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Activists Get Personal to Derail Trump Tax Cuts

by Benjy Sarlin /
Image: Donald Trump delivers remarks during a meeting with members of Congress and his administration regarding tax reform
President Donald Trump delivers remarks during a meeting with members of Congress and his administration regarding tax reform in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Sept. 5, 2017 in Washington. Seated next to him are the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee Orrin Hatch, from left, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.Shawn Thew / Getty Images pool

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WASHINGTON — As President Donald Trump visits North Dakota on Wednesday to pitch lower tax rates, progressive activists are gearing up for war.

"Not One Penny," a coalition of left-leaning advocacy groups and labor unions, is running a TV spot in the area pushing Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., to oppose a "Republican tax bill that gives billions to the richest."

"The campaign is pretty simple," Nicole Gill, executive director of one group in the coalition, Tax March, said in an interview. "We have one demand: Not one penny in tax cuts go to millionaires, billionaires, and wealthy corporations. That’s it."

The ad buy, while only five-figures, is an early preview of what promises to be a massive fight over taxes. Progressive groups, buoyed by an Obamacare victory in which grassroots activists played a major role, are hoping they can carry their momentum into scuttling the next major item on Trump’s agenda.

In interviews with NBC News, progressives working on the campaign identified three broad ways they plan to undermine Trump's tax push.

1. Make it personal with Trump's finances

Trump and allied groups have framed their tax efforts as a way to "unrig" the system by eliminating deductions that corporations can exploit in favor of simpler system. Progressive groups hope to counter this message by instead emphasizing the raw overall gains large corporations and wealthy individuals stand to make under GOP proposals.

In making the case that Trump’s cuts will benefit the rich, activists say the president's own finances will play a starring role.

"The more Trump decides to talk cutting taxes for the rich and wealthy, the more the public is going to ask the obvious question, which is 'How much do you stand to gain?'" Gill said.

Previous tax proposals backed by Trump would slash taxes for "pass-through" businesses, which are a key part of his real estate empire, and eliminate the alternative minimum tax, which required Trump to pay $31 million in his leaked 2005 tax filings.

The president has not publicly released his taxes, breaking with decades of precedent, meaning that there’s no way to know for sure how much he might benefit from a Republican plan.

Some of the same activists working on the Not One Penny campaign helped organize Tax Day demonstrations in April demanding Trump make his taxes public. Expect similar efforts to gain steam as a bill moves closer to passage, especially given Trump's grumbling response to the April protests.

2. Hold the line with Democrats

Stopping a tax package won’t be easy.

Compared to health care, cutting tax rates is a more traditional GOP cause, which could make it harder to find wavering senators and representatives. And while even red-state Democrats opposed Obamacare repeal from the start, there are some cracks on taxes that progressive groups are working to address early.

The Not One Penny coalition ran an ad against Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, last week, for example, after he expressed support for cutting corporate tax rates.

Image:
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Aug. 2, 2017.Michael Reynolds / EPA file

Three Democratic senators, including North Dakota’s Heitkamp, declined to sign onto a letter by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., demanding that any tax overhaul be deficit-neutral and not lower tax bills for the top 1 percent of earners. Heitkamp, like non-signers Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., faces a tough 2018 race in a state Trump won handily. She is scheduled to ride with Trump on Air Force One on Wednesday to attend his rally in her home state.

"There’s no Democrat that should be out there talking about that and the Ryan ad buy is an example of how we intend to hold Democrats accountable," said Chad Bolt, policy manager at Indivisible, a grassroots movement that formed in response to Trump's election.

Bolt's group launched a new website this week, TrumpTaxScam.org, that provides activists with talking points for calls to Congressional offices. Similar phone banking efforts played a major role in the health care debate.

3. Make tax cuts a life-or-death issue

Organizers think they have an opportunity to make Trump’s tax reform push as radioactive as GOP health care legislation with the right message.

Trump and Republicans in Congress are still working out the details of their tax bill. They face tough decisions ahead, including whether to pass revenue-neutral reform that lower rates by eliminating deductions elsewhere — setting up some painful choices — or to fall back on temporary cuts that add to the debt.

One emerging plan is to tie tax breaks that add to the deficit to cuts to Medicaid and Social Security disability benefits that the White House and Congress have proposed elsewhere. The goal is to try to lend the issue the same physical urgency as the health care fight, which featured disabled Americans protesting Medicaid cuts at lawmakers’ offices and town halls.

"We’re talking about threats to people’s lives, health, and livelihoods," said TJ Helmstetter, communications director of Americans for Tax Fairness.

CORRECTION (Sept. 7, 2017, 6:50 a.m.): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of the communications director of Americans for Tax Fairness. He is TJ Helmstetter, not Helmsetter.

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