Stand up for the facts!

Our only agenda is to publish the truth so you can be an informed participant in democracy.
We need your help.

More Info

I would like to contribute

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress on February 28, 2017. (AP Photo) U.S. President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress on February 28, 2017. (AP Photo)

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress on February 28, 2017. (AP Photo)

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg March 1, 2017

Trump wrongly claims historic defense increase

In his address to Congress, President Donald Trump said his budget "calls for one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history."

Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney gave reporters a broad overview of the president’s budget Feb. 27. He said the White House wants to spend $603 billion on defense. Mulvaney compared that to the $549 billion allowed under spending caps based on a 2011 budget control law.

On that basis, Trump seeks nearly a 10 percent increase.

But when we looked at past budgets, we found there have been much heftier jumps in military spending.

As America entered WWII, its defense spending more than doubled. However, that was a world war, so a fairer comparison might be more recent budgets. But even over the past 35 years, Trump’s plan still isn’t exceptional.

A word of caution: Making apples-to-apples comparisons in defense spending can be tricky.

Budget writers talk about the base defense budget. That number excludes billions for Overseas Contingency Operations, a big ticket item that covers the costs of actually fighting wars. Right now, that spending adds about $55 billion to the Pentagon’s account.

When the contingency money is factored in, spending today is about $587 billion. This difference can lead to some confusion as people debate the magnitude of Trump’s request. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Trump’s plan raises the Pentagon’s budget by only about $18 billion. But he’s comparing Trump’s apparent base request to the full Pentagon budget.

So with that in mind, let’s go back in time.

President Jimmy Carter’s last budget kicked up military spending 25 percent in 1981. President Ronald Reagan’s added another 20 percent the next year. President George W. Bush raised it by 27 percent in 2003, 13 percent in 2007 and nearly 12 percent in 2008.

Featured Fact-check

Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, had a tempered view of Trump’s assertion.

"The defense budget Trump proposed for 2018 is a significant increase, but it is not one of the largest increases," Harrison told PolitiFact.

During Trump's speech, Harrison tweeted this chart, which excludes war-related money.Budget Change.jpg

By Harrison’s count, since 1977, there have been 10 increases that were at least a little bit larger than what Trump has in mind.

Laicie Heeley, a defense budget analyst at the Stimson Center, a defense policy think tank, said, "Trump's historical increase is actually quite average."

We reached out to the White House and were still waiting for a response when we published.

Our ruling

Trump said his budget plan has one of the largest increases in defense spending in the country’s history. Looking strictly at money for the Pentagon’s base budget, Trump is calling for about a 10 percent hike in spending. But in the past three decades, there have been 10 years when the base defense budget has gone up more than what Trump has requested. In some years, the increase was more than double Trump’s.

The term "one of the largest" has some leeway, but the defense analysts we reached said while it is a significant increase, it is not remarkable.

We rate this claim Mostly False.

Our Sources

New York Times, Trump’s Speech to Congress: Video and Transcript, Feb. 28, 2017

U.S. Department of Defense, Department of Defense (DoD) Releases Fiscal Year 2017 President’s Budget Proposal, Feb. 9, 2016

Politico, White House calls for $54B bump in defense spending, sharp domestic cuts, Feb. 27, 2017

U.S. Department of Defense, Financial Summary Tables, February 2016

U.S. House Committee on Appropriations, Short-Term Continuing Resolution to Maintain Government Operations Released, Dec. 6, 2016

White House Office of Management and Budget, Historical Tables, accessed Feb. 28, 2017

Email interview, Todd Harrison, defense analyst, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Feb. 28, 2017

Email interview, Laicie Heeley, defense budget analyst, Stimson Center, Feb. 28, 2017

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Jon Greenberg

Trump wrongly claims historic defense increase

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up