Did Donald Trump rack up more debt than any other president?

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As White House and congressional Republican negotiators met to hammer out a way to raise the nation’s debt limit, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., cast blame for the nation’s $31 trillion-plus debt on the most recent Republican president, Donald Trump.

The debt limit could be met as soon as early June, and a failure to raise the limit could force the government to default on payments to bondholders, federal employees, contractors and beneficiaries of programs such as Social Security. Republicans have proposed raising the limit in tandem with spending cuts, but the White House considers the scale of the Republicans’ proposed cuts untenable.

In a May 12 tweet, Jeffries said Republicans were to blame for much of the debt. Jeffries wrote, “Trump ran up more debt than any other President in American history. He wants Republicans to force a dangerous default if they don’t get their way. We cannot let right-wing extremists hold our economy hostage.”

Strictly speaking, former President Barack Obama accumulated more debt than Trump. But Trump accumulated the most debt per year served in office.

Jeffries’ office did not answer an inquiry for this article.

What are the numbers?

Treasury Department data shows the gross federal debt rose by about $7.8 trillion on Trump’s watch. But that wasn’t the biggest increase of any president in raw dollars. 

The record for the largest increase was set by President Barack Obama, with more that $9.5 trillion.

One caveat: Obama’s figure is larger than Trump’s partly because Obama served eight years, while Trump served four. 

If you adjust the measurement for that reality by looking at debt accumulated per year in office, Trump does stand alone.

If you divide the debt accumulated during each president’s tenure by the number of years they served, Trump oversaw an increase in the debt of almost $2 trillion per year. President Joe Biden has overseen the addition of almost $1.6 trillion per year in his two-and-one-third years in office, which ranks second. In third place is Obama, who presided over the addition of nearly $1.2 trillion a year.

Why president-to-president comparisons are hard

The blame game on federal debt is not clear cut.

Much of the current federal debt stems from mandatory payments, such as those for Social Security and Medicare. These began spiking when the baby boom generation started drawing heavily from these programs around 2010. Not coincidentally, that’s when the federal debt began accelerating.

Generations of politicians in both parties approved and modified these programs long before Trump took office.

“It is always challenging to figure out how much spending was on whose watch,” said Steve Ellis, president of the federal budget-watching nonprofit group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

The biggest single spikes in the federal debt came from the initial rounds of coronavirus relief legislation in 2020. Trump signed them, but they passed with broad bipartisan support.

“Everyone, including me, said it was worth it, and without it, things would have been worse,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the center-right American Action Forum. “So, (it’s) not fair to blame Trump exclusively for something everyone thought was needed.”

Our ruling

Jeffries said Trump “ran up more debt than any other president in American history.”

Obama ran up more debt than any other president in American history. If you look at debt accumulated on a per-year basis, Trump’s rate of increase in the debt was higher over four years than over Obama’s eight. 

Assigning debt to a particular president can be misleading because so much of it traces back to decades-old, bipartisan legislation that set the parameters for Social Security and Medicare.

The statement contains an element of truth but ignores evidence that would give a different impression, so we rate it Mostly False.