Trump administration officials said this week that the newly released tax plan wouldn't provide a tax cut for the rich — but then struggled to explain or defend that claim.
Congressional Republicans have generally shied away from making similar claims. Making tax reform about who gets what, rather than about overall economic growth, puts them on liberals' home turf. But President Trump and his top lieutenants boldly proclaimed that the tax plan would provide tax cuts for the middle class and not for the wealthy.
"Wealthy Americans are not getting a tax cut," White House National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn said Thursday on ABC's "Good Morning America."
"It's not a tax cut for the rich," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Fox Business.
Yet the White House could not square those statements from the provisions included in the Republican tax reform framework that would deliver large tax cuts to the rich.
That includes repeal of the estate tax, which kicks in only for bequests of more than roughly $11 million. It also includes a cut in the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent. Another is the creation of a new special tax rate for businesses organized as partnerships, sole proprietorships and LLCs, a measure that would mostly benefit the top 1 percent of earners.
On Friday, the Tax Policy Center, an outside think tank, released a report finding that the top 0.1 percent of earners would see the biggest after-tax income gains from the Republican tax plan.
"The short answer is we don't agree with them," Tax Policy Center co-director Eric Toder said, when asked about the White House's claim that the plan wouldn't provide a tax cut for the wealthy.
Other Republicans have not shied away from saying that they aim to provide tax cuts for people at all income levels.
In the past, they have rejected the idea that tax legislation should be judged by its effects on the progressivity of the code, focusing instead on its possible effects on economic growth.
"I do not like the idea of buying into these distributional tables," House Speaker Paul Ryan said in an interview with CNBC last year. "What you're talking about is what we call static distribution. It's a ridiculous notion. What it presumes is life in the economy is some fixed pie, and it's not going to change."
But the Trump White House did set that marker and subsequently struggled to defend it.
Pressed Thursday at the White House press briefing to defend the claims that the plan would not cut the taxes of high earners or Trump himself, Cohn deflected the questions, saying that families care more about their own taxes.
Asked to provide context on the officials' claims, a White House spokesman pointed to other Cohn comments on the claim that the tax plan won't benefit the wealthy during his ABC interview.
Cohn referred to the situation of a taxpayer in New York losing an existing tax deduction — likely a reference to the state and local deduction targeted by the White House. "That does not sound like a tax cut to me," Cohn said. He also added that the framework allows for the possibility of a top tax rate equivalent to today's 39.6 percent.
But those comments relate only to the income tax, not to the estate tax or the other breaks the wealthy stand to gain.
Asked to clarify further, the White House spokesman referred to the language in the framework guaranteeing that the bill will leave the tax code at least as progressive as it is today.
Still, that promise does not rule out a tax cut for high earners. Republicans could cut taxes for low earners even more than they do for the rich to arrive at a more progressive distribution.
Throughout the week, Republicans took fire from Democrats for the prospect of a plan that, as laid out so far, contains clear tax breaks for the wealthy, but more ambiguous benefits for the middle class.
"Paying for massive tax cuts for the wealthy at the direct expense of the middle class would cause great harm to our nation's economy and further exacerbate income inequality," said Rep. Richard Neal of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, in commenting on the analysis published by the Tax Policy Center. "To put it simply, this tax plan is a gut punch to the middle class and a golden goose for the rich."