×

Two Bankers Are Selling Trump’s Tax Plan. Is Congress Buying?

Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Treasury secretary.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Treasury secretary.

WASHINGTON — Gary D. Cohn and Steven Mnuchin have spent months behind closed doors with Republican congressional leaders sketching the contours of an elaborate and politically difficult tax overhaul that is President Trump's top priority.

Mr. Trump hopes to jump-start the process on Wednesday, traveling to Springfield, Mo., for a speech calling for large tax reductions and a long-anticipated revamping of the code. But he has largely left it to Mr. Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, and Mr. Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, both new to government, to devise and execute a winning legislative strategy. And their involvement has some conservatives for whom tax cuts are a signal issue deeply concerned.

"They are facing big frustration among policy makers, the business community and investors that there's been months of inaction, and the perception out there among investors is they don't think this is going to get this done this year," said Stephen Moore, a Heritage Foundation economist who advised Mr. Trump during the campaign.

More from The New York Times:
Some Democrats See Tax Overhaul as a Path to Taxing Carbon
Trump on Taxes
White House Scaling Back Goals for Business Tax Cuts

Already, their ambitions have drifted from the president's original mark: A 15 percent corporate tax rate proposed in April is now likely to move to the 20 to 25 percent range, say two people familiar with the officials' recent thinking. And a proposed 35 percent ceiling on the highest personal income tax rate could be shelved altogether, leaving the current 39.6 percent cap intact.

For Mr. Cohn and Mr. Mnuchin, quiet competitors since their days as new partners at Goldman Sachs more than two decades ago, the task is a consequential test of whether real-world experience in finance has equipped them to carry out a delicate political negotiation, and whether two Jewish New Yorkers who have been lavish supporters of Democrats can succeed in Mr. Trump's Washington.

"Goldman has thrived by hiring strong individuals with very different backgrounds and putting them together on a team," Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, said in an email. "Gary and Steven are both steeped in that tradition from their years working side by side on the trading floor — not a bad training ground for the pressure cooker that is Washington."

Behind the scenes, there have been differences of style and substance.

Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Treasury secretary, speaks as Gary Cohn, director of the U.S. National Economic Council, left, listens during the White House press briefing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, April 26, 2017.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Treasury secretary, speaks as Gary Cohn, director of the U.S. National Economic Council, left, listens during the White House press briefing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, April 26, 2017.

Mr. Cohn — who wears monogrammed shirts, gold cuff links and a Rolex watch next to a brown leather bracelet with a "peace" tag and a black beaded one with silver skulls — has brought a brash style and a take-no-prisoners approach to the tax issue. He is facile with data and has a keen understanding of the economy, according to people who have attended meetings with him, and he moved quickly to hire several experienced and well-connected aides — including Jeremy Katz, his deputy, and Shahira Knight, a former tax-writing congressional aide — who have been drivers in the private talks with Congress.

But Mr. Cohn has also rankled lawmakers in both parties with comments that they suggest betray a lack of understanding about the political process and the intricate policy trade-offs that undergird a large tax rewrite. In a meeting with a group of Senate Democrats this year, according to people who were present, Mr. Cohn jokingly dismissed concerns about the wisdom and cost of repealing the estate tax, remarking, "Only morons pay the estate tax."

A source close to Mr. Cohn denied that he had used the word, saying he had been referring to "rich people with really bad tax planning."

Mr. Mnuchin, bespectacled and crisply formal in his slim-cut business suits, is more reserved and careful than Mr. Cohn. A quick study on economic policy matters, he talks frequently about his level of access to the president and the strength of their relationship, making it clear to members of Congress as well as tax lobbyists that he has Mr. Trump's ear and is speaking for him on the tax plan. Mr. Mnuchin has been deferential to lawmakers, indulging House Republicans for weeks in talks about their idea of imposing a 20 percent border adjustment tax even after it became clear that the idea did not have enough support to be included in the plan.

"Gary is pretty direct — he's come to the whip team meeting and he's probably less politically correct, and I use that in a loving way," said Representative Pat Tiberi, Republican of Ohio and a member of the Ways and Means Committee. "The secretary is more correct. They complement one another."

Early in their respective roles on Trump's team, the two appeared to be jockeying for position in what one person who observed the dynamics described as an "unholy alliance."

During the transition, Mr. Mnuchin made a surprise visit to Mr. Cohn's job interview with Mr. Trump, greeting Mr. Cohn in the 26th-floor lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan to escort him to the president-elect.

