Trump Tries to Walk Back Entitlement Comments as Democrats Pounce
When President Trump suggested to an interviewer at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland that he would, “at some point,” look at cutting entitlement programs, his Democratic critics seized on the comments as evidence that Mr. Trump would gut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in a second term.
“Even as the impeachment trial is underway, Trump is still talking about cutting your Social Security,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said at the beginning of a news conference that was ostensibly about the Senate impeachment trial.
The Democratic super PAC Priorities USA posted on Twitter about Mr. Trump’s remarks, and others contrasted his statement with his 2016 campaign pledge not to touch entitlement programs.
On Thursday, the president tried to clean up his own mess.
“Democrats are going to destroy your Social Security,” Mr. Trump tweeted shortly before leaving the White House for a campaign-related event in Florida. “I have totally left it alone, as promised, and will save it!”
Advisers said the president’s comments in Davos, Switzerland, came as he is keeping a wary eye on the ballooning deficit, which he promised to eliminate within eight years if elected. Under Mr. Trump’s watch, the federal budget deficit has risen rapidly as his tax cuts and increased spending necessitate more government borrowing.
Last year, the deficit topped $1 trillion for the first time since 2012, and it is projected to stay above that mark for several years. Even with a strong economy, the deficit has grown nearly four times as fast, on average, under Mr. Trump than it did under President Barack Obama.
Still, senior administration officials insisted that Mr. Trump was not seeking to make a new policy announcement. They also insisted that he was not making a significant break with anything he has said before. They described proposals he has made in previous budgets as efforts to grapple with the growing costs of social safety net programs without breaking his campaign pledge.
A Trump administration official familiar with planning for the upcoming the White House budget said that the president was not expected to announce any draconian cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid when the document is released next month.
However, Mr. Trump’s budget proposal could outline some of the administration’s plans for additional tax cuts. While those cuts have yet to be detailed, they would invariably add to the deficit unless they were offset with other spending cuts or tax increases. That fiscal reality could spur Republicans to renew calls for cutting entitlement programs, whose costs are estimated to grow as an aging population relies more on Social Security and Medicare.
Some Republicans argued that Mr. Trump was continuing with a longstanding practice of making vague but sometimes contradictory statements that allow people to select what they want to believe from what he has said.
But Democrats spied an opportunity to highlight the disparity between Mr. Trump’s messaging and what his government does.
Mr. Trump’s understanding that entitlement programs, particularly those for older Americans, are a political land mine was clear in 2016, when he broke with other candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination and promised unequivocally to protect Social Security.
“I will do everything within my power not to touch Social Security, to leave it the way it is,” Mr. Trump said during a March 2016 debate, adding that he would solve the problem of the program’s solvency by making the United States a wealthier country.
At the time, Mr. Trump was also blunt about the political realities of cutting safety net programs, noting that Democrats want to bolster Social Security benefits for retirees.
“And that’s what we’re up against,” he said. “And whether we like it or not, that is what we’re up against.”
Despite that promise, Mr. Trump has made several moves to chip away at America’s social safety net programs.
The Trump administration has already tried to cut food stamps, rental assistance for low-income housing, and Medicaid through efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, said Chye-Ching Huang, the director of federal fiscal policy at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The most recent White House budget proposed a $10 billion cut to the Social Security Disability Insurance program, which provides benefits to disabled workers.
“This is just the latest of many instances of the Trump administration making clear through statements, budgets, legislation and administrative actions that their basic policy goal is tax cuts for the well-off hand-in-hand with targeting critical programs, including those that support low- and moderate-income people,” Ms. Huang said.
Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are projected to cost the government more than $30 trillion through 2029, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The combined annual outlays represent more than 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and threaten to weigh on long-term economic growth.
The programs themselves face a financial predicament. The cost of Social Security, the federal retirement program, will exceed its income in 2020 for the first time since 1982 and its reserve fund is projected to be depleted in 16 years, according to an annual government report released last year.
Medicare’s hospital insurance fund is projected to be depleted in 2026. At that time, doctors, hospitals and nursing homes will not receive their full compensation from the program and patients could face more of a financial burden.
Cutting entitlement programs, which are funded by workers through payroll taxes, has long been considered the “third rail” of American politics. Suggestions of trimming benefits or raising the retirement age to make programs more sustainable has been a nonstarter with older voters, who more reliably show up at the polls. In 1981, when President Ronald Reagan proposed a plan that would have reduced the benefits paid to early retirees, he was rebuffed by Congress and dealt a political blow. It took a bipartisan commission two years to agree to overhauls for the program.
Republican lawmakers who consider themselves fiscal conservatives have long wanted to restructure America’s safety net programs, but they have generally held their tongues under Mr. Trump. Last year, however, some lawmakers started to press the president to tackle the issue.
“We’ve brought it up with President Trump, who has talked about it being a second-term project,” Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, told The New York Times last year.
The need to find cuts could become more pressing if the administration tried to push through another tax cut.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Thursday that Mr. Trump had asked him to begin developing a plan for more middle-class tax cuts to further stimulate the economy.
“The president feels that we need to continue to incentivize the middle class,” Mr. Mnuchin said on CNBC. “That their taxes have been too high historically.”
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