Here’s one promise we know Trump is not going to keep

REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Last April, in an interview with the Washington Post, Donald Trump pledged to pay off the national debt over the next eight years.

Perhaps it’s a waste of time and pixels to remind people of President Trump’s campaign promises. I also have a problem, which I’ve mentioned before, that I can’t understand the explanation that Trump’s supporters took his campaign statements “seriously but not literally.” To me, it’s hard to make those two words align in a coherent way. And the problem is exacerbated when so many of the campaign statements were phantasmagorical.

So now we have Trump’s tax reform plan. Well, not really. We have a one-page summary in which every statement prompts about 1,000 questions. Basically, everyone’s tax rate goes down, but almost all deductions go away, which makes up for some – but certainly not all – of the cost of the lower rates.

Rich people and corporations get the biggest benefits, by far. But almost every taxpayer pays less. Details to come. Personally, I think I’ll wait to assess this until a full plan has been released and analyzed and scored non-phantasmagorically by neutral experts, most especially by the Congressional Budget Office.

Trump used to say that the revenue gain from doing away with deductions will offset the revenue loss from the lower rates. Some of that offset is certainly possible. But, here’s a small prediction. The honest scorekeepers will decide that the plan will add massively to the federal deficit and debt. Massively plus.

Spending cuts will be proposed to offset some of the lost revenue. Many of the spending cuts will be compromised down. The net effect will be to add massively, massively, massively-plus to the national debt.

I don’t claim to know whether such a plan or anything resembling such a plan will be adopted. But I do know that Trump will not keep one of his many phantasmagorical campaign promises. He often railed against and promised to do something about the deficit and debt picture, and implied he had ludicrous or unspecified ideas about how to make it better. But on some occasions he went further.

Last April, in an interview with the Washington Post, Trump pledged to pay off the national debt over the next eight years. He didn’t just promise to balance the budget in the final year of his second term. (He won’t do that either, but it’s a less insane promise). He said he would pay off the debt. Here’s the story.

OK, maybe he didn’t use the words “pay off” to describe what he would do to the debt. He said he would “get rid” of the debt, which may suggest that because of his famed deal-making ability he would negotiate some of it away. Color me skeptical.

Because of the ludicrous nature of so many things he said as a candidate this one got lost in the mix, although he came back many times to the idea that he had a secret plan to get rid of the deficit (or the debt, he seems to use the terms interchangeably, leading one to wonder whether he knows the difference). But if you read that Post story linked above, it appears that Trump really meant he had a plan to “pay off” the debt over eight years, a statement that might be delusional or just a lie.

As an example, he was asked by Miss America’s Outstanding Teen what he would do about the $18 trillion dollar “deficit.” (That figure actually must refer to the debt, not the deficit, but Trump repeated the mistake in his reply, thus):

TRUMP: All right. Well, what we’re going to do, I mean we do, and by the way it’s not $18 trillion, it’s now $19 trillion. So we have now $19 trillion in deficits (sic). $19 trillion, you know if you look, we owe! When I say that, we owe, this is what you’re talking about, we owe $19 trillion as a country. And we’re gonna knock it down and we’re gonna bring it down big league and quickly, we’re gonna bring jobs back, we’re gonna bring business back, we’re gonna stop our deficits, we’re gonna stop our deficits, we’re gonna do it very quickly.”


TRUMP: “Oh, how! Are you ready? Number 1, we have tremendous cutting to do. You have a Department of Education that is totally out of control, massive costs. And, you know, most of the, and some of the Republican candidates like Common Core. I’m totally against Common Core. I want local education. When I’m in New Hampshire and Iowa and South Carolina, I want – so important. So we’re gonna have that. 

We’re gonna save on Department of Environmental Protection, because they’re not doing it. They’re not doing their job, and they’re making it impossible for our country to compete. And many, many other things. Hundreds of billions of dollars is going to be saved, just in terms of running government. 

In addition to that, I’m gonna bring millions of jobs back into this country. OK, darling? Thank you.

Maybe, when he told the Post he would get rid of the debt, he meant the deficit. Should we be bothered by a president who hasn’t mastered that distinction?

