The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Despite his pre-election hype, Trump’s piling on the debt as president

Over the past eight years, President Trump has floated no fewer than 14 proposals for reducing the national debt in interviews and speeches. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)

Over and over again, echoing the rest of his party, Donald Trump railed against the increasing federal debt during the administration of Barack Obama.

With debt hitting $21 trillion by the end of his presidency, Obama had “effectively bankrupted our country,” Trump tweeted a few months before he declared his own candidacy for Obama’s position. After the first Republican debate, he pointed to the debt and said America needed “someone like me to straighten it out.” Over the course of the campaign, Trump repeatedly criticized Obama for allowing the debt to hit $20 trillion.

In fact, it didn’t hit $20 trillion (or $21 trillion) under Obama. It hit those numbers under President Trump. And on Tuesday, the federal debt hit $22 trillion.

Compared to the first two years of Obama’s tenure as president, debt has grown more slowly under Trump. During Obama’s first two years, the debt grew from $10.6 trillion to $14.1 trillion; under Trump, it has grown from $19.9 trillion to $22 trillion.

(There are two periods in Trump’s first two years where the debt didn’t grow because the federal debt ceiling hadn’t been lifted.)

In other words, the debt grew more than $3 trillion in Obama’s first two years and only about $2 trillion under Trump.

The difference, of course, is that Obama took office as the country was battling the effects of a massive recession. The government began spending heavily before Obama took office in an effort to address that situation.

If we compare an equivalent period at the end of Obama’s presidency — the period, that is, that led into Trump’s presidency — the graph looks different. The change in the debt over the same number of days at the end of Obama’s administration was about a fourth of what Trump’s seen since.

That’s raw dollars. If we look at the growth as a percent, the amount of growth relative to the existing debt, Trump only saw 1 percent growth over his first two years compared to Obama’s 3-plus. But the period leading up to Trump’s period saw much slower growth than that.

This is, in part, why Trump’s own estimates of how the debt would end under Obama kept being revised downward from $21 trillion to $20 trillion: Growth in the debt slowed. On this chart of the debt’s growth relative to when George W. Bush took office, you can see that slowdown (and the spike before Obama took office). The dark-blue dashed line is steeper than the light-blue one.

It took longer to get from $19 to $20 trillion than it had any increase since the Bush administration. But the two milestone increases that occurred under Trump — from $20 to $21 trillion and from $21 to $22 trillion — happened as fast or faster than many of the post-recession increases under Obama.

Earlier this month, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who also serves as director of the Office of Management and Budget, was asked why Trump wasn’t mentioning the increasing federal deficit in his State of the Union address.

“Nobody cares,” Mulvaney reportedly answered.

Well, Donald Trump circa 2016 did, for what it’s worth.