Early optimism among business lobbyists and executives that Donald Trump's election heralded better days has slowly given way to uncertainty as the president-elect fires off mixed and sometimes confusing messages on healthcare, taxes and trade.
An initial euphoria in the business world fueled a powerful post-election stock rally. Some of that has frayed as questions arise over the nuts and bolts of Trump's campaign promises, although many in the business community said they remained optimistic.
Doubts deepened over the weekend as Trump declared he would replace President Barack Obama's signature healthcare plan known as Obamacare with “insurance for everybody” — a goal far beyond Republican designs — and criticized a key component of a plan in Congress to overhaul corporate taxes. In a later interview, he appeared to adjust both stances, possibly adding to the confusion.
“It is fair to say that since the election, there has been mounting uncertainty about exactly what the specific policies are likely to be with regard to tax reform and replacing Obamacare,” a financial industry official said.
Expectations for faster growth, tax reform and a quick repeal of Obamacare, officially known as the Affordable Care Act, have “given way to ‘We are not really sure what he means by that,’” the official said.
A veteran Republican financial lobbyist said she was under constant pressure from clients to predict what the new administration was planning but had no reliable answers.
Wrench in Obamacare repeal
Trump appears to have thrown a wrench into Republican plans to repeal Obamacare with mixed signals on the details and timing of a replacement plan.
Congressional Republicans have focused on limiting government involvement in the healthcare system and eliminating the law's individual mandate that forces people to have insurance.
But Trump told the Washington Post he was almost done with a plan to replace Obamacare with “insurance for everybody,” while forcing drug companies to negotiate directly with the government on prices for Medicare and Medicaid.
Trump's recent attack on the border adjustment tax was another sign of his unpredictability, the financial lobbyist said.
That measure would tax imports and exempt exports in an effort to encourage companies to keep jobs and production in the United States. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Friday, Trump called the proposal “too complicated.”
“Anytime I hear border adjustment, I don't love it,” Trump told the Journal. “Because usually it means we're going to get adjusted into a bad deal. That's what happens.”
Chris Krueger, an analyst at the investment firm Cowen and Co., said Trump's comments to the newspaper about the border adjustment proposal were “breathtaking.”
“Trump is like a policy bull who seems to bring his own china shop with him to destroy it with every interview,” Krueger wrote in a research note.
In an interview with the news outlet Axios on Tuesday, Trump appeared to adjust both positions. He said the border adjustment idea was still “on the plate.” As for Obamacare, he said his comments were in response to proposals in which “people with no money aren't covered,” which he said were unacceptable.
Lobbyists said the Trump transition team's lack of interest in their input was clear in the past two weeks as it summoned trade groups to daily “listening sessions” at the American Enterprise Institute think tank. The agriculture, financial, transportation and tech industries were among the sectors that got a one-hour session, according to participants.
In the sessions, Wall Street lobbyists were encouraged to talk fast: a giant television screen overhead counted down two minutes of allotted time.
“It was a goat rodeo. We all got a couple minutes to speak. What can you really say in that time?” said another financial services lobbyist. “They wanted to check the box — ‘We're listening to Wall Street.’ But who even knows where these transition people will be in a few days?”
Lobbyists also have been alarmed that the transition team has not included them in preparations for confirmation hearings for many nominated Cabinet officials, including potential Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
“If you want someone to explain how Elizabeth Warren can hammer you 12 different ways, ask a lobbyist,” said the financial services lobbyist, referring to the Democratic U.S. senator from Massachusetts and frequent critic of Wall Street.
Even Trump's website sowed confusion about his intentions. A promise to dismantle the Dodd-Frank regulatory reforms was removed at the end of last year and has not been replaced. A Trump representative blamed a redesign, but bank lobbyists are not so sure — other content made it through the redesign.
Some companies have been reassured by Trump's Cabinet nominees, who are seen as more predictable and supportive of the business establishment than the impulsive president-elect.
Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump's pick for attorney general, has deep differences on values with the technology sector but is seen as an important Trump counterweight because he is a “deliberate decision-maker not prone to big dramatic mood swings,” a source at one major Silicon Valley firm said.
What about the tweets?
Many lobbyists and business officials said they remained optimistic and cautioned against reading too deeply into tweets or comments that Trump makes on policy.
“If Obama or Bush opined on a policy ... most of Washington assumed that raising that question was a well-vetted intentional decision to send a signal,” a senior U.S. Chamber of Commerce official said.
Trump, by contrast, may simply be raising policy issues because he has questions on them, the chamber official said. The same financial industry official who acknowledged the uncertain climate also said he was still optimistic.
“There were a lot of candidates who were interviewed. There were names floated out there and ... it was kind of a chaotic process,” the official said, referring to the process of picking candidates to fill Cabinet and other administration positions.
“But overall, I think one can make the observation that in making the final selections, Trump has shown ... a very surprising even-handedness.”