Politics

Analysis: Trump Opts for Campaign Rally Over Tax Bill Hard Sell

President mentions Clinton, election win and 'Little Rocket Man' during remarks

President Donald Trump arrives with Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., left, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for the Republicans’ policy luncheon on Tuesday. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

President Donald Trump went to Missouri on Wednesday ostensibly to use his bully pulpit to gin up public support for a Republican tax plan, but he turned the event into a wildly vacillating campaign-style rally.

Trump did talk taxes, urging Senate Republicans to seize a “moment of truth” later this week when they are expected to vote on an overhaul bill.”

But the president chose to intertwine with his prepared remarks something that resembled a stream-of-consciousness rant that Trump more often employs not while giving policy-themed remarks from a TelePrompter but during the freewheeling campaign rallies that helped catapult him to the White House.

The president jumped from non-tax topic to non-tax topic at various points in his remarks, which were billed as designed to help Senate GOP leaders find the 50 votes they need to pass their bill and highlight for Show-Me State voters that incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill opposes it. Trump did twice criticize McCaskill, at one point telling the audience “she wants your taxes to go up.”

Trump would read a few lines from the prepared remarks, but then he would launch into a minutes-long discussion of an unrelated topic.

[Different Trumps Displayed on Each End of Penn. Ave.]

He said if Republicans send him a tax bill — which he promised to sign into law — “then America will win like never before.”

Minutes later, Trump was off on a rant about America’s post-9/11 spending on Middle East military operations. Shortly after, he called out the media covering the event, calling them “fake news” as the crowd booed the reporters.

Trump returned to his prepared remarks, but then he veered into his campaign-trail vow to “build up our military.” He promised to ensure U.S. military platforms are built in the United States. (Though some parts of American weapon systems feature components made overseas, they are built here in plants scattered across the country.)

The middle portion of Trump’s speech was notable for how little it focused on the Senate tax measure. He did point to what he called the country’s “crippling” tax rates and code provisions and say the GOP bills would help with both — but then he was off on other subjects: “massive regulations” and “unfair” trade deals.

“Oh, the trade deals,” he said, putting a hand to his temple. “I get a headache thinking about these trade deals.” He criticized the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement. He pointed to the U.S.-South Korea trade pact, saying it created thousands of jobs for the Asian country at the expense of Americans.

[Trump Retweets Anti-Muslim Tweets by British Far-Right Leader]

Rather than giving a hard sell of the Senate tax plan, Trump soon after spent a few more minutes touting himself. He declared there has never “been a 10-month president that has accomplished what we have accomplished.”

The tax speech was on hold as the president touted the stock market’s “record, all-time high” level, the country’s “lowest unemployment in 17 years,” and economic growth since he took office. And he blamed the storm season’s major hurricanes for preventing GDP growth from reaching 4 percent under his watch.

Trump did manage to tie those things to the GOP tax overhaul push, saying the Republican bills would help sustain those things.

But he did not make that linkage when he referred to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as “Little Rocket Man.”

He did veer back on message — though briefly — when he gave GOP lawmakers credit for “working hard” to send him a tax bill. “It’s complicated stuff,” he said. “It’s not so easy.” (Trump revealed he urged Senate Republicans during a lunch meeting Tuesday to vote “now,” though the 50 requisite votes had not been locked down at that point, and may still not be secured.)

When Trump did talk about the tax bill, he did not get into the details. At one point, he said the GOP bills would “cost me a fortune” — but that cannot be verified since he refuses to release his tax returns.

Also mixed in was the familiar rhetoric about Southern border immigration and a promise to build a wall, complete with shots at Democrats over immigration just as he needs some of them to push a year-end spending measure over the finish line.

The president managed to end the speech with as close to a hard sell for the Republican bill as he managed Wednesday.

“This is the right time,” he said in St. Charles. “This is our chance to free our … workers from the burdens of taxes.”

[Video: Trump Throws Spending Talks Into Chaos]

But perhaps the two biggest examples of Trump’s apparent resistance to give a hard sell for the tax bill came when he turned to two of his favorite topics: Hillary Clinton and his 2016 election victory.

At one point, he paraphrased Clinton’s Benghazi testimony, during which she asked Sen. Ron Johnson what difference some disputed facts made years after the deadly attack.

“What difference does it make?” Trump said with a grin as the friendly audience cheered. “It made a big difference.”

On the election win, he told a story about a conversation with an unnamed Tennessee lawmaker who told him that if the rest of the country in 2016 was anything like the Volunteer State, Trump would win easily.

The broader election “turned out to be a lot like Tennessee,” he said, mentioning the ballcaps and other gear his campaign organization sells. “And it turned out to be a lot like Missouri, because we had a big one here.”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.