“The chief actuary of the Social Security Administration just released an analysis of Trump’s planned cuts to Social Security. Under Trump’s plan, Social Security would become permanently depleted by the middle of calendar year 2023. If Trump gets his way, Social Security benefits will run out in just three years from now. Don’t let it happen. Joe Biden will protect Social Security.”
— Voice-over in a new ad by Joe Biden, “Depleted,” released Sept. 3
Without fail during a tough election season, Democrats bring up Social Security. The ads are often ubiquitous in states with high percentages of senior citizens who rely on Social Security as their main source of income.
Trump gets mentioned in this ad three times. But there is no such Trump plan.
The president gave the Democrats an opening with a series of confusing remarks after he signed an executive order that would suspend the payment of payroll taxes until the end of the year.
The executive order would halt collection of the 6.2 percent payroll tax imposed on wages for Social Security, starting Sept. 1. In theory, taxpayers would still be liable for the taxes at a later date, but the executive order says “the Secretary of the Treasury shall explore avenues, including legislation, to eliminate the obligation to pay the taxes deferred pursuant to the implementation of this memorandum.”
While the Trump White House has suggested this is similar to a payroll tax holiday in the Obama administration during the Great Recession, that law had a provision saying Social Security would be made whole with transfers from general funds (regular tax revenue). This executive order does not say that, but one would presume that any forgiveness would be accompanied by such transfers.
As an executive order, Trump’s action does not have the force of law. Auto part suppliers, clothing sellers, retailers, restaurants and many other businesses have refused to implement it, saying it was “unworkable.” But he is requiring the U.S. government to implement the payroll tax deferral for about 1.3 million federal employees.
After signing the executive order, Trump suggested several times that he wanted to permanently end payroll taxes.
- Aug. 8: “If I’m victorious on November 3rd, I plan to forgive these taxes and make permanent cuts to the payroll tax. So I’m going to make them all permanent.”
- Aug. 11: “Payroll tax holiday, that’s a big, and what we’re doing is sometime after the election, if we win, we’re going to make that permanent, the payroll tax holiday. The payroll tax will be rescinded."
- Aug. 12: “On the payroll tax, we’ll be terminating the payroll tax. After I hopefully get elected, we’ll be terminating the payroll tax.” Trump added: “So that will mean anywhere from 5,000 [dollars] to even more per family and also great for businesses and great for jobs. A lot of people will be very happy to hear that, a lot of the great certainly conservative economists will.”
That last statement was certainly surprising. Trump said he would terminate the payroll tax — and gave a figure, $5,000, which suggested complete elimination.
White House aides insisted that Trump was referring only to the executive order, not all payroll taxes. “When he referred to ‘permanent,’ I think what he was saying is that the deferral of the payroll tax to the end of the year will be made permanent,” White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said on CNN’s State of the Union. “It will be forgiven. The tax is not going to go away.”
Trump, of course, has a habit of contradicting his aides after they try to explain his remarks.
But on Aug. 13, Trump appeared to make his position clearer: “When we win the election — when I win the election, I’m going to completely and totally forgive all deferred payroll taxes without in any way, shape or form hurting Social Security. That money is going to come from the general fund. We’re not going to touch Social Security. I said from day one that we’re going to protect Social Security, and we’re going to protect our people. And Social Security is one of the things that will be protected.” (On Aug. 10, Trump also had said he would pay through the general fund with “zero impact” on Social Security, but then he contradicted himself again the next two days.)
The Aug. 13 statement suggested he was referring to a temporary suspension of payroll taxes, to be paid from the general fund as under President Barack Obama. (Whether this is good tax or budget policy is another matter. Trump opted for an executive order, because few lawmakers, Republican or Democrat, supported suspending the payroll tax.)
Trump’s attempt at correcting his previous statements didn’t stop some Democratic senators from playing some mischief. On Aug. 19, four senators wrote to the chief actuary of Social Security asking for “your analysis of hypothetical legislation” that would mandate “zero percent” payroll taxes. Specifically, they wanted to know how soon for the Social Security Trust Funds would be depleted if they suddenly stopped receiving any money.
