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At a campaign-style event in Washington, Mich., President Donald Trump upped the ante on the costs of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When running for president in 2016, Trump said America had spent $6 trillion on its response to the Sept. 11 terror attacks. In Michigan, he added another trillion.
"We have spent $7 trillion — trillion with a T — $7 trillion in the Middle East," he told the crowd April 28, 2018. "You know what we have for it? Nothing. Nothing."
We found that Trump inaccurately treated money that university researchers have predicted will be spent decades in the future as if it were already spent.
The White House pointed to a couple of studies to back up Trump’s number.
A 2016 analysis from a Boston University political scientist Neta Crawford calculated that by August 2016, the United States had "already appropriated, spent, or taken on obligations to spend more than $3.6 trillion in current dollars on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria and on Homeland Security."
But after adding an estimated $1 trillion for the future cost of treating wounded veterans through 2053, plus money for the Defense Department to fight wars, the total reached nearly $4.8 trillion.
Crawford’s paper included this table:
In the last row of her table, Crawford adds about $3 trillion in cumulative interest to reach a figure of nearly $8 trillion — over 35 years. She told us she used unpublished projections from the economist who wrote a 2011 paper on the macroeconomic impacts of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The estimated future cost of veteran care and debt service also played a role in a 2013 Harvard Kennedy School working paper that estimated long-term costs of $4 trillion to $6 trillion.
"The largest portion of that bill is yet to be paid," the authors wrote.
The key costs in the years ahead were veterans care, replacing military hardware, and interest on the debt that financed the fighting.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, recent tax and spending bills make rising debt more likely in the years ahead, adding weight to the projected finance costs associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The authors of both papers acknowledge that there are large uncertainties in predicting costs so many years in the future.
Looking at direct spending, the Congressional Research Service estimated in 2014 that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars had cost the United States about $1.6 trillion from 2001 to 2014. That figure did not include ongoing care for veterans.
Trump said that America has spent $7 trillion on the Middle East. The key flaw is Trump treated long-range estimates as money already spent.
The money actually spent so far is closer to $2 trillion. The reports cited by the White House estimated costs about 30 years into the future. The highest estimate in those reports supports Trump’s $7 trillion figure.
Still, wounded veterans will need care and debt must be repaid with interest.
We rate this claim Half True.
Donald Trump, Speech in Washington, Mich., April 28, 2018
Brown University, "US Budgetary Costs of Wars through 2016," September 2016
Brown University, Post-9/11 War Spending, Debt, and the Macroeconomy, June 22, 2011
Harvard University, "The Financial Legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan: How Wartime Spending Decisions Will Constrain Future National Security Budgets," March 2013
Congressional Research Service, "The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11," Dec. 8, 2014
Center for Strategic and International Studies, Making Sense of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 and What It Means for Defense, Feb. 20, 2018
Congressional Budget Office, Overview of The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2018 to 2028, April 26, 2018
PolitiFact, Did U.S. spend $6 trillion in Middle East wars?, Oct. 27, 2016
Email interview, Steven Cheung, director of strategic response, White House press office, April 30, 2018
Email interview, Neta Crawford, professor of political science, Boston University, April 30, 2018
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