Two days into his general election campaign, Donald Trump has already signaled he may abandon his positions on two major policy issues: a minimum wage increase and tax cuts for the rich.
Trump has never been known for his consistency: He took multiple positions on abortion in several days last month, and more recently shifted from promising to erase America’s $19 trillion debt in eight years to arguing it was actually a good time to borrow. Even on his signature issue of immigration, he’s flipped back and forth – sometimes in the same day – on whether he supports certain visas for legal workers.
Trump's willingness to blithely abandon past positions has made conservative activists deeply skeptical, but it also presents a general election challenge for Democrats: How do you hold a candidate accountable for his positions after he has looked Americans in the eyes during a debate and, with a straight face, denied he ever held contrary views?
Take taxes. Trump put out a tax plan last year that included major cuts to income, estate and business taxes for the ultra-wealthy along with far less generous cuts for the middle class. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimated his plan would cut the tax bill for the top 1 percent of earners by about $275,000 a year on average and for the top 0.1 percent by $1.3 million. The overall cost would be $9.5 trillion over a decade.
“I fight like hell to pay as little as possible,” Trump said at an event announcing his plan in September.
But that was the old Trump. Pressed by CNBC on Thursday as to how he could simultaneously brand himself as a populist who will take on wealthy elites while proposing sweeping tax cuts for billionaires, Trump backed away from his plan.
“I am not necessarily a huge fan of that,” he said. “I am so much more into the middle class who have just been absolutely forgotten in our country.”
Trump described his tax proposal, which was the most detailed policy paper he put out in the campaign, as merely a starting point for a future deal.
“You know, when you put out a tax plan, you are going to start negotiating,” he said. “You don’t say, 'OK, this is our tax plan, lots of luck, folks.' There will be negotiation back and forth. And I can see that going up, to be honest with you.”
It's important to note that these disproportionately large cuts for the rich aren't a minor side feature of his plan, they're the heart of it. A whopping 67 percent of the overall cost of his individual tax cuts would go to the top 20 percent of earners and 35 percent of it would go to the top 1 percent, according to the Tax Policy Center’s analysis.
Trump’s abrupt dismissal of his own tax plan, which he regularly cited on the campaign trail, came a day after he signaled a possible willingness to raise the federal minimum wage, which would be a major reversal from his stance in the primaries.
"I am open to doing something with it, because I don't like that,” Trump told CNN on Wednesday after being asked if he thought the $7.25 minimum wage should be increased.
Trump added that “you have to have something that you can live on” and that his willingness to entertain a wage increase showed he was “very different from most Republicans.” At the same time, he said he would prefer to try to raise wages through economic growth.
This was, to put it mildly, a complete flip flop from his position in the primaries. He repeatedly argued that raising the minimum would move jobs to countries like China. Speaking in the cold language of a businessman looking at his bottom line, Trump even seemed to indicate overall American wages, regardless of the law, were too generous already.
“Taxes too high, wages too high, we’re not going to be able to compete against the world,” Trump said in a November debate hosted by Fox Business.
Trump clarified afterwards that he did not believe American wages were too high, but he did make crystal clear he was fundamentally opposed to a minimum wage increase.
“We were talking about the minimum wage, and they said, ‘Should we increase the minimum wage?’ ” Trump told Fox News after the debate. “And I’m saying that if we’re going to compete with other countries we can’t do that because the wages would be too high.”
Trump reiterated on CNN Wednesday that he had concerns about the minimum wage growing "too much" on similar grounds. But his abrupt move toward a possible increase that he opposed in tough terms is a significant general election shift.
This story has been updated.