During the 2016 presidential campaign, Republican Donald Trump presented a unique conundrum for the public and pundits alike. Simply put, Trump lied at a rate never before seen in modern American politics. No candidate in the 21st century, from either party, even came close.
Writing in The Atlantic that September, Salena Zito offered this warning about Trump’s whoppers: “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” Zito’s formula became a helpful shorthand for what political scientist Brendan Nyhan (“Don’t Assume Donald Trump’s Supporters Believe All His Words”) explained in June 2016. As Nyhan noted at the time, polling and previous research suggested that many Trump supporters simply “discounted” many of his most self-evidently impossible proposals. “In this way,” Nyhan explained, “a voter who prefers a more modest move rightward might rationally prefer [party] R even though R’s position is further from the voter than a more moderate party on the left.”
The same dynamic may be unexpectedly boosting Mr. Trump. For voters who want a change from the status quo on issues like trade and immigration, supporting him may be perfectly rational — even when his promises may not be.
Well, more than two years into Donald Trump’s presidency, his ardent supporters do seem to be standing by him—not because of the pledges Trump made to them, but despite them. As his gymnastic reversal last week on cuts to Medicare and Social Security was just the latest to confirm, that many of Trump’s biggest promises would be broken was pathetically, even comically predictable when he made them.
Here, then, are the top 10.
1. “I will always tell you the truth.”
Before going any further, we must first address the 800-pound elephant in the room. That would be Trump’s meta broken promise.
On August 18, 2016, Donald Trump delivered his first major speech with Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway at the helm of his campaign. Press and pundits seized on his humbler tone and less incendiary rhetoric. But their focus should have been on this:
But one thing I can promise you is this: I will always tell you the truth.
I speak the truth for all of you, and for everyone in this country who doesn’t have a voice.
Even as he spoke, Politifact was reporting that roughly 70 percent of the Trump statements it evaluated were rated either Mostly False, False, or Pants on Fire. As of this writing, that ratio has hardly budged since Donald Trump was inaugurated. By the New York Times’ count, “In his first 10 months, Trump told nearly six times as many falsehoods as Obama did during his entire presidency.” As of March 3, 2019, the Washington Post updated its ongoing tally of Donald Trump’s lies to a total of 9,014 in 773 days.
2. “We are not going to cut Social Security. We are not going to cut Medicare.”
On Monday, the Trump administration unveiled its fiscal year 2020 budget proposal. Calling for a staggering $4.7 trillion in spending next year, the blueprint also takes the axe to Social Security (down $25 billion), Medicaid ($777 billion), and Medicare ($575 billion) over the next decade.
Now, these reductions are not unexpected coming from a Republican Party that has targeted all three programs for decades. (In fact, the 2016 GOP platform called for slashing spending in all three areas of the social safety net). But candidate Trump repeatedly promised to preserve and protect all Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid throughout 2015 and 2016. As he tweeted on May 7, 2015:
I was the first & only potential GOP candidate to state there will be no cuts to Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid.
That December, Trump proclaimed, “So, you’ve been paying into Social Security and Medicare…but we are not going to cut your Social Security and we’re not cutting your Medicare.” By October 2016, Trump’s lie had become double. While he would protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, Trump charged that Democrat Hillary Clinton would savage the programs:
“She wants to knock the hell out of your Social Security. She wants to knock the hell out of your Medicare and Medicaid. And I am going to save them.”
3. The Trump “tax plan will pay for itself.”
Why is the Trump administration looking to gut outlays for those three popular programs in the first place? Well, they already gave all that money—and more—to the wealthiest Americans.
During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump unveiled not one, but three tax plans. The clashing, often contradictory proposals had one thing in common: each was certain to drain trillions in revenue from the United States Treasury. (His first whack at the tax code was estimated to generate a staggering $12 trillion in new red ink with its first decade.)
