Confusion Continues on Trump’s Take on Border Adjustment

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By Kaustuv Basu and Aaron E. Lorenzo

Those looking for clarity from the Trump administration on border adjustments are still seeking it after a spate of contradictory news.

Interpreting President Donald Trump’s remarks and sometimes opposing verbiage from his deputies is risky business, according to lobbyists who spoke with Bloomberg BNA on condition of anonymity to protect client sensitivities.

The bottom line, they said, is that it simply is too early to know where Trump stands on House Republican leaders’ preferred plan to buttress their broad tax reform proposal with a provision to tax imports and exempt exports.

Not even House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) would say the plan has Trump’s backing yet.

“I don’t want to speak for the president,” Brady told Bloomberg BNA after addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference meeting Feb. 24, a day after Trump said in a Reuters interview that U.S. employment would benefit from some sort of tax.

“I certainly support a form of tax on the border because everybody else does, Trump said in the interview, adding that “companies are going to come back here, they’re going to build their factories and they’re going to create a lot of jobs and there’s no tax.”

Continued Confidence

Brady was unwavering in his expectations, saying he remains confident that border adjustments would be part of the final tax reform package.

“I think we’re trying to achieve the exact same goal, which is to bring American jobs back to the United States and have everyone play by the same tax rules here,” Brady said. “I’m encouraged by it because we’re headed in the same direction.”

In his own speech earlier in the day at the CPAC meeting, Trump said nothing about border adjustments.

“We’re going to massively lower taxes on the middle class, reduce taxes on American business and make our tax code more simple and much more fair for everyone, including the people and the business,” Trump said.

To Recap

But Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin cast some doubts in separate interviews on CNBC and Fox Business Network the same day, noting “concerns” with the border adjustment idea while also saying it remains part of the discussion.

Then the news outlet Axios reported Feb. 24 that the head of the president’s National Economic Council, Gary Cohn, another key economic adviser to Trump, opposed the border adjustment plan before the Trump administration later denied the assertion the same day.

White House officials and House Republicans will continue to work in concert to arrive at an agreement, Brady said.

“We’re narrowing the differences,” he said. “We continue to work on ways to improve almost every element of it, and we’re having really good healthy discussions with the Trump economic team.”

Wait and See

But those expecting a firm position from the Trump administration on border adjustability will just have to wait and see for now.

The president’s address during the Joint Session of Congress Feb. 28 remains another window of opportunity for him to address the controversial issue outside of his usual paeans to tax reform.

“White House support for the border adjustment tax would be a game change. (translation: it’s on the ropes),” a tax lobbyist said in an e-mail. “I also thought Mnuchin was pretty forthcoming when he said the August recess is an ambitious deadline for enacting tax reform and very well could slip until later this year.”

“And if they’re struggling with the stuff Republicans should be able to agree on, wait until we get to trade and infrastructure. Republicans are learning that governing is difficult,” the lobbyist said.

Another lobbyist said people were reading too much into Trump’s comments about the tax on Feb. 23. “Political staff like it. Economic policy staff hate it,” the lobbyist said. “I’m told by White House staff that he’s going to stay out of the fight.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Kaustuv Basu in Washington at kbasu@bna.com and Aaron E. Lorenzo in Washington at aaron@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Meg Shreve at mshreve@bna.com

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