President Trump is demanding top advisers craft a plan to reduce the country’s ballooning budget deficits, but the president has flummoxed his own aides by repeatedly seeking new spending while ruling out measures needed to address the country’s unbalanced budget.
Trump’s deficit-reduction directive came last month, after the White House reported a large increase in the deficit for the previous 12 months. The announcement unnerved Republicans and investors, helping fuel a big sell-off in the stock market. Two days after the deficit report, Trump floated a surprise demand to his Cabinet secretaries, asking them to identify steep cuts in their agencies.
This account of Trump’s deficit stance is based on conversations with 10 current and former officials in the White House and Congress. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations or private conversations. The White House has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
Administration officials have, for now, crafted a sparse plan that would recycle past proposals and call on Congress to trim federal spending on a variety of programs, two White House officials said.
But even as he has demanded deficit reduction, Trump has handcuffed his advisers with limits on what measures could be taken. And almost immediately after demanding the cuts from his Cabinet secretaries, Trump suggested that some areas — particularly the military — would be largely spared.
The president has said no changes can be made to Medicare and Social Security, two of the government’s most expensive entitlements, as he has promised that the popular programs will remain untouched.
When staffers sought to include an attack on Democrats’ Medicare-for-all proposals in Trump’s campaign speeches this fall, he initially blanched, two administration aides said. Medicare is popular, he said, and voters want it. Eventually, he agreed to the attack if he could say Democrats were going to take the entitlement away.
He has suggested that military spending could be curtailed slightly, from $716 billion this year to $700 billion in his next proposal, a smaller reduction than other agencies would face.
The plan is not expected to include large-scale tax increases, which would be a non-starter with congressional Republicans.
In total, government debt has risen roughly $2 trillion since Trump took office, and the federal government now owes $21.7 trillion, according to the Treasury Department. The president’s agenda has contributed to that increase and is projected to continue to do so, both through the GOP tax cut and with bipartisan spending increases.
And Trump’s recent interest in the issue is at odds with his long-standing previous indifference, according to current and former aides.