Politics & Policy

Did Trump Steal Jeb Bush’s Policy Proposals?

Trump promotes his book Crippled America in New York. (Spencer Platt/Getty)

Nobody would describe Donald Trump as a policy wonk. On any given day, the bombastic GOP front-runner is much more likely to hurl insults at his opponents than to discuss the intricacies of the standard federal income-tax deduction.

When it comes to Republican campaign platforms, however, Trump’s is one of the heaviest on policy. At least on paper, Trump has more extensive plans than candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who offer fewer specific policy prescriptions on their websites.

But there’s a catch. Two of Trump’s plans — one focused on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and one on taxes — seem to have been lifted almost entirely from Jeb Bush’s “low-energy” campaign. From a peculiar focus on female veterans to individual tax rates to the specific language they employ, Trump’s proposals appear suspiciously similar to Bush’s.

After months of mockery from Trump, the Bush campaign seems determined to highlight the alleged idea theft. “It’s pretty clear that Trump has been trying to look over Jeb’s shoulder in class to cheat on the test,” says Tim Miller, Bush’s communications director.

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It certainly appears that Trump aped Bush’s plan to fix the scandal-plagued VA. The Republican front-runner released his VA-reform paper on October 31, several months after Bush’s rollout of his own VA plan. One of the main planks in Bush’s proposal was to “Modernize the Department of Veterans Affairs.” Trump’s plan promises to “Modernize the VA.” Bush emphasizes “improving practices so that we eliminate billions of dollars in waste, fraud, and abuse.” Trump wants to “End waste, fraud, and abuse at the VA.” Like Bush, Trump wants to give the department authority to fire VA employees. And like Bush, he wants to increase federal funding for business loans to veterans.

Trump even includes “Better support for women veterans” as a plank in his plan, something that makes his plagiarism particularly obvious, according to one Bush adviser who says few policy wonks were talking about the challenges posed by a rapid growth in female veterans before the Bush campaign made it a top issue in its VA plan. “We had an experienced adviser who worked for years in the VA system,” the Bush adviser says. “He’s been very focused on the issue, and made a persuasive case to elevate it in the policy plan.”

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Like Bush, Trump also pushes VA physicians to compete with other doctors. But that’s a proposal echoed by most Republicans candidates — and even some Democrats. Trump also adds a few proposals that Bush’s plan doesn’t have, promising to increase federal quotas for hiring veterans and to build new VA clinics in rural areas.

#share#The Trump campaign didn’t respond to multiple requests asking if they’d borrowed aspects of Bush’s VA plan. But given the esoteric, in-the-weeds nature of veterans’ issues — policy analysts sometimes spend thousands of hours slogging through bureaucratic paperwork just to understand them — the Bush adviser finds it highly unlikely that Trump’s team would independently come to many of the same conclusions and use the same language to describe them.

“To go through all that and come up with a plan that’s 80 percent identical, it’s not an accident,” he says.

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And it’s not the first time, either. In late September, several journalists noticed the remarkable similarities between the tax plan Trump had just released and the one unveiled by Bush three weeks earlier. “Donald Trump Steals Jeb Bush’s Tax Plan, Makes It Classier, More Luxurious,” read a September 28 headline in Slate.

If the plagiarism charge is true, it’s unlikely to dent Trump’s prospects — against Bush or anyone else.

Both Trump’s and Bush’s plans replace the current seven federal tax rates with three, though Trump says he’s also offering a zero-percent tax rate for married couples earning less than $50,000 a year. Bush’s plan would lower personal rates to 28, 25, and 10 percent, while Trump’s would go a tad further, to 25, 20, and 10 percent. Trump’s plan would also lower the top-bracket corporate-tax rate to 15 percent instead of the 20 envisioned by Bush’s. The two plans propose identical reductions in capital-gains rates, and they both eliminate the estate tax, the alternative minimum tax, and the carried-interest loophole.

Trump’s sudden interest in pushing policy came in the wake of the first Republican debate in August. When Roger Stone, his top political adviser, left the campaign following Trump’s nasty public spat with Fox News’s Megyn Kelly, reports began circulating that Trump wanted to “get serious.” Politico and the Washington Post ran stories on the billionaire real-estate mogul’s plans to release a string of detailed policy papers in the coming months.

#related#It’s not clear what he hoped to accomplish by copying Bush’s policy papers, if that’s in fact what he did. Trump’s other three papers were on immigration, U.S.-China trade relations, and gun control — issues deeply resonant with his base. Tax and veterans’ policies just don’t seem to have the same relevance for the average Trump supporter. But Trump has pointed to conservative economist Larry Kudlow’s praise of his tax plan in recent debates, perhaps in a bid to woo skeptical fiscal conservatives. And the VA paper may be similarly designed to assuage veterans’ concerns about his criticism of POWs last summer.

If the plagiarism charge is true, it’s unlikely to dent Trump’s prospects — against Bush or anyone else. Trump continues to command the field, with the latest national polling averages putting him 23 points ahead of Bush. If Trump’s supporters forgave him for comparing Ben Carson to a child molester and calling the people of Iowa stupid, they’re unlikely to bat an eye when he lifts lines from policy proposals that few voters will ever read.

— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.

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