Well, you knew that wasn't going to last.
Less than a week after calling the Pentagon's $716 billion budget "crazy" and indicating that he wanted to trim it, President Donald Trump is reportedly proposing to push America's military spending to greater heights. After a meeting with Defense Secretary James Mattis and Republican congressional leaders last week, Politico reports, Trump told Mattis to submit a $750 billion budget request for next year—well in excess of the $733 billion level that had been previously planned.
Trump had, of course, championed an $82 billion spending increase for the Pentagon earlier this year, as part of a two-year budget agreement that boosted funding for both Republican and Democratic priorities while further inflating the federal deficit. But after celebrating his role in getting record-setting military spending through Congress—(here's how he described the negotiations: "It was not very hard. I went to Congress, I said, 'Let's do it, we gotta do it'")—the commander-in-chief seemed to have second thoughts.
Facing news of a growing budget deficit, Trump abruptly told all his cabinet secretaries in mid-October to plan for 5 percent budget cuts in the next year. He seemed to double down on his newfound willingness to cut military spending with a tweet posted shortly after his return from the G20 summit in Argentina:
I am certain that, at some time in the future, President Xi and I, together with President Putin of Russia, will start talking about a meaningful halt to what has become a major and uncontrollable Arms Race. The U.S. spent 716 Billion Dollars this year. Crazy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 3, 2018
Crazy, indeed. American military spending has lapped the rest of the world several times over. To put the Pentagon's $82 billion funding increase in perspective, consider that Russia's entire military budget totals only $61 billion. China, which boast the next most expensive military in the world after the United States, plans to spend about $175 billion this year—less than a quarter of what the U.S. spends.
But Trump's new outlook didn't last the week. Mattis, several top generals, and the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Forced Committee were dispatched to the White House last week to meet with the president and talk him down. It's a good thing we have so many knowledgeable insiders to stop Trump from doing something crazy, right?
When push came to shove, Trump was apparently a pushover. As Politico tells it, the president ended up negotiating against himself by the end of the meeting. "There was a discussion with POTUS about how to get $733 billion, and POTUS suggested that if the position is $733 billion, then we should submit a budget at $750 billion as a negotiating tactic," an anonymous source told the publication.
Of course, Trump changes his mind about policy about as often as he changes suits, so there's every possibility that he'll swing back towards the idea of cutting the Pentagon's budget in a week or two. For now, though, the whole incident looks like yet another example of Trump being willing to follow the advice of whoever was the last person to talk to him.
That's a shame, because the president's instinctive reaction to America's mounting budget deficit—cut spending!—is essentially the right one. Especially at the Pentagon, where top officials are given an annual budget larger than Switzerland's GDP but don't seem to have much of an interest in keeping track of where all that money ends up. An attempted audit of the Department of Defense (DoD) ended in mid-November with the conclusion that it was impossible to finish the audit because of accounting gaps and poor record keeping.
"We failed the audit," Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters. "We never expected to pass it." But he does expect American taxpayers to just keep flushing money into the Pentagon, right?
Just getting an audit done was something of an accomplishment—and something the Pentagon fought hard to prevent. As The Nation detailed in a deeply reported piece last month, the Defense Department has been deliberately misleading Congress for years about its spending habits, something that could happen because there's no independent oversight of the Pentagon's books. "For decades, the DoD's leaders and accountants have been perpetrating a gigantic, unconstitutional accounting fraud, deliberately cooking the books to mislead the Congress and drive the DoD's budgets ever higher, regardless of military necessity," writes Dave Lindorff. "DoD has literally been making up numbers in its annual financial reports to Congress—representing trillions of dollars' worth of seemingly nonexistent transactions—knowing that Congress would rely on those misleading reports when deciding how much money to give the DoD the following year, according to government records and interviews with current and former DoD officials, congressional sources, and independent experts."
Is it any wonder, then, that buckets of American tax dollars ended up funding Saudi Arabia's brutal war in Yemen? "Errors in accounting" is how a Pentagon spokesman explained it to The Atlantic, which last week uncovered the previously unknown spending.
If the past three weeks haven't brought enough evidence that the Pentagon requires more budgetary scrutiny and significant belt-tightening, there's years worth of evidence indicating the same.
It was always pretty unlikely that Trump would be serious about cutting the military's budget—or doing much of anything that would be considered fiscally conservative—but it's still remarkable just how easily Pentagon officials spun the president toward handing over even more money to the federal government's most expensive and least accountable department.
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