Donald Trump sent Sam Clovis, who identifies himself as Trump’s chief policy advisor and the national co-chair of his presidential campaign, to Washington on Wednesday to talk to an audience of budget wonks, deficit hawks, and people generally concerned about the fiscal status of the United States.
Clovis, a former radio talk show host whose online biographies indicate that he is a “tenured full professor of Economics” at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa -- despite no evidence in his biography that he has received formal academic training as an economist -- spent a considerable part of his appearance telling the audience about how economics textbooks put him to sleep during his time as a cadet at the Air Force Academy.
As a chief policy advisor, Clovis also displayed a remarkable lack of knowledge about how his candidate’s proposals have been received by the policy community. In an interview with John Harwood of CNBC, Clovis was apparently unaware of the fact that the Tax Foundation -- a generally conservative organization friendly to conservative tax proposals -- had reviewed Trump’s published tax plan and found that even under the rosiest scenario including dynamic scoring, it increases the federal debt by $10 trillion over 10 years.
“We’ve spent a lot of time with the Tax Foundation and we think that, looking at the budget, that budget discipline is going to be a very important part of what we offer when we come to the White House in 2017,” Clovis said.
“To be clear," said Harwood, "they scored your plan as costing $10 trillion with dynamic effects.”
“That’s not entirely true. The Tax Foundation model is a static model, not a dynamic model,” Clovis said.
Harwood pushed back, saying, “They do it both ways but I believe the $10 trillion figure they came up with was in their dynamic model.”
“Well, that’s not what they told me and I’ve sat across the table from them just like this, John, so I don’t think we need to argue the model,” Clovis said airily.
The problem is that he was completely and demonstrably wrong. The Tax Foundation’s analysis is quite specific on the subject:
“The plan would also be a large tax cut, which would increase the federal government’s deficit by over $10 trillion, both on a static and dynamic basis,” it found.
Starting out an interview before an economically literate audience by misrepresenting a well-known group’s analysis of his candidate’s tax plan may not even have been the low point for Clovis on Wednesday.
After denying that the Tax Foundation had predicted a $10 trillion increase in the debt after 10 years he went on to predict a...remarkably large...eventual budget surplus if Trump is put in charge of the US economy.
“If we are able to change the growth by one percent of GDP, raising it just to 2 percent, we have an offset of $3 trillion in revenue,” he said. “We grow it two percent; we’ll have an offset of up to $7 trillion. So we have immediately offset, with growth, that $10 trillion is a much more manageable number. There are other factors that we are going to propose...our proposals in fact, what we think is going to happen, will lead us to about a…$4 and a half to $7 trillion surplus at the end of ten years if all of our initiatives are put in place.”
Harwood let the promise of a $7 trillion surplus slide (unlike much of social media) and instead asked how Trump would do that without touching Social Security or Medicare, as he has repeatedly promised.
That’s where Clovis got into more trouble.
“We’re not touching it now,” he said. “Once the administration is in place, we will start to take a look at all of the programs, including entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, we’ll take a hard look at those to see what we can start doing, in a bipartisan way, to affect that.”
Trump, of course, has said that the large entitlement programs are completely off limits, which meant Trump’s press secretary Hope Hicks had to release an angry statement insisting that Clovis’s comments, which sounded to listeners like an admission that cuts to entitlement benefits are on the table, was no such thing.
“Sam Clovis did not remotely suggest anything having to do with cuts,” Ms. Hicks told the Wall Street Journal. “I read his statements as though we need to examine budgetary discipline to protect programs like Social Security and Medicare, which is exactly what Mr. Trump intends to do.”
Clovis also did little to assure voters that Trump is serious about the tax reform proposal that he issued last year. The candidate got into trouble over the weekend for saying -- and then denying -- that he might consider raising taxes on the very wealthy instead of cutting them. In the end, he insisted that his statements had been misunderstood.
Clovis said, “I think oftentimes with Mr. Trump, even though he’s a celebrity and has been around the media a lot, policy questions I think sometimes come to him and he knows exactly what he wants to say…. But what [he] intends to say isn’t the way it comes out…
“Policy questions can get to a certain degree of granularity very quickly….and the person may or may not have the particular vocabulary to provide that astute articulate answer you can get from a wonk on the set of a TV show,” he said.
However, Clovis also suggested that Trump isn’t actually rock solid on his positions. Discussing the candidate’s shifting positions over the weekend, he said, “What this really does is allow us to signal to people on both sides of the aisle we’re not going to come in there and fall on our swords over this. This is not going to be the hill we’re going to die on.”
Immediately after his appearance, reporters stopped Clovis in a hallway outside the venue and asked him questions about Trump’s fiscal plans. He declined to answer any questions at all unless the interviewer had been approved in advance by Trump’s press secretary Hicks.
At that point, his newfound caution seemed a bit late.