WASHINGTON — President Trump called Wednesday’s passage of a sweeping tax bill an “extraordinary victory” for Americans. Many tax analysts say it’s also a big win for the billionaire president, because he stands to personally gain millions of dollars in tax breaks stemming from a last-minute change in the legislation.
The president and his top aides have insisted — and continue to do so — that the tax bill will not give Trump’s pocketbook a major boost.
“This is going to cost me a fortune, this thing, believe me,” Trump said during a speech pitching the tax bill in Missouri late last month. “Believe me, this is not good for me.”
But language slipped into the bill in conference committee by House and Senate negotiators clearly benefits Trump’s vast real estate empire, and gives him a large tax break not available to the vast majority of Americans. Tax experts can’t calculate exactly how much of a break the legislation would personally deliver to Trump because he won’t release his tax returns, the only Oval Office occupant in decades to refuse to do so.
“But the notion that he would not be benefited [by the Republican tax overhaul] is almost preposterous,” said Steven Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. “This change, late at night, was a big jackpot, a win for the president.’’
Some Democrats are already beginning to make the billionaire president a symbol of the Republicans’ tax overhaul, which heaps the majority of its benefits on corporations, partnerships, and wealthy individuals.
“This president shows us time and time again just where his priorities are,” Massachusetts Representative Katherine Clark, who holds a leading strategic position on her party’s bid to retake the House in 2018, said in an interview. “And those priorities are taking care of and increasing his own wealth, and using his presidency to do so.”
A major reason Trump will reap financial rewards can be traced back to a last-minute deal made behind closed doors by House and Senate GOP negotiators. The change bestowed a lucrative new tax break to owners of “pass-through” business partnerships that own buildings and other valuable capital assets, even if they don’t pay wages to many employees. That type of real estate business forms a key part of the Trump family’s enormous wealth.
Because of the deal, Trump could pay an effective tax rate of 29.6 percent on income generated by real estate partnerships, down from the current top rate of 39.6 percent. That 29.6 percent effective rate is calculated by taking the new law’s top individual income rate of 37 percent and from there applying a 20 percent deduction that will be newly available for pass-through partnerships.
A White House official said Wednesday that the Trump administration had no role in crafting the deal for real estate partnerships.
Trump’s lawyers have said the president has about 500 pass-through business partnerships. Without his tax returns, it’s impossible to know for sure how many will qualify for the lower rate, or how many he can restructure to qualify for it, “but presumably a large bulk of his pass-through income will be eligible for a 20 percent rate cut,” said Rosenthal.
The change could save Trump roughly $15 million a year in taxes, said Seth Hanlon, a tax expert with the liberal Center for American Progress. That’s based on a very rough estimate of Trump’s annual pass-through income based on his financial disclosures, and an assumption that all of that income would qualify for the lower rates under the GOP overhaul.
Without Trump’s income tax return, it’s impossible to give more than a rough estimate, Hanlon said.
Trump and his family stand to benefit from other features of the bill, including changes to the estate tax. While Republicans fell short of their goal of repealing the estate tax on inheritances completely, the final bill doubles the amount of an estate that is exempt, from $11.2 million to $22.4 million for couples.
Overall, millionaires and billionaires make out well under the bill. The Tax Policy Center estimates that by 2027, 83 percent of the legislation’s benefits will go to the top 1 percent.
Some Democrats are pointing to Trump’s personal windfall to underscore their broader point, that the bill is a huge giveaway to the wealthy and powerful corporate interests, with only paltry — and temporary — tax scraps for middle-class America.
“There are only two places where America is popping champagne — the White House and the corporate board rooms, including Trump Tower,” Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer told reporters after the House sent the tax bill to the president Wednesday for his signature.
“The president does very well under this bill. Most of his Cabinet does very well under this bill. A large percentage of his contributors do very well under this bill,” Schumer said.
Trump’s fortunes, and those of other real estate moguls, got the last-minute boost as House and Senate GOP negotiators hashed out differences between their versions of the legislation in conference committee.
Many Republican lawmakers wanted to level the playing field between partnerships and corporations, which are getting a straightforward rate cut to 21 percent from the current 35 percent. Corporations pay a direct corporate tax; partners in limited liability corporations and other partnerships pay taxes on income from the business via their personal income tax.
The Senate-passed tax bill included certain limitations on how much income partnerships could claim under the new 20 percent deduction. The idea was to benefit partnerships with lots of employees — these partnerships create jobs — and deny the benefit to those who would try to game the new tax rules just to get a nice income tax break.
During the closed-door negotiations on a final bill, Republicans changed the Senate provision to provide an alternative limit that allowed business with very valuable assets — like buildings — to partake in the 20 percent deduction. The Trump empire and other real estate companies across the country were suddenly included in the huge windfall.
The quiet shift, first revealed by International Business Times, led to an outcry among Democrats and other critics.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch , who negotiated the compromise between the House and Senate bills, said that the original House bill had a similar, though not exact, provision to help capital-intensive businesses. He said it was “false” to suggest it was crafted to benefit real estate developers specifically. The final language was “derived from the House provision and is the product of a negotiation between the House and Senate tax-writing committees. It is that simple,” the Utah Republican wrote.
House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady literally pointed to himself when reporters asked who pushed for the real estate break. He said his fellow GOP House negotiators also pushed for it because they think it will help boost economic growth.
“We want to encourage businesses, pass-through businesses that do a lot of capital investment for growth — energy, advanced manufacturing, telecom. They may be making major investments but without tons of workers that accompany that. And yeah, real estate from the sense that you’re building that industrial park, or a research facility, those should be the types of capital investments we reward and encourage,” Brady said.
Massachusetts Representative Richard Neal, the top Ways and Means Democrat, said that he was shocked at the size of break given to real estate pass-throughs in the final bill, and that the small break in the original House bill was nowhere near as generous.
“It struck me as a little unusual,” Neal said. “There wasn’t even anyone knocking down the doors, in terms of lobbyists, saying that we should consider this.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren, another Massachusetts Democrat, also slammed the Republicans’ deal.
“Donald Trump refuses to release his taxes, so no one knows how much he stands to benefit from this,” Warren said. “If his accountants and lawyers had handwritten a bill to benefit him, then it would not have looked much different.”