WASHINGTON — President Trump’s promise to enact a sweeping overhaul of the tax code is in serious jeopardy nearly 100 days into his tenure, and his refusal to release his own tax returns is emerging as a central hurdle to another faltering campaign promise.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer emphasized again on Monday that Trump has no intention of making them public. Democrats have seized on that, uniting around a pledge not to cooperate on any tax code rewrite unless they know specifically how that revision would benefit the billionaire president and his family.
And a growing roster of more than a dozen Republican lawmakers now say Trump should release them.
“If he doesn’t release his returns, it is going to make it much more difficult to get tax reform done,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, pointing out that the president has significant conflicts of interest on issues such as taxation of the real estate industry and elimination of the estate tax.
With Republicans sharply divided on a path forward and the administration unable to come up with its own plan, the Democratic resistance is only the newest impediment.
As a candidate, Trump declared that he understood the complex US tax laws “better than anyone who has ever run for president” and that he alone could fix them. But it is increasingly unlikely there will be a simpler system, or even lower tax rates, at this time next year.
The Trump administration’s tax plan, promised in February, has yet to materialize; a House Republican plan has bogged down, taking as much fire from conservatives as from liberals; and Monday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told The Financial Times the administration’s goal of getting a tax plan signed by August was “not realistic.”
A tax overhaul could be the next Trump campaign promise that falters before it even gathers much steam.
“If they have no plan, they can’t negotiate,” said Larry Kudlow, the economist who helped Trump devise his campaign tax plan. “In that case, tax reform is dead.”
The first pitfall for Trump was the debacle of his health care plan, which burned political capital and precious days off the legislative calendar. But his administration saw repealing taxes imposed by the Affordable Care Act as an important step that would allow for deeper tax cuts later. Trump even suggested he might return to health care before tax cuts.
Republican leaders also failed to create momentum. House Speaker Paul Ryan built a tax blueprint around a “border adjustment” tax that would have imposed a steep levy on imports, hoping to encourage domestic manufacturing while raising revenue that could be used to lower overall tax rates. But it has been assailed by retailers, oil companies, and the billionaire Koch brothers. With no palpable support in the Senate, it appears nearly dead.
Ryan admitted Republicans were not all on the same page.
The president’s own vision is muddled, at best. He has called for taxing companies that move operations abroad, waffled on the border tax and, last week, called for a “reciprocal” tax that would match the import taxes other countries impose on the United States.
But Trump’s own taxes have provided crucial leverage for his opponents. More than 100,000 took to the streets over the weekend around the country, demanding the president release his returns. Tax legislation, they say, could be a plot by Trump to get even richer.
“When they talk about tax reform, are they talking about cutting Donald Trump’s taxes by millions of dollars a year?” asked Ezra Levin, of the Tax March executive committee.