The White House is eager to present a unified front on tax reform, but those leading the effort inside the administration haven’t been able to bridge deep fissures over how much to cut taxes and the best way to pay for it.
The White House’s top tax staffer, Shahira Knight, who works for Gary Cohn at the National Economic Council, has feuded in the last few months with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and other Treasury officials, according to a senior administration official and four other people familiar with their interactions.
This comes as the administration and congressional leaders prepare to unveil a broad-brush tax proposal, weeks ahead of schedule, as a way to pivot from the grinding debate over health care — and to show movement on an issue significant to the business community before Congress adjourns for its August recess.
Yet many key outstanding questions remain, including how low the corporate tax rate can go — a major focus of the president who wants it at 15 percent — and what if any tax benefits or breaks lawmakers will need to eliminate to pay for cuts.
These trade-offs are part of what makes tax reform difficult. No businesses, or individuals, like to see any particular tax break eliminated and tend to mobilize when their goodie is threatened. Figuring out how to balance the many competing interests at play have been the focal point of Knight’s disagreements with Treasury — and a foreshadowing of Republicans’ challenges with any tax overhaul.
“She will be quick to point out how difficult tax reform will be. She is not some Art Laffer right-wing nut,” said one former Republican congressional staffer. “She will ask, ‘How are we going to pay for this?’ And she will be one of the first ones to say this.”
Early on in the administration, Knight and Mnuchin clashed over the type of tax system the U.S. should even have. (He was advocating for a move to a so-called fully worldwide system by getting rid of deferral payments that some companies make). That was part of one of Trump’s many tax plans, dating back to the campaign in 2015.
Eventually both Knight, a former senior Hill staffer and ex-lobbyist, joined Capitol Hill lawmakers and staff to persuade Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn to drop that idea, according to a senior administration official.
Knight and Mnuchin have disagreed more recently and with some frequency over the best way to pay for tax cuts. Among the issues: Mnuchin does not like the idea of scrapping businesses’ ability to deduct interest – a big boon to the real estate and finance industry that heavily relies on debt to make deals – while Knight views it as a way to offset tax cuts without adding to the deficit.
One of Mnuchin’s top Treasury advisers called Knight a “very talented colleague and a critical part of our team.” “We work together daily and she brings a deep knowledge of tax reform that benefits our current efforts,” said Justin Muzinich, a counselor to Mnuchin at Treasury.
Knight knows the history of past tax reform efforts, dating back to the last major revision in 1986, and is equally proficient in the technical hiccups of the code, according to interviews with 10 people including three senior administration officials, lobbyists, and current and former congressional staff. She is a special assistant to the president and frequently briefs the president himself on tax issues.
“She is the leading person who combines the trust of the political appointees with technical knowledge, and it is clear that she is speaking to the highest levels,” said one former Treasury official. “Frankly, she is one of the few people that the political people can talk to with the knowledge that she in on their side.”
Knight got her break in the tax world by starting out on a subcommittee of the House Ways & Means Committee, eventually working her way up to senior adviser. She worked under former Chairman Bill Thomas, who had a reputation as a sharp-elbowed and demanding boss – traits that former colleagues and friends say that Knight shares.
“She learned at the altar of Bill Thomas. He was a stone cold killer and the most effective legislator of his generation,” said Mike Sommers, Speaker John Boehner’s former chief-of-staff who now heads up the American Investment Council.
On the Hill, Knight worked on the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts – a huge political victory for Republicans.
But her more under-the-radar Capitol Hill policy claim-to-fame was the 2004 bill called the American Jobs Creation Act, according to several former Republican and Democratic congressional staffers. This was a highly technical and far-reaching bill that re-set some international tax rules and gave businesses what the non-partisan Tax Policy Center called a “potpourri of new tax breaks.”
After the Hill, Knight went on to work as a lobbyist for the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association and Fidelity Investments where she spent more than seven years and became an expert in taxes related to savings, retirements, and pensions.
The financial services industry, in particular, has been very comforted by her role in the White House, the former Treasury official said, because they view her as one of their own.
That is true of a huge swathe of the Hill and downtown lobbyists, both Democrats and Republicans, who feel like Knight is a known quantity in an administration stocked with New York bankers and outsiders with little D.C. connections.
“The president at the beginning talked about tax policy in a way we were unaccustomed to,” said a former Democratic congressional aide. “She showed up and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. She can translate the administration’s more general discussion of taxes.”
Recently, Knight has spent her time working with Treasury officials on hammering out a potential tax reform blueprint and sitting in on the ‘Big Six’ tax reform meetings with Mnuchin, Cohn, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch, and Ways & Means Chair Kevin Brady.
She frequently speaks to outside groups such as the Tax Council or National Association of Manufacturers on the administration’s tax goals. She also takes tons of meetings, expressing enthusiasm on the most in-the-weed topics, according to numerous people who’ve met with her.
“People need to be well-prepared,” said Marc Gerson, chair of the law firm Miller & Chevalier who worked with Knight on the Ways & Means Committee. “She asks insightful questions, and she wants follow-up.”
Those meetings also give D.C. insiders a foreshadowing of where the administration may head on tax reform; in one recent session, she told people that they did not need to spend much time talking about the border adjustment tax, leaving the impression that it was no longer on the table from the administration’s perspective.