President Donald Trump on Thursday, surrounded by U.S. Navy personnel aboard a massive aircraft carrier, again promised the largest military buildup in some time — but he faces an uphill fight to garner ample congressional support.
Trump used the USS Gerald R. Ford, a not-yet-active Navy warship docked at a shipyard in southeastern Virginia, as the stage for his first major national security speech since becoming the commander in chief. He described the U.S. military as a depleted force, and again said his coming fiscal 2018 budget plan will propose more Pentagon spending to begin buying new combat platforms.
But Trump, wearing an olive USS Ford jacket with his name and “commander in chief” on a patch and a blue baseball cap, did not lay out how he intends to convince Democrats to increase defense spending without also hiking domestic budgets. Nor did he explain how he intends to win over spending-averse House conservatives or Republicans who have already balked at his plans due to public support for some of the very federal programs he intends to cut to offset his proposed Pentagon budget increase.
Better watch out
The president again alluded to former Republican chief executives’ “peace through strength” doctrine, saying “hopefully” he won’t have to deploy the U.S. military. He then added this hawkish line: “But if we do, they’re in big, big trouble.”
Trump again called for Congress to eliminate defense budget caps first put in place by the 2011 Budget Control Act, as his upcoming fiscal 2018 budget will propose.
A change in that law would be needed to fund the president’s plan to, as he described Thursday, set in motion a “great rebuilding of the United States military and the United States Navy.”
Notably, Trump repeated a contradiction uttered by senior generals and admirals, Pentagon civilian leaders and defense sector executives for nearly a decade. He described the Ford, once it joins the active fleet, as perhaps the most lethal weapon the world has ever known. He then talked about a Navy and military that has too few resources and lacks world-class equipment.
Under his watch, “we will have the finest equipment in the world,” Trump declared. “We’re going to have, very soon, the finest equipment in the world.”
To get those combat and support platforms, the commander in chief again called on Congress to eliminate the defense spending caps and enact his proposed $54 billion Pentagon funding increase.
Doing so, he argued, would give the military services stable funding and certainty, two things he said would help them get better deals from arms manufacturers.
“And by eliminating the sequester and the uncertainty it creates, we will make it easier for the Navy to plan for the future and thus to control costs and get the best deals for the taxpayer which, of course, is very important, right?” he said. “Got to get a good deal. We don’t make a good deal, we’re not doing our job,” he told servicemen and women on the massive supercarrier.
The remark again showed how the president sees his business experience as allowing him to fundamentally change and reverse years of major weapons program cost overruns, schedule delays and cancelations. Some defense analysts, however, have their doubts.
Trump intends to call for a $54 billion hike for fiscal 2018, along with $30 billion more for the current fiscal year. He would pay for the former with other federal cuts; the latter amount would be designated as emergency spending, meaning those dollars would not count against defense spending caps.
As for those defense spending caps, the president announced during his first address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday that his budget will propose amending that law to get rid of the defense caps, colloquially known in Washington as “the sequester.”
“I am sending the Congress a budget that rebuilds the military, eliminates the Defense [Department] sequester, and calls for one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history,” he said Tuesday. “My budget will also increase funding for our veterans.”
Wish list vs. reality
Trump faces an uphill battle — with both parties — in turning his defense spending whims into reality.
Just within his own party, Trump must deal with defense hawks such as Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, who want even more military money, and others who are not sold on the cuts the Trump administration is eyeing to pay for the proposed defense hike.
“We’re doing our own budget,” House Budget Chairwoman Diane Black said this week. “The president does his own budget. We’ll see how they match at the end of the day.”
Another hurdle: The Trump administration has no plans to lift the domestic spending restrictions the 2011 law also put in place. President Barack Obama got more defense spending by agreeing to sign legislation that also raised the domestic caps, a move that got him the 60 necessary votes in the Senate.
So Trump also has to convince pro-defense Democrats to break with their party on a defense-only increase. That list includes Senate Armed Services ranking member Jack Reed, who signaled this week that getting 60 votes for Trump’s Pentagon budget in that chamber could be tricky.
“We also have to recognize that national security goes beyond Army brigades, Marine regiments, and the number of aircraft carriers at sea,” Reed said Tuesday.
He said other federal agencies “all play indispensable roles in safeguarding our nation, and if the increase in defense spending comes at the cost of domestic priorities, it could make our country less secure in the long run.”
For now, Senate Democratic leaders are signaling that their caucus, which controls 48 votes, is united.
Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said this week that “unless there is some parallel investment in the nondefense side, many of us are going to resist it.” And the chamber’s top Democrat, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, said $54 billion in domestic cuts would be “massive and devastating.“