In Reversal, Trump Signals Further Boost in Defense Spending

The U.S. president had been calling for cuts in recent months.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to members of the U.S. military during an unannounced trip to Al Asad Airbase in Iraq on Dec. 26, 2018. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to members of the U.S. military during an unannounced trip to Al Asad Airbase in Iraq on Dec. 26, 2018. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

On his first trip to an active combat zone since taking office, President Donald Trump suggested to U.S. troops on Wednesday that the military might get another funding boost this year.

But the remark contradicted Trump’s other recent statements about defense spending, and he seemed to make it offhandedly—sowing confusion about his real intentions.

“You have to have the finest equipment anywhere in the world, and you have that—$716 billion,” Trump said, referring to the defense budget for fiscal year 2019, during a speech at Al Asad Airbase in Anbar Province, Iraq. “This year, again, we’re going to be—don’t tell anybody because nobody else knows—even a little bit higher.”

After campaigning on a pledge to rebuild the military, Trump secured a 10.4 percent increase in national defense spending in fiscal year 2018 ($700 billion) and another 2.3 percent in 2019 ($716 billion). He touted that boost during the speech, boasting about “billions and billions of dollars of new equipment that I approved over the last two years.”

But for the last few months, Trump has indicated that he planned to reverse course and tighten the Defense Department’s belt.

In a surprise announcement in October, Trump called for a 5 percent across-the-board spending cut for the federal government, causing widespread confusion about the impact on the Pentagon’s coffers. He did not specifically say whether defense would be exempt, noting that the department’s budget for fiscal 2020 “will probably be $700 billion.” Some analysts took that as a sign of a possible drop from 2019.

“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,” Trump said in October.

Trump doubled down in early December, calling his own military spending boost “crazy.”

“I am certain that, at some time in the future, President Xi [Jinping of China] and I, together with President [Vladimir] Putin of Russia, will start talking about a meaningful halt to what has become a major and uncontrollable Arms Race,” Trump said in a Dec. 3 tweet. “The U.S. spent 716 Billion Dollars this year. Crazy!”

Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan—who is poised to become acting secretary of defense when Secretary of Defense James Mattis departs next week—has said the Pentagon is preparing two budgets for the president to review: a $733 billion proposal and a trimmed-down $700 billion option.

Trump still has time to choose one or the other—or to ask for a new one entirely. The department’s final budget proposal for fiscal year 2020 will be sent to Congress in February.

During the speech to troops on Wednesday, Trump also touted the “near elimination” of the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria. He said the withdrawal of troops from Syria will be “strong, deliberate, and orderly” and added that the U.S. military will maintain a presence in Iraq to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State and “to protect U.S. interests.”

In defending his decision earlier this month to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria, Trump said he never intended to remain there for the long term. He said he extended the mission several times before deciding to cut his losses.

“One year ago, I gave our generals six more months in Syria. I said, ‘Go ahead. Get them,’” Trump said. “Then they said, ‘Give us another six months.’ I said, ‘Go get them.’ Then they said ‘Can we have one more, like, period of six months?’ I said. ‘Nope, nope.’ I said, ‘I gave you a lot of six months.’”

Mattis resigned last week to protest the decision.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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