WASHINGTON — Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe said he used a recent two-hour White House meeting with President Donald Trump, Vice Mike President Pence and national security adviser John Bolton to urge the administration to reverse course on a planned cut to the fiscal year 2020 national defense budget.
“I’m urging the president to consider” approving a “strategy-driven budget,” he said Thursday in a speech at the National Defense University focused on his priorities for the committee. "There’s no strategic rationale for any cut” to the defense budget, which stood at $716 billion for 2019, he said.
Inhofe and HASC chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, on Wednesday, lobbied the president to reject a planned $700 billion defense budget request, ordered by the White House budget office, in favor of a rival $733 billion budget which aligns with the National Defense Strategy.
The remarks come days after Trump tweeted that the size of the FY19 defense budget he signed last year was “Crazy!” Trump said he hoped for talks soon with his Russian and Chinese counterparts to end, “what has become a major and uncontrollable Arms Race” — a likely reference to negotiations over the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
A supporter of the president and proud conservative, Inhofe made the candid admission that, “I cringe a little,” whenever Trump tweets. He said he doesn’t blame Trump, however, for trying to get around a media that, “hates him.”
“I have to admit — confession’s good for the soul — every time I hear that a tweet is coming out, I cringe a little,” Inhofe said. “But, wouldn’t it be kind of nice if he had someone to bounce those off, change the wording maybe a little bit? But how else can he circumvent a media that hates him?”
Surrounding himself with uniformed military officers Thursday, Inhofe paired partisan jabs at the media, “liberals,” and President Obama with praise for Trump on defense spending, seating judges and the economy. Asked about rising deficits in the face of his defense spending proposal, Inhofe suggested cutting social programs and dismissed tax cuts.
As defense hawks head into a budget season marked by a divided Congress, Inhofe has launched a media blitz to amplify his message that the Pentagon’s planned $733 billion top-line is “a floor, not a ceiling” and that he wants three-to-five percent real growth in the defense budget.
Budget Control Act Looms Large
Inhofe reiterated his argument for exempting defense from the 2011 Budget Control Act’s caps, which has been a non-starter with Democrats who have fought for parity between defense and non-defense spending each year since the BCA was passed. Inhofe said he hoped to break parity for FY20.
“The top priority in this country should be defense,” he said. “People here in the military, with your orientation, know what I’m talking about. The general public doesn’t. A lot of the media’s making them believe we don’t have any threats out there, and a lot of this is a waste of money.”
Inhofe also struck some conciliatory notes towards Democrats. Inhofe expressed confidence in Congress reaching a bipartisan deal to lift budget caps for the last two years of the Budget Control Act, where caps for discretionary defense spending stand at $542 billion for FY20 and $555 billion for FY21.
After trading barbs last week with his soon-to-be counterpart at the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., Inhofe called Smith "a good man,” who he likes personally. Inhofe had swiped at Smith’s position that modernization of the nuclear triad is unaffordable, but Inhofe said Thursday, “We’re two different people with two different philosophies.”
Because a recent bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission report ranked Russian and Chinese strides in nuclear weapons development as a top national security concern, “I think he made a mistake when he singled out nuclear modernization,” Inhofe said of Smith.
“I think it was a bad choice and I think it is one he and I can talk about,” Inhofe said. “I think we’re going to see, even though Democrats have control of the House, when it gets down to defending America, we’re going to be much closer together.”
Inhofe literally held up the commission’s report, which paints a dire picture of America’s military edge and calls for added defense spending to maintain it. Inhofe reiterated his plans to prioritize modernization spending to compete with Russia and China — which have been “busy” as the U.S. has “toyed with” nuclear modernization.
Inhofe stressed Russia’s investment in hypersonic weapons, but also touted China’s construction of islands in the South China Sea (“They are everywhere”), touted China’s presence in Africa (“It’s a very scary thing”), and he claimed China’s navy would outpace America’s in two years.
Asked why he considered China a threat when the U.S. defense strategy considers it a competitor, he said, “Anyone who has anything better than we do is a potential threat, and my job is to minimize that."
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.