Analysis: Trump Takes the Budget Out of Budget Day

‘This is going to be awful,’ Mulvaney says of own budget briefing

President Donald Trump on Wednesday asked why the Obama administration isn’t under investigation since Russian meddling in U.S. elections happened on his watch. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Donald Trump on Wednesday asked why the Obama administration isn’t under investigation since Russian meddling in U.S. elections happened on his watch. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 14, 2018 at 5:03am

Sometimes it’s what a president doesn’t say that reveals his true priorities. That certainly appears to be the case with Donald Trump’s second budget request.

The Trump administration is asking Congress to spend $4.4 trillion in taxpayer funds, but the president has shown little interest in selling the fiscal 2019 request. The chief executive had multiple opportunities Monday and Tuesday to speak into microphones and use his bully pulpit to advocate for the spending priorities. Instead, he focused on other matters.

A sizable amount of funding would come from the people Trump calls the “forgotten men and women” — those caught amid changing economic winds. 

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But what the president and his top aides are saying — and not saying — is telling. Trump’s silence about his budget blueprint is curious for several reasons.

One is his eagerness as a candidate to tell voters how politicians have been spending — or, in his view, misspending — their tax dollars for decades. He has used descriptions like “stupid” to describe the spending habits of U.S. administrations and lawmakers.

“When will our country stop wasting money on global warming and so many other truly ‘STUPID’ things and begin to focus on lower taxes?” he tweeted in 2014.

Another is Trump’s decision to focus what typically is a days-long budget sales pitch on other matters, especially a much-hyped infrastructure package. That plan was rolled out on the same day as his 2019 budget request.

The White House opted to hold an event with local officials on the $1.5 trillion plan to use mostly local, state and private dollars to rebuild the country’s roads, bridges, airports, water systems, seaports and other infrastructure. But there was no public event Monday or Tuesday for Trump about the budget.

Watch: Trump’s Budget Request Won’t End the Cycle of Crisis Budgeting

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The president has talked about the country’s “crumbling” infrastructure for years. He wasted little time Monday returning to the topic.

“We have to rebuild our infrastructure. You know … as of a couple of months ago, we have spent $7 trillion in the Middle East,” he said. “What a mistake. But it is what it is. … We’re trying to build roads and bridges, and fix bridges that are falling down. And we have a hard time getting the money. It’s crazy.”

But the budget? Nary a word during the same event.

By contrast, then-President Barack Obama delivered remarks about his fiscal 2016 spending plan at the Department of Homeland Security; the next year, when reporters were allowed into an unrelated event the day he submitted his final spending plan, Obama made a pitch for it.

The president frequently lets his 47.8 million Twitter followers know how he feels about a seemingly endless list of issues. Since Monday morning, he has fired off tweets about congressional Democrats, infrastructure, immigration, a coming speech to conservative activists and the opioid epidemic. Not the budget, though.

On Friday, Trump will head to South Florida for a long weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort. On the way, he will stop in Orlando to give remarks. He is expected to talk about infrastructure.

White House spokespeople did not respond to a request for comment about Trump’s silence.

Meanwhile, what Trump’s own budget director had to say Monday about the 2019 plan suggests senior administration officials just are not that into it.

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney broke what might be dubbed a fourth wall — like when an actor addresses the camera directly — for any White House, admitting early in his Monday briefing that “the executive budget has always been a messaging document.”

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“Is this dead on arrival? That’s the popular question that everybody asks,” a typically hyper Mulvaney said, darting back and forth from the briefing room podium to point at numbers on a screen behind his right shoulder. “And the answer is absolutely not. It simply highlights the fact that this is a messaging document.”

During prepared remarks at the top of her Monday press briefing, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders devoted fewer than 100 words to the budget blueprint. She then reminded reporters that Mulvaney would be out soon, and urged them to hold their budget questions for the OMB chief. (On Tuesday, the budget plan received only cursory mentions during Sanders’ briefing. And when it came up, she simply referred reporters to the document itself.)

Once Mulvaney came out Monday evening, he delivered a gumbo-thick collection of numbers and explanations of deficits, “administrative costs” and how the recent budget caps deal will alter both the government’s 2018 and 2019 spending. But amid those wonky comments were ones that made him sound lukewarm about — and even frustrated by — the administration’s plan.

“I learned a really valuable lesson last year. Not only did Congress not like our proposed [National Institutes of Health] cuts last year, they made them illegal this year,” he said. “So they prevented us, by law, from trying to save money.”

As the seven staffers who accompanied him were still filing in, the OMB boss offered this strikingly candid assessment about the briefing on the budget plan he was about to deliver: “This is going to be awful.”