Romney's Warning: Trump is Too Much Like Me
It's official: the 2016 Republican presidential primaries have gone from the ridiculous to the sublime.
Even before Donald Trump's overwhelming Super Tuesday victories, both his rivals and increasingly desperate Republican leaders began a scorched-earth campaign to derail the real estate mogul and reality TV star turned GOP frontrunner. Trump didn't just inherit his wealth and position from his father, they warned, but reaped millions from business ventures that soon went bankrupt. Those failures, along with his likely low tax rate, questionable charitable contributions and even possible criminal business connections, they argue, must explain why The Donald is keeping his tax returns hidden. Ditto for the unreleased tape of his New York Times editorial board discussion of immigration which, they charge, could alienate him from the xenophobic, white racists he has refused to denounce and disown.
That's why it is so comically pathetic to see Mitt Romney of all people leading the GOP charge to blow up the Trump Express before it reaches the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. After all, from his own mystery tax returns and private equity parasitism to secret videotapes and casual race-baiting, the failed 2012 Republican nominee committed every sin he now attributes to Donald Trump. For the GOP's always on-call White Knight, the differences are only those of degree, not kind.
Consider, for example, Mitt's demand that Trump release his tax returns:
"We have good reason to believe that there's a bombshell in Donald Trump's taxes...Either he's not anywhere near as wealthy as he says he is, or he hasn't been paying taxes we would expect him to pay or perhaps he hasn't been giving money to vets or to the disabled like he's been telling us he's been doing."
Of course, four years or so ago, many Americans were saying much the same thing about Mitt Romney.
Romney, after all, chose not to follow in the footsteps of his beloved father George, who released 12 years of returns for his 1968 presidential run. Hoping to secure the VP slot on the 2008 ticket, the self-funding former Massachusetts Governor turned over 23 years of returns to John McCain's vetting team. But for his 2012 run, Governor Romney initially refused to publicly release any at all, telling CNN's Wolf Blitzer in December 2011:
"I don't put out which tooth paste I use either. It's not that I have something to hide."
But when he finally buckled to public pressure and made his 2009 and 2010 filings public, Americans learned that the Quarter Billion Dollar Man paid a tax rate of less than 15 percent--below what many middle class families owe to Uncle Sam. As I noted in July 2012, there was no mystery as to why "he hasn't been paying taxes we would expect him to pay":
That paltry figure is made possible by the notorious "carried interest" exemption for private equity managers Romney wants to preserve [which] taxes him not at the ordinary income rate of 35 percent but instead at the capital gains rate of just 15 percent. (Thanks to his unusual golden parachute, most of Mitt's millions each year come from his controversial former employer, Bain Capital.) On top of his Cayman Island investments and past Swiss bank accounts, Romney has created a $100 million trust fund for his sons - tax free. Thanks to some (apparently legal) chicanery on the part of his former employer, Mitt has also accumulated an IRA worth a reported $100 million. (The Romney camp even complained about that, worrying that recent tax code changes had "created a tax problem" for the former Massachusetts governor and asking, "Who wants to have $100 million in an IRA?")
To be sure, Mr. and Mrs. Romney weren't happy about fielding questions on any of these topics. In January 2012, Ann Romney lamented that "unfortunately" the world now knows how "successful in business" her husband had been. But by that August, Rafalca's mom had enough of "you people," declaring "the more we release, the more we get attacked, the more we get questioned, the more we get pushed. And so we have done what's legally required, and there's going to be no more tax releases given." Mitt agreed, telling the National Review:
"In the political environment that exists today, the opposition research of the Obama campaign is looking for anything they can use to distract from the failure of the president to reignite our economy...I'm simply not enthusiastic about giving them hundreds or thousands of more pages to pick through, distort and lie about."
