Analysis: The president said he'd eliminate the debt. Instead, he borrowed trillions more. But he's betting the red ink won't stain him in 2020.
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's budget is the confession of a broken promise.
As a candidate, Trump famously vowed to eliminate the national debt in eight years.
But under the spending blueprint he released Monday — which has "promises kept" in its title — the federal government wouldn't start paying down debt for 15 years. Until then, even under the rosy projections of Trump's budget-writers, Washington would run annual deficits adding to a red-ink total that already stands at more than $22 trillion.
Of course, Trump's initial promise was fantastical. But his tax cuts and defense buildup ushered in a new era of trillion-dollar annual deficits. His own budget projects that next year's deficit will weigh in at $1.1 trillion.
That's despite calling for massive cuts to entitlement programs, headlined by a plan to force recipients of Medicaid, food stamps and federal housing subsidies to work or otherwise engage in their communities.
There was no way, given the state of the national debt or of his preferred policies, that Trump could begin to entertain the idea that he would be able to campaign in 2020 on having kept the promise that he would eliminate the national debt.
Instead, what he's setting up to do with this budget is fight with — and blame — members of Congress as he frames his re-election message. The fiscal failure is their fault because they didn't follow his lead, his allies say.
"Congress just hasn't been willing to play ball," Russ Vought, the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, said Monday at a White House press conference. The deficits in Trump's early years in office were necessary, Vought said, "to get the economy going," which was essentially the reasoning for the deficit-financed Obama stimulus plan a decade ago.
Now, administration officials and Trump allies say, it's time for Congress to make trade-offs that reflect Trump's priorities.
Democrats say he's asking them to harm the poor and the middle-class to maintain low tax rates for individuals and corporations and to continue building up the Pentagon at the expense of non-defense agencies, which would see a 5 percent cut in discretionary spending.
"The cruel and shortsighted cuts in President Trump's budget request are a roadmap to a sicker, weaker America," Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement. "House Democrats will reject this toxic, destructive budget request which would hollow out our national strength and fail to meet the needs of the American people."
Trump "is committed" to cutting deficits and eliminating the debt, said Michael Caputo, who worked on his 2016 campaign. "I think he's now accustomed to the unfortunate reality of the situation, which is neither side has any interest in proper stewardship of the taxpayers' money."
That means hammering lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for blocking his proposals to eliminate federal programs and even spending requests — like the $8.6 billion he wants for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico — that would add to the expenditure side of the ledger.
Already, he's getting pushback from members of his own party on specific provisions. For example, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, dashed out a press release vowing to fight Trump's proposal to slash funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative by 90 percent.
On a more global level, lawmakers are also sure to refuse his calls to make massive cuts to entitlement programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, where his budget envisions reaping savings from kicking the poor and elderly off social insurance programs if those aid recipients don't work.
And Democrats say his request for more wall money — in the midst of a fight with Congress over whether he can shift previously appropriated money around for that purpose — is a non-starter. Moreover, they say he's pinching the poor and middle class through programmatic cuts for what Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., the vice chairman of the House Budget Committee and a possible 2020 presidential candidate, called "narrow personal political priorities" like tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and the border wall.
"The president's budget is a chance to challenge the country to think big," said Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., the vice chairman of the House Budget Committee and a potential 2020 presidential candidate. "President Trump just delivered a budget that challenges America to look backwards to a 1970s economic vision and a 5th century national security vision with a silly wall."
Even if Congress enacted every line of Trump's budget — and make no mistake, it's actually headed straight for a waste bin in Pelosi's Capitol office — he would start next year's campaign stretch run having added trillions of dollars to the debt he promised to eliminate.
More than that, he has now shown he has no plan for the budget being balanced in any single year until he's been out of office for at least a decade.
He can blame Congress all he wants. But the numbers — even the optimistic figures pumped out by his budget office — don't lie. Trump didn't just break his promise to eliminate debt; he reversed it.