Investment guru Warren Buffett set off a political firestorm Friday with a series of interviews in which he appeared to distance himself from the tax policy proposal President Obama introduced under the billionaire’s name.
Republicans jumped on comments from the Berkshire Hathaway CEO as proof of a lack of support, while the White House called the response a “deliberate misrepresentation” of Buffett’s views “for political reasons.”
Buffett continued that role Friday, when in a series of interviews with the top three business networks, he talked about his specific ideas for tax increases but did not specifically say which proposals of Obama’s he supported.
Buffett has argued in the past that the government should raise taxes on him and his super-rich friends.
Obama, in promoting tax hikes on millionaires as part of his plan to reduce the deficit, called it the “Buffett Rule” in a nod to Buffett’s advocacy.
Buffett, making similar remarks in all three interviews, said he is happy with the use of his name on the legislation, but added he doesn’t know all of the details included in the proposal, and the only plan he advocated was a higher tax rate on people who “make money with money only.”
He noted he was describing a very limited number of wealthy Americans who earn the majority of their income through capital gains, which is taxed at a 15 percent rate.
“What I’m talking about would not apply to someone that made $5 million a year as a baseball player or $10 million a year on media,” Buffett said on Fox Business Network. “It would apply only to probably 50,000 people out of 309 million who have huge incomes, pay very low taxes. There should be a policy that applies to people with money who earn lots of money and pay very low rates. If they earn it by normal jobs what I say would not hit them at all.”
The billionaire businessman caused confusion with his remarks, and it was compounded by the fact that there have been no specific details from the administration regarding what additional taxes on millionaires would entail.
Buffett, who is headlining a fundraiser for Obama on Friday evening and has close ties to the administration, made it clear that he “supports the president 100 percent” even though he might not agree with everything.
“I am a supporter of the action he’s trying to get the Congress to join him in taking,” Buffett said on CNBC. “I will look at the overall plan which they are submitting to Congress, and I will decide do I like it or do I not like it. There’s no question there will be parts I disagree with.”
Republicans used the comments as proof that Obama had taken his proposal too far even for the administration’s chosen billionaire spokesman.
“Tough day for the White House — Warren Buffett not so much a fan of President Obama’s Buffett Rule,” Brad Dayspring, communications director for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) tweeted, followed by an email from Cantor’s office quoting Buffett’s remarks.
“It appears Warren Buffett lent his name to a piece of Obama’s Jobs Plan but it doesn’t sound like he has lent his support,” the Republican National Committee noted in an email.
The White House fired back, noting Buffett supported the overall idea of raising taxes on millionaires.
“Lots of confusion out there re: what Buffett said [about] the Buffett rule,” White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer tweeted, along with a link to a liberal blog arguing that Buffett continues supporting the overarching idea of raising taxes on the wealthy.
White House press secretary Jay Carney also pushed back Friday in the White House press briefing.
“There has been a lot of I think deliberate misrepresentation for political reasons, but also misinterpretation,” Carney said.
“The overall principle that [Buffett] supports the need for wealthy Americans to pay their fair share has been fairly well established,” Carney said. “It’s a principle, a principle that should guide an overall tax-reform structure.”
Buffett emphasized his specific proposal would only apply to the “ultra-rich” — about “50,000 people.”
“It isn’t to have the rich pay more taxes. It’s to have the ultra-rich who are paying very low tax rates pay more taxes,” Buffett said on Bloomberg News. “There’s all kinds of ultra-rich who pay normal taxes, but there is a small segment — but you can find them very easily — who pay very low taxes, including me. People who make money with money only pay very low taxes at very high levels of income.”
Carney sidestepped questions about how many people would be affected by Obama’s tax proposal or whether that number would be more than 50,000.
— This story was originally posted at 11 a.m. and was last updated at 3:10 p.m.