Whenever Donald Trump gets a chance to get on stage in front of red-hat insurgents and would-be insurgents, one of his standard tropes is to talk about all his accomplishments. But unless Trump wants to list all the environmental and safety rules he struck down, or the hundreds of thousands of people who died from his purposeful downplaying of the pandemic, there’s really only one thing on his “done” list: the 2017 tax cut.
It was obvious from the beginning that almost all the benefits from the tax cut would go to a handful of wealthy corporations and individuals. It was also clear from the beginning that the tax cut would punch a massive hole in the budget, leaving everyone else to pick up the tab as billionaires carried off their stacks of cash. All of that has proven to be completely true: With the Trump cut in hand, major corporations have walked away year after year paying tiny amounts, and often paying nothing at all.
If the idea that the tax cut benefited the wealthy was obvious, what was less obvious was just how much of a custom fit this bill really is. Working from IRS files, ProPublica shows how the bill was hand-tooled not just to benefit billionaires in general, but to specifically include items that benefited individual Republican backers. That includes a last-minute addition pushed by Sen. Ron Johnson that generated a massive windfall for just two people—two people who together shoved $20 million into Trump’s campaign.
In the very first year of Trump’s tax cut, just 82 households pocketed over $1 billion in savings. That’s because the bill provided those with 10-digit wealth with a “diverse menu of options” to avoid paying taxes. Even the deep cuts in rates for both corporations and individuals was deceptive, because the real design of the bill generated exactly what resulted: massive corporations and the wealthiest people on the planet paying no taxes at all.
The process by which the bill was built meant starting on a core of Republican themes including dropping taxes across the board and giving the richest corporations a rate equivalent to some of the poorest individuals. Then it went through hundreds of hands within the House and Senate, all of whom made it worse in ways that were designed to benefit those who already had the fattest bank accounts on the planet. Even then, a “flurry of midnight deals and last-minute insertions” generated a bill that was more than a tax cut, it was a money pipeline—one with outlet aimed at some very specific pockets.
For those who benefited from the bill’s modifications, the collective millions spent on campaign donations and lobbying were minuscule compared with locking in years of enormous tax savings.
The Republican Party exists to service these people, and Trump’s tax bill gave them exactly what they wanted. At this point, Republicans exist only to defend that bill, and billionaires are willing to tolerate a little insurrection and a few hundred thousand deaths. It doesn’t just keep their taxes low, it keeps their taxes net-negative.
One of the factors that was most carefully crafted—and the subject of intense lobbying—was how the bill benefited “pass through” businesses in addition to traditional corporations. Under the cover of protecting mom-and-pop businesses, a carve-out was created that did generate a small tax cut for those “Main Street” operations even as 60% of the benefits went to 1% of companies. Most went to the top 0.1%. Johnson’s specific input raised the amount of profits that business owners can deduct. For the wealthiest, that intervention meant an extra seven cents on every dollar earned. For most people, it meant nothing at all.
In terms of individuals, when the results are broken down across the board, the top 1% of Americans by income received $24.8 billion in benefits in 2018. The next 9% got $12.3 billion. Everyone else in the nation—the whole 300 million people remaining—split $6 billion.
But what might be the most amazing thing about the documentation ProPublica has put together is just how blatant, how direct, the conversations between that top 1% and Republicans in Congress really were. For the Democratic members of the House and Senate, the text of the legislation was a surprise, arriving at the last minute before Republicans rushed it through in a party line vote. For the wealthiest Republican donors, the language was anything but a surprise. They were conducting meetings, offering changes, and iterating through versions until they got the bill just right.
The back and forth was so open that specific lobbyists pointed out sections of the bill as their work. At least one took credit for part of the legislation in his resume.
And this should come as no surprise at all:
Among the biggest winners during the final push were real estate developers.
That included giving real estate developers a “side door” to deductions that in other industries were tied to the number of employees, allowing developers to get full credit as if they were creating jobs, even as they were creating no real jobs.
Gee. What a coincidence.