Post Fact-Checker Buys Trump’s “Just Joking” Defense on Eliminating Social Security

September 04, 2020

Donald Trump routinely says outlandish things and then when he is called on them, he or his staff insist he was just joking. To take some recent favorites, people may recall his “joke” about injecting people with disinfectant at a press conference a few months back. And then there was the joke about telling his aides to slow down testing so that there would be fewer reported infections with the coronavirus. Just this week, we heard Trump quite explicitly tell his supporters in North Carolina to vote by mail and then go in and try to vote in person, in other words, commit election fraud.

In these three cases, and many others, Trump and/or his staff insisted he didn’t really mean the things he said. Now we are getting the same game with Trump’s plan to end the payroll tax.

Donald Trump said quite explicitly that he wants to end the payroll tax that supports the Social Security program. He said that it would mean $5,000 in savings to a typical worker, which is roughly correct. Of course, if we had no money coming into Social Security then the program could not pay benefits, under current law.

The Biden campaign picked up on this and said that Trump wants to end the Social Security program, since his plan would quickly drain the program’s trust fund. Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s fact-checker gave the Biden campaign four Pinocchios, saying that Trump has always promised to protect Social Security.

While the Biden campaign may be stretching things a bit, it is not a long stretch. After all, Trump is promising workers a $5,000 a person tax cut. He is not proposing any tax increase to make up for the lost revenue. So is he planning to just increase the annual budget deficit by $1 trillion  (5 percent of GDP)? You don’t have to be a deficit hawk (certified non-hawk here) to see that as a problem.

The basic story here is that Trump is making absurd and contradictory promises. He will not be able to sustain the Social Security program if he eliminates the payroll tax without some substantial offsetting tax increase. Since he has not even hinted at what such a tax could be, it is reasonable to assume that he is not proposing one and therefore he would not be able to pay for Social Security.

Donald Trump may lack the policy understanding of other presidents or candidates, but that is not an excuse to give him special treatment. The Biden campaign is perfectly reasonable in highlighting a possible implication of a policy that Trump has explicitly advocated.

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