President Donald Trump plans an aggressive travel schedule, taking him to as many as 13 states over the next seven weeks, to sell the idea of a tax overhaul as the administration tries to avoid repeating the communications failures of its attempt to repeal Obamacare.
With a make-or-break legislative battle looming on taxes, the White House is moving to clean up a disorganized communications operation, said four people familiar with the effort.
The strategy was revealed by top advisers to about 40 allies during a closed-door meeting last week. It calls for the president to visit states he won where a Democratic senator is up for re-election next year, including Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Montana, Ohio and Pennsylvania, said three people who attended. The people asked not to be identified discussing internal strategy.
In some instances, cabinet members will be deployed behind Trump in a “second wave” after the president’s speeches and town hall meetings to amplify his message.
White House officials held the private meeting on Sept. 8 to share details on its political strategy for tax legislation with allies who can deliver the message on cable news and in local media interviews. Separately, they’re prepping economists such as Arthur Laffer, Lawrence Kudlow and Stephen Moore, who served as informal advisers to Trump’s campaign.
Top communications staffers were at the meeting, including White House communications director Hope Hicks, counselor Kellyanne Conway, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Cliff Sims, a messaging strategist.
The administration plans to mount the full-bore sales campaign even though congressional Republicans and the White House haven’t yet determined key elements of the plan, including tax brackets for individuals, a corporate tax rate, what popular tax advantages will be eliminated or even whether the changes will be permanent or temporary. It’s unclear when additional details will emerge.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin revealed one bit of the administration’s planning Tuesday at CNBC’s Delivering Alpha conference in New York, saying negotiators are considering making new provisions of tax law retroactive to the start of the year. That, he said, “would be a big boon for the economy.”
White House officials have concluded that, even without a specific tax plan, Trump can build support early by making a broad case for lower rates, a simpler tax code and more incentives for multinational corporations based in the U.S. to bring home profits stashed overseas.
Trump has already tested this strategy with trips to two states, Missouri and North Dakota, that he carried in 2016 and that are represented by a Democratic senator facing re-election in 2018. He also plans to make time for another stop next week, even though he is scheduled to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York Sept. 19 through 21.
A lack of planning and coordination hampered the White House’s effort on health care and other legislative fights, said several people tapped by the White House to serve as surrogates on tax reform.
“It didn’t put them on the best footing to be successful,” said James Davis, executive vice president of Freedom Partners, an advocacy group partially funded by the Koch brothers. “This is vastly different—the level of engagement—than what we saw in health care.”
“One of the things we can learn from the last battle was that in many cases we did not get all of our allies on board with the path forward, so therefore the Republican base was splintered,” White House legislative director Marc Short told reporters Tuesday at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
“Team of Teams,” a management book by former general-turned-business consultant Stanley McChrystal, is serving as the template for retooling the White House communications operation. The White House is trying to overcome high staff turnover and past rivalries, with a new emphasis on good communication between various administration teams and with congressional leaders’ offices.
Hicks, who has been serving as interim communications director, will now lead the communications team on a permanent basis, two White House officials said. She’s viewed by staff as a strong leader because she is one of the president’s most trusted aides and therefore secure in her standing.
Fox News analyst Mercedes Schlapp is joining the team to help with long-term planning. Treasury Department spokesman Tony Sayegh has been detailed to the White House to help coordinate “all the moving pieces,” one official said. Shahira Knight, a tax aide with the National Economic Council, is interfacing with the communications team, speechwriters and the Hill. Steven Cheung will move to the press team to do rapid response.
The White House legislative affairs and political affairs teams are choosing the target states for Trump to visit. They’ve also put Republican-leaning states with GOP senators on the schedule to help Republicans stay motivated, one of the people familiar with the plan said.
“It’s only about the votes,” said Bryan Lanza, who was a deputy communications director for the Trump campaign.
In an effort to maximize the impact with local members of Congress, the administration is planning the president’s visits with an eye toward gaining additional attention in the run-up and afterward.
Although details of the tax plan remain fluid, the White House is planning for future speeches to highlight specific components of the proposed legislation. Those addresses will be drafted with input from the president himself, as part of a joint effort between top aide Stephen Miller’s speech-writing staff, the communications team, and economic advisers.
The White House plans to turn to prominent corporate chief executives and members of the public to reinforce Trump’s case for a tax overhaul through media interviews.
Administration officials were pleased with a Trump speech in North Dakota that highlighted the potential impact of a tax overhaul on Julie Ellingson, a local fourth-generation rancher who feared an estate tax might encourage her heirs to sell the farm. The anecdote generated additional coverage as local media interviewed Ellingson afterward.
Trump is expected to mix up the format at some of his events, hosting town halls and other more interactive sessions.
—With assistance from Saleha Mohsin