Anyway, the last time the U.S. government had a period when it wasn’t running a deficit (meaning a balanced budget or a small surplus) was during the Bill Clinton years. The last time the U.S. government ended a year with no debt was 1835.

I once described myself as a moderate deficit hawk, which caused some mockery of the term in the discussion thread. I don’t have any illusion that the U.S. government will “get rid” of the debt in my lifetime, and I don’t think that’s an important goal. I also think that in times of historically low interest rates, it makes sense for the nation to borrow money to make long-term investments, like infrastructure and educating the future workforce, that will contribute to economic growth and in a long-term sense pay for itself. But on a year-to-year basis, I think a moderate goal would be to have the total debt grow more slowly than the GDP. It’s our big, strong economy that makes it possible to carry our massive multitrillion-dollar debt.

Although the current incumbent is not going to balance the budget and not going to “get rid of” the debt, and both measures are likely to get worse during his tenure, especially judging by tax his proposal, if he asked me I would tell him that a rational goal would be to try to get the GDP growing faster than the debt is growing.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/28/2017 - 09:47 am.

    At Long Last

    Can we please dispense with the myth that conservatives and Republicans are deficit hawks? Since the time of Ronald Reagan, they have chosen tax cuts for the wealthy over deficit reduction.

    Here is what to remember about conservatives and deficits:

    They. Don’t. Care.

  2. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 04/28/2017 - 09:51 am.

    Phantasmagorical indeed… indeed

    Gregg’s blog just revealed why turtles cross the road in Spring.

    We already know why chickens cross the road…to get to the other side.

    Phantasmagorical-ly speaking, will we ever know why Trump keeps going back and forth and back and forth on policy changes?

    Certainly not for the reason turtles do?

    Certainly not why chickens do?

    Possibly because Trump crosses back and forth with his many policy changes…because he is a chicken when approval runs out and he responds like a turtle phantasmagorical-ly speaking that is…when his approval ratings disappear?

    So what is he now, really… a turtle, or a chicken?

    It’s a slow morning and the sun is shining…doesn’t help to reasonably develop the most rational conclusions…have a fine day..

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/28/2017 - 09:54 am.

    Trump lives his life in accord with many of Paris Hilton’s precepts for heiresses:

    ….Heiresses aren’t needy. If an heiress is feeling a little insecure, she should go shopping. And if she still doesn’t feel any better, she should go to Paris. Or Saint-Tropez.[or Mar a Lago]

    ….An heiress should never be too serious. Being too serious is very dull, and is a sign that you have no imagination or personality. No one really wants to hang out with anyone too serious. An heiress is so confident — and why shouldn’t she be?

    … Be born into the right family. Choose your chromosomes wisely. This may seem like ludicrous advice, but actually it isn’t. If an heiress is in control of everything, why shouldn’t she be in control of who she’s born to? You know how everyone always says there are no accidents? Well, I believe you choose who you’re born to. And if you do have the misfortune of being born into the wrong family, remember: No one has to know. Airing family laundry is definitely a big no-no for an heiress. You can always reinvent yourself and your lineage if you have to.

    …Have a great name. If you are going to be an heiress, you can’t have a normal name, unless you’re British…..If you have a cute name, you will act cute. If you have a glam name, you will act glam. It’s that simple. Future moms should make a note of that.

    ….Eat only fast food or the most fabulous food. Greasy chips or perfect crab cakes. Cotton candy or caviar. Fast food or fois gras. French fries or black-pepper shrimp from the Ivy in L.A. Cheesy junk or expensive cheese. Being an heiress is all about extremes.

    …Never, ever wake up before 10; never go to bed before three. Normal hours are for normal people. You never want to be normal.

    AND, most germane to today’s columns about fake promises….

    …..Always tell everyone what they want to hear. Then do what you want. That way, no one ever gets mad at you. They get very confused, then blame it on themselves. If anyone confronts you, smile sweetly and act coyly. Particularly with guys. And bosses. Try not to have bosses if you can avoid them. Or have your manager deal with them.

  4. Submitted by Dan Landherr on 04/28/2017 - 10:17 am.

    The EPA and Department of Education didn’t cause $18T in debt

    EPA has an $8.2B budget and Education is around $70B. Cutting those two agencies entirely would pay off the debt in 231 years, absent any other changes. 231 years ago the president of the Congress of the United States was Nathaniel Gorham and the US Constitution was not yet written.

