Trump promised to slash the size of the federal government. He's done the opposite.

By Robin Bravender

Donald Trump promised on the 2016 campaign trail to cut government "so much, your head will spin." A month after his presidential inauguration, chief White House strategist Steve Bannon doubled down by vowing to pursue the "deconstruction of the administrative state." 

None of that has happened. 

The federal government is now bigger than it was when Trump took office. The size of its workforce has increased since 2017. Its budget and deficit have ballooned due in large part to unprecedented spending to combat the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. And when Trump has tried to follow through via his budget proposals to make sharp spending cuts to domestic agencies Congress has repeatedly rejected him. 

With the 2020 White House race now in full gear, both Trump's enemies and allies alike are taking notice that such a big campaign pledge has been left unfulfilled. 

"The government's reach into the economy is greater" than it was "at the beginning of his administration, and probably greater than any time since World War II," said John Podesta, the former chairman for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign and one of the top White House aides during both the Obama and Clinton administrations. 

Those early Trump vows to shrink the size of the federal footprint should have always been taken with a grain of salt, people who have worked for the president now say. Transforming the US system, whether it be taking apart government agencies or "draining the swamp" as the president once promised, isn't the kind of thing that can happen in one or even two White House terms.

"If the goal was to get rid of the administrative state, that didn't happen," said Mike McKenna, who worked in the Trump White House legislative affairs office until March. "It's not a huge surprise that here we are three and a half years on and we're asking what's changed and the answer is not much."

The reasons for Trump's failures are many, according to the dozen sources across the ideological spectrum Insider interviewed for this story. On Capitol Hill, there are powerful lawmakers who have grown increasingly reluctant to slash budgets like Trump wanted. In Trump's government, many of the people he brought on board lacked the requisite experience to really fulfill one of the president's first-term campaign promises. Trump also hasn't been helped by the steady turnover within his own administration. 

One other factor has also been problematic for Trump's team: It's pretty darn hard to budge the federal bureaucracy. 

Trump is "hardly the first president to say we've got to downsize," said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. "Every president dating back to Jimmy Carter has had some significant promise on making government work better."

But Light said that "when you look at the inventory of action on government reform, this administration has produced next to nothing." 

Trump's inability to dismantle the government could be especially welcome news for Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee who on Thursday proposed a major expansion of the federal footprint with a $700 billion economic stimulus spending plan that would be a central tenet of his administration should he win in November.

Experts say it would be relatively uncomplicated for a Biden administration to also engage the alphabet soup of agencies across the federal government to unravel Trump's policies and implement its own new Democratic priorities — much in the same way Trump obliterated President Barack Obama's legacy when he took office.  

Biden's team would also have an advantage coming in given the new president's own resume as Obama's No. 2 for eight years, as well as another 36 years before that serving in the Senate.

"If there's anybody who knows how government runs, it's Joe Biden and his people," said Chris Lu, the former Obama White House liaison to the federal agencies.

Grover Norquist
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, praised Trump's progress reining in federal regulations even if the president didn't downsize the bureaucracy.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Images

Federal workforce and spending are up under Trump

From June 2017 to June 2019, the full-time federal workforce increased by about 5,200 federal employees to about 1.9 million workers, according to the most recent data compiled by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that advocates for effective government. 

Federal spending and the federal deficit have also increased every year since Trump took office, according to White House budget documents. The Congressional Budget Office, for example, projects the US deficit will hit $3.7 trillion at the end of the current fiscal year, an exponential jump compared to the country's $585 billion deficit from Obama's last full year in office in 2016. That represents a stark contrast with what Trump promised on the campaign trail in 2016 when he said he would eliminate the national debt within eight years. 

"The amount of structural reform is pretty minimal," said Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Ebell led Trump's EPA transition team in 2016. "The president and his team did not fight for the kinds of budget cuts that are necessary to rein in the bureaucrats," he added. 

At EPA, for example, Trump said a few days after winning the 2016 election that he would "leave a little bit" of the agency that has long been a favorite target of conservatives who blame it for excessive regulations that hurt businesses.

