Donald Trump’s governing agenda has diverged from his campaign rhetoric in myriad ways. On the stump in 2016, the mogul accused the Saudi government of orchestrating the September 11 attacks; in office, he has fought to preserve the House of Saud’s inalienable right to incinerate Yemeni children with American-made munitions. The “populist” insurgent promised universal health care; the Republican president tried to throw 14 million Americans off of Medicaid.
But Trump’s biggest break with his own 2016 primary-era iconoclasm may be on matters of defense. At a debate in December 2015, Trump decried America’s wars in the Middle East as “a tremendous disservice to humanity,” and suggested that he would seek to rebalance the federal budget away from military adventures overseas, and toward domestic infrastructure. “We’ve spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people that, frankly, if they were there and if we could have spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges, and all of the other problems — our airports and all the other problems we have — we would have been a lot better off,” Trump argued.
The president still indulges this quasi-isolationist streak from time to time. He will occasionally call on America’s allies to start shouldering the burdens of their own defense, or order a full-scale withdrawal of U.S. troops from a foreign conflict (before allowing his advisers to overrule him). But while these performative tantrums loom large in media discourse about the Trump presidency, they are utterly unrepresentative of the administration’s broader policy. The candidate who argued that America had overinvested in military endeavors and underinvested in its cities became a president whose budgets called for financing massive increases in defense spending with cuts to domestic infrastructure. When Congress refused to make this trade-off —opting to increase spending on both the Pentagon and domestic initiatives — Trump (briefly) threatened to shut down the government until his “guns not butter” budget was passed. Meanwhile, the president expanded nearly every overseas intervention he inherited.
Trump has made little effort to rationalize the apparent dissonance between his avowed skepticism of imperial overreach and demonstrable enthusiasm for expanding the reach of American military power. But he also hasn’t quite unlearned his “populist,” paleoconservative talking points. Thus, when Trump gave an interview to CNBC’s Squawk Box Monday morning, he managed to argue that the United States could not afford to cut defense spending by a penny — and that it was outrageous how much the U.S. spends on defense — in the course of answering a single question.
CNBC’s Joe Kernan asked Trump whether he thought the pending merger between United Technologies and Raytheon, two titans of aerospace and defense technology, would help bring down costs for the Pentagon.
“I’m a budget cutter, and I have cut the budget,” Trump replied. “But on defense, I don’t want to do any cutting because … I was left a very depleted military. I feel just the opposite. I’m very much a cost cutter, I want to have a great budget, but before a budget, I have to have a great military.”
But as the president continued to ramble, his train of thought began looping back toward outraged incomprehension at the scale of U.S. military spending. “When I hear United and I hear Raytheon, when I hear they’re merging, does that make it less competitive? It’s already not competitive,” Trump said. “You look at the budgets of other major countries — take a look at Russia, they spend $68 billion a year on military. Take a look at China — they’re $200, 250 billion a year. Well, we’re many times that!”
Whether the Raytheon–UT merger would reduce the government’s bargaining power in negotiations over contracts is unclear. At present, the two companies do not compete in many areas, having cornered different parts of the defense and aerospace markets. But it’s conceivable that this state of affairs might eventually change, in the absence of a merger.
Regardless, Trump does not need greater competition in the “merchants of death” sector to painlessly pare back the Pentagon budget. The president did not, in fact, inherit a depleted and underfunded military. As the Atlantic’s Peter Beinart explains:
According to Todd Harrison, the director of Defense Budget Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, total defense spending did decline from $714 billion in FY 2010 to a low of $586 billion in FY 2015. That sounds like a big drop. But it’s almost entirely because, between 2010 and 2015, the U.S. largely pulled its troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq.
In 2010, the United States had 200,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The costs of keeping them there were mostly paid through something called the Overseas Contingency Operations Fund (OCO), which is supposed to pay for temporary expenditures like wars. Between FY 2010 and 2015, OCO spending went down from $163 billion to $63 billion, which makes sense when you realize that by 2015 the number of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan had dropped to only 10,000. Take away the OCO and look only at the Pentagon’s “base budget” — which covers everything except ongoing wars — and the gap between FY 2010 and the depth of the supposed defense spending “atrophy” in FY 2015 drops to only $28 billion.
But even that overstates the drop. Even as troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq fell, the Pentagon kept spending $63 billion for what it claimed was war fighting. How did it do that? By shifting roughly $30 billion that should have been in its base budget into the OCO because the OCO was not subject to budget caps … By Obama’s last year in office, notes Harrison, overall defense spending (including the OCO) was higher in inflation-adjusted terms than at any point since World War II.
If you want to increase the cost-efficiency of American defense spending, you should avoid rewarding the Pentagon for its serial strategic failures and admitted bureaucratic bloat with giant annual budget increases. By contrast, if you just want to put a patina of populism on your genuflections to the military-industrial complex, rambling incoherently about how “depleted” America’s outrageously expensive military is on CNBC makes fine sense.