When Donald Trump campaigned for president in 2016, one of his central promises was that he would not touch Medicare or Social Security benefits for the elderly, a vow that helped him come off as a relative centrist in the Republican field on economic issues. However, during a Wednesday interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Trump told CNBC host Joe Kernen that his administration would look into cutting federal entitlement programs at some point toward the end of the year, and that reforming them would be “the easiest of all things.” Here’s the exchange:
JOE KERNEN: Entitlements ever be on your plate?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: At some point they will be. We have tremendous growth. We’re going to have tremendous growth. This next year I– it’ll be toward the end of the year. The growth is going to be incredible. And at the right time, we will take a look at that. You know, that’s actually the easiest of all things, if you look, cause it’s such a–
KERNEN: If you’re willing—
TRUMP: —big percentage.
KERNEN: —to do some of the things that you said you wouldn’t do in the past, though, in terms of Medicare—
TRUMP: Well, we’re going—we’re going look. We also have– assets that we’ve never had. I mean we’ve never had growth like this. We never had a consumer that was taking in, through—different means, over $10,000 a family. We never had the kind of—the kind of things that we have. Look, our country is the hottest in the world. We have the hottest economy in the world. We have the best unemployment numbers we’ve ever had. African American, Asian American. Hispanics are doing so incredibly. Best they’ve ever done. Black. Best they’ve ever done. African American. The numbers are incredible. The poverty numbers. The unemployment and the employment. There’s― there is a difference, actually. But the unemployment and employment numbers for African Americans are the best we’ve ever had. You know, we just― came up with a chart, and it was a very important to number to me. African American youth has the highest, by far, unemployment. The best unemployment numbers that they’ve ever had. And the best employment numbers. Right now we have almost 160 million people working in the United States, and we’ve never even been close to that, Joe.
This is a fairly big WTF moment from the president whose entire brand, perfectly calibrated to older Fox News viewers, was “Republican trash talker who will get rid of the immigrants and cut your taxes, but not your Social Security benefits.” It’s especially strange given that a) Democrats in the House are not going to join hands and slash programs for the elderly with him, and b) one of his potential presidential rivals, Joe Biden, is currently under fire for his own history of advocating for entitlement cuts. A whole lot of people (including myself in a post I just wrote on Tuesday!) assumed Trump would make like Bernie Sanders and batter Biden for the exact same thing during the general. Now, he seems to be spoiling that whole line of attack.
It’s so weird for the president to be talking about this now that one almost has to wonder if he understood what Kernen meant by “entitlements.” Sure, he mentions Medicare, but it’s unclear from the tape whether Trump is really listening, or understands the topic at hand. I mean, who on earth thinks that cutting Social Security is the “easiest of all things”? (Oh right, this guy.)
On the other hand, the White House gave the Washington Post this wishy-washy statement:
A White House spokesman said in a statement that the president is not pushing “benefit cuts” but rather that the administration would aim to eliminate things such as “waste” and “fraud” in the programs.
“President Trump is keeping his commitment to the most vulnerable Americans especially those who depend on Medicare and Social Security,” the statement said. “His budgets have proposed more savings to mandatory programs than any President in history, including lowering drug costs, eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse, and getting people off welfare and back to work.”
Which doesn’t exactly sound like a denial to me.