But several years later, EPA's fiscal 2020 budget ended up higher than it had been in any year since fiscal 2010 — the first budget adopted under the Obama administration. The increase comes despite deep cuts proposed every year by the Trump administration when Democrats and Republicans in Congress joined forces to rebuff requests to cut funding for domestic spending programs that are popular in their districts. 

Some Trump supporters say he has made significant progress on reining in federal regulations, even if the president hasn't downsized the bureaucracy. 

"I think that they've done extremely well," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform who famously said he wants to reduce government "to the size where I could drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." 

"They have taken this seriously in a way that neither Bush did," Norquist added. "Reagan did, but he didn't have the House or Senate. Trump has been able to do things Reagan couldn't do, because he had the House and Senate." 

But many of the Trump regulatory rollbacks have faced trouble in the courts. An analysis by the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University shows the Trump administration has been unsuccessful in about 88% of the lawsuits challenging its deregulatory efforts, meaning a court ruled against the government or the at-issue agency withdrew the action after being sued. 

"If Trump were to get reelected, then more of these policies might end up possibly sticking," said Richard Revesz, director of the Institute for Policy Integrity, a nonpartisan think tank. "If he's a one-term president, the effort will have failed miserably mostly because of the Trump administration's lack of interest in doing things in an analytically sound way." 

FILE - In this Feb. 27, 2020, file photo, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pauses as she testifies during a hearing of a House Appropriations Sub-Committee on the fiscal year 2021 budget on Capitol Hill in Washington. Students returning from their unprecedented break from school could find themselves making up lost time in summer classes, or in the evening or on Saturday. Administrators say everything is on the table as they begin to think beyond the immediate needs of teaching through the pandemic to measuring and making up for lost learning once the worst has passed. DeVos has said she hopes schools will test students in the fall to gauge where they are academically, particularly because this spring's standardized tests that might have provided a barometer were canceled. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has long worked to shift money away from public schools, which Democrats say has been an effective effort to shrink the federal government's footprint.
Associated Press

Democrats see 'pattern of enormous open disdain' 

Trump's critics say the president's rhetoric and his successful deregulatory actions will still have profound implications for years to come — regardless of who wins the White House this fall. 

Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who leads a House subcommittee that oversees the federal government, said the Trump team has been "consequential in rolling back regulatory protections and weakening" federal agencies. 

He referenced Trump's first slate of high-level political appointees, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — who long worked to shift money away from traditional public schools — and Scott Pruitt, the first Trump EPA administrator who joined the federal government after spending years suing the agency as Oklahoma's Republican attorney general. 

"There's a pattern here of enormous open disdain and contempt for the very functions of the agencies" they were selected to lead, Connolly said. "That has a toxic and enormously demoralizing impact on the men and women of those respective agencies to carry out their mission."

Morale among federal employees dropped in 2018 and again in 2019, according to federal data compiled by the Partnership for Public Service. Some scientists and other agency veterans have left the government under Trump, citing disagreement with the administration's management and policies.  

"He's driven a bunch of the most experienced scientists and experts out of the agencies who had just had enough and have quit, so there's been something of a brain drain that's resulted," Podesta said. 

Democrats eyeing a return to the White House in 2021 say the coronavirus pandemic has heightened the desire for strengthening — not slashing — government programs, which they think could hurt the Trump campaign this year. 

"America is paying an unimaginable price right now for the years Donald Trump spent weakening the federal government's ability to do its job and undermining our capacity to respond to crises like COVID-19," said Biden campaign spokesman Michael Gwin. 

"As President, Joe Biden will restore respect and dignity to the public servants in the federal government and will make sure they have the resources and support they need to effectively serve the American people."

The White House and the Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment. 

Bannon, who pushed for the "deconstruction of the administrative state" during a February 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference, declined to comment for this story. The former Trump campaign CEO left the White House after just seven months on the job. 

Headed into the closing months of the 2020 race, Podesta said he doesn't expect Trump's campaign trail rhetoric surrounding slashing government to be the same this time around. 

There's a desire for a "functional federal government in the middle of this pandemic," Podesta said. "So the fact that he kind of broke the government, I don't think is a promise he wants to remind people of."