— President Trump, remarks in a commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, June 13, 2020
There have been times when President Trump has uttered a talking point so silly that we simply have tossed it into our database of Trump’s false and misleading claims. But then it keeps coming back, like a zombie, usually during the president’s campaign rallies.
But now the president actually used this misleading claim — that he has invested more than $2 trillion in the military — in a commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. So here’s a quick fact check and a Pinocchio rating.
We’re mostly interested in the $2 trillion number, but Trump’s framing is also wrong. He describes a “colossal rebuilding” of the military, “a record like no other.” Nope and nope. He then describes all sorts of new military equipment, including a hypersonic missile. That was first tested in 2011, under President Barack Obama, but never mind. (It’s also dubious that hypersonic weapons are 17 times faster than intercontinental ballistic missiles, which can go 17,600 mph.)
But all Trump is doing is adding together the military budgets for the first three years of his presidency.
- 2017: $626 billion
- 2018: $694 billion
- 2019: $713 billion
That adds up to just over $2 trillion. It’s almost $2.2 trillion if you use inflation-adjusted (constant) dollars. (We should note that these numbers are for the federal fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1 in the previous calendar year. So part of fiscal 2017 took place under Obama. But the fiscal 2017 budget was not approved until after Trump took office and included a defense increase advocated by Trump.)
But military procurement — the buying and upgrading of military hardware — is a relatively small part of it. Procurement adds up to just $444 billion in constant dollars, or about 20 percent of the total. The rest of the funds mostly went to pay military salaries, operations, maintenance , research and the like.
Trump and Congress did increase the military budget by removing the restraints on spending imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011, passed when lawmakers still professed to be concerned about budget deficits. (The Obama White House and Republicans in Congress later traded charges over who was most responsible for the budget cuts that resulted.)
The procurement budget went up 13.2 percent in real terms in Obama’s last year and then rose 3.1 percent in 2017 and 15.3 percent in 2018, according the Defense Department. It fell 1.7 percent in 2019 and is scheduled to fall an additional 2.9 percent in 2020. Indeed, even with the dip in spending toward the end of Obama’s term because of the BCA, average spending per year on procurement was slightly higher under Obama than under Trump.
Indeed, despite Trump’s bravado, he does not hold the record for the biggest Pentagon budget, adjusted for inflation. The budget was higher every year between 2007 and 2012, before the BCA kicked in.
The White House did not respond to a query about why the president keeps using this figure.
The Pinocchio Test
The president is exaggerating his “investment” in the military, especially when he suggests that he has spent more than $2 trillion on new equipment. It’s a good thing that he not using a completely invented number, but we hope we’re not grading on a Trump curve. He earns Three — that’s with a T — Pinocchios.
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