  5. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 04/28/2017 - 12:00 pm.

    Let’s keep the basics in mind.

    Donald Trump does not understand the federal budget, either in essence or in process. If he or his economic appointees (Cohn and Mnuchin) really understood the enormity and complexity of the federal government, they would have come up with more than a one-page set of bullet points, which are only vague sound bites on budget. There is no budget plan here. It’s an empty exercize that Trump’s campaign could have come up with eighteen months ago. Where’s the thinking?

    Second, Eric is right to be cautious on how Trump will somehow make the national debt go away. He does not intend to “pay it off,” because Trump himself has no business history of ever paying off” his own debt. He “gets rid of it” by stiffing his lenders and bond holders. He “makes deals” where his lenders and bond holders and contractors get paid back either nothing, as he goes bankrupt, or they take pennies on the dollar owed them by Trump. No one ever gets fully paid back by Donald Trump, the man who “knows debt!”

    This is one of the many reasons that we need more attention to Trump’s business history: He never pays his debts. When Hillary Clinton mentioned in one of the televised debates that she was sure her father (a businessman) would have considered himself lucky never to have tried to do business with Donald Trump, the huge backgraound knowledge she had behind that statement went right over the heads of rabid Trump supporters. You had to have read about his businesses, especially in the 1990s, to understand her reference.

    The man has an absolutely unethical, slimy business history. “I know debt!” he claimed in the campaign. He sure does.

    That’s why he believes that the U.S. can rack up trillions upon trillions of national debt: He doesn’t think the U.S. really needs to pay that money back. Why should the country, when its president’s business model involves not paying your debts?

  6. Submitted by Gene Nelson on 04/28/2017 - 12:43 pm.

    Tax cuts benefitting the wealthy and a potential war…

    Currently we’re seeing from trump and the repubs a proposal to drastically cut taxes, of which most will benefit, but as is typical of repubs…it will be the wealthy who benefit the most.
    We are also seeing a potential of war with North Korea…so how are they going to fund that?
    Kind of like the bush tax cuts that moved us from a real 4 year surplus to massive deficits in his first year and then pushing for two wars, leaving behind massive fiscal deficits.
    Both Reagan and Bush claimed their tax cuts wouldn’t cause deficits, while Reagan’s tripled the deficit and bush…pretty much…destroyed our economy.
    Think Great Recession.
    It bothers me that our media doesn’t do a better job of exposing these deficit sins of repubs who constantly blame someone else for their incompetence.

  7. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/28/2017 - 01:15 pm.

    Who Really Believes This?

    Does anyone really believe that the deficit was ever especially important to Republicans?

    Anyone who has been paying attention should know that the two things most important to them are cutting taxes, especially on the wealthy, and cutting spending that is directed towards the “non-deserving.” Any talk about the deficit “drowning us in red ink” is just a cover for spending cuts that the public would not otherwise support. Any talk about lower taxes bringing in more revenue is just another way of saying “please don’t take my economic ideas seriously.”

    • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 04/28/2017 - 02:47 pm.

      46.09% of Americans

      That’s “who really believes this”, according to the FEC.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/28/2017 - 05:24 pm.

        What they believe

        is that somehow they can pay less, get more, and not go into debt.
        The economics are laffable, but then Art Laffer and supply side economics are making a comeback. There’s no evidence that cutting taxes stimulates the economy; increasing the supply of goods and services is useless when people don’t have money to spend on them. FIRST you have to get more people working (public spending does that …. stores don’t care whether their customers pay with private dollars or public ones). THEN you may see an increase in commerce.

  8. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/28/2017 - 03:04 pm.


    …to the usual suspects, who’ve already covered the points I’d have made, thus making my Friday easier, less frustrating, and more coherent.

  9. Submitted by Bill Phillips on 05/01/2017 - 08:46 am.

    trickle-down economics again

    it’s amazing how this theory retains its popularity when it hasn’t ever worked – Reagan, Little Bush, etc. If we just don’t tax them, they will come back and make everything better – and pay off the debt, and reduce the deficits. No pain, all gain. It’s like any other fantasy, except those who profess to believe it are in complete charge this time.

Leave a Reply