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U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz speaks with political reporter Jonathan Swan of Axios U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz speaks with political reporter Jonathan Swan of Axios

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz speaks with political reporter Jonathan Swan of Axios

By Brandon Mulder October 30, 2020

Federal debt was a frequent talking point during Trump's 2016 campaign

Political reporter Jonathan Swan sat down with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, for an interview that aired on HBO Monday to gather his thoughts and reactions immediately following the final presidential debate on Oct. 22.

The pair touched on a range of issues but paid special attention to the national debt and the Republican Party’s wavering interest in reducing it under President Donald Trump, whose administration has overseen trillions added to the national debt.

Swan kicked off the conversation by paraphrasing a quote from former White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. During a trip to Britain earlier this year, Mulvaney remarked on Republicans’ shifting attitude on reducing the debt.

"My party is very interested in deficits when there is a Democrat in the White House. The worst thing in the whole world is deficits when Barack Obama was the president. Then Donald Trump became president, and we’re a lot less interested as a party," Mulvaney said, according to the Washington Post.

When Swan asked Cruz to respond to Mulvaney’s portrayal, Cruz emphasized his own personal concerns about the rising debt.

"I’m very worried about the debt. I’m worried about it under Trump," Cruz said. "Now to be fair, Trump didn’t campaign on cutting the debt."

That’s when Swan pointed to comments Trump made during his 2016 campaign signaling his intent to "get rid of the $19 trillion in debt … over a period of eight years" — a feat that critics called wildly impossible.

But Cruz doubled down on his statement.

"Do I wish that it was a higher priority for the president to rein in spending and the debt? Yes. (But) he didn’t run principally on reining in spending and the debt. That’s not what he promised to do," Cruz said.

The national debt — now pegged at around $27 trillion — is an issue that comes up in every presidential campaign. Let’s review Trump’s statements addressing the debt and deficits during his 2016 bid.

‘King of debt’

Trump has weighed in on the rising national debt before, during and after his 2016 campaign, and on occasion he’s proposed ways to reduce it. In an interview with "Good Morning America" in 2010, for instance, he floated the idea of imposing harsher taxes on China to finance debt payments.

When Trump launched his first campaign for president in 2015, he committed to addressing the national debt: "Reduce our $18 trillion in debt, because, believe me, we’re in a bubble."

His campaign website in 2015 and 2016 listed reforming the U.S.-China trade relationship as a way to reduce the debt and deficit "so China cannot use financial blackmail against us." And his tax plan ensured that it would "not add to our enormous debt and deficit," according to archives of his campaign website collected by the Wayback Machine. (Trump’s major tax code overhaul, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, was projected to increase the national debt by about $1.5 trillion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.)

During his 2016 campaign, Trump described himself on numerous occasions as the "king of debt" in an effort to portray himself as someone more than capable of drawing down debt.

"I’m great with debt. Nobody knows debt more than me. I’ve made a fortune by using debt, and if things don’t work out I renegotiate the debt. That’s a smart thing, not a stupid thing," Trump said on "CBS This Morning" in June 2016.

"I like debt for my company, but I don’t like debt for the country. … We’ll have to start chopping that debt down," he said.

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His proposal to erase the national debt was revealed in an interview with the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward during the 2016 presidential primaries.

Trump: "We’ve got to get rid of the $19 trillion in debt."

Woodward: "How long would that take?"

Trump: "I think I could do it fairly quickly, because of the fact the numbers —"

Woodward: "What’s fairly quickly?"

Trump: "Well, I would say over a period of eight years."

Critics noted that reducing the debt in eight years couldn’t be done even if all basic government functions were eliminated and all national assets were sold off. And Trump walked back that commitment in an interview with Fortune a month later, pledging to reduce a portion of the debt rather than all of it. (A PolitiFact analysis of that commitment ruled it a Promise Broken.)

Trump’s comments on the debt continued during the 2016 general election campaign. During a rally in September, he said "we have a country that is essentially a debtor nation right now. So we’re going to make our country wealthy again."

And during the presidential debates he highlighted proposals for slashing both the deficit — when the government spends more in a year than it takes in — and the national debt, or the total amount the government owes.

First on Sept. 26: "We have a trade deficit with all of the countries that we do business with, almost $800 billion a year. That means, who’s negotiating these trade deals? We have people that are political hacks that are negotiating our trade deals."

And again on Oct. 9: "I will bring our energy companies back, they’ll be able to compete, they’ll make money, they’ll pay off our national debt. They’ll pay off our tremendous budget deficits, which are tremendous."

His promise to reduce the debt through other measures have continued into his presidency. In June 2017, Trump partly justified the country’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord by tying it to the national debt.

"America is $20 trillion in debt. Cash-strapped cities cannot hire enough police officers or fix vital infrastructure. Millions of our citizens are out of work. And yet, under the Paris accord, billions of dollars that ought to be invested right here in America will be sent to the very countries that have taken our factories and our jobs away from us. So think of that," he said during a Rose Garden press conference.

And in an address to the nation the next month, before a Senate vote on the Affordable Care Act, Trump excoriated the Obama-era program and championed his own repeal and replace plan.

"The Obamacare repeal and replace plan would significantly reduce the federal deficit. So it would be good for the federal government, it’ll cost you less money by a lot, and it will be a much better plan. You can’t do better than that," Trump said.

Our ruling

Cruz said that Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign didn’t promise to reduce the national debt and that he "didn’t run principally on reigning in spending and the debt."

The issue of U.S. national debt may not receive as much airtime or grab as many headlines as Trump’s other campaign promises, like forcing Mexico to pay for a southern border wall, but Trump repeatedly raised concerns over the rising debt and pledged to reduce it during his first presidential campaign. And he has repeated those concerns as president, even as it has ballooned.

We rate this claim False.

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Federal debt was a frequent talking point during Trump's 2016 campaign

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