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Opinion Sorry, suckers: Trump is perfectly happy to help Paul Ryan shred the safety net

President Trump with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) on May 4. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

The White House will be releasing the president’s budget tomorrow, and it’s going to be brutal:

President Trump’s first major budget proposal on Tuesday will include massive cuts to Medicaid and call for changes to anti-poverty programs that would give states new power to limit a range of benefits, people familiar with the planning said, despite growing unease in Congress about cutting the safety net.
For Medicaid, the state-federal program that provides health care to low-income Americans, Trump’s budget plan would follow through on a bill passed by House Republicans to cut more than $800 billion over 10 years. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that this could cut off Medicaid benefits for about 10 million people over the next decade.

Last week the group Third Way got hold of a spreadsheet with some details on the budget, and the details were alarming: Deep cuts to funding for public housing, mental health, substance abuse, student aid, diplomacy, environmental protection and many other things, along with the complete elimination of programs such as the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. School lunches and food stamps are in the crosshairs, too.

Some of that may change by the time we get the official release, but the basic picture is likely to remain like this. And let’s not forget that these cuts are being proposed at the same time that Republicans are hoping to enact an enormous tax cut for the wealthy.

The standard response to the release of a president’s budget is to say, “This won’t actually become law — it’s just a statement of goals.” Which is true. Congress will write the budget, and while they’ll certainly take the president’s proposal into consideration, they’re under no obligation to include any of it. But the White House budget is important precisely because of what it tells us about President Trump. And while we don’t know all the details yet, it’s becoming clear that the negotiation between the White House and the Republican Congress isn’t going to be what we might have thought.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump unsettled some Republicans by saying repeatedly that he wouldn’t cut Social Security or Medicare. He even promised on occasion not to cut Medicaid either. When you put that together with some of his populist rhetoric, it was natural to assume that once he and the Republican Congress had to agree on a budget, the negotiation would involve Congress hoping for deep cuts to social programs, Trump resisting at least some of those cuts and them arriving at some kind of compromise in the middle.

President Trump promised over and over to 'save' Medicare and Social Security. Will he? (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

But it has become obvious that Trump’s words about protecting programs like Medicaid were not “positions” in the sense of being a stance he took based on something he believed. They were passing impulses, probably based on his reading of whoever was in the room with him at a particular moment. Once they escaped his mouth and faded into the ether, they exercised no more hold on him than a promise to release his tax returns or make Mexico pay for a border wall. If they were things Trump genuinely believed in, the White House staffers who wrote his budget would know they’d have to take them into account. But they didn’t.

So what they produce will in many ways be even more draconian than what House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) will come up with. Don’t be fooled by the fact that they threw in a paid leave program for Ivanka Trump — no one seriously thinks congressional Republicans are going to fund that. The rest of what’s in the Trump budget is practically a declaration of war on the poor, and even conservative House Republicans are saying it goes too far.

“Like I want to go home after having voting against Meals on Wheels and say, ‘Oh it’s a bad program, keeping seniors alive,'” said one Republican last week. “There’s just some of the stuff in here that doesn’t make any sense. … Frankly, you can’t pass these budgets on the floor.”

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This shows that it’s only outside forces that will pull the Republican budget in the direction of being less cruel. Members will fear a public backlash if the cuts they make are too harsh, and there will be other actors, such as Republican governors, who object to the depth of the cuts and might be able to exercise some influence over members of Congress. But the president himself has no particular opinion about any of it, and the people who work for him — particularly budget director Mick Mulvaney — obviously want to eviscerate every social program they can. That’s what many key congressional Republicans want, too, but they’re more attuned to the politics of yanking support away from their constituents so they can give a tax cut to the rich. It won’t be Trump keeping Ryan from finally enacting his Ayn Randian vision; if anything, it’ll be up to other congressional Republicans to hold back the White House.

So when they get around the negotiating table, there may be some differences, but not ones of basic sentiment. Everyone will have the same long-term goal in mind: cutting the safety net to ribbons. How far they’ll go will depend only on what they think they can get away with.