President Trump surprised everyone by announcing that he’d take a break from pretending he had a [fill in the blank] plan to pretend he had a [fill in the blank] plan, instead.
That has been the 32-word history of Trump’s first 100 days. This week, those blanks are “health-care reform” and “tax reform.” Last week, they were “tax reform” and “health-care reform.” And the one before that, they were, you guessed it, “health-care reform” and “tax reform.” The problem, you see, is that Trump doesn’t know enough about what he’s trying to negotiate to, well, negotiate. The result is an ouroboros of incompetence that even the most naive people inclined to take Trump’s words at face value — Wall Street traders — have begun to tune out.
Take taxes. It wasn’t long ago that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told the Financial Times that it was “highly aggressive to not realistic” to expect a bill to pass before August. A few days later, though, Trump, to the consternation of his advisers, said that they would unveil the details of their plan by this Wednesday. Now, if this sounds as though Trump just wanted to be able to say that he had “done” taxes before his first 100 days had passed, well, that’s because it was. And so the administration has scrambled to come up with the outline of a tax plan that’s more or less the same as the one that has been on Trump’s website for months now: cutting the corporate tax rate from 35 to 15 percent, slashing individual tax rates across the board, and expanding the standard deduction, big-league.
This attempt to create the illusion of progress is a longtime Trump tactic. As Business Insider’s Josh Barro points out, Trump’s “The Art of the Deal” brags about how he supposedly tricked Holiday Inn into going into business with him on a casino by having construction crews dig holes and fill them up, making it look as if he was already building it when he wasn’t. But assuming that worked then — maybe they thought it was a good deal except for the fact that Trump’s workers seemed so inept? — it can’t now. That’s because you can’t threaten to go it alone in government, as you can in business. Trump can work on his tax plan as much as he likes, but he still can’t pass it without Congress. And, whether or not he has noticed, they have their own ideas, which they’re not going to give up just because he made a big to-do about having some of his own.
It’s not just that Trump doesn’t understand how to negotiate. It’s that he doesn’t understand what he’s trying to negotiate, either. That has been pretty clear when it comes to health care, where Trump knows so little about his own plan that he doesn’t realize he has been trying to get Republicans who think it’s too stingy to agree with Republicans who think it isn’t stingy enough.
But the same sort of thing is true of taxes. The big question there is whether Republicans want to try to permanently reduce tax rates a little or temporarily reduce them a lot. That’s due to the rules for what’s known as budget reconciliation. Republicans can pass a bill with 51 votes rather than the 60 it takes to break a filibuster — a bar they can’t clear — if, and only if, their bill doesn’t add to the deficit after a decade. Trump, though, has proposed a corporate tax cut that’s too big to pay for and too long-lasting to work with the reconciliation rules. Indeed, the scorekeepers at the Joint Committee on Taxation say that even a three-year corporate tax cut would cost money outside the 10-year budget window. Trump, in other words, has started with a nonstarter. Bad!
The only surprising thing about any of this is that anyone is surprised by it anymore. After all, Trump hasn’t filled most of the spots — the undersecretaries and assistant secretaries you can’t brag about appointing in your first 100 days — who do the actual work of making policy. Even if he had, though, Trump still wouldn’t understand those policies well enough himself to be able to horse-trade their way through Congress. Which, of course, assumes that Trump does in fact know how to make deals, great or otherwise, when the available evidence suggests that he does not.
And so that leaves us with the second part of the history of Trump’s first 100 days:
President Trump tweeted that his [fill in the blank] plan is going to be [better/the best], that people are saying [great/terrific] things about how [great/terrific] it is, that they shouldn’t believe the fake media that say [it isn’t close to passing/would cost 24 million people their health insurance/would blow up the deficit], and that it’s all going so well that, for now, he’s going back to work on his plan to [fill in the blank].