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The tax plan that Donald Trump’s economic advisers unveiled last month was a bit of a mystery. After days of hype, the administration produced a single, generously spaced page of bullet points with about as much detail as your average grocery list. It was a lot like the barely-sketched-out proposal Trump campaigned on, but somehow a little less thorough. The White House tried to frame it as a declaration of “core principles,” but even that would have been an overly generous description. If a couple of college Republicans split a bottle of Tito’s and wrote a tax plan without access to the internet, their final product might have been almost as embarrassing. Almost.
Why would the White House even bother with such a half-assed effort? It was unclear. Yes, Trump was desperate to convey a sense of momentum before his first 100 days in office expired, but the one-pager mostly demonstrated his administration had nothing to show after months of supposed effort.
But today we have an answer. It comes toward the end of a deeply depressing Politico story about how President Trump’s aides are apparently trying to stop each other from handing our moody adolescent-in-chief news stories that might convince him to do something stupid, since he tends to react rashly to whatever thing he has read last. It turns out that Trump basically ordered up his tax plan after seeing a New York Times op-ed by the four horsemen of intellectually impaired supply-side fanaticism:
More recently, when four economists who advised Trump during the campaign — Steve Forbes, Larry Kudlow, Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore — wrote in a New York Times op-ed that “now is the time to move it forward with urgency,” someone in the White House flagged the piece for the president. [Fact checking note: Neither Steve Forbes nor Larry Kudlow are trained economists, and Stephen Moore only has as master’s.] Trump summoned staff to talk about it. His message: Make this the tax plan, according to one White House official present. The op-ed came out on a Wednesday. By Friday, Trump was telling the Associated Press, “I shouldn’t tell you this, but we’re going to be announcing, probably on Wednesday, tax reform,” startling his own aides who had not yet prepared such a plan. Sure enough, the next Wednesday Trump’s economic team was rolling out a tax plan that echoed the op-ed.
To be clear, Trump’s folks didn’t follow the op-ed’s advise word for word. Where Forbes, Kudlow, Laffer, and Moore wanted Trump to postpone individual-income-tax reform and just focus on cutting corporate taxes, the administration’s page o’ info dealt with both the personal and business side of the tax code. The point remains, however, that the president read an op-ed, got excited, and ordered his advisers to crank out something before anybody was remotely ready to do so.
While convincing the president to do the thing you just wrote is basically a pundit’s dream come true, it’s not how normal policymaking works in Washington, and for good reason: A policy team can’t really function if it has to upend its plans because the president read a newspaper article he liked. Beyond that, crafting a monumental piece of legislation like tax reform is complicated, and rolling out a laughably undercooked one-pager and pretending it’s an actual policy statement can only convince Congress it doesn’t need to take your input seriously. Not shockingly, after the Trump team released its plan, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a bland joint statement that amounted to patting the president on the head and saying, “we’ll take it from here.”
To sum up: Maybe the White House would function more smoothly if the president couldn’t read? Make of that what you will.