Whose opinion on taxes does President Donald Trump value above all others?
So far, this has been a tough question for Washington insiders to answer.
“We can only speculate, it’s very much of a crap shoot. Only the people in the room know who has the ear of the president,” said Robert Willens, an independent tax consultant.
Last week the three top White House officials on economics spoke separately at an international bankers conference and didn’t quibble with the description of duties laid out by organizers: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin as the chief architect of the tax bill, with Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, as the point-man on infrastructure and Mick Mulvaney, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, in charge of government spending and deficit reduction.
But when hearing this simple organizational chart, Chris Krueger, an analyst with Cowen and Company, laughed.
“Trump Kremlinology is non-consistent and non-linear by design,” Krueger said. And any tax cut bill has elements of all three of these silos, leaving open the question of who has the most influence, he said.
Questions about who Trump is listening to have become more urgent after the president announced last Friday that he would unveil a plan this week to give individuals and businesses a “massive tax cut.”
See: Trump Today on president’s interview with AP
Analysts agreed that the White House seems to be taking more of a leadership role on policy in the wake of the crash of health-care reform in late March.
Krueger said his money was on Mnuchin as having more sway with Trump.
Tax issues “has always been in the Treasury Department’s wheelhouse,” he said, although acknowledging that precedence has little meaning in the Trump White House.
Willens said he was betting on Cohn.
“I get the impression that Cohn is leading the charge on taxes. He seems to be holding himself out as the most influential voice on taxes,” he said.
Both Mnuchin and Cohn are both Goldman Sachs alums. Mnuchin worked at the firm for 17 years before leaving to run a bank and produce movies. Cohn stayed at Goldman and rose to second in charge to CEO Lloyd Blankfein.
Willens said there didn’t seem to be too much difference between Cohn’s and Mnuchin’s stance on taxes.
He said they would both be “sensitive to the fact that people need to see some benefits from this tax proposal” and it can’t be skewed toward the wealthy as Trump might want himself.
Both probably are resistent to a border-adjustment tax favored by House Republicans.
When all is said and done, “Trump is the chief,” Krueger said, who loves to dial the phone and find advice, rather than read a 200-page report from academics on the impact of any proposed tax.