Among the toughest long-term challenges facing President-elect Donald Trump and the incoming 115th U.S. Congress is ensuring the continued viability of the Social Security and Medicare programs, both of which, according to reports by their boards of trustees, face insolvency by the year 2034.
On 8 December 2016, Republican Congressman Sam Johnson, chairman of the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, introduced legislation — titled The Social Security Reform Act of 2016 (H.R. 6489) — designed to “permanently” save Social Security:
My commonsense plan is the start of a fact-based conversation about how we do just that. I urge my colleagues to also put pen to paper and offer their ideas about how they would save Social Security for generations to come. Americans want, need, and deserve for us to finally come up with a solution to saving this important program.
Among other measures proposed by Johnson, the plan would gradually increase the normal retirement age to 69, progressively reduce benefits for the top half (in income) of retirees, and limit cost-of-living adjustments and spousal benefits for the highest-income retirees, while increasing minimum benefits for those who earn the lowest.
No matter how it’s sliced and diced, Johnson’s plan calls for benefit cuts — one of the biggest no-nos in American politics. All eyes are therefore on President-elect Trump, who repeatedly said during the 2016 campaign that he would not consider cutting Social Security — or did he?
Former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders certainly thinks Trump said he wouldn’t:
Donald Trump said he would not cut Medicare or Social Security. He must keep his word. It’s a life-and-death issue for millions of people.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) December 10, 2016
But Johnson’s plan has caused confusion, even among some who supported him, about Trump’s own position on the issue. At snopes.com we’ve been inundated with questions about what Trump does or doesn’t plan to do about Social Security, so we gathered together some of his more recent statements to see how they added up. On the whole — at least during the campaign — Trump has consistently said he’s against cutting benefits, while acknowledging that the system needs fixing:
“Save Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security without cuts. Have to do it. Get rid of the fraud. Get rid of the waste and abuse, but save it. People have been paying it for years. And now many of these candidates want to cut it. You save it by making the United States, by making us rich again, by taking back all of the money that’s being lost.” (16 June 2015)
Scott Pelley: “In your book, The America We Deserve, you proposed raising the Social Security retirement age to 70. Is that still your plan?”
Donald Trump: “Yeah, not anymore because now what I want to do is take money back from other countries that are killing us and I want to save Social Security. And we’re going to save it without increases. We’re not going to raise the age and it will be just fine.” (27 September 2015)
“I’m going to save Social Security. You have tremendous waste, fraud and abuse. We have in Social Security thousands of people over 106 years old. You know they don’t exist. There’s tremendous waste, fraud and abuse, and we’re going to get it. But we’re not going to hurt the people who have been paying into Social Security their whole life and then all of a sudden they’re supposed to get less. We’re bringing jobs back.” (13 February 2016)
“And it’s my absolute intention to leave Social Security the way it is. Not increase the age and to leave it as is.” (10 March 2016)
“We’re going to save your Social Security and we’re going to save your Medicare. We are going to save it because we’re going to make our country rich again, we’re going to bring back our jobs. We’re not going to let our jobs go. And we’re going to be able to afford. You’ve been paying in it for a long time and a lot of these guys want it to be knocked to hell. It’s not going to happen, OK? Remember that. It’s not going to happen.” (4 April 2016)
Going back further in time, we found statements contradicting his statements during the campaign, such as when, in his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, Trump compared Social Security to a Ponzi scheme. “The pyramids are made of papier-mâché,” he wrote, going on to suggest that the retirement age be raised to 70 and the system be at least partially privatized. But that was 16 years ago. He’s said nothing of the kind more recently.
According to an unnamed source quoted by Bloomberg Week in May 2016, Trump insisted during a conversation with House Speaker Paul Ryan (who has generally supported entitlements cuts and has spoken in favor of Social Security privatization), that no Republican who vowed to cut Social Security could win the presidential election:
According to a source in the room, Trump criticized Ryan’s proposed entitlement cuts as unfair and politically foolish. “From a moral standpoint, I believe in it,” Trump told Ryan. “But you also have to get elected. And there’s no way a Republican is going to beat a Democrat when the Republican is saying, ‘We’re going to cut your Social Security’ and the Democrat is saying, ‘We’re going to keep it and give you more.'”
There’s often a considerable disconnect between the promises candidates make on the campaign trail and the positions they take in office — especially when those promises differ from the stands taken by other powerful members of their own party — so we can’t predict whether or not Donald Trump will hold the line against any and all Social Security cuts.
But we can tell you with certainty that he said he would.