nomination could put demographically shifting states like Georgia and North Carolina in play. So keep an eye out for more polling such as this, which suggests this may be right.

* AND ONE PARTY HAS A MONOPOLY ON POLICY NONSENSE: Paul Krugman argues that Trump’s positions are more outlandish than those held by many Republicans, but not that much more outlandish:

When Mr. Trump talks nonsense, he’s usually just offering a bombastic version of a position that’s widespread in his party….Oh, and just for the record: No, it’s not the same on the other side of the aisle. You may dislike Hillary Clinton, you may disagree sharply with her policies, but she and the people around her do know their facts. Nobody has a monopoly on wisdom, but in this election, one party has largely cornered the market in raw ignorance.

As this campaign drags on, the Trump candidacy may make it a whole lot harder for the both-sides-to-blame snake oil peddlers to continue hawking their wares.