In meetings early this year before Mr. Mnuchin was confirmed, Mr. Cohn told key lawmakers that he would be leading the tax effort for the administration as the chief architect of Mr. Trump's economic policies, according to several people familiar with the conversations who spoke about them on the condition of anonymity. Mr. Mnuchin appeared "zen" when he learned of the meetings, said one person who was aware of the tension, assuring staff members that Mr. Cohn, whose job does not require Senate confirmation, was doing the right thing.

"They are working together," Mr. Moore said of Mr. Cohn and Mr. Mnuchin. "But there's no question they're competitors."

Their differences extend beyond style or policy. After the racially charged violence at a neo-Nazi and white supremacist march this month in Charlottesville, Va., the two men had vastly different reactions to the president's equivocating response. Mr. Cohn condemned the administration's approach in a newspaper interview, letting it be known that he considered resigning over the issue, while Mr. Mnuchin vigorously defended Mr. Trump, saying he never dreamed of quitting.

Mr. Cohn and Mr. Mnuchin declined to be interviewed for this story.

Aides to both deny any ill will or any attempt at one-upsmanship, describing any friction as a result of stylistic differences. And the two men have been virtually inseparable while working on the tax rewrite, talking at least once a day, dining together more than once a month at such popular Washington spots as Rasika and the Trump International Hotel, and keeping a singular focus on achieving the biggest tax cut possible in line with Mr. Trump's desires. Mr. Cohn was invited to Mr. Mnuchin's recent wedding to the actress Louise Linton, said a person who was aware of the invitation, although he did not attend.

The men have tried to avoid the mistakes that plagued the collapsed effort to repeal and replace the health care law, placing a premium on communicating with key members of Congress and finding a common approach to which the White House and Republican lawmakers could agree.

"I credit Secretary Mnuchin and Director Cohn for playing a key role in the work we have done to unify behind bold principles for tax reform, which really wasn't the case in health care," said Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

They recently intensified their efforts to present a united front. Last week, Tony E. Sayegh Jr., a top public affairs official at Treasury, was detailed to the West Wing to work with Hope Hicks, the interim White House communications director, on messaging for the tax push.

"This is an administration where everyone is celebrating Festivus every day and airing grievances, and there's none of that here," said Rohit Kumar, a tax specialist at the accounting firm PwC and a former deputy chief of staff to Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader.

Still, Mr. Cohn and Mr. Mnuchin have yet to produce the kind of comprehensive plan Mr. Trump has promised. A hastily compiled one-page document they presented in April proposing an array of tax cut bullet points in different fonts and type styles drew private ridicule from lawmakers in both parties and tax specialists throughout Washington as the mark of an administration wholly unprepared for the heavy legislative lift it was about to undertake.

Gary Cohn, director of the U.S. National Economic Council, speaks during a discussion at the Institute of International Finance (IIF) policy summit in Washington, D.C.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Gary Cohn, director of the U.S. National Economic Council, speaks during a discussion at the Institute of International Finance (IIF) policy summit in Washington, D.C.

In mid-May, a few weeks after the one-page principles were issued, Treasury officials presented a more refined version to the president; his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner; Stephen K. Bannon, the former chief strategist; and others: a 20 percent corporate tax rate and a 35 percent ceiling on the personal tax rate, said one person briefed on it, insisting on anonymity to describe private deliberations. Mr. Cohn, who attended the meeting but let Mr. Mnuchin and his deputies take the lead, had approved the plan beforehand with little argument, this person added.

But in the weeks since then, the process has not always been smooth. Ms. Knight has advocated the elimination of the corporate interest deduction as a way of offsetting the cost of tax cuts without adding to the deficit, while Mr. Mnuchin has resisted the move, which would be costly to Wall Street firms and the real estate industry, according to two people briefed on the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks were private.

Mr. Cohn's staff felt frustrated to discover that Craig Phillips, the Treasury counselor most involved with planning structural reforms to the government-backed mortgage buyers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, had been meeting with key players in the private sector to discuss potential policy without alerting the National Economic Council.

Those divisions are slight compared with the vast disagreements between Democrats and Republicans on taxes, which the two have so far done little to bridge.

"You get the sense that they think that somehow when they offer up all of this bravado about the deadlines and the plans that all of this is going to pop out of the oven like a cake fully baked," said Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, the ranking member of the Finance Committee who has co-written two bipartisan tax rewrite proposals but said he has yet to be asked to meet one-on-one with either Mr. Mnuchin or Mr. Cohn.

"From the standpoint of getting real tax reform, which takes buy-in from both sides, they have just frittered months and months away needlessly," Mr. Wyden said.

A White House spokesman said Mr. Cohn and Mr. Mnuchin have already met with Finance Committee members in larger groups and plan on reaching out to Mr. Wyden and other key Democrats in September, once their legislative push on taxes begins.