Trump will "look at" slashing entitlement spending despite years of promises to do the opposite

After vowing never to cut Medicare and Social Security, Trump now says they're the "easiest of all things" to cut

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published January 23, 2020 10:03AM (EST)

U.S. President Donald Trump (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump said he would "look" at cutting entitlement spending this year after vowing to "save Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security without cuts" during his presidential campaign.

Trump said federal entitlement programs would be the "easiest" to cut in a new interview with CNBC at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Wednesday.

The president told host Joe Kernen that "at some point" his administration will take up entitlements.

"At the right time, we will take a look at that," he said. "You know, that's actually the easiest of all things, because it's such a big percentage."

Kernen specifically asked Trump if he was willing to cut the programs, which "you said you wouldn't do in the past in terms of Medicare."

"We also have  assets that we've never had. I mean, we've never had growth like this. We never had a consumer that was taking in, through  different means, over $10,000 a family," Trump said, repeating a debunked claim that his tax cuts resulted in a $10,000 median family income increase. "We never had the kind of things that we have."

While Trump did not go into specifics, the comments are a sharp break from his 2015 campaign announcement in which he vowed to "save" all three entitlement programs without any cuts.

"Get rid of the fraud," he said. "Get rid of the waste and abuse, but save it."

The president later drew a contrast between himself and other Republican candidates in the 2016 primary race, vowing on his favorite social media platform to "bring in the funds so as not to cut Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid."

But despite Trump's campaign rhetoric, his administration has repeatedly proposed cutting all three programs. Trump's most recent budget proposal called for cutting $1.9 trillion on safety-net programs like Medicare and Medicaid, and a $26 billion cut to Social Security programs, the federal retirement program and the Social Security Disability Insurance program.

Republicans have been talking about cutting entitlement spending for years, and the talks intensified after Congress passed the 2017 tax cuts, which helped the deficit soar to more than $1 trillion. But Republicans failed to cut Medicaid spending when they failed to repeal Obamacare and former House Speaker Paul Ryan was similarly unsuccessful in his effort to privatize Medicare and Social Security.

Trump's comments drew a sharp contrast with Democrats running for president. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who has clashed with Joe Biden over the former vice president's past calls to overhaul Social Security, vowed to expand the programs rather than cut them.

"Over and over, Donald Trump promised Americans that he would not cut Social Security and Medicare. He lied," Sanders wrote on Twitter. "When we win, we're not going to just protect Social Security and Medicare, we're going to expand them."

Biden, who has vehemently defended his record on Social Security, also promised to expand benefits rather than scale them back. 

"My administration will not cut Social Security or Medicare benefits. Period. We'll expand them," he said. "Meanwhile, Donald Trump is saying he would consider sacrificing seniors' benefits to protect tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and big companies."

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., also slammed Trump for "attacking every lifeline we have for struggling families" and vowed to fight to expand the programs.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich suggested that cutting the programs was the Republican plan all along.

"This has been the GOP's game plan from the start: 1) Cut taxes on the wealthy and corporations, claiming they'll pay for themselves. 2) Explode the deficit. 3) Call for cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. 4) Repeat," he tweeted, referring to past Republican attempts to gut entitlement spending to pay for tax cuts for the rich.

The White House denied to The Washington Post that Trump was pushing "benefit cuts," insisting that he was instead "keeping his commitment to the most vulnerable Americans especially those who depend on Medicare and Social Security."

But top White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow previously told CNBC that the administration was determined to cut federal spending and "part of the Republican plan to curb spending is tackling entitlements."

The biggest critic of such a plan would no doubt be 2015 candidate Trump, who lambasted Republicans for plotting to reduce benefits.

"I'm not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican, and I'm not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid," Trump told The Daily Signal in 2015. "Every other Republican's going to cut. And even if they wouldn't, they don't know what to do because they don't know where the money is. I do. I do."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

MORE FROM Igor Derysh