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President Donald Trump signs one of four executive measures addressing the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic on Aug. 8, 2020. (AP) President Donald Trump signs one of four executive measures addressing the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic on Aug. 8, 2020. (AP)

President Donald Trump signs one of four executive measures addressing the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic on Aug. 8, 2020. (AP)

Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman August 12, 2020

Did Trump say he will terminate Social Security if re-elected?

If Your Time is short

  • Trump has deferred about $100 billion in payroll tax payments through the end of the year. The payroll tax currently funds 90% of Social Security.

  • Trump told reporters that if he wins re-election he wanted to "terminate" the program’s primary funding source. He can’t do that on his own.

A Facebook post has a dire warning about the future of Social Security under President Donald Trump.

"Donald Trump says he will ‘terminate’ Social Security if re-elected," states the Aug. 10 post by Social Security Works, a nonprofit group that supports expanding the federal program. "A vote for Trump is a vote to destroy our Social Security system."

This post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

RELATED: Donald Trump’s payroll tax holiday: What you need to know

Trump did use the word "terminate" when speaking about the payroll tax that funds Social Security, but his actual memo only pauses the tax for some employees for a few months. Trump hasn’t said he would end Social Security payments, but he has made comments that many have interpreted as him wanting to eliminate the payroll tax entirely. 

Trump’s memo temporarily pauses the payroll tax, which funds Social Security

On Aug. 8, Trump issued a memo that directed the Treasury secretary to defer the withholding of the payroll tax on wages paid between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31. Each paycheck, employees see 6.2% of their wages go to Washington to help fund Social Security, while employers pay the same amount.

That means someone making the median weekly wage of about $1,000 would see an extra $62 in their paycheck. Trump’s memo applies to people making up to $2,000 per week, so people who earn $104,000 a year or higher wouldn’t get the tax break. 

By one estimate, the tax holiday would initially save taxpayers, or alternatively cost the Social Security Trust Fund, $100 billion. 

The longer term impacts are still unclear. Employees could be asked to pay the money back, though Trump has said he hopes to forgive the payments all together. 

If the money isn’t paid back, Congress will need to find different funding to support Social Security, as it did during the Obama years. Or the Social Security trust funds end up running dry sooner than expected.

RELATED: Claim about 'killing' payroll tax and Social Security needs more context

Trump’s use of the word "terminate"

Trump never said he’d terminate the Social Security program, but has talked about terminating the program’s funding source. 

While speaking, Trump used the words "terminate" or "ending" to describe his plans for the tax, although sometimes he described it as a possibility, while in other statements he sounded more forceful.

Social Security Works pointed to these statements by Trump:

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At an Aug. 8 press briefing, Trump said: "If I’m victorious on Nov. 3, I plan to forgive these taxes and make permanent cuts to the payroll tax. So I’m going to make them all permanent. …. But if I win, I may extend and terminate. In other words, I’ll extend it beyond the end of the year and terminate the tax."  

At an Aug. 10 briefing, Trump said: "I signed directives to give a payroll tax holiday, with the understanding that after the election — on the assumption that it would be victorious for an administration that’s done a great job — we will be ending that tax. We’ll be terminating that tax. … But the payroll tax is a big deal for people. It’s a tremendous saving for people. And we’re going to be doing it, and we intend to terminate it at the end of the appropriate period of time."

Jenna Ellis, a lawyer for the Trump campaign and Trump, tweeted: "President Trump said if he is re-elected, he will look into terminating the payroll tax permanently!"

As is often the case, we are left to try to interpret Trump’s spoken words, which differ from how administration officials explain them.

"The logical conclusion of terminating the payroll tax is that all benefits will cease," said Linda Benesch, a spokesperson for Social Security Works.

Administration officials have argued that Trump wasn’t calling for permanently getting rid of the payroll tax.

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said on CNN’s State of the Union, "I believe he was referring to doing away with the payback of the deferral. And I think his intent here — and it's written in the E.O. — it's very clear — that we will take any steps possible to forgive this deferral. That's what he was actually saying."

CNN’s Dana Bash replied: "That's what you're saying. That is not what the president said at all. He said the opposite."

It’s worth noting that Trump can’t unilaterally end the payroll tax; he needs Congress to agree. And while it’s true that the payroll tax provides nearly 90% of the revenues for Social Security, Congress could decide to use another way to pay for the program. The program’s promise to people exists outside of the funding mechanism. 

Eugene Steuerle, an economist at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, compared Trump’s statements about terminating the Social Security payroll tax with his promises to create a substitute for Obamacare.

"It doesn’t mean a lot until one gets a full proposal, but the difficulty in designing a proposal is that the tax money coming in is currently less than the benefit money going out," he said. "So where would the money to pay beneficiaries come from after the modest trust fund becomes depleted more quickly? And how would benefits be determined?"

Our ruling

Social Security Works said, "Donald Trump says he will ‘terminate’ Social Security if re-elected."

Trump never said he will terminate Social Security, but he has discussed terminating the program’s primary funding source. Administrative officials said that he was referring to doing away with the payback of the deferral.

Congress and the president could find an alternative way to fund Social Security. Trump hasn’t proposed such an alternative. 

The statement has an element of truth but leaves out critical information that would give a different impression. We rate this statement Mostly False.

Our Sources

Social Security Works, Facebook post, Aug. 10, 2020

Social Security Works, Donald Trump: If Reelected, I will "Terminate" Social Security, Aug. 8, 2020

Common Dreams, Trump Just Admitted on Live Television He Will 'Terminate' Social Security and Medicare If Reelected in November, Aug. 8, 2020

White House, Memorandum on Deferring Payroll Tax Obligations in Light of the Ongoing COVID-19 Disaster, Aug. 8, 2020

White House, Remarks by President Trump in Press Briefing, Aug. 8, 2020

White House,  Remarks by President Trump in Press Briefing, Aug. 10, 2020

Snopes, Did Trump Vow to ‘Terminate’ Social Security? Aug. 10, 2020

Congressional Research Service, Social Security: What Would Happen If the Trust Funds Ran Out? July 29, 2020

Washington Post, Trump promises permanent cut to payroll tax funding Social Security and Medicare if he’s reelected, Aug. 8, 2020

CNN State of the Union, Transcript, Aug. 9, 2020

Congressional Research Service, Payroll Tax Cuts as Economic Stimulus: Past Experience and Economic Considerations, Aug. 23, 2019

Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, How Much Would President Trump's Executive Orders Cost? Aug. 8, 2020

PolitiFact, Donald Trump’s payroll tax holiday: What you need to know, Aug. 10, 2020

White House press office, Statement to PolitiFact, Aug. 11, 2020

Email interview, Linda Benesch, Social Security Works spokesperson, Aug. 11, 2020

Email interview, Nancy J. Altman, President, Social Security Works, Aug. 11, 2020

Email interview, William Hoagland, senior vice president, Bipartisan Policy Center, Aug. 11, 2020

Email interview, Eugene Steuerle, economist and cofounder, Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center., Aug. 11, 2020

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