By Philip Rucker / The Washington Post
Moments before President Donald Trump claimed his first legislative victory, he was notified that AT&T would be investing an additional $1 billion in U.S. networks and offering its employees a one-time bonus — thanks, the company said, to the Republican tax bill.
Then, as if on cue, the president crowed about it at a celebratory photo opportunity Wednesday on the South Lawn of the White House.
Soon came a string of similar pronouncements from other corporate behemoths. Comcast said it was offering its employees $1,000 bonuses. Boeing said it was making $300 million in new investments. Fifth Third Bancorp said it, too, was giving workers bonuses and raising its minimum hourly wage to $15. And Wells Fargo also said it was upping its minimum hourly wage to $15.
Trump and his aides and allies were quick to seize on the corporate announcements as evidence that — even before the bill was signed into law — good fortune was trickling down to workers.
“You saw company after company after company yesterday come out and immediately start giving bonuses to their workers all across this country,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday on Fox News Channel.
“Even MSNBC reporters are getting a bonus,” Sanders added, referring to the network that is a subsidiary of Comcast.
Some companies are trying to help Trump sell an unpopular tax bill by crediting their internal spending strategies to the savings they expect from the legislation, which decreases the corporate income rate to 21 percent from 35 percent.
The company moves may have been long-planned and inspired by unrelated reasons. Still, tying the announcements to the tax bill helps the companies receive maximum media attention and engender goodwill with Trump and his administration.
“It’s an extremely clever way to get the president’s attention,” said Scott Reed, the chief political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “It reinforces his signature legislative success, and it probably gets them some good points inside the White House.”
Some of the companies have business motives for currying favor with the administration. Boeing relies on government contracts for much of its business, while AT&T has been seeking to acquire Time Warner, at times arguing with the Trump administration over antitrust issues. The Justice Department is suing to block the $85 billion merger, which Trump said in November was “not good for the country.”
The strategies playing out this week hark back to the early months of Trump’s presidency and during his transition, when companies such as Carrier let Trump take part in public announcements of new jobs or factories.
“The clearest way to curry favor with this government is to play to the ego of the president, whether that’s the Cabinet roundtable praising him or companies being smart and doing things they were already planning to do in the way that he will like,” said Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson, who was a spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
The tax bill passed Congress on Wednesday and is expected to be signed by Trump, with changes to the tax code going into effect starting early next year.
Polls show the bill is deeply unpopular with the general public. A Quinnipiac University survey last week found that 26 percent of Americans approve of the plan, with 55 percent disapproving.
But Republicans from the president on down are determined to sell Trump’s signature legislative accomplishment ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
The corporate announcements are not being coordinated by the White House, administration officials said, though one official acknowledged that during the tax debate, representatives of some of the companies had informally discussed with the administration spending decisions they were considering making should the bill pass.
AT&T said it would follow through on a pledge it made Nov. 8 to invest $1 billion more in its networks if the legislation was approved. It also announced a one-time bonus of $1,000 for as many as 200,000 employees, which it negotiated with union executives separately from a work contract that was agreed upon last week.
Randall Stephenson, AT&T’s chief executive, said “Congress, working closely with the president, took a monumental step to bring taxes paid by U.S. businesses in line with the rest of the industrialized world.”
The announcement seemed tailor-made for Trump to announce at his elaborate White House event celebrating the legislative achievement. The president cheered AT&T at the beginning of his remarks.
“This just came out,” he said. “Two minutes ago, they handed it to me. AT&T plans to increase U.S. capital spending $1 billion and provide (a) $1,000 special bonus to more than 200,000 U.S. employees, and that’s because of what we did. So that’s pretty good. That’s pretty good.”
Some industry critics said the announcements added up to little more than a public-relations stunt, designed either to earn chits with the Trump administration or to validate policies the companies had already lobbied for.
“Throwing a few pennies to workers after a multibillion-dollar political windfall seems inefficient to me, but then again, I’m not in AT&T’s PR department,” said Matthew Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, a think tank that has criticized the power of large companies.
Stoller added, “I admire AT&T’s new antitrust litigation strategy of buying Trump good PR with a little bit of the tax refund the company just got.”
Democratic leaders argued that companies were hardly spending all of their savings under the tax plan on their workers. The office of Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., circulated a list of more than 30 large companies that have announced a combined $83.7 billion in share buybacks in recent days in anticipation of the bill’s passage.
“There is a reason so few executives have said the tax bill will lead to more jobs, investments and higher wages — because it will actually lead to share buybacks, corporate bonuses and dividends,” said Schumer spokesman Matt House.
In her Thursday news conference, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., singled out AT&T by name.
“They made a big announcement that they were going to give a bonus to their workers, to kind of pin a rose on this tax bill,” Pelosi said. “That bonus was mandated by a union agreement with the Communications Workers of America as part of a raise in their recent, in their last agreement. So all of a sudden they’re advertising this as something they did because of the tax bill.”
If one of the goals of the companies was for their announcements to generate headlines and be seen by Trump, they succeeded. Thursday on “Fox & Friends,” the morning show that the president watches regularly because of its complimentary commentary, host Ainsley Earhardt interviewed Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and adviser.
“It has not even been 24 hours, and workers at some of the companies that we all use on a daily basis are benefiting,” Earhardt said. She ticked through several examples before concluding that the bill amounted to a “gift” for working families.
“It is such important, meaningful relief,” Ivanka Trump replied. “And really, Ainsley, this is just the beginning. It’s just starting.”