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President Trump Bashed Wasteful Spending. Then He Praised Over-Budget Military Projects

5 minute read

President Donald Trump signed a $1.3 trillion spending bill into law at the White House on Friday, narrowly avoiding a government shutdown, despite concerns it was full of what he deemed wasteful programs.

“I was thinking about doing the veto,” Trump told reporters. “But because of the incredible gains that we’ve been able to make for the military, that overrode any of our thinking.”

The president read a laundry list of multi-billion dollar weapons purchases included in the bill, rattling off battleships, warplanes and submarines. However, many of the programs he listed by name have been plagued with cost overruns, programmatic delays and the very taxpayer waste that he criticized.

The F-35 fighter jet. The KC-46A aerial refueling tanker. The P-8A Poseidon submarine-hunting jet.

“We’re very proud of many of the items that we’ve been able to get,” Trump said. “We’re very disappointed that in order to fund the military, we had to give up things where we consider in many cases them to be bad or them to be a waste of money. But that’s the way unfortunately right now the system works.”

The more than 2,200-page bill includes nearly $700 billion for the military and $591 billion in non-defense spending. At least $2.9 billion of that money will be invested into what’s known as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

The radar-evading fighter jet, manufactured by Lockheed Martin Corp., has been beset by problems since it first began in 2001. It has been delayed by glitches in its onboard computer systems, cracks in structural components and even bugs with the pilots’ high-tech helmets. The price tag, meanwhile, has nearly doubled to more than $400 billion for 2,456 jets.

Robert Behler, the Defense Department’s director of operational testing, said in an annual report released in January that there are about 1,000 unresolved deficiencies with the aircraft nearly two decades after it started.

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and frequent critic of defense spending abuse, once called the F-35 program “both a scandal and a tragedy” and a “predictable consequence of a broken defense acquisition system.”

It took the Air Force three attempts and a decade to begin replacing its fleet of 415 Eisenhower Administration-era refueling tankers. The process, which also began in 2001, failed two times amid accusations of underhanded politics and discriminatory rule-making.

Boeing Co. was finally declared a winner over rival Northrop Grumman Corp. for the $35 billion contract in 2011, yet the planes still aren’t operational. The spending budget has set aside $510 million in taxpayer money for three KC-46A tanker aircraft, despite the chagrin of military leadership with the program.

U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson laid out the concerns Tuesday during testimony with the House Armed Services Committee.

“One of our frustrations with Boeing is they’re much more focused on their commercial activity than on getting this right for the Air Force and getting these aircraft to the Air Force,” she said. “And that’s the message we took to them in Seattle last week. We have asked them to put their A-team on this to get these problems fixed and get this aircraft to the Air Force.”

Boeing has amassed around $2 billion in charges on the program related to delays and cost overruns. The P-8A Poseidon, another Boeing-made plane, has also been criticized although to a much lesser degree. The program previously had deficiencies anti-submarine warfare and wide area reconnaissance capabilities, two of its main missions.

William D. Hartung, director of the arms and security project at the Center for International Policy, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, said the cost and performance problems with programs like the F-35 and KC-46 are notorious and shouldn’t be overlooked.

“If the President wanted to talk about waste he should have referenced the ramping up of these programs, which are clearly not ready for prime time,” Hartung said. “What’s not clear is whether the president has any sense of the strategic value of any of the items he reeled off, or a sense of whether the programs in question are well managed.”

Defense Secretary James Mattis, who appeared alongside Trump at the White House, said it was “the largest military budget in history, reversing many years of decline and unpredictable funding.”

Most military spending has been capped for the past few years under budget controls meant to rein in government debt. Trump blamed this on the Democrats but, in fact, it was Republicans’ doing.

In July 2011, now-House Speaker Paul Ryan locked his veteran Budget Committee staff director, Austin Smythe, in a room for 48 hours with his aides and had them rewrite the 1985 Budget Control Act that first created the across-the-board cuts known as the sequester. That modified bill became the $1.2 trillion end-of-the-year spending-cut threat that is caused the GOP so much grief as the nation annually hung on a fiscal cliff.

The new infusion of cash gives the military invites waste and abuse, according to critics like Hartung, because it’s more money than the Pentagon can absorb. But to arms manufacturers and the defense industry, it is a welcome reprieve after the many years of living under the sequester.

John Luddy, vice president for national security policy at the Aerospace Industries Association, which represents the defense industry on Capitol Hill, said in a statement that the bill was “a big step in the right direction” for the Pentagon.

“It makes significant investments in vital acquisition programs and provides necessary flexibility on operations and maintenance spending, he said. “To meet the strategic objectives outlined in the National Defense Strategy, we’ll need to continue to increase investment for at least the next five years.”

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Write to W.J. Hennigan at william.hennigan@time.com