On 25 February 2017, President Donald Trump tweeted to complain that the news media were not reporting his success in reducing the national debt during his first month in office:
The media has not reported that the National Debt in my first month went down by $12 billion vs a $200 billion increase in Obama first mo.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 25, 2017
As noted by news media from the Los Angeles Times to the Washington Post, the tweet appeared closely after a “Fox & Friends” segment in which guest (and former presidential candidate) Herman Cain reported the same numbers. That story appeared to have its origins in a post on the conservative blog Gateway Pundit (“Amazing! Trump Cuts US Debt by $12 Billion In His First Month”) which took credit for the Trump tweet in an update to their story.
There are two claims implicit in the tweet. The first claim is simply the factual nature of the figures reported. The second is that the numbers represent an item worthy of coverage.
The numbers are factual in a literal sense, according to the online debt history search application offered by the US Treasury Department:
Though the numbers regarding the debt at the end of Trump’s and President Obama’s first month are factual, their significance as a reportable bit of information or as an indicator of the impact or success of Trump’s policies is questionable. Speaking to CBS News, Maya MacGuineas, director of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Budget, said:
It is true the debt outstanding declined by $12 billion in the first month of Donald Trump’s presidency. We applaud the president for focusing on the debt as an important metric of success and economic health, but would point out that the improvement this early in his term has to do with normal fluctuations in spending and revenues rather than new policies he has implemented.
Indeed, in terms of newsworthiness (or lack thereof), sporadic reductions of the debt are not uncommon (in red, below) on a month-to-month basis, according to The “Monthly Statement of the Public Debt of the United States” reports released during the course of President Obama’s second term in office:
In fact, the Washington Post’s Wonkblog reports that, even on a day-to-day basis, fluctuations even greater than the one Trump referenced are not unheard of:
The Gateway Pundit article says that the change in debt under Trump translates to a 0.1 percent reduction in the U.S. debt burden. Actually, it’s .06 percent between Jan. 20 and Feb. 21 — a very small change. (The national debt has gone up or down by as much .19 percent on single days this year.)
Secondly, there are few mechanisms by which any actions Trump has taken as president would affect the national debt thus far, as he has not signed into law any financial measures related to federal borrowing. While there are arguments to be made that other factors related to Trump’s presidency could affect the debt, the Post has said it is unlikely, and also impossible to quantify:
It’s impossible to know whether Trump’s election has really had time to filter through to concretely affect the economy. Congress has not passed any of his policies yet. The stock market has certainly continued to boom, but it was already rising before the election.
While it’s possible anticipation of tax cuts or regulatory relief is heating up the economy and leading to increased government receipts, investors might also be choosing not to sell assets to avoid current capital gains tax rates and waiting to see whether the Republican-dominated Congress successfully slashes rates.
Keith Hennessey, a former director of the U.S. National Economic Council appointed by George W. Bush, wrote a “hypothetical memo” to Congress analyzing the 45th President’s tweet. In this document, he stated that neither Obama nor Trump had any effect on the national debt in their first month in office:
Government borrowing in January and February is the byproduct of spending and tax policies set by Congress the year before. President Obama signed the fiscal stimulus law on February 17, 2009, but it took months before that began to change government cash flows and borrowing requirements. President Trump has so far not measurably affected fiscal policy in general or government borrowing in specific. It’s unfair to assign any responsibility for borrowing in the first month to either president.
Hennessey added that it is equally unfair to compare the 2009 economic situation with the 2017 one:
GDP was plummeting when President Obama took office. Tax revenues were down, automatic stabilizer payments (e.g., unemployment insurance and safety net spending) were up, and funds were being spent from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). In early 2009 government was borrowing a lot because the economy was weak, not because of President Obama’s policies. In contrast, the U.S. economy is now growing. The smaller borrowing requirement for this month is mostly a result of this economic difference, and may also in part be simply an artifact of choosing such a short timeframe for comparison.
More to the point, however, the fact that the day-to-day and month-to-month fluctuations of the national debt are so volatile, he argued, is why analysts don’t typically look at the data for these time periods, accordingo to Hennessey:
Had the president / Mr. Cain ended his timeframe one day earlier this tweet would have been invalid and debt would have increased (by just $1 B) in “the first month.” This is why analysts look at debt on an annual basis rather than daily/weekly/monthly.
It should also be noted that, as the Fox and Friends segment aired on one of the nation’s most popular national cable news networks, “the media” did indeed report on this story. The reason it didn’t pick up much steam is that the numbers were not newsworthy because they were taken out of context and are likely irrelevant to President Trump’s actions in office.
UPDATE: 28 February 2017 — Modified the status of this article to “MIXTURE” to better explicate the difference between the accuracy of the debt figures and their newsworthiness.