President Donald Trump has falsely claimed his administration invested “$2.5 trillion in all of the greatest equipment in the world” for the military. That’s approximately the total for defense budgets from 2017 to 2020, but the cost of purchasing new military equipment was 20% of that.
It’s true the Defense Department budgets passed under Trump — which total $2.9 trillion, in inflation-adjusted dollars, actually — have been larger than they were in the latter years of his predecessor. In the last four years under then-President Barack Obama, the defense budgets, in inflation-adjusted dollars, totaled $2.7 trillion, but the budgets in Obama’s first four years were nearly $3.3 trillion.
Those are the budget authority figures — the amounts Congress appropriated — from the Defense Department comptroller’s budget report released this year. (Note: The fiscal 2009 defense budget was signed by then-President George W. Bush four months before Obama took office. The fiscal 2017 budget, which began on Oct. 1, 2016, when Obama was still in office, was signed by Trump.)
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So, in context, the amount Trump is touting isn’t all that unusual.
On occasion, Trump has emphasized the “trillion,” as he did in a speech at West Point on June 13: “[W]e have invested over 2 trillion — trillion; that’s with a ‘T’ — dollars in the most powerful fighting force, by far, on the planet Earth.” On May 22, he falsely claimed military funding “used to be ‘million.’ And then, about 10 years ago, you started hearing ‘billion.’ And now you’re starting to hear ‘trillion,’ right?”
That’s wrong. The defense budget has been in the billions each year dating back to 1948 (as far as the Defense Department tables go). And those yearly budgets are still in the billions. As we said, Trump gets to “trillion” by adding together several years.
The president repeatedly has claimed all of the budget money was spent on equipment, such as ships, fighter jets, tanks and weapons. He made that assertion on June 25 when speaking at a shipbuilding company in Wisconsin.
“We’ve totally rebuilt the military — $2.5 trillion,” Trump said, going on to talk about a contract awarded to that shipbuilding company, Fincantieri Marinette Marine, “to build the next generation of guided missile frigates for the United States Navy.”
Trump then mentioned missiles, rockets and tanks, saying: “What we had were great people in the military, but they weren’t given the right equipment, so now they are. Two and a half trillion dollars. … We’ve invested the $2.5 trillion in all of the greatest equipment in the world, and it’s all made here, right in the USA.”
Procurement — as in buying equipment — made up 20.3% of those 2017-2020 defense budgets, or $590.7 billion. (That’s in constant — inflation-adjusted — 2021 dollars, per the Defense Department report.)
The president has made some version of this claim at least 16 times, according to the Washington Post Fact Checker’s database of Trump’s claims.
At times, he mentions the figure for the defense budgets without stipulating what specifically the money bought. “I’ve rebuilt our military. I spent two and a half trillion dollars. Nobody else did,” he told Fox News on June 11. (As we explained, Obama did indeed approve budgets totaling more than that.)
But other times, he has made the false claim about all of the funding going for equipment, or “new planes, ships, submarines, tanks, missiles, rockets — anything you can think of.”
Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told us when Trump has claimed $2-plus trillion was spent on military equipment, that’s “absolutely untrue.”
“What we spend on military equipment is a fraction of the defense budget,” Harrison said.
If we wanted to be generous, Harrison said, we could include the defense budget’s “research, development, test, and evaluation” category, which pays for the development of technology, as part of military equipment. That category plus procurement would total 33.5% of the last four defense budgets.
The largest defense budget category is operation and maintenance, which made up 40.2% of the 2017-2020 budgets, followed by military personnel, which was 22.6% of those budgets.
But when the president hasn’t been as specific, his $2.5 trillion claim could be interpreted to refer to what the U.S. spends in total on defense, and “that’s about right,” Harrison said.
“No president can claim credit or get the blame for military spending all on their own,” he added, noting that Congress passes appropriation bills that the president then signs into law. “Congress has just as much of a role in military spending.”
The budget authority figures we have cited are those amounts appropriated by Congress. To see what the federal government actually spends, we would look at outlays. But even those total about $2.7 trillion for 2017 to 2020, using the inflation-adjusted numbers. As the Defense Department explains, money that’s obligated in one year could be spent in another, or over several years.
We contacted the White House about the president’s claim but didn’t get a response.
Comparing Inflation-Adjusted Budgets
As we said, the budgets signed by Trump (including the fiscal 2017 budget), include an increase in defense spending from Obama’s second term.
The Defense Department report shows the 2017-2020 budgets are 9.3% larger than the 2013-2016 budgets. But the defense budgets signed by Trump are 10.8% lower than the 2009-2012 budgets, in inflation-adjusted dollars. (Again, the 2009 fiscal year defense budget was signed by Bush in September 2008.)
Obama’s second-term budgets were subject to spending caps under the Budget Control Act of 2011, an effort to lower federal deficits. Beginning in fiscal 2013, Congress has raised those caps every year, according to a Congressional Research Service report, and there have been much larger cap increases in the last three defense budgets signed by Trump.
In looking solely at procurement, the budgets for 2017-2020 are 24.8% larger than those in 2013-2016 but 5.8% lower than the 2009-2012 budgets, in inflation-adjusted figures.
We previously wrote about Trump’s false claims that the defense budgets he signed showed “record” levels of spending. When adjusted for inflation, the defense budgets for fiscal 2007 through 2012 were all larger than the budgets signed by Trump, according to the Defense Department figures.
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