When President Donald Trump travels to Missouri next week to sell a fledgling tax reform effort, more than brackets and rates will be on the line.
White House officials say an entirely new West Wing system for decision-making is being tested as Trump sets out to fulfill a chief campaign promise after efforts on other facets of his agenda sputtered.
Enacted by new Chief of Staff John Kelly, the structure for streamlining information within the White House and normalizing the decision-making process has drawn praise from aides rattled by months of disorder and chaos.
But its first test is pocked with obstacles, most of Trump’s own making. He’s derided and mocked Republicans on Capitol Hill, including the man whose assent is required for any package to get a vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
And a key administration shepherd of the efforts, National Economic Council chairman Gary Cohn, is openly airing his displeasure at Trump’s equivocal statements about white supremacists and neo-Nazis even as he pushes forward with crafting the outlines of a plan.
“It will be one of the firsct big tests” of Kelly’s system, said Stephen Moore, the Heritage Foundation chief economist who advised Trump’s campaign. “The tax cut is the next big domestic priority. Given they failed on health care, it raises the stakes.”
“I don’t think we know at this point whether (Kelly) can discipline Trump or manage his messaging or not,” Moore said. “At the very least he will be a much better traffic cop.”
White House officials this week described a West Wing rapidly falling in line with Kelly’s mandates, though questions remain about the willingness of Trump himself to adhere to his new chief of staff’s rigor.
A pair of memos distributed on Monday spelled out a rigid system for providing information to the President and for formalizing decisions that come from the Oval Office, according to people familiar with the documents.
Drafted by Kelly and White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter over the past several weeks, the memos specify that all materials — policy documents, briefing books, and news clippings — must first be reviewed by one of those two men before reaching Trump’s desk.
It’s a change meant to curtail what was previously a haphazard flow of documents or print-outs — some of dubious origin — to the stack of reading material that Trump sifts through daily. It’s also designed to ensure all relevant administration agencies are able to weigh in on decisions.
Trump has not resisted the changes, according to senior administration officials. But even Kelly has acknowledged privately that he cannot plug every channel through which information flows to the President, including from cable news, members of his family, and in nighttime phone calls from friends.
The intent of the changes are to better execute the agenda items that Trump has struggled to push forward during the first months of his term, including a failed effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Kelly has insisted that Trump’s schedule be better aligned to promote his projects, according to a person familiar with his thinking, with improved advance planning and a regular schedule of travel to sell his plans.
Trump did not tour the country to promote health care changes, but he’s due Wednesday in Springfield, Missouri, to promote the tax reform effort, according to the White House. An official said Trump would make similar tax-related stops around the country over the next several months, a strategy that Kelly has backed.
“I can assure you that the President’s No. 1 objective is now to get tax reform done,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Friday. “He is going to go on the road. We’re starting with his first trip next week, and the President is 100% supportive of us passing legislation this year.”
People close to Trump believe the tax reform effort is poised to succeed where health care did not because Trump himself is better versed in the tax code than he was on health care. While Trump made little effort to delve into specifics of health care, he has expressed strong opinions on tax details going back to last year’s campaign, according to a person familiar with his thinking.
So far, the process for advancing tax reform has included a mix of administration officials and key Republicans on Capitol Hill — the so-called “big six.” That includes Cohn, McConnell, Mnuchin, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and the two top tax writers in Congress – Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady.
Of that group, Trump has openly insulted one, caused another to almost resign, and spurred anxieties in at least two more — a starting point that White House officials concede is less than ideal.
His spat with McConnell escalated this week when it emerged the pair haven’t spoken in weeks and exchanged profanities during a heated call this summer. The White House said the pair were on track to meet after Labor Day.
Cohn, meanwhile, was on the brink of resigning after the President’s freewheeling press conference in which he likened white supremacists to counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, a person familiar with the situation said.
Cohn told the Financial Times that he came under intense pressure to leave his post in the aftermath of Trump’s remarks about hateful protests, though ultimately decided to remain on.
“I am reluctant to leave my post as director of the National Economic Council because I feel a duty to fulfill my commitment to work on behalf of the American people. But I also feel compelled to voice my distress over the events of the last two weeks,” he told the newspaper.
His departure would have delivered a blow to Trump’s tax reform efforts. But even his decision to remain largely overshadowed the rest of his Financial Times interview, which provided the most substantial view to date of Trump’s tax reform efforts.
CNN’s Sara Murray and CNNMoney’s Jeanne Sahadi contributed to this report.