Courting C.E.O.s, Trump Says He Intends to Cut Corporate Taxes Again


Former President Donald J. Trump told a group of America’s most powerful chief executives on Thursday that he intended to cut the corporate tax rate to 20 percent from 21 percent, according to three people who attended the meeting and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the ground rules stipulated the meeting was off the record.

Mr. Trump made the remarks from a comfortable gray armchair during a conversation with his former economic adviser Larry Kudlow in front of the audience of dozens of leading chief executives, including Tim Cook of Apple, Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, Doug McMillon of Walmart and Charles W. Scharf of Wells Fargo.

They had gathered on Thursday morning in Washington for a meeting of the Business Roundtable, an influential corporate group, and there was said to be palpable relief in the room when Mr. Trump, who has been trying to woo business leaders as potential donors, told the executives much of what they had hoped to hear.

Many leaders in corporate America have been nervous that in a second term, Mr. Trump might not be as friendly toward them as he was in his first. Many ended up abandoning him and publicly criticizing him, especially after the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Mr. Trump, whose public speeches are often characterized by conspiratorial promises to root “Communists” out of government and hard-line policies such as overseeing the largest deportation operation in American history, was described by one of the people who attended the meeting to have sounded relatively more measured than usual, modulating his messages for the elite audience. He most strikingly softened his language about immigration.

But it was his spiel about taxes that seemed most visibly pleasing to the executives in the room, according to people who attended the meeting.

The first question from Mr. Kudlow to Mr. Trump dealt with the subject most on the executives’ minds: the fact that significant portions of the tax-cut package that Mr. Trump signed into law in 2017 are set to expire next year.

Specifically, Mr. Trump is said to have told them that he wanted to further lower the corporate rate to 20 percent, which he said he liked because it’s a “round number” and because he thought doing so would make American companies more competitive and create jobs, according to the people in attendance.

He is said to have added that in his view, a key reason the economy performed so well in his first term up until the pandemic was his tax cuts — and especially the permanent reduction of the corporate rate to 21 percent from 35 percent in his 2017 tax law.

(Mr. Trump inherited from former President Barack Obama a growing economy in the midst of a long and steady recovery from the 2008-09 Great Recession; the economy continued to perform roughly the same until the pandemic. At the end of Mr. Trump’s first year in office, he pushed Congress, then controlled by Republicans, to lower the corporate tax rate.)

Mr. Trump has proposed extending all of the parts of the 2017 tax cut law that are set to automatically expire at the end of 2025 if Congress does not pass new legislation, including keeping the 2017 law’s lower marginal tax rates across all income levels and its higher threshold for inheritances that are exempted from any estate taxes.

President Biden has proposed keeping the law’s lowered rates for modest and middle incomes, but allowing taxes to go back up on personal income above $400,000 and on larger inheritances. He has also proposed raising the corporate rate to 28 percent.

Mr. Biden has argued that because his plan would make the wealthy and corporations pay more, it would make up the loss in government revenue from extending the tax cuts on lower and middle levels of income, and therefore not add to the national debt. Fully extending the 2017 law, which Mr. Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress financed through government borrowing, would add trillions in additional government debt if not paired with new spending cuts.

Mr. Trump’s tax cuts have become something of a rallying cry for the business elite and his wealthy donors and potential donors, who are worried that the parts of the cuts that most benefit them will expire next year without Republican control in Washington.

A corporate tax rate close to 20 percent was one of Mr. Trump’s demands during the fight over his tax cut bill in 2017, a law that Republicans rushed to pass by the end of that year.

Mr. Trump said other things on Thursday that seemed to reassure the chief executives, according to the people who were in the room. After delivering his standard campaign lines about millions of immigrants pouring across the border under Mr. Biden, Mr. Trump talked up the importance of high-skilled immigration, saying he knew businesses needed these workers, the three people said.

Mr. Trump said he thought it was “wrong” that people who made sacrifices to come to America and attend top U.S. schools should have to go home to their countries, one of the people said. Another person who was in the room recalled that Mr. Trump made the point that the high-skilled immigrants who received an American education could either be successful in the U.S. or in their home countries. He said that the best and the brightest were needed to help America, this person said.

Business leaders were among those who repeatedly urged Mr. Trump to change his restrictive immigration policies during his time in office; he would often signal to these leaders that he agreed with their push for high-skilled immigration, while enacting policies that would make it more difficult. The Trump administration took steps to restrict visas for high-skilled workers as the pandemic drastically altered how the economy functioned.

Mr. Trump, who was convicted last month of falsifying business records to cover up a hush-money payment to a porn actress during the 2016 election, offered some other lines to please the chief executives. Among them, he talked about his deregulation agenda and his desire to speed up the permit process for businesses.

In April, Mr. Trump dined with oil company executives and lobbyists at his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, and told them that they should donate $1 billion to his presidential campaign because, if elected, he would roll back environmental rules that he said hampered their industry, according to two people who attended that dinner.

For months, Mr. Trump has faced a gaping campaign cash deficit with Mr. Biden, and he has been hunting for major donors since well before he became the nominee. But his search has grown more fruitful since he became the presumptive Republican nominee, and as some business leaders have grown more vocally opposed to Mr. Biden’s policies.

Now, a number of those leaders are gradually submitting to the reality that Mr. Trump could win the White House again, and are far more receptive to his pitch even as several privately insist they remain personally repulsed by him.

Still, Mr. Trump continues to call for another economic measure that business interests generally oppose, reiterating to a group of House Republicans earlier on Thursday that he favored imposing much higher tariffs on most imported goods.

Such import taxes would increase costs for corporations that import raw materials and equipment, and could set off a global trade war and retaliatory tariffs that would make it harder for American companies to sell their products overseas.

At the Business Roundtable gathering, the chief executives also heard from the White House chief of staff, Jeffrey D. Zients, who made the case for the Biden administration’s economic stewardship and capacity to preserve stability domestically and globally, according to two people familiar with his remarks. Mr. Zients talked up America’s strong economic recovery after the pandemic and the Biden administration’s policies to compete with China. He also argued that trade wars and mass deportation would send America backward, one of the people said.

While many in the business community have taken issue with Mr. Biden’s policies, the audience of executives seemed receptive to Mr. Zients, a former chief executive himself, who speaks fluent corporatese.

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