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Trump leaving budget salesmanship to others, again

Silence comes at time of heightened attention to issues concerning wall, military

For the second consecutive year, President Donald Trump mostly has left selling his budget request to others. This year, acting OMB Director Russell Vought, right, seen here with Government Publishing Office acting Deputy Director Herbert Jackson, has been doing the honors. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
For the second consecutive year, President Donald Trump mostly has left selling his budget request to others. This year, acting OMB Director Russell Vought, right, seen here with Government Publishing Office acting Deputy Director Herbert Jackson, has been doing the honors. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

President Donald Trump often has a lot to say, but what he doesn’t say can be just as illuminating. Take his latest budget proposal. 

The administration is asking Congress to spend $4.7 trillion next year despite the president’s gripes that the federal government is too bloated and spends too much. But so far, Trump is showing zero interest in making the case for his request, which experts say resembles a campaign document as much as one about governing. Trump opted against a public event on Monday, leaving the budget rollout mostly to his acting budget chief, Russell Vought, and surrogates on Capitol Hill and cable news.

The chief executive had an opportunity Wednesday during his first public appearance since the spending blueprint was released — though without reams of supporting data — to employ his bully pulpit to advocate for his spending priorities. Instead, he focused on other matters.

A sizable amount of funding would come from — and at the expense of — the voters who helped put Trump in the Oval Office in 2016, a bloc of the population he calls the “forgotten men and women,” meaning those adversely affected by economic changes.

Many older and struggling people would be affected, if Congress signs off,  by changes to domestic safety net programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

[Analysis: After bitter fight, defense budget will stay high]

Candidate Trump vowed to “save Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — without cuts. Have to do it. … People have been paying in for years, and now many of these candidates want to cut it.” But his 2020 spending request floats spending $845 billion less on Medicare, a $1.5 trillion cut to Medicaid, and a $25 billion cut to Social Security.

For Trump, who typically serves as his own top messenger, opting against playing the role of budget salesman in chief is curious based solely on his previous statements.

Candidate Trump told voters almost daily that Washington both collected too much tax revenue and spent it unwisely. He would call lawmakers, Cabinet officials, military generals and previous presidents “stupid” when revving up rally crowds by slamming their spending decisions.

“When will our country stop wasting money on global warming and so many other truly ‘STUPID’ things and begin to focus on lower taxes?” citizen Trump, not yet a White House candidate, tweeted back in 2014.

What’s more, the president has not had anything to say so far about the spending plan’s $8.6 billion request for his proposed southern border wall — which he lacks the votes for in either chamber of Congress.

Reporters waiting outside the White House on Sunday evening as the president returned from a weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida asked him to comment several times on the new wall request. Trump did not stop and make a public pitch for those monies.

Trump spent the beginning of the week behind closed doors, having his weekly lunch meeting with Vice President Mike Pence Monday before receiving the Boy Scouts’ annual “Report to the Nation.” He signed a conservation and recreation bill behind closed doors on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the president’s schedule included his first public event of the week: Reporters were allowed into the start of a briefing he received from Homeland Security officials about drug trafficking across the U.S.-Mexico border.

In opening remarks, Trump addressed his decision, bowing to domestic and global pressure, to ground two models of Boeing’s 737 Max airliner after a second deadly crash abroad. And he took questions about that decision, a trade deal with China and the latest prison sentence of his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.

While reporters were in the room for about 28 minutes, the budgeter in chief opted against making any budget sales pitch.

And he has not used any tweets — not even one Monday morning to conjure up coverage of his spending priorities — to tout the budget request. On Wednesday morning, he instead thanked Speaker Nancy Pelosi for saying Monday she opposes trying to impeach him, and riffed on new revelations about texts from former FBI attorney Lisa Page he claimed “make the Obama Justice Department look exactly like it was, a broken and corrupt machine,” as well as the federal investigations into his 2016 campaign, business dealings and presidency.

Previous chief executives have hit the road to sell their budget plans or held events in Washington. In 2015, 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.

[Trump says he’s not thinking of pardoning Paul Manafort — but won’t rule it out]

“To me it is almost like, ‘I am required by law to submit a budget, I have done that, now let me get back to more important things — investigations, building a wall, national emergency, golf, etc.,’” said G. William Hoagland, an analyst at the nonpartisan Bipartisan Policy Center who was an aide to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.

“I do not see much, if any, selling by the president. In the past … most presidents really made a big deal out of their budget submissions,” said Hoagland, who said Trump could be leery of linking himself to a proposal  “chock-full” of budgetary “gimmicks” and “unrealistic assumptions.”

The commander in chief, who often brags about “rebuilding” a U.S. military he claims Obama allowed to atrophy, hasn’t even made a plea for a $33 billion increase for the Pentagon that would give it $750 billion for the next fiscal year alone — and he’s likely to get a big increase, experts say.

“I think the sales job for this defense budget is largely being left to the Pentagon, where many of the top civilian positions are vacant, being held by someone in an acting capacity, or by someone who has already announced they are leaving,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies.

One White House official noted Trump opts to do things differently from his predecessors. A spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about Trump’s budget silence.

But in their remarks about the $4.7 trillion request during a rare press briefing on Monday, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Vought made sure to laud their boss’s time in office — noticeably using language similar to his.

“No president has done more in two years to strengthen our military, restart our economy, and reform our government than President Trump,” Vought said.

Perhaps one reason Vought has been left to make the pitch was summed up best by a GOP aide, who remarked bluntly on the bipartisan opposition to the request: “This budget is going into the shredder.”