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Donald Trump has been all over the map on Social Security and Medicare

Over the last quarter-century, Trump has backed plans to restructure the programs. Then he changed course in 2015. Here's what he has — and hasn't — said and done since then.
Photo Illustration: Donald Trump in between a ripped Social Security card
Justine Goode / NBC News; Getty Images

WASHINGTON — When former President Donald Trump said last week on CNBC that “there’s a lot you can do in terms of entitlements, in terms of cutting,” it sparked an immediate outcry from President Joe Biden and began a battle over retirement programs that is likely to persist through the 2024 election.

Trump sought to clean it up, saying in an interview with the conservative website Breitbart, “I will never do anything that will jeopardize or hurt Social Security or Medicare.” Biden campaign spokesman James Singer accused Trump of trying to “trick voters,” saying, “Donald Trump tried cutting Social Security and Medicare by billions of dollars every single year he was in office.”

At the heart of the debate is the ticking clock: Actuaries say Medicare is solvent until 2028, while Social Security is solvent until 2033. After that, benefits will be forcibly cut unless more revenues are added. Biden’s new budget calls for tax hikes on upper earners to maintain the benefits. Trump hasn’t said how he would address the shortfall, leaving it an open question. His campaign didn't elaborate when it was asked multiple times to comment.

So what is Trump’s real record on Social Security and Medicare?

An NBC News examination found that his views have zigzagged over the years — from calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” in 2000 to endorsing then-Rep. Paul Ryan’s plans to restructure Medicare in 2012 to positioning himself as the protector of those programs in 2016 to taking aim at some retirement spending in his White House budgets (which never became law).

Before Trump's presidency

In a 2000 book he co-wrote called “The America We Deserve,” Trump called Social Security a “huge Ponzi scheme” that American workers are forced to pay into. He added that for future retirees under 40 at the time, “we can also raise the age for receipt of full Social Security benefits to seventy,” because “we’re living longer.”

In December 2004, just before a Republican push to partially privatize the program, Trump was asked on MSNBC’s “Hardball” whether he’d support individual retirement accounts and answered: “I sort of think I would. Something has to be done. Social Security is a huge problem right now, funding it.”

In 2012, Trump praised proposals by Ryan, then the Republican vice presidential nominee, to convert Medicare into a “premium support” system that would cap spending for future retirees and give them vouchers to buy insurance plans.

“I think Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney will save Medicare. I know they will. And people are starting to understand it. They’re going to be very happy with what’s going on, but they’re going to be very, very unhappy if Obama gets in,” Trump told Fox News at the time, reflecting on the 2012 presidential race. “I think actually if Obama gets in and if Obamacare isn’t ended, I really think Medicare will be a thing of the past.” (President Barack Obama ran against the Ryan plan and won re-election; seven years after he left office, Obamacare and Medicare still exist.)

By 2015, when Trump ran for president, he sought to position himself in the Republican field as the rare candidate who wouldn’t cut those programs. “I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican, and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid,” he said as he was launching his campaign.

Trump’s White House record

The Biden campaign’s claim that Trump sought to cut spending under Social Security and Medicare in office has merit, but it omits some key context.

Trump’s fiscal 2021 budget endorsed Social Security cuts to the tune of billions of dollars for disabled seniors. His budget would have made changes to Social Security Disability Insurance, slashing the maximum amount of retroactive benefits for disabled workers from 12 months to six. According to the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, that could lead to a $7,500 average cut for a worker injured in a car crash. The budget also called for reducing Supplemental Security Income benefits for those who live with other SSI recipients.

When it comes to Medicare, Trump’s White House budgets didn’t call for benefit cuts. His fiscal 2020 blueprint called for Medicare changes to lower payments to providers and suppliers through new incentives and a lower inflation benchmark. Biden and Democrats embraced the same types of “cuts” under Obamacare, which extended the solvency of Medicare by lowering payments to hospitals and insurers, in exchange for more customers.

Trump's budgets also put an emphasis on saving money by cutting waste and fraud, but they were vague about how. Still, he never pushed Congress to act, and his plans didn't become law.

As president, Trump also signaled, when asked, that he’d be open to changing or “cutting” the programs in a second term.

Asked on CNBC in January 2020 whether entitlements would ever “be on your plate,” he said, “At some point they will be.” He added: “At the right time, we will take a look at that. You know, that’s actually the easiest of all things.”

He didn’t get specific.

At a March 2020 Fox News town hall, pressed about the need to cut “entitlements” to reduce the debt, Trump responded: “Oh, we’ll be cutting, but we’re also going to have growth like you’ve never had before.”

On Medicaid, however, Trump quickly abandoned his promise to oppose benefit cuts. He made a vigorous push to repeal Obamacare in 2017, which would have rolled back Medicaid coverage for millions of people. The repeal push fell short in Congress, and Trump recently revived his calls to “terminate” Obamacare.

Trump’s 2024 campaign

Running for a second term, Trump picked up where he began in 2016, attacking Republican primary rivals such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley for having supported cuts in retirement benefits. But he hasn’t laid out his own 2024 plan or given any indication that he’d break from GOP orthodoxy by raising taxes to finance the programs.

A Trump campaign spokesperson didn’t directly respond when asked to explain how he would keep Social Security and Medicare solvent or whether new tax revenues would be on the table for him to prevent benefit cuts.

On CNBC last week, Trump said there’s “tremendous bad management of entitlements” and “tremendous amounts of things and numbers of things you can do,” without specifying them.

In a statement walking back his openness to “cutting” the programs, the Trump campaign’s national press secretary, Karoline Leavitt, said Biden is the “only candidate” who threatens them, claiming that “millions of illegal aliens” in the U.S. will cause “Social Security and Medicare to buckle and collapse.” She said Trump will “quickly rebuild the greatest economy in history and put Social Security and Medicare on a stronger footing for generations to come.”

However, immigrants who are in the country illegally arent eligible for Social Security and Medicare benefits. The Social Security actuary has said unauthorized workers have “a positive effect on the financial status of the Social Security program.” In 2010, for instance, it estimated they delivered a net surplus of $12 billion in tax revenues into the program.