Fact-checking Trump and Clinton on the billionaire’s tax break

By Alec MacGillis

The only thing Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump seemed to agree upon in last Sunday’s debate — indeed, one of the few substantive policy exchanges they had — was the need to eliminate a tax benefit that collectively saves private equity, real estate, and venture capital partners billions of dollars each year. But their exchange might have left viewers confused about the issue, not least because it included several misleading insinuations, particularly on the part of Trump.

[ProPublica has been covering this issue throughout the campaign, to explain the origins of the so-called carried-interest loophole and why it’s survived so long. See: How Philanthropist David Rubenstein Helped Save a Tax Break Billionaires Love and The Surreal Politics of a Billionaire’s Tax Loophole.]

During the debate, here’s what Trump had to say about the carried-interest break, which also goes by the “hedge-fund loophole,” though it benefits that industry less than others.

One thing I’d do is get rid of carried interest. The – one of the greatest provisions for people like me, to be honest with you, I give up a lot when I run because I knockout the tax code. And she could have done this years ago, by the way. She is – she was a United States senator. She complains that Donald Trump took advantage of the tax code. Well, why didn’t you change it, why didn’t you change it when you were a senator? The reason you didn’t is that all your friends take the same advantage that I do. And they do, you have provisions in the tax code, that frankly, we could change. But you wouldn’t change it because all of these people gave you the money so you can take negative ads on Donald Trump…

And here’s what Hillary countered with:

Well, everything you’ve heard from Donald is not true. I’m sorry I have to keep saying this, but he lives in an alternative reality. And it is sort of amusing to hear somebody who hasn’t paid federal income taxes in maybe 20 years talking about what he’s going to do, but I’ll tell you what he’s going to do. His plan will give the wealthy and corporations the biggest tax cuts they have ever had. More than the Bush tax cuts by at least a factor of two. Donald always takes care of Donald and people like Donald. And this would be a massive gift…

Which prompted this rejoinder from Trump:

Hillary Clinton is extremely complex. Hillary Clinton has friends that want all of these provisions, including, they want the carried interest provision, which is very important to Wall Street people, but they really want the carried interest provision, which I believe Hillary is leaving, and it’s very interesting why she is leaving carried interest…

It is true that both candidates have, since early in the campaign, vowed to close the loophole, which allows investment managers to have the large sums they receive as compensation for managing other people’s money taxed at the lower capital gains rate, as if it was the result of their own investment, rather than at the higher tax rate for ordinary income.

However, Trump’s vow to close the loophole is largely canceled out by other provisions in his tax plan, which could reduce the income tax rate for partners at many investment firms to as low as 15 percent. That is what Clinton is correctly referring to when she says that his plan will “give the wealthy and corporations the biggest tax cuts they have ever had.”

Trump is even more misleading when he suggests that Clinton is “leaving carried interest” untouched. Not only does Clinton want to close the loophole, she has vowed to close it by administrative fiat if congressional Republicans continue opposing legislation to close it. In this, she is going further than President Obama, who has held back from administrative action on it.

However, Trump is closer to the truth when he suggests that Clinton did not push as hard as she could have to close the loophole when representing New York in the Senate. For one thing, Clinton did not sign on as a co-sponsor of the first proposal to close the loophole in 2007, unlike then-Senator Obama.

And Trump is also right that many of the people on Wall Street who would be hurt by closing the loophole are supporting Clinton and giving money to her. In fact, not a single employee at any of the top four private equity firms has given money to Trump’s campaign. But that is not driven by a calculation that Trump would be worse for their taxes than Clinton, because that is simply not the case. It is one of the great ironies of this very unusual campaign that the candidate who is far more likely to raise taxes on top Wall Street money managers, Hillary Clinton, is receiving virtually the entirety of their political largess.

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