Instead, Romney's retained the right to distort and lie about his own taxes. For starters, he repeatedly claimed that his total tax rate "is really closer to 45 or 50 percent":
"Well, actually, I released two years of taxes and I think the average is almost 15 percent. And then also, on top of that, I gave another more 15 percent to charity. When you add it together with all of the taxes and the charity, particularly in the last year, I think it reaches almost 40 percent that I gave back to the community. One of the reasons why we have a lower tax rate on capital gains is because capital gains are also being taxed at the corporate level. So as businesses earn profits, that's taxed at 35 percent, then as they distribute those profits as dividends, that's taxed at 15 percent more. So, all total, the tax rate is really closer to 45 or 50 percent."
Now, the Internal Revenue Service and most Americans certainly would not consider their charitable giving part of what they pay to Uncle Sam. Most would probably admit that their contributions to their church is not synonymous with "giving back to the community." Especially when that tithing takes the form of tax deductible stock. As ABC News documented in early 2012, "the private equity giant once run by the GOP presidential frontrunner carved his church a slice of several of its most lucrative business deals, securities records show, providing it with millions of dollars-worth of stock in some of Bain Capital's most well-known holdings." In its article "In Bain deals, Romney gave stock to Mormon church," Reuters explained the massive savings Mitt likely reaped on his tax bill as a result:
Romney was eligible to invest in the stock of companies that were being restructured by Bain. Romney and other Bain investors usually were able to purchase the stock at very low prices.
Through the years, such stock may appreciate in value, sometimes considerably.
The analysts said that if Romney and others at Bain got a stock cheap and eventually donated it to a church or charity without cashing in the stock, then they could get two tax benefits.
First, they would not have to pay capital gains tax on the appreciated value of the stock, which they would have to do if they sold the stock and either pocketed or donated the proceeds.
Second, they might be able to deduct all, or at least part of, the value of the donated stock from their taxable income.
Such a move can save wealthy donors millions of dollars, the analysts said.
Romney's spin didn't end there. Responding to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's apparently unfounded charge that an anonymous source told him Mitt had paid no taxes at all for 10 years, Romney in September 2012 released his 2011 return, along with a cryptic claim:
A memo from the campaign also revealed that the Romneys averaged an effective federal tax rate of 20.2 percent over the past 20 years and gave an average of 13.45 percent to charity.
But unlike Hillary Clinton, who has now released 38 years of tax returns, Romney withheld the actual documents. And among the many questions Mitt never answered is this: was that 20.2 rate an average of 20 years of tax rates, or instead his total tax paid divided by his total income over the same two decades?
Regardless, with The Donald Trump hilariously claiming that he can't release his own tax returns because he is undergoing a 12 consecutive year of audits by the IRS (audits, he claims, may be due to his being a "strong Christian"), Mitt Romney took to Twitter to demand Trump come clean:
Now, there could be many potential bombshells in Donald Trump's tax returns. Ted Cruz suggested the documents could show dealings with mob-connected companies or reveal embarrassing details about Trump's myriad failed business ventures. And as he put it to Chuck Todd on NBC Meet the Press:
"You ought to ask him, 'Donald, have you written a check to Planned Parenthood? If so, how much and when?' I mean, that's the question that Donald ought to answer."
Ironically, we already know Mitt Romney's answer. He and his wife Ann wrote a check for $150 to Planned Parenthood back when Mitt was running against Ted Kennedy for Senate in 1994. Of course, that was back when Romney, like Donald Trump, was pro-choice. As the couple explained during Mitt's 2002 gubernatorial run:
ANN ROMNEY: I think women also recognize that they want someone who is going to manage the state well. I think they may be more nervous about him on social issues. They shouldn't be, because he's going to be just fine. But the perception is that he won't be. That's an incorrect perception.
MITT ROMNEY: So when asked will I preserve and protect a woman's right to choose, I make an unequivocal answer: yes.
