WASHINGTON — In a surprise announcement, U.S. President Donald Trump has called for government spending to be cut 5 percent across every federal department, leaving next year’s military budget in confusion.
“I would like you to come back with a 5 percent cut,” Trump told members of his Cabinet during a Tuesday meeting. “Get rid of the fat, get rid of the waste, I’m sure you can do it. I’m sure everybody at this table can do it. It’ll have a huge impact.”
Trump was specifically asked about the Pentagon’s budget by a reporter and did not say the department would be exempt. However, he did say the department’s budget "will probably be $700 billion” for fiscal 2020, noting that “because now that we have our military taken care of, we have our law enforcement taken care of, we can do things that we really weren’t in a position to do when I first came.”
The Pentagon’s budget for FY19 was $686.1 billion, with overall national security funding set at $716 billion. Additionally, a drop from $716 billion to $700 billion is only a 2.23 percent drop; a full 5 percent cut would put national security spending to $680, with the Pentagon’s total at $651.7 billion.
A budget increase for the Pentagon to $700 billion would represent a funding increase, but Trump’s comments indicated he is referring to a drop from the larger $716 billion figure.
“It was at 520 a very short while ago. And the reason I brought it up to 700 and then 716 was to build new ships,” Trump said. “We’re building new, incredible submarines, the finest in the world, most powerful in the world, anywhere, ever. We’re doing things that we have never done on this scale. So that included a lot of rebuilding of our military.
“So despite that, I’m going to keep that at $700 billion defense. OK?”
A spokesman for the National Security Council did not return a request for clarification on Trump’s comments.
If Trump’s comments hold and national security spending will drop, it would come at a time the department has been planning to invest in capabilities needed under the National Defense Strategy.
Pentagon officials have been clear they see the need for 2 to 3 percent growth above inflation to fund requirements while also investing in manpower and new technologies. But there is a growing sense that FY20 may only come with an inflation bump.
“This two-year plus-up, where we’ve seen some gains, if that isn’t sustained in 2020 or beyond, you’re going to lose whatever the goodness was that came from last year and this year,” Dakota Wood, an analyst with The Heritage Foundation, told Defense News earlier this month.
“FY19 is now the ceiling. It’s not the floor to build from,” Wood said. “What folks on the Hill and [the Office of Management and Budget] and others are looking at is the domestic political situation. … To argue for even more spending on defense is just politically not a real, viable prospect. Because you’re talking about a future danger.”
In recent years, Congress has plussed-up what it considers lower-than-desired defense levels. However, if Democrats take one or both chambers, there is an expectation they will tamp down on military spending.
Joe Gould with Defense News and Leo Shane III with Military Times contributed to this report.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.