IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Trump's tax-cut flip-flop turns out to be a mirage

If you thought Donald Trump flip-flopped on tax policy this week, I'm afraid you got taken for a ride.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump participates in the first presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena August 6, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump participates in the first presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena August 6, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. 
I've lost count of how many reports I've seen the past few days insisting that Donald Trump "flip-flopped" on tax breaks for the wealthy. It even came up during the Republican's discussion last night with Fox News' Bill O'Reilly. From the transcript via Lexis Nexis:

O'REILLY: I was a little upset because my taxes are going to go up if you win. I'm going to be paying more now. TRUMP: That is wrong. No, no, it was incorrectly. If you read the "Wall Street Journal" front-page today, they covered it exactly correct. I am going -- I have the biggest tax cut of anybody running by far and that includes the 16 [other Republican candidates] that are vanquished. Okay? And nobody even came close.

The GOP candidate, pushing back against several days' worth of reporting, once again reiterated his plan to reduce tax rates for "everybody." Trump said he personally wouldn't mind paying a little more, but that's not his plan. He added last night, "The question was asked, 'Would I mind paying more?' I wouldn't mind. But the fact is that everybody is going to be paying less [under the Trump plan]."
Over the weekend, Trump said about taxes on the wealthy, "On my plan they're going down. But by the time it's negotiated, they'll go up." The final part of that quote led many in the media to pounce, saying the candidate now plans to raise taxes on the wealthy.
But that's not at all what he meant. As we discussed on Monday, when Trump talks about being open to taxes going "up" for the rich, he's talking about changes relative to his written proposal. It's a reference to the negotiations he expects to have with Congress, not a change from the status quo. He was explicit on this point on Monday morning, explaining, "Now, if I increase it on the wealthy, they're still going to pay less than they pay now. I'm not talking about increasing from this point. I'm talking about increasing from my tax proposal."
What's more, Politico reports today that the Trump campaign has reached out to some far-right economists to "tweak" his current tax plan -- while ensuring that tax breaks for the wealthy remain a key provision of the blueprint.
If you thought Trump flip-flopped on tax policy this week, I'm afraid you got taken for a ride.
Following up on our coverage from Monday, I sympathize with journalists who fell for Trump's trick; the candidate has deliberately used misleading language that has muddled the conversation. Indeed, the presumptive Republican nominee is so often incoherent when describing policy details, it's easy to get confused.
But when it comes to taxes and the wealthy, Trump has already released a written plan that proposes massive tax breaks for the wealthy. When he recently talked about rates going "up," Trump clarified soon after that he wasn't talking about increases relative to current policy.
And now he's brought in high-profile, supply-side economists to touch up Trump's tax plan, while protecting tax breaks for the rich.
The recent flip-flop, in other words, seems to be a mirage. For Trump, the debate is about the size of the tax break for the wealthy: he believes it should be a massive tax cut, but he's open to accepting a slightly less massive tax cut.
As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent put it on Monday, "There is, understandably, a strong temptation on the part of political and media observers to catch candidates out for flip-flopping or changing their positions. In the case of Trump, however, the eagerness to do this risks obfuscating more than it clarifies."
The key is to look past ambiguous phrasing from a clumsy candidate who doesn't know what he's talking about and focus in on the details, which on this issue, are actually quite clear.
Postscript: Nearly a month ago, NBC's Savannah Guthrie asked Trump, "Do you believe in raising taxes on the wealthy?" He replied, "I do." The problem, in this case, is not a flip-flop, but rather, a deception. Whether or not Trump "believes in" raising taxes, that's not what he's actually proposing to do if elected. He seems to realize economic populism gets applause from voters, but the Republican candidate has nevertheless repeatedly made clear he's committed to tax breaks for the wealthy, and this week, pushed back hard against any suggestions to the contrary.