Donald Trump famously declared while running for president that he would eliminate the national debt during two terms in office.
"We're not a rich country. We're a debtor nation,” Trump told The Washington Post in April of 2016. “We've got to get rid of the $19 trillion in debt.” Asked how long that would take, Trump said, “I think I could do it fairly quickly ... I would say over a period of eight years.”
But the debt has done nothing but grow under Trump. Even before the federal response to the coronavirus crisis drove the annual deficit over the $3 trillion mark and the national debt as a percentage of the economy to its highest level since World War II, Trump’s fiscal policies of tax cuts and higher spending were driving the deficit and debt substantially higher. Three years into his presidency, the deficit had grown by more than 60% and trillions had been added to the national debt.
Nevertheless, on Wednesday White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany renewed the president’s vow to start reducing the debt — just as soon as he wins reelection.
“The debt is a second-term priority of his,” McEnany told Fox News Wednesday, citing “unprecedented growth” as a means of accomplishing that goal.
Tax cuts won’t do it: In her response to a question about the huge increase in the deficit this year, McEnany referred to increases in federal revenues in 2018 and 2019, which she attributed to the GOP tax cuts passed in 2017, while implying that such revenues could help reduce the debt. But as The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel pointed out last week in response to a claim by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin that the Trump tax cuts “were creating growth that would pay down the debt over time,” the deficit was rising in the wake of the GOP tax cuts, and the debt was projected to keep growing, not shrink. The coronavirus crisis simply accelerated trends already in place. And Trump’s recent suggestion that he might eliminate payroll taxes certainly wouldn’t help.
So what’s the plan? The Trump administration has released virtually no details on its agenda for a second term. But the president has indicated that, in addition to cutting taxes, he wants to cut spending, saying in May, "we're going to cut ... we're going to cut back very substantially." Asked if he had a plan for reducing the debt, Trump told a conservative radio host, “I do, I do. That bothers me too, but we’re going to get out of it.”
Trump’s track record, however, suggests that it is unlikely that there is such plan. And aside from slashing spending, which would require a Republican sweep of Congress in November in addition to a Trump victory, faster economic growth is the only tool the White House has cited for its budget reduction effort. The prospects for such extraordinary growth, however, remain quite poor, leaving a second Trump administration few options for achieving its goal of debt reduction.