Debt and Deficits

Trump's Nearly $1 Trillion Deficit Is Worse Than a Broken Promise

The president doesn't understand the difference between a budget deficit and a trade deficit.

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One of the refrains from President Trump's most ardent defenders—as well as from the president himself—is that he keeps his promises. For the last several years, the Republican National Committee, which serves as a de facto arm of the president's political operation, has been touting "promises made, promises kept," a phrase that the president has repeated at campaign stops and rallies. The website PromisesKept.com is operated by Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. 

The idea behind the slogan is to combat the idea that Trump has few policy accomplishments, and to portray the president as someone who can be relied on to follow through on his campaign promises. He's a president you can count on. 

Yet when it comes to the federal debt, Trump is clearly failing to live up to his own words. In April 2016, Trump told The Washington Post, "We've got to get rid of the $19 trillion debt." And he believed he could make that happen in a relatively compressed time frame. "I think I could do it fairly quickly," he said. How quickly? "I would say over a period of eight years." 

Nearly three years into his presidency, however, the debt has risen to surpass $22 trillion. And federal budget deficits—the annual gap between revenues and spending—are growing ever larger, hitting levels not seen since the aftermath of the recession during President Obama's first term. 

According to a new estimate from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the federal budget deficit for the 2019 fiscal year, which ended last month, was about $984 billion dollars. That just-shy-of-a-trillion dollar figure is higher than projected, and represents an increase of about 50 percent from when Trump took office, and an increase of about $200 billion from last year alone. It's more than double the $442 billion deficit under Obama in 2015. 

In the macro, political-difference-making scheme of the universe, it is almost certainly futile to dwell on the question of how Republicans would have reacted to such debt-and-deficit totals under President Obama, and yet: Imagine how Republicans would have reacted to such debt-and-deficit totals under Obama.

Actually, we don't have to imagine. We know. Because Republicans warned, loudly and repeatedly, that Obama's deficits, which came in the aftermath of a nationwide economic slowdown, were apocalyptic, catastrophic, world ending, and so on and so forth. 

Yet here we are. Trump is president, and he has allowed the deficit to soar beyond the increases that were already projected to happen. And Republicans in Congress have reacted with muted concern at best, and more like a collective shrug. Trillion-dollar deficits under a Democrat were a national emergency. Trillion-dollar deficits under Trump are no biggie. It's almost like the real problem, for many Republicans, wasn't the deficit. 

Republicans in Congress, who manage the budget process and who have signed on to various deals that spend more on domestic spending (a Democratic priority) in order to secure more spending on defense spending (a Republican priority), are, of course, a big part of the problem. A president cannot unilaterally address the annual budget deficit without significant help from the legislature.

But part of the problem is that Trump, being Trump, thought he could. In the 2016 interview where he raised the possibility of eliminating federal debt in eight years, he said he could do it through altering foreign trade deals. "The power is trade," he said. "Our deals are so bad." Trump said he would renegotiate trade deals with China, in particular, suggesting that doing so would eliminate federal debt. 

In many ways, that was the most telling part of Trump's response. He appears to have confused the foreign trade deficit with the federal budget deficit, a confusion that he has stubbornly held onto throughout his time as president. In the meantime, both the budget deficit and the trade deficit have increased. Trump has failed on both measures. And, as with his confusion about the budget deficit, his trade agenda has been driven by false claims and deep misconceptions about how trade works. 

Trump's nearly trillion-dollar deficits help reveal a deeper problem with the president, one that simple arguments about promises kept or unkept can sometimes fail to capture. It's not just that Trump can't be counted on to live up to his word. It's that Trump can't even be counted on to comprehend the promises he's made.