Nevertheless, Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin repeatedly promised the opposite. Despite more than four decades of experience with the Reagan and Bush tax cuts as well as the overwhelming consensus of economists, Mnuchin boasted, “The tax plan will pay for itself through economic growth.”
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) rejected that idea outright. In 2015, CBO director Keith Hall, hand-picked by the GOP leadership, said so in no uncertain terms:
“No, the evidence is that tax cuts do not pay for themselves. And our models that we’re doing, our macroeconomic effects, show that.”
Ultimately, CBO forecast the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” signed by Donald Trump in December 2017 would deprive Uncle Sam of $1.5 trillion over the ensuing 10 years (even after accounting for faster economic growth.) And as it turned out, in calendar year 2018 federal tax revenue declined by 1 percent from the year before (2.7 percent after inflation).
The idea that the Trump tax cut would “pay for itself”—that is, generate as much tax revenue as the U.S. would have without the tax cut—was and remains a “Laffer.”
4. “It’s going to cost me a fortune—which is actually true.”
When Donald Trump rolled out his tax program in September 2015, he made a very specific, if unverifiable, claim. Trump boasted, “it’s going to cost me a fortune—which is actually true.” Even as his proposals mutated into what became the Republican “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” of 2017, Trump never wavered in making this claim. In September 2017, he reiterated, “No, I don’t benefit. I think there’s very little benefit for people of wealth.” Emphasizing that day that “the rich will not be gaining at all with this plan,” the president put it this way in November 2017:
“This is going to cost me a fortune, this thing, believe me,” Mr. Trump said, in the midst of a frequently meandering 45-minute speech to a festive crowd of 1,000. Then he invoked Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader. “This is not good for me. Me, it’s not so — I have some very wealthy friends. Not so happy with me, but that’s OK. You know, I keep hearing Schumer: ‘This is for the wealthy.’ Well, if it is, my friends don’t know about it.”
Of course, what resulted is exactly what Democrats predicted. As the New York Times summed it up in August, “You know who the tax cuts helped? Rich People.” The steep corporate tax cut from 35 to 21 percent and the reforms aimed at repatriating overseas income fueled a massive wave of stock buybacks and M&A activity. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an estimated 70 percent of the benefits from those tax cuts went to the top one-fifth of taxpayers, with a whopping 34 percent pocketed by the top 1 percent. Add to that the winnings for owners of “S-corporations” and other pass-through businesses and partnerships, who gained a 20 deduction in the GOP bill. Among them, as his own tax preparer explained, is one Donald J. Trump:
“You hold interests as the sole or principal owner in approximately 500 separate entities. These entities are referred to and do business as The Trump Organization. … Because you operate these businesses almost exclusively through sole proprietorships and/or closely held partnerships, your personal federal income tax returns are inordinately large and complex for an individual.”
Now, we have yet to see Individual 1’s tax returns. But from what do know of his finances, if Donald Trump has been paying any federal income taxes at all, his bill always certainly went down.
5. Under Trump, the U.S. economy will “return to 4 percent annual economic growth.”
Throughout his campaign, candidate Donald Trump made a very specific pledge about the economy. As he put it in September 2016, “I believe it’s time to establish a national goal of reaching four percent economic growth.” (A year earlier, he boasted a Trump economy could do even better, perhaps hitting six percent yearly GDP growth.) After his inauguration, the White House web site guaranteed a “return to 4 percent annual economic growth.”
Now, there are only a couple of problems with Trump’s forecast. For starters, no president of the United States has averaged 4 percent annual GDP growth since Lyndon Johnson. No president named Bush hit that mark even once in 12 years. Worse still, the CBO has forecast that starting in 2019, the U.S. economy will average only around 2 percent growth through 2028. (Ironically, unless the United States experiences a dramatic increase in productivity, the only way Trump can hit his 4 percent goal is to significantly ramp up immigration.)
In Trump’s defense, GDP expanded by 4.1 percent in the second quarter of 2018. That prompted the president to tell a group of business leaders that the next quarter “could be in the fives.”
