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Trump's Budget Is the Real Scandal

He promised to help Americans left behind by an unfair economy. Instead he wants to cut government benefits and give more money to the rich.

by Harry Cheadle
May 23 2017, 4:48pm

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

At the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference, Donald Trump gave a speech that foreshadowed much of the platform on which he'd eventually run for president. He complained about the rising deficit and trade imbalances with other countries, bragged about his personal wealth, rambled a bit about flaws in the immigration system, said the US should "take the oil" from Iraq, trotted out the phrase "make America great again," and denounced the Republican Party for running lousy campaigns premised on unpopular policies.

"As Republicans, if you think you're going to change very substantially for the worse Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security," he lectured the crowd, "and at the same time you think you're going to win elections—it just really is not going to happen."

During the campaign, Trump seemed to cling to those ideas, especially by pledging not to cut those "entitlement" programs, which provide money and healthcare to the poor, sick, and old. This was one of Trump's major innovations—a core belief that set him apart from normal Republicans: He knew talking about these benefits away was a losing subject, so he promised not to touch them. Some of Trump's policies would have amounted to benefit rollbacks, but on Twitter he was explicit: no cuts.

Then, on Tuesday, the Trump administration released a budget that proposed massive cuts to Medicaid along with a host of other programs designed to help the less fortunate, many of whom voted for him. It's shockingly cruel in its austerity and the way it harms the young and poor in particular, but it also reveals Trump's core hypocrisy. He's a populist onstage, but a benefit-busting conservative in the White House.


Watch: A right-wing blogger comes to Washington


Trump's document—an expanded version of a proposal teased in March—would reduce the budget by $3.6 trillion over ten years, mainly by shredding America's already threadbare safety net. Medicaid would be cut by over $600 billion (on top of the over $800 billion it would lose under the House Republican healthcare bill); the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (a.k.a. food stamps) would lose nearly $200 billion; welfare for the extremely poor would be cut by over $20 billion; programs that provide Social Security payments to disabled people would be shorn by over $72 billion; the Children's Health Insurance Program would lose $3.2 billion just in the next year.

The government would also stop subsidizing student loan interest, which will take away $38 billion in benefits over the next decade. The budget even includes cuts to programs that help rural Americans, who overwhelming voted for Trump, and slices off $50 billion in farm subsidies, a move many other Republicans oppose.

Meanwhile, the budget includes relatively small increases in funding for defense, Homeland Security, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, along with $19 billion for a family leave policy championed by his daughter Ivanka. But mostly, it's a litany of brutal cuts.

Presidential budgets are never simply accepted and passed by Congress; this proposal, like every one Barack Obama submitted, should be regarded as a wish list rather than imminent reality. But even a wish list can be instructive. Why make it harder for poor people to get health insurance, for hungry families to eat, for disabled people to live in any kind of comfort? Why end programs intended to help the parts of America that are struggling the most?

Mick Mulvaney, a hardcore conservative who is now Trump's budget director, is regarded by many as the actual architect of this proposal, and he has a couple rationales on offer. Firstly, he claims that getting people off of disability and back to work will help the US economy reach 3 percent annual growth. (This will supposedly offset massive tax breaks the administration has planned to keep the plan deficit-neutral, a claim that economists have denounced as combining magical thinking and bad math.)

But maybe more honestly, Mulvaney also said that this budget intentionally favors the rich over the poor. Not in so many words, of course—what he actually said was that this was the "first time in a long time that an administration has written a budget through the eyes of the people who are actually paying the taxes. So often in Washington I think we only look at the recipient side." The people paying the most taxes, of course, are the rich; the recipients of the programs on the chopping block are the poor. That's in line with other traditional Republican policies that also favor the wealthy, including Trump's (still plausible if unlikely) healthcare bill and (still vague) tax reform proposal.

Read: What Trump's Brutal Family History Means for America

Just to put a point on it, by leaving old-age Social Security payments and Medicare largely alone, the budget at least acknowledges "the recipient side"—a.k.a. people who need help—in some cases. But old people tend to vote, and vote for Republicans, so naturally Mulvaney left that part of entitlements alone. (Maybe he remembered what a clusterfuck it was when George W. Bush proposed privatizing parts of Social Security.) Nor did anyone in the White House appear to think of America's beleaguered taxpayers when hiking defense spending. It's only when it comes to caring for the poor that Republican budget hawk instincts seem to kick in.

Of course, voters didn't elect Mulvaney. During the 2016 primaries, they explicitly rejected mainline conservative candidates in favor of Trump, who broke with the party by promising to take care of the People. He'd repair roads and airports, provide "insurance for everybody," help rural regions—pledges he continued to make even after he won. But though $200 billion in infrastructure spending is included in this budget, that section is light on specifics. Meanwhile, the rest of the budget does severe damage to exactly the same people Trump said he'd help. Disabled? Go back to work. Sick? You should pay more for care than you pay now. Upset you have to pay taxes on the millions you inherited from your dead dad? Oh, actually Trump does want to help you.

Trump's relationship with the truth is a fickle thing at best, but many of his wild statements are just the routine exaggerations of a relentless self-promoter: crowd size, his net worth, the quality of his hands. His campaign promises were different. Those are the things that affect people's lives—to some extent, those are the things that won him the presidency. He said he would help America; instead he's helping the rich. Either Trump's promises were lies or else he's failed to live up to them. I don't know which would be worse.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.