Stephen Goss, the chief actuary of Social Security since 2001, knows how the game is played in Washington, having joined the Office of the Chief Actuary 47 years ago. He had to deliver an answer, but he noted in his response: “I am not aware that anyone has proposed the hypothetical legislation you describe.”
Moreover, he added that while under the scenario made up by Democrats the funds would be depleted by mid-2023, if the legislation allowed for transfers to be made from the general fund — as Trump had said he would seek — “the projected depletion date of the trust fund reserves would be essentially unaffected by the legislation.”
A Biden campaign adviser defended the ad. Citing Trump’s comments in mid-August, especially about Americans saving $5,000, he said: “To eliminate the payroll tax is a fair estimate of what Trump’s plan is. I think it’s a fair hit. He left himself open to a fair hit, and in the world of politics, it was a fair hit." He said it was ridiculous to believe Social Security could be funded in the long term through regular tax revenue, without the Social Security payroll tax, as Trump claimed Aug. 12.
Given that few lawmakers supported temporarily suspending the Social Security payroll tax, it’s a stretch to think Trump would win enough support to permanently suspend it — even if that were his policy. But if he wins reelection, it’s fair to think he could win congressional approval to cover the few months of payments owed by the Americans covered by his executive order.
“The president was referring to making forgiveness of the temporary payroll tax deferral permanent," said White House spokeswoman Sarah Matthews. "President Trump wants to fully fund and protect Social Security as he has stated numerous times.”
Trump campaign spokesman Zach Parkinson said in a statement: “Joe Biden and his campaign’s scare tactics are a sad attempt to distract from his own record. President Trump and Administration officials have repeatedly said he wants to make the payroll tax cut deferral permanent to help America’s workers. The President has been clear: his payroll tax cut will have ‘zero impact’ on Social Security or the seniors that rely on the program. He supports transferring money from the government’s general coffers, protecting the program’s Trust Fund. America’s seniors can rest assured that President Trump will always protect Social Security, unlike Joe Biden who bragged in the 1990s about his efforts to ‘freeze’ benefits.”
(We detailed at length Biden’s record on Social Security, including the freeze comment in 1984, when it was under attack by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during the Democratic primaries. We concluded the “snippets cited by Sanders are missing important context.”)
[Update: On Sept. 8, Trump was asked about Social Security by a reporter in West Palm Beach and again gave a disjointed answer. We will continue to monitor this but at this point see no reason to change our ruling.
“I've been here for almost four years. I would have played the Social Security card a long time ago. I'm not touching Social Security,” Trump said. Asked about a payroll tax cut, he said: “We’re looking to do that. We will do it second term. We're looking to do something now if we can.” Asked whether that would harm the program, as Democrats claim, he replied: “We’re taking it from the general fund. We're not taking it from Social Security. Comes right out of the general fund and we make up for it with the tremendous growth that we're going to experience.”
As Goss noted in his letter, taking funds out of the general fund would not harm Social Security.]
The Pinocchio Test
To make a long story short, Democrats ginned up a letter from the chief actuary to describe a plan that does not currently exist. Trump certainly suggested he might eliminate the payroll tax, but then he pulled back from that idea and reiterated that any diversion for a payroll tax holiday would come out of general funds. We were torn between Three and Four Pinocchios, but the ad’s framing tipped us to Four.
The ad refers to “Trump’s planned cuts.” But there are no planned cuts.
The ad cites “Trump’s plan.” But the actuary’s letter says it is referring only to a hypothetical plan sketched out by Democrats.
The ad asserts that if “Trump gets his way,” benefits will run out. But actually the letter says if transfers are made from general funds, no benefits would run out. That, at least at the moment, is what Trump says he would do.
That adds up to Four Pinocchios. (If Trump yet again opens the door to permanent elimination of the payroll tax, we will revisit this fact check.)
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