It wasn’t. Third quarter GDP grew by 3.4 percent, while the fourth quarter slipped to 2.6 percent.
6. Trump promised to eliminate the national debt “over a period of 8 years.”
Besides breaking his promise to spare Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid from the chopping block, President Trump’s proposed FY 2020 budget reneges on other campaign pledges as well. Assuming no recessions and 3 percent GDP growth (above CBO’s estimate but below the Trump 4 percent guarantee) over the next decade, the new budget blueprint projects the budget won’t be balanced for 15 years.
And that’s a problem. A problem, that is, because in March 2016 candidate Donald Trump pledged to Bob Woodward eliminate the entire national debt in eight years.
Donald Trump: “We’ve got to get rid of the $19 trillion in debt.”
Bob Woodward: “How long would that take?”
Trump: “I think I could do it fairly quickly, because of the fact the numbers…”
Woodward: “What’s fairly quickly?”
Trump: “Well, I would say over a period of eight years.
A quick glance back at the numbers shows that Trump’s commitment was even more preposterous than it sounded. At the time, the total U.S. national debt was $19 trillion. But CBO was forecasting an additional $9 trillion in new red ink over the following decade, as spending ($51 trillion) would continue to exceed tax revenue ($42 trillion). That total of $28 trillion would have been made much worse by Trump’s own tax plan, which at that time was forecast to hemorrhage $12 trillion more from the United States Treasury. To eliminate the entire national debt, a President Trump would have to cut $40 billion—or nearly 80 percent—of all federal spending. Then as now, it was literally impossible. (And if it could be done, it would cause an economic cataclysm that would make the financial collapse of 2008 seem like “Happy Days Are Here Again” in comparison.
It’s no wonder Trump’s own budget chief Mick Mulvaney in April 2017 referred to the debt elimination promise as “hyperbole.” As Heather Long explained in the Washington Post, even using its own rosy scenarios, the Trump budget will increase the national debt held by the public by over 50 percent by the end of a second term.
7. “We’re going to have insurance for everybody.”
Once in a rare while, Fox News reports the truth. On Jan. 23, 2019, Fox Business offered this headline: “US uninsured rate at 4-year high amid Trump’s ObamaCare attacks.”
The U.S. adult uninsured rate climbed to 13.7 percent this past quarter—the highest level since the first quarter of 2014, before people were required to buy health insurance as a result of ObamaCare, when the rate skyrocketed to 18 percent. That’s a 2.8 percentage point increase from the low point in 2016 of 10.9 percent and represents roughly 7 million additional people lacking health insurance.
For the Trump administration, this result was a feature, not a bug. After gutting marketing for the Affordable Care Act, ending funding for cost-sharing reductions, repealing the individual health insurance mandate, supporting short-term health care plans, and enabling new state restrictions on Medicaid enrollment, President Trump guaranteed millions more Americans would lose coverage or pay more for the insurance they could get.
But this turn of events represents a betrayal for candidate Trump. As he told Scott Pelley of CBS 60 Minutes in September 2015, “I am going to take care of everybody.” As he put in a January 14, 2017 interview with the Washington Post:
“We’re going to have insurance for everybody,” Trump said. “There was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not going to happen with us.” People covered under the law “can expect to have great health care. It will be in a much simplified form. Much less expensive and much better.”
8. Trump will deport 11 million undocumented immigrants in “18 months to two years”
After getting stopped in his tracks in his search for funding from Congress to get funding for his border wall, Donald Trump is trying again. While certain to override a congressional veto of his emergency declaration designed to unconstitutionally redirect some $5 billion toward the wall, Trump asked for $8.6 billion more in his 2020 budget.
Whether he gets any of it or not, President Trump long ago gave up one of the promises that drew some of the loudest applause from the MAGA crowd. When it came to the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, 85 percent of whom have been here for at least five years, Trump assured Americans he would deport them all—and fast. How fast? As he put it in September 2015, “I think it’s a process that can take 18 months to two years if properly handled.”
