Since the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s aides and advisers have tried to convince him of the importance of tackling the national debt.
Sources close to the president say he has repeatedly shrugged it off, implying that he doesn’t have to worry about the money owed to America’s creditors—currently about $21 trillion—because he won’t be around to shoulder the blame when it becomes even more untenable.
The friction came to a head in early 2017 when senior officials offered Trump charts and graphics laying out the numbers and showing a “hockey stick” spike in the national debt in the not-too-distant future. In response, Trump noted that the data suggested the debt would reach a critical mass only after his possible second term in office.
“Yeah, but I won’t be here,” the president bluntly said, according to a source who was in the room when Trump made this comment during discussions on the debt.
The episode illustrates the extent of the president’s ambivalence toward tackling an issue that has previously animated the Republican Party from the days of Ronald Reagan to the presidency of Barack Obama.
But for those who have worked with Trump, it was par for the course. Several people close to the president, both within and outside his administration, confirmed that the national debt has never bothered him in a truly meaningful way, despite his public lip service. “I never once heard him talk about the debt,” one former senior White House official attested.
Marc Short, who until recently worked for Trump as his legislative affairs director, said he believed the president recognized “the threat that debt poses” and he pointed to Trump’s concern “about rising interest rates” as evidence of his concern for the matter.
“But there’s no doubt this administration and this Congress need to address spending because we have out-of-control entitlement programs,” Short said, adding, “it’s fair to say that... the president would be skeptical of anyone who claims that they would know exactly when a [debt] crisis really comes home to roost.”
Recent reports have suggested that Trump is determined, at least rhetorically, to address the issue. Hogan Gidley, a spokesman for the president, noted that the president and his team have proposed policies to achieve some deficit reduction, “including in his first budget that actually would’ve balanced in 10 years, a historic, common-sense rescissions proposal.”
But Gidley also passed the buck to the legislative branch. “While the president has and will continue to do everything in his power to rein in Washington’s out-of-control spending,” he said, “the Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse and it’s time for them to work with this president to reduce the debt.”
Those close to Trump say that one reason the issue of debt reduction has never been an animating one for him is because he is convinced that it can be solved through means other than tax hikes or sharp spending reductions.
Stephen Moore, a conservative economist at the Heritage Foundation and an economic adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign, recalled making visual presentations to Trump in mid-2016 that showed him the severity of the debt problem. But Moore told The Daily Beast that he personally assured candidate Trump that it could be dealt with by focusing on economic growth.
“That was why, when he was confronted with these nightmare scenarios on the debt, I think he rejected them, because if you grow the economy… you don’t have a debt problem,” Moore continued. “I know a few times when people would bring up the enormous debt, he would say, ‘We’re gonna grow our way out of it.’”
Moore has since championed this approach to tackling the debt as a key part of “Trumponomics,” and has co-authored a book supporting it.
As Moore recalled, a belief that robust economic growth would solve all problems was the way Trump—starting in 2016—justified the cost of his ambitious proposals to slash taxes, pursue big infrastructure projects, and simply avoid massive cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Since then, the president has continued to show indifference over the national debt, to the consternation of more traditionally conservative associates.
One current senior Trump administration official vented that Trump “doesn’t really care” about actually attacking the debt “crisis,” and prefers simply “jobs and growth, whatever that means.”
For the most part, the Republican Party has gone along. Over the first two years of the Trump administration, congressional Republicans have slashed taxes dramatically while increasing defense and discretionary spending, all without giving much indication that they’re going to take a stab at dramatically gutting certain popular entitlements.
The results have not been what Trump and Moore have promised; at least not yet. Economic growth increased over the past year—including a robust 4.1 percent in the second quarter of 2018—but the federal deficit has ballooned as well, in part because the government has taken in less revenue because of the tax cuts. Current forecasts are not too rosy about the future economy.
Recently, both Trump and some Republican lawmakers have hinted at regret over their approach. Earlier this year, Trump conveyed his disappointment with signing a large spending bill, particularly after he saw typically friendly allies on Fox News tear into him for supporting legislation that they viewed as funding Democratic priorities, exacerbating the national debt, and ditching his pledge to build a gigantic border wall, according to a report at the time in Axios.
Sources close to the president tell The Daily Beast that Trump was genuinely taken aback by the severity of this mini-revolt from MAGA loyalists.
However, right-leaning reformers shouldn’t be holding their breath.
The Washington Post recently reported that Trump had instructed his Cabinet to devise plans to trim their budgets in an effort to reduce the federal deficit. But Trump also set strict limits on what sorts of programs could be cut—and quickly proceeded to propose increased spending in other areas of the federal government.
“He understands the messaging of it,” the former senior White House official told The Daily Beast. “But he isn’t a doctrinaire conservative who deeply cares about the national debt, especially not on his watch… It’s not actually a top priority for him… He understands the political nature of the debt but it’s clearly not, frankly, something he sees as crucial to his legacy.”
The former Trump official adding, “It’s not like it’s going to haunt him.”