President Trump unveiled his long-awaited tax plan Wednesday during a speech in Indiana. He asserted without qualification that the proposal — still only roughly outlined — would be good for middle-class Americans and not the wealthy.
“Our framework includes our explicit commitment that tax reform will protect low-income and middle-income households,” Trump said. “Not the wealthy and well-connected. They can call me all they want; I’m doing the right thing.”
He then added: “And it’s not good for me, believe me.”
“Believe me” is a go-to Trump tic that he uses mostly to emphasize a point. He has repeatedly demonstrated that believing the things he says can be a fraught proposition, but he doesn’t generally say “believe me” because he’s explicitly asking Americans to believe him.
In this case, though, he was.
Americans have absolutely no way of knowing whether a revision to the tax code advocated by Trump would be good for him or not, for the simple reason that we have no idea what taxes Trump pays. You’ve heard this a million times by now, this complaint that Trump never released his tax returns, in a break with 40 years of precedent from presidential candidates. But now more than ever, it’s important to reiterate:
Trump never released his tax returns in a break with 40 years of precedent from presidential candidates.
Had he done so, we might not know every way in which the tax reform proposal that ultimately ends up being voted on in Congress affects Trump — his tax returns, like his business empire, are massively and intentionally complex. But we’d certainly have a much better sense of what the effects might be. (A truly transparent president would go out of his way to ensure that the effects of the legislation were known, but that’s certainly not a standard we’d expect from Trump at this point.)
There are certain components that will obviously benefit the Trump family (at least two of whom work directly for Trump). Repealing the estate tax, for example, would save the Trump estate half a billion dollars by Bloomberg’s estimate — money that would then go to his heirs.
What’s more, as Wonkblog reports, Trump’s vague articulation that he’s protecting the non-rich but not the rich is not borne out by the details. “The wealthy get a tax cut,” our Heather Long writes. “They will pay only 35 percent on their income taxes (down from 39.6 percent). At the moment, this rate applies to any income above about $418,000.” If you make $1,000,000, in other words, you’ll save about $27,700 a year in taxes. What’s more, business gets a significant cut, which obviously benefits Trump through the Trump Organization (which still puts money in his pocket).
(Incidentally, the people who are most likely to think big business needs a tax cut are rich Trump supporters.)
Trump asks us to take on faith that these public provisions will somehow work to his detriment without explaining why. We’d be foolish to do so.
There’s another reason that we should not believe what Trump says, by the way. On the campaign trail during the 2016 primaries, Trump made similar claims about how he was turning away the calls of the wealthy and well-connected.
“A lobbyist, a person, very good person, came to me, offered $5 million, ‘please, I want to give you $5 million for the campaign,'” Trump said during a news conference in August 2015. “I said I have no interest in taking that. In fact, it’s the first time I think he’s ever been turned down. . . . He’ll be coming to me and he’ll be saying in two years, in one year, in four years, he’ll be representing a country, maybe a company or maybe a person — I’m not doing anything for him.”
He told similar stories at other points. And then, once the general election rolled around, he backtracked, deciding that he was going to accept contributions from lobbyists and super PACs. For his inauguration, he accepted huge checks from rich people (including millions from NFL team owners).
In other words, Trump knows that it’s smart to say that he’s rejecting the rich and helping the poor. But he’s also shown that he’s willing to ignore that rhetoric when he wants to.
There’s simply no reason to trust Trump that his tax reform policy won’t be steered by the wealthy and won’t benefit him personally. About the only consistent elements of his proposals over time have been elimination of the estate tax and a drop in the business tax rate — both things that will benefit him or his family.
The entire point of releasing tax returns is so that the public can know if the president is acting in his own financial interest — self-dealing, if you will. But, then, we also already know that he is benefiting financially from the presidency to some extent, meaning that one should be cautious in even giving him the benefit of the doubt on that point.
Trump has to do a lot more than offer an empty assurance before we grant him the favor of assuming this legislation won’t be to his benefit. Believe me.
This article was corrected to apply to the reduced tax rate for high earners to only the amount over $418,000.