In the days before President Donald Trump’s high-profile address to Congress Tuesday night, White House aides insisted that Trump would soon propose one of the biggest increases to the Pentagon budget in years. The problem is they’ve been using woefully misleading numbers.
Administration officials have spent days telling reporters that Trump would call for increasing defense spending by an eye-popping $54 billion — a sum that would be particularly striking given that the US has largely wound down the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would be, as Trump said before the speech, “historic.”
The president repeated that boast during his primetime address, telling the nation that he would be sending Congress a budget “that rebuilds the military” and “calls for one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history.”
Here’s the thing: Trump’s proposed budget wouldn’t do that. The actual increase is closer to $18 billion, not the $54 billion figure bandied about by the president’s aides. Eagle-eyed defense hawks such as Arizona Republican John McCain have noticed the discrepancy, and they’re not happy.
“President Trump intends to submit a defense budget that is a mere 3 percent above President Obama’s defense budget, which has left our military underfunded, undersized, and unready to confront threats to our national security,” McCain said in a statement Monday. “With a world on fire, America cannot secure peace through strength with just 3 percent more than President Obama’s budget. We can and must do better.”
Understanding McCain’s anger means understanding the government’s byzantine and sometimes baffling way of allocating money for national security. For help deciphering it all, I turned to Mark Cancian, a highly regarded Pentagon budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“These numbers were intentionally misleading,” he told me. “The increase is dramatic, but nowhere near as dramatic as people had been expecting — or hoping for.”