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Trump’s defense budget looks a lot like Obama’s defense budget

“This budget is a repair; it is not a rebuild.”

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to members of the U.S. Navy and shipyard workers on board the USS Gerald R. Ford CVN 78 that is being built at Newport News shipbuilding, on March 2, 2017 in Newport News, Virginia.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

It’s never a good sign when one of the most conservative and pro-military Republicans on Capitol Hill says that President Trump’s defense budget is “basically the Obama approach with a little bit more, but not much."

But that was the response from Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, when he digested Trump’s first defense budget — and how different it is from what candidate Trump had promised.

During the campaign, Trump promised to “build a navy of 350 surface ships and submarines” — but the budget only has enough money to build one more ship. Yes, one.

Trump’s defense budget is $575 billion, according to an official Pentagon document. But while that sounds like a really big number, it won’t actually help Trump do the things he said he would do.

Trump promised to rebuild the military — this budget won’t do that. And he promised he would be nothing like Obama — this budget definitely won’t do that.

Basically, the defense budget Trump released is a repudiation of everything he campaigned on relating to defense and the military — at least for now.

“This budget is a repair; it is not a rebuild”

On the campaign trail, Trump promised to “make our military so big, powerful and strong that no one will mess with us,” and in February he said he was pursuing a "historic" increase in defense spending.

But his budget is only the ninth-largest defense budget increase in the past 40 years, according to Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Trump’s budget only increases spending by $19 billion over Obama’s 2016 request, whereas Trump promised an increase of $54 billion.

Harrison’s chart below shows just how underwhelming Trump’s defense request is compared with Obama’s last request. Obama’s last budget is the light bluish-teal color; Trump’s is in red.

So if the budget doesn’t rebuild the military, what does it do?

“This budget is a repair; it is not a rebuild,” Mackenzie Eaglen of the conservative American Enterprise Institute told me in an interview. In other words, this budget is about filling gaps in the military’s ability to do its job.

In this, Trump was clearly influenced by Secretary of Defense James Mattis. On January 31, Mattis authored a memo that said the defense budget should focus first on “readiness” — basically, ensuring that US troops are prepared and trained well enough for a war — and later focus on a buildup.

But Trump didn’t campaign on readiness. He campaigned on a rebuild. This budget woefully underdelivers on that promise.

Trump’s defense budget looks a lot like Obama’s defense budget

Trump’s budget is more “muscular” than Obama’s defense request, Eaglen says. There’s more funding for nuclear weapons and precision weapons, for example.

Yet in most other areas, Trump basically played copycat. He ordered around the same number of planes and same number of ships as Obama had already planned for. And because Trump didn’t put out a five-year plan for defense spending (which Obama did not do, either, in his first year), it is hard to tell if the buildup is actually being planned for down the line or not.

It could be that after Congress weighs in, the defense budget will grow enough that Trump will get his buildup. But for now, he’ll have to settle for ordering just the ninth-largest defense increase in 40 years.

That’s historic, in a way.