You read that right. Donald Trump promised to kick out 15,000 people every day for two years. And that’s not all:
Trump also said that he wouldn’t build the wall along the Southern border he has proposed until all the undocumented immigrants are out.
“I will get them out so fast that your head would spin, long before I even can start the wall,” Trump said. “They will be out of here. You know we have tremendous problems of crime.”
9. “We’re gonna put the miners back to work. We’re gonna get those mines open”
On May 5, 2016, Donald Trump traveled to West Virginia, where he donned a hard hat and addressed an audience of 10,000 in front of signage reading, “Trump digs coal.” Trump declared, “I’m thinking about the miners all over this country,” adding, “We’re gonna put the miners back to work. We’re gonna get those mines open.” But that’s not all he promised:
“If I win, we’re going to bring those miners back. You’re going to be so proud of your president.”
“For those miners, get ready, because you’re going to be working your asses off,” candidate Trump told the crowd at the end of the rally.
At a November 2018 rally in West Virginia, President Trump told the state’s coal miners: “You’re back in business.”
As it turned out, not so much. Coal mining jobs did increase from 49,500 in October 2016 to 52,800 in February 2019. (In 1985, the figure was 175,000.) But mining positions actually decreased in Kentucky, down to roughly 6,380 from 6,550 in the first quarter of 2017. The number of mines and total coal production has continued to plummet as well. That grim reality has little to do with government regulation and almost everything to do with the free market: The much lower cost of natural gas and the rapidly dropping prices of renewable energy alternatives has coal production on an inexorable downward slope. If not for a recent uptick in exports, the picture in coal country would be more dire still.
Even with the rollback in regulations by Trump’s EPA the past two years, the U.S. Energy Information Agency projects that U.S. coal consumption will decline 4% this year to 691 million short tons. This will be down 44% since coal’s peak usage in 2007, and the lowest amount since 1979 when Jimmy Carter was President, the Three Mile Island Nuclear Accident occurred and ESPN was launched.
“Trump promised to bring back coal jobs,” the Washington Post reported in March 2017, adding, “That promise ‘will not be kept,’ experts say.” By August 2018, President Trump was boasting, “The coal industry is back.” He’s still lying.
10. “Trade wars are good, and easy to win.”
After his immigration crackdown, a new hard line on trade was the other centerpiece of Donald Trump’s campaign. Candidate Trump threatened to rip up NAFTA and to impose 35 percent and 45 percent tariffs on Mexico and China respectively if his trade demands were not met. “The American worker is being crushed” and “the great American middle class is disappearing,” Trump wrote in a March 2016 op-ed, due to unfair trade deals and chronic trade deficits. As he summed up his approach in March 2018, “trade wars are good, and easy to win.”
As it turned out, not so much. The revised NAFTA deal Trump inked with Mexico and Canada was little different than proposals already in development when Barack Obama was still in the Oval Office. The ongoing tariff dispute with China has hammered America’s farmers and is fueling a sharp increase in farm bankruptcies. Meanwhile, the unresolved trade war is slowing the Chinese economy and helping to kill business confidence. Last year produced the largest American trade deficit on record. As Bloomberg summed it up earlier this month:
President Donald Trump regularly declares that he’s winning his trade wars. Yet evidence is growing that the U.S. economy is a net loser so far.
In two separate papers published over the weekend, some of the world’s leading trade economists declared Trump’s tariffs to be the most consequential trade experiment seen since the 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariffs blamed for worsening the Great Depression. They also found the initial cost of Trump’s duties to the U.S. economy was in the billions and being borne largely by American consumers.
Back on July 24, 2018, a confident Donald Trump tweeted, “Tariffs are the greatest!” Trump also added, “All will be Great!”
Promises, promises. Hopefully, now that they’ve literally been broken, all Americans will take them seriously.