Prior to attacking intelligence assessments on Russian hacking and meeting with Kanye this week, the president-elect went on a bit of a defense jag. Monday, @realDonaldTrump bashed Lockheed’s F-35 joint strike fighter program for its “out of control” price-tag. He said the same of Boeing’s Air Force One replacement last week. Saturday, he vaguely tweeted his approval for a Washington Post story claiming that the Pentagon “buried evidence” that it wastes $25 billion a year. Sunday, on Fox News, Trump criticized both aircraft and implied that their excessive cost results from a corrupt practice: the revolving door, where officials manage weapons programs and then go work for the manufacturer.
Trump’s tweets temporarily lowered defense contractors’ stock prices, prompting speculation that he’s paying CEOs back for criticism, or worse. But Trump’s comments aren’t new. He attacked the F-35 during the campaign. He claimed that he could fund a massive military buildup by “conducting a full audit of the Pentagon, eliminating incorrect payments, reducing duplicative bureaucracy, collecting unpaid taxes, and ending unwanted and unauthorized federal programs.” He promised to “balance our budget,” by eliminating “waste, fraud and abuse” in the federal government. He repeatedly suggested that corporate interests—pharmaceutical, oil, finance and defense companies—have hijacked government and added to its cost.
Trump’s views on Pentagon waste then seem less whim than an outgrowth of his approach to public policy. Does that mean Trump is set to “crack down” on Pentagon spending, “make war on the defense industry or take on the “military-industrial complex?” There are several reasons why the answer is not really.
One is Trump’s appointments. As in other areas, they conflict with his campaign rhetoric. Trump famously said he knows more about ISIS than the generals, but seems inclined to defer to those that he deems “his.” That’s especially true of his Secretary of Defense pick, retired general James Mattis, who has mostly conventionally-hawkish views on military spending. For example, he repeats the false claim that sequestration, which only occurred once since the 2011 Budget Control Act, in 2013, annually slices the defense budget across-the-board. He even called sequestration a bigger threat than any U.S. enemy, while testifying in favor of a military spending boost. Mattis casts doubt on Trump’s commitment to defense reform in another way: he raced through the revolving door, going to work for General Dynamics upon his retirement from military service in 2013.