Now, it is entirely possible that Donald Trump's tax returns would horrify social conservatives by featuring large donations to Planned Parenthood. Just as likely, they could contain bombshells about Trump University, Trump Mortgage, Trump Casino and other of The Donald's high-profile deal-making catastrophes. Those stories of Trump pocketing millions of dollars even as his schemes led to scammed investors, large layoffs and outsourced jobs could devastate the Republican frontrunner's campaign.
Just ask Mitt Romney. He and his colleagues at Bain Capital continued to reap millions of dollars even as many of their portfolio companies went out of businesses.
During his tenure as CEO from 1984 to 1999, Bain invested in 40 companies in the U.S. While seven later went bankrupt, the New York Times reported in 2012 that "In some instances, hundreds of employees lost their jobs. In most of those cases, however, records and interviews suggest that Bain and its executives still found a way to make money." That mirrors a January 2012 analysis by the Wall Street Journal, which revealed:
Bain produced stellar returns for its investors--yet the bulk of these came from just a small number of its investments. Ten deals produced more than 70% of the dollar gains.
Some of those companies, too, later ran into trouble. Of the 10 businesses on which Bain investors scored their biggest gains, four later landed in bankruptcy court.
Put another way, Mitt Romney's investing was almost risk-free. He won when his portfolio companies won and often when they lost. As with the bankruptcy laws that helped Donald Trump pile up a fortune, Romney's Bain Capital wealth was made possibly in large part to the dangerous incentives unleashed by the U.S. tax code. With the twin enablers of the carried interest exemption and the corporate debt interest deduction, Romney got a help from his uncle. Uncle Sam, that is. Matt Taibbi explained how:
Essentially, Romney got rich in a business that couldn't exist without a perverse tax break, and he got to keep double his earnings because of another loophole - a pair of bureaucratic accidents that have not only teamed up to threaten us with a Mitt Romney presidency but that make future Romneys far more likely. "Those two tax rules distort the economics of private equity investments, making them much more lucrative than they should be," says Rebecca Wilkins, senior counsel at the Center for Tax Justice. "So we get more of that activity than the market would support on its own."
Simply put, this enabled private equity firms to pressure the companies they purchased to take on more debt in order to pay them dividends and management fees. "Traditionally," Josh Kosman wrote in 2009, "cash-rich public companies have paid dividends to lure and reward investors." But private equity firms, he explained, stand this process on its head. "Fourteen of the largest American private equity firms had more than 40 percent of the North American companies they bought from 2002 until September 2006 pay them dividends," Kosman pointed out, adding, "In thirty-two of the eighty-three case, 38 percent, they took money out in the first year." And the innovator behind the business model?
Mitt Romney was a pioneer of this strategy. His private equity firm, Bain Capital, was the first large PE firm to make a serious portion of its money not from selling its companies or listing them on the stock exchange, but rather by collecting distributions and dividends, which in this context is the exact opposite of reinvesting in a company. Bain Capital is notorious for failing to plow profits back into its businesses.
So much for candidate Mitt Romney's 2007 claim, "Don't forget that when companies earn profit, that money is supposed to be reinvested in growth."
And don't forget, as the DNC warned during the 2012 race, "Romney's private sector career consisted of profiting off of laying off thousands of workers." You're going to hear that message again, only this time about Donald Trump and coming from the likes of Marco Rubio:
"He's telling people, I'm going to fight for the little guy, I'm fighting for the working class. Here's what he doesn't tell them. He has spent a career in business, 50 years, sticking it to the little guy. Sticking it to the little guy. When his companies went bankrupt, the first people that didn't get paid were the subcontractors, the plumbers and the pipefitters, the people that laid bricks and all those people who worked for a living, they didn't get paid. He got his money."
