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For a president who doesn’t sweat details, a new budget gets short shrift

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Office of Management and Budget Acting Director Russell Vought speaks about President Donald Trump’s budget request for fiscal year 2020 in the press briefing room of the White House on Monday, March 11, 2019. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

WASHINGTON — By his new annual budget, President Trump confirmed on Monday that he intends to keep up his multi-billion-dollar fight for a border wall for the 2020 fiscal year that starts Oct. 1: He proposed $8.6 billion in new spending and several billion more to reimburse other accounts he plans to tap in the meantime for additional wall money.

He also plans to push back his promise — again — to eliminate the annual deficit, this time until the mid-2030s. The $4.7 trillion budget he sent Congress would make another steep increase in military spending _ to a total of $750 billion — while slashing other domestic spending programs by 5 percent.

Yet the budget, and the few details that leaked before its release, were greeted mostly by shrugs — not least by the president himself. While past presidents used the release of their annual spending plans as an opportunity to lay out a short- and long-term vision, and to influence subsequent negotiations on Capitol Hill, Trump has taken the lack of interest in budgets to new lows, reflecting his own disinterest in policy details, his administration’s thin staffing and its overall ambivalence about the nitty-gritty of policy-making.

White House spending plans have been considered dead on arrival in Congress for years. Rep. John Yarmuth, the Kentucky Democrat who leads the House Budget Committee, said Trump’s budget “has no chance in the House,” a common refrain even among many Republicans. Still, in the past individual details and policies loomed large, including for Trump’s predecessors.

“I don’t think the president feels that he has to focus on the budget,” said G. William Hoagland, a former longtime budget adviser for Senate Republicans.

“They can’t decide what their goals are with the federal budget,” Hoagland, the senior vice president for the Bipartisan Policy Center, said of the administration. “Do they want to reduce the deficit? I just don’t think there’s any thoughtful process that’s going in, other than to cut taxes and muddle through.”

Trump, who was active on Twitter over the weekend, avoided any mention of his spending plans. Unlike prior presidents, who spent weeks previewing top agenda items from their State of the Union addresses to community visits, he did not follow his televised speech to a joint session of Congress last month with a sustained policy pitch and he has no plans to hit the road to promote the budget this week, as recent predecessors did.

His top domestic policy plans other than the border wall _ rebuilding the national infrastructure and reducing prescription drug prices — are alive in Congress but the president has yet to use his ability to garner media attention to put much of a spotlight on them.

Trump is known to cut off and lose confidence in advisers who try to engage him in lengthy policy discussions. Aides have said they’ve learned he prefers short presentations with pictures. His current budget chief, Russell Vought, has been serving on an acting basis only since January after the president’s former director, Mick Mulvaney, became Trump’s acting chief of staff.

Trump’s predecessors, to varying levels, tended to show more interest in the details.

Even President Reagan, while known to prefer the big picture, had spent time on budgets as governor of California before taking office. President Clinton, known to obsess over the small stuff, would not leave his staff alone during budget season.

“The first budget we did, he was there for almost the entire discussion, which I thought was unusual, but that’s what he wanted to do,” said Leon Panetta, who served as his first director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Panetta said a rigorous process not only helps develop a sales pitch to Congress and the public, it also pushes the White House staff to debate their policies internally.

“What I’m seeing now is that it’s kind of a scramble to put together any kind of budget,” he said. “I get the impression that there’s kind of this approach that the budget is DOA, what difference does it make?”

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