WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump said Thursday that a strong military is "more important" than a balanced budget, signaling a willingness to use deficit spending to fund the Pentagon — a move that may fly in the face of his pick for the Office of Management and Budget.
Speaking to Fox News' Sean Hannity Thursday night, Trump said "a balanced budget is fine. But sometimes, you have to fuel the well in order to really get the economy going. And we have to take care of our military. Our military is more important to me than a balanced budget because we'll get there with a balanced budget."
Later in the interview, Trump repeated that statement, saying: "I want a balanced budget eventually. But I want to have a strong military. To me, that's much more important than anything."
That position may create tensions with his OMB pick, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., a budget hawk who is expected to force fiscal discipline onto the Trump administration.
Since winning election in November, Trump has repeatedly promised to raise funding support for the US military. His plans include increasing the active-duty Army to 540,000 soldiers, the Navy to 350 ships, an Air Force fleet of 1,200 fighter aircraft and a Marine Corps with 36 battalions. He has also pledged a "state-of-the-art missile defense system" to modernize the Navy’s cruisers and to provide ballistic missile defense capabilities.
Almost immediately after the election, members of the fiscally conservative Tea Party Caucus in the House raised concerns about such spending plans. Mulvaney is seen as a leading voice from the tea party movement.
Mackenzie Eaglen, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, says Mulvaney made it clear in his testimony that he will send over what she called an "ideologically radical" budget proposal – one that will seek to avoid any sort of deficit spending, and which will be dead on arrival, based on how similar budget proposals have struggled to even get through the Republican-controlled House, let alone survive a battle in the Senate.
The Senate, with 48 democrats who "cannot be ignored," will be a check on Mulvaney’s budget aspirations, according to Eaglen, who says they are smart enough to hold defense spending as a hostage to increase non-defense spending.
"Defense is still the best leverage point Democrats have," Eaglen said. "They know it, and why would they change now? They will continue to make it a point of leverage."
As to Trump’s comments on Thursday, Eaglen says they are in line with previous statements.
"He doesn’t care [about deficit spending] on defense and that makes perfect sense if you consider defense the first priority, and you see some jobs benefit in things that are already validated and vetted requirements," such as major defense programs, Eaglen said.
Todd Harrison, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that the last few months have driven home a lesson on Trump: that when he says something specific, people should take him at his word.
"When he says he will build a wall, he will try to build a wall. All these things, when he says something specific, it looks like he's going to try and follow through," Harrison said. And here, Trump is saying "he will treat the military differently than other parts of the budget."
However, Harrison says that literal reading of Trump's comments also means the president said government spending cuts won't come from defense - and not that the defense budget will get a major boost.
Trump’s words will likely be welcomed by Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee. In a Jan. 24 hearing, McCain ripped into Mulvaney over concerns about defense spending. McCain has proposed $640 billion for the 2018 defense budget, something supported by his counterpart in the House, Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.
Joe Gould in Washington contributed to this report. This story was updated at 12:11 PM 1/27/2017 to add Harrison's comments.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.