The truth about stories like those would definitely constitute a bombshell for Trump's most fervent supporters among lesser educated, lower income working Americans. But they would pale in comparison to a revelation that Trump simply doesn't believe in private what he says in public about building a wall along the Mexican border and deporting the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States. Which is why Mitt Romney once again took to Twitter this week to demand that The Donald release the tape of his off-the-record interview with the New York Times editorial board in which he purportedly did just that:
Another #bombshell? Trump should authorize the @nytimes to release the transcript of his ed board interview. #WhatIsHeHiding
Of course, if you think you've seen this movie before, that's because you have. After all, the same Mitt Romney who called Democrats "the party of monarchists" and included himself among "the 80 to 90 percent of us who are middle class" got caught on video telling a roomful of donors paying $50,000 a plate what he really thought about the voters:
"There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what... These are people who pay no income tax...[M]y job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
In Donald Trump's parlance, Romney was describing half of the electorate as "losers." But they got their revenge in November 2012. And Mitt himself summed it up in the eponymous documentary:
"I have looked at what happens to anybody in this country who loses as the nominee of their party...They become a loser for life," he said, holding finger and thumb in the shape of an "L" on his forehead.
A loser for life, that is, unless the GOP comes to its senses and turns to Mitt Romney to save it at the convention in July. But for Mitt's White Knight fantasy to come true, he first needs to give Donald Trump a black eye.
And that black eye, apparently, will come in the form of white supremacists. When Donald Trump hesitated this week to disavow the endorsement of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, Romney went on the attack:
A disqualifying & disgusting response by @realDonaldTrump to the KKK. His coddling of repugnant bigotry is not in the character of America.
— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) February 29, 2016
By that measure, Mitt Romney should have disqualified himself four years ago. After all, when growing numbers of Republicans refused to accept Barack Obama's well-documented birth in Hawaii, Mitt Romney refused to disown the endorsement of the Birther-in-Chief, Donald Trump.
As a quick backwards glance shows, it wasn't just Romney surrogates like John Sununu wishing "this president would learn how to be an American." On July 17, 2012, Mitt got in on the act, too, telling listeners that "his course is extraordinarily foreign." Two days later, Romney repeated the charge in response to the growing outcry about his mystery tax returns, shockingly low tax rate and private equity parasitism:
"This idea of criticizing and attacking success, of demonizing those in all walks of life who have been successful, is so foreign to us we simply can't understand it."
When Governor Romney wasn't accusing the President of the United States of being "extraordinarily foreign," he was providing aid and comfort to conservative fabulists claiming they could prove it. After all, Mitt Romney didn't just refuse to repudiate his Obama birth certificate fraud Donald Trump. Truth be damned, Romney suggested, instead arguing that cobbling together a majority--any majority--was what his candidacy was all about:
"You know, I don't agree with all the people who support me and my guess is they don't all agree with everything I believe in," Romney said. "But I need to get 50.1% or more and I'm appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people."
Among those "good people" were Romney's five sons, the same ones Mitt boasted in 2007 said "showing support for our nation" by "helping me get elected because they think I'd be a great president." The Five Brothers also regurgitated the Birther lies vomited forth by the likes of Limbaugh, Trump and Romney campaign traveling companion Jerome Corsi. When Tagg Romney wasn't joking about "taking a swing" at President Obama, his brother Matt got laughs from New Hampshire Republicans when he brushed off requests for his father's secret tax returns this way:
"I heard someone suggest the other day that as soon as President Obama releases his grades and birth certificate ...then maybe he'll do it."
While he later apologized on Twitter ("my bad"), there was no need for Matt to say sorry to dad. After all, in August 2012 Mitt Romney himself told an audience in Michigan:
"Now I love being home in this place where Ann and I were raised, where both of us were born," the GOP hopeful told the crowd. "Ann was born in Henry Ford Hospital. I was born at Harper Hospital. No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate, they know that this is the place that we were born and raised." [Emphasis mine.]
Four years later, those cheering Mitt Romney that day are probably among Donald Trump's most fervent enthusiasts. Now, they're backing someone who flip-flopped on abortion, the Iraq war, a health insurance mandate, "self-deportation" of undocumented immigrants and so much more. Meanwhile, his flood of lies flows faster than human beings can fully document.
Hey, Mitt. Sound like anyone you know?