Donald Trump, elected president after a campaign where he made at least 663 promises to people around the country, may have been engaging in hyperbole on one of his biggest promises, his budget director admitted in an interview published Wednesday.
CNBC’s John Harwood asked Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, “What about the goal of eliminating the debt, which President Trump at one point said he would do at the end of his second term?”
Mulvaney replied, “It’s fairly safe to assume that was hyperbole.”
“I’m not going to be able to pay off $20 trillion worth of debt in four years,” he continued. “I’d be being dishonest with you if I said that I could. The reason the president doesn’t want to change some of the mandatory spending, is because the public’s not ready for it yet. They’re ready for economic growth.”
Harwood asked this question right after Mulvaney had spent a minute defending infrastructure investments as “good spending.”
A request to the White House asking if the president also saw the remark as hyperbole went unanswered by press time.
The promise that Harwood referenced was this exchange, when Trump told Bob Woodward a year ago that he would get rid of the debt “fairly quickly,” meaning “over a period of eight years.”
TRUMP: We’ve got to get rid of the $19 trillion in debt.
WOODWARD: How long would that take?
TRUMP: I think I could do it fairly quickly, because of the fact the numbers…
WOODWARD: What’s fairly quickly?
TRUMP: Well, I would say over a period of eight years. And I’ll tell you why.
WOODWARD: Would you ever be open to tax increases as part of that, to solve the problem?
TRUMP: I don’t think I’ll need to. The power is trade. Our deals are so bad.
WOODWARD: That would be $2 trillion a year.
TRUMP: No, but I’m renegotiating all of our deals, Bob. The big trade deals that we’re doing so badly on. With China, $505 billion this year in trade. We’re losing with everybody.
This was not a standalone, anomalous promise. Trump said he would eliminate or bring down the national debt several times over the course of the campaign.
Trump asserted during the second presidential debate that he would bring back energy companies, which would make so much money that they could pay off the national debt:
Now we have natural gas, and so other things because of technology, we have unbelievable, we have found over the last seven years, we found tremendous wealth right under our feet. So good, especially when you have $20 trillion in debt. I will bring our energy companies back and they will be able to compete and they’ll make money and pay off our national debt and budget deficits which are tremendous.
At other points during the campaign, Trump promised to pay down the debt.
“We’ll make so much money from that, from energy,” he said at a press conference in in Bismarck, North Dakota in 2016. “We will make so much money that we’ll start to pay down our $19 trillion in debt.”
Among a longer list of promises during his announcement speech, Trump said he would, “reduce our $18 trillion in debt, because, believe me, we’re in a bubble.”
Trump suggested he would “straighten out” the debt “correctly” on March 11, 2016 during his speech accepting Ben Carson’s endorsement.
We have so many problems, the debt. Look at our debt, $19 trillion going up to $21 trillion in a very short fashion. So we’re going to straighten things out and straighten them out correctly.
At the very least, Trump said he would eliminate the deficit. He told an audience in Keene, New Hampshire on September 30, 2015, that “we’ll grow the American economy and all of this will add up to a point where we’re not going to be increasing our debt.”
This all comes back to the reality of how difficult it is to balance the federal budget while also lowering taxes, preserving non-discretionary spending, increasing military spending, and cutting discretionary spending — all goals of the Trump administration. The White House’s budget proposal focused brutal budget cuts on a relatively small portion of the federal budget (the EPA, the State Department, the NIH, for example). Cuts there, especially with the budget’s proposed $54 billion increase in defense spending, do not mean huge cuts to the deficit. Cutting taxes, and therefore revenues, make cutting the deficit even harder. Lowering the debt cannot happen until the deficit drops to zero.
Hyperbole does not mean malarkey — it means “extravagant exaggeration.” Trump’s promise to eliminate the debt is not just an exaggeration — given these realities, it is malarkey. Trump was pressed on this during the campaign by of all people, Bill O’Reilly.
During an interview with the Fox News host in February 2016, O’Reilly pressed Trump on how he would bring down the debt given these challenges. O’Reilly cited mandated non-discretionary spending on Social Security and Medicare, saying “how is any human being going to bring down the debt?”
After Trump replied with a long assertion that the country had seen no economic growth, O’Reilly again pressed him on how this would bring down the debt. Again Trump talked about creating a dynamic economy and bringing jobs back from countries like China, not answering how this would lower or eliminate the federal debt.
O’REILLY: We still owe them money. So you bring it back, how are you going to get the debt down?
TRUMP: Because the country is going to start growing and we will be up to 4 and even 5 percent. And when we do that, we pay it back so easily.
TRUMP: It’s easy to pay it back.
TRUMP: How? Because essentially if you look at the country like a profit- making corporation or a losing corporation — right now we are a losing corporation — we are going to make it a profit-making corporation.
O’REILLY: Ok. But then you are going to have to raise taxes to get more money in to pay down that debt.
TRUMP: The problem we have is our taxes are so high that nobody can — everybody is choking.
O’REILLY: I don’t know how — even if you gin the economy up, how does that pay down $21 trillion? You have to take money from the corporations and people to do it.
TRUMP: Bill, the politicians have caused this problem. Just so you understand.
O’REILLY: I understand that.
TRUMP: They have caused this problem over the years. Listen, the politicians have caused this problem. We’re going to make our country dynamic again. Now, companies, big companies like Pfizer are leaving. They’re going to make it worse. They’re leaving. It’s called corporate inversion — many companies are leaving because the taxes are so high. We have to lower taxes not raise taxes.
O’REILLY: All right. But if you cut the taxes again the revenue to pay down the debt then leaves. Ok. But that’s for another day.
TRUMP: No. No the country will be more dynamic. It will be a dynamic. We are going to create a dynamic economy where real jobs are going to be pouring into the country and we’ll have a country that is sustainable. It will work — Bill.
O’REILLY: Still the debt is still on the books. Now, you say you’re going to be in the next —
TRUMP: You are going to slowly pay down the debt.
O’REILLY: Ok. You are going to be in the next debate. You’ve confirmed that? Fox News debate in Detroit? You showing up?
Perhaps if O’Reilly had pressed Trump a bit further instead of pivoting to another topic, the White House’s current approach to lowering the debt would be clearer.