Remember the middle-class tax cut Donald Trump was so excited about in the weeks leading up to the midterm elections? When Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin sat down with Bloomberg News yesterday, he seemed reluctant to reflect on whether the proposal exists in reality.
He downplayed the prospect of the middle-class tax cut that Trump campaigned on in the days leading up to the midterm elections.
“I’m not going to comment on whether it is a real thing or not a real thing,” Mnuchin said in a roundtable interview Tuesday at Bloomberg’s Washington office. “I’m saying for the moment we have other things we’re focused on.”
It’s not at all common to hear cabinet secretaries refuse to comment on whether a president’s proposed tax policies are “real.”
But this is a unique set of circumstances. Circling back to our previous coverage, it was just two months ago when Trump first declared publicly that he and congressional Republicans were working “around the clock” on a “very major” new tax cut, which would be ready no later than Nov. 1, despite the fact that Congress was effectively out of session until after the elections.
Trump didn’t care. The plan, which appeared to exist only in his imagination, quickly became a major applause line at the president’s campaign rallies. Pressed by reporters for details, Trump boasted that he and his team had come up with a way to make his new tax plan “revenue neutral based on certain things.”
The Nov. 1 deadline came and went, and the plan the president promised to present never materialized. Trump had repeatedly touted a fictional policy as if it were real, urging voters to cast their ballots as if he were telling them the truth.
But what I found especially amazing about all of this was the effort from the president’s Republican allies to pretend he was telling the truth. The Washington Post had a great piece on this:
The mystery tax cut is only the latest instance of the federal government scrambling to reverse-engineer policies to meet Trump’s sudden public promises – or to search for evidence buttressing his conspiracy theories and falsehoods.
The Pentagon leaped into action to both hold a military parade and launch a “Space Force” on the president’s whims. The Commerce Department moved to create a plan for auto tariffs after Trump angrily threatened to impose them. And just this week, Vice President Pence, the Department of Homeland Security and the White House all rushed to try to back up Trump’s unsupported claim that “unknown Middle Easterners” were part of a migrant caravan in Central America – only to have the president admit late Tuesday that there was no proof at all.
“Virtually no one on the planet has the kind of power that a president of the United States has to scramble bureaucracies in the service of whim,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “Whatever Donald Trump wakes up and thinks about, or whatever comes to mind in the middle of a speech, actually has the reality in that it is actionable in some odd sense.”
In May, Anne Applebaum wrote, “[E]veryone understands now that policy, in Trump’s Washington, is often made on a whim – the president’s whim.”
The columnist was referring to foreign policy at the time, but it’s a sentiment with broad applicability. In traditional administrations, officials do their due diligence first, and once the work is complete, the president makes an announcement. In Donald Trump’s White House, it’s reversed: the president blurts out a poorly constructed thought, which in turn sends officials scrambling to construct a framework in service of the amateur’s idea.
Behold, 21st-century governing in a nation that’s supposed to be the world’s preeminent superpower.