Speaking with CNBC from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Trump said tackling entitlement spending is “the easiest of all things” and seemed to suggest higher economic growth would make it simpler to cut spending on those programs. Those comments come amid a heated debate in the Democratic presidential primary over former vice president Joe Biden’s record on Social Security, just days before the Iowa caucuses.
“At the right time, we will take a look at that. You know, that’s actually the easiest of all things, if you look,” Trump said. He later added when asked about entitlements: “Well, we’re going — we’re going to look. We also have assets that we’ve never had. I mean, we’ve never had growth like this.”
A White House spokesman said in a statement that the president is not pushing “benefit cuts” but rather that the administration would aim to eliminate things such as “waste” and “fraud” in the programs.
“President Trump is keeping his commitment to the most vulnerable Americans especially those who depend on Medicare and Social Security,” the statement said. “His budgets have proposed more savings to mandatory programs than any President in history, including lowering drug costs, eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse, and getting people off welfare and back to work.”
Adding to the confusion are private remarks Trump recently made that appeared to dismiss the importance of the budget deficit, which has ballooned to about $1 trillion a year under his administration.
Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), two of the leading candidates in the 2020 Democratic primary, are feuding over Biden’s previous comments about Social Security.
Biden had grown agitated over a video that the Sanders campaign had promoted in which the former vice president appeared to align himself with calls by former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) for spending reductions in the program.
Biden supporters said the video was taken out of context — saying the former vice president was actually mocking Ryan’s proposals — and Biden called on Sanders to publicly denounce the video. Sanders said over the weekend that he wished the full context were included but said Biden nonetheless had a long history of being open to Social Security cuts.
When Biden was asked during his 2008 presidential campaign, for example, whether he would consider changing the cost-of-living increases or the age of eligibility for Medicare and Social Security, he said “absolutely.”
“You have to,” he said on NBC News’s Meet the Press. “It’s — one of the things that my, you know, the political advisers say to me is, ‘Whoa, don’t touch that third [rail].’ Look, the American people aren’t stupid. It’s a real simple proposition. … You’ve got to put all of it on the table.”
The two candidates continued to squabble Tuesday night, with both releasing new online videos attacking each other.
Biden accused Sanders of launching a “barrage of negative attacks” and saying that “as Democrats, we can’t launch dishonest attacks against fellow Democrats. We have to beat Donald Trump.”
The Sanders campaign followed up by saying it was Biden who was taking a negative tone and showing an unwillingness to see his record scrutinized.
Social Security is the largest federal program, in terms of its cost.
The government is projected to spend $950 billion on Social Security benefits for older Americans and $150 billion in Social Security disability payments this year, Congressional Budget Office has projected. It will spend another $850 billion on the Medicare program, which is primarily health care for seniors. Social Security benefits are funded through payroll taxes.
Trump as a 2016 presidential candidate promised not to cut Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, a position typically more in line with Democratic lawmakers that set him apart from the rest of the GOP field. His budget proposals as president, however, have called for slight reductions in Medicare and bigger changes to Medicaid spending. He is also seeking curbs to Social Security disability programs, but he has not pursued changes to Social Security benefits for older Americans.
Recent efforts to address rising costs in Social Security and Medicare have been met with stiff, bipartisan resistance, and presidential candidates often pledge to protect both programs.
The campaigns’ dispute reflects the political sensitivity of the Social Security issue. The budget deficit has soared under Trump, in part due to consecutive and significant increases to military spending under his administration. In recent private remarks to donors about the rising spending, Trump appeared unfazed by the ballooning deficit, saying: “Who the hell cares about the budget? We’re going to have a country.”
Trump also told CNBC the administration would look to cut taxes again in the second term. Trump claimed the 2017 Republican tax law had reduced rather than increased the deficit, a claim some nonpartisan budget experts said was not true.
“We’ve taken in more revenue substantially than we did when the taxes were high,” Trump said. “Nobody can even believe it. But we take in more revenue with the big tax cuts.”