Fact Check: Was 40 Percent of National Debt 'Accumulated' Under Trump?

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As President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy met for debt ceiling talks this week, the U.S. still nervously awaits the prospect of a default that could throttle the economy.

While Biden and McCarthy were said on Monday to have expressed optimism over striking a deal, with only days left until America’s borrowing limit is reached the mood remains tense as the June 1 default date looms.

Democrats and Republicans have been quick to paint each other as the culprit, including one claim that former President Donald Trump might have helped lead the country to this impasse.

Former President Donald Trump at a campaign rally on the eve of Election Day at Dayton International Airport on November 7, 2022, in Vandalia, Ohio. Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland suggested that 40 percent of the national debt was “accumulated” under Trump.
Drew Angerer/Getty

The Claim

A tweet by journalist Aaron Rupar, posted on May 21, 2023, viewed 1 million times, included a video showing Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, say: “The farce of this whole thing is that under Donald Trump, we raised the debt ceiling 3 times, 40 percent of our national debt was actually accumulated under Trump, and now they’re not willing to talk about any revenue from very wealthy people as part of this effort.”

The Facts

The claim that Trump “accumulated” 40 percent of the debt was mentioned by Van Hollen during an interview on ABC‘s This Week.

The term “accumulated” is open to misinterpretation. Used in the tweet shared above, it might create the impression that 40 percent of the total debt now was a result of Trump’s spending. Trump did oversee a 40 percent increase in the national debt during his presidency, but there is important context surrounding this.

As reported by The Washington Post, based on Treasury Department data, Trump inherited a $20 trillion debt when he took office, increasing to $27.8 trillion when he left, an increase of 39 percent.

However, Trump also oversaw unprecedented spending in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, responding to the public health and economic emergency that the crises presented.

Spending in the last 10 months of his term accounted for half, or $4.3 trillion, of the 40 percent increase in debt that Trump oversaw during his presidency, the Post reported.

In December 2020, Trump signed a $900 billion bipartisan COVID-19 stimulus bill, combined with a $1.4 trillion omnibus package to keep the government funded in 2021.

The Post also said, based on the Treasury Department figures, that since Biden took office, the debt has increased 13 percent.

Therefore, while it’s true that the debt rose by about 40 percent during Trump’s term, the analysis fails to overlook the unexpected and massive spending required that was broadly supported during his term.

As mentioned, saying that 40 percent of the national debt was “accumulated” is open to misinterpretation, too. The comment made by Van Hollen might suggest that the percentage is the total of all U.S. debt which, abductively, is incorrect.

A representative for Van Hollen said the senator “slightly misspoke” and that he made the correct claim the following day on MSNBC.

“Under Trump, our national debt increased roughly 40 percent and currently 25 percent of our national debt was accumulated during the Trump presidency,” the rep said. “These percentages underscore the larger point the senator was making: The debt is not a Republican or a Democratic problem—but the duty of both parties to responsibly address.”

Newsweek recently investigated claims criticizing Trump’s economic record. Amid the debt ceiling debate, many have pointed out how Trump raised the ceiling three times during his presidency, absent of the pushback the White House now faces.

While there were a series of cuts negotiated as part of Trump’s third debt ceiling push, they were set to be enacted a decade later, which some speculated would not come to pass.

The Ruling

Needs Context.

While records show that Donald Trump did increase the national debt 40 percent, much of that spending was enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pandemic spending received bipartisan support.

This fact is omitted from the claims shared on Twitter. The claims as they are presented might create the impression that 40 percent of the current national debt is a result of Trump’s spending which is, abductively, incorrect. A representative for Van Hollen said he “misspoke.”

FACT CHECK BY Newsweek’s Fact Check team