The claim: President Donald Trump promised to 'terminate' Social Security if he is reelected.
Recent posts from Social Security Works – a nonprofit focused on expanding Social Security, improving Medicare and lowering the cost of prescription drugs – claim that President Donald Trump will end Social Security if he is reelected.
"Donald Trump says he will 'terminate' Social Security if reelected," a post on Monday reads. "A vote for Trump is a vote to destroy our social security system."
"Millions of seniors and people with disabilities struggle to make ends meet," another post from the same day reads. "Yet Donald Trump says he will 'terminate' Social Security if reelected. That's a disastrous plan."
The posts come after Trump signed a series of executive orders on Aug. 8 intended to provide relief from the detrimental economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump deferred the tax that funds Social Security, and vowed to 'terminate' the tax in the future
The vast majority of Social Security is financed through the payroll tax, according to the Social Security Administration. In 2019, 89% of Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Disability Insurance was financed via payroll taxes – equal to $944.5 billion.
One of the Aug. 8 executive orders instructed the Treasury Department to allow employers to defer payment of payroll taxes for employees who make less than $100,000 each year.
The deferrals, which may start Sept. 1 and extend through 2020, are intended to allow Americans to use the totality of their income amid the pandemic's hardships.
The order also instructed Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to "explore avenues, including legislation, to eliminate the obligation to pay the taxes deferred" — a goal Trump reiterated in remarks after he signed the order.
“If I’m victorious on November 3rd, I plan to forgive these taxes and make permanent cuts to the payroll tax," Trump said, per the Washington Post. “I’m going to make them all permanent.”
"In other words, I'll extend it beyond the end of the year, and terminate the tax," he added. He reiterated his plan at a press conference on Monday.
"We will be ending that tax. We will be terminating that tax," Trump said, per a transcript from CNN. "The payroll tax is a big deal for people. It's a tremendous saving for people. And we're going to be doing it, and we intend to terminate it at the end of the appropriate period of time."
Trump, White House claim the tax relief will not impact Social Security
On Sunday, as he boarded Marine One, Trump told reporters that the executive order deferring payroll taxes for some Americans will "have zero impact on Social Security."
"We protect Social Security," he added, according to Fox News.
An official from the White House told USA TODAY on Tuesday that the Social Security Trust Fund is not at risk, since payment deferral is only temporary, and at present, must be paid back early in 2021. The official confirmed, though, that the president called on Congress to make the deferral permanent, thereby eliminating the tax.
Garrett Watson, a senior policy analyst at the Tax Foundation, an independent tax policy think tank, told USA TODAY that eliminating the tax is not the same as eliminating Social Security.
"Strictly speaking, Social Security could be funded using general fund revenue or alternative revenue source, so terminating a tax and terminating a program are distinct things," he wrote in an email.
"However, it would be reasonable to ask what would happen with the program absent an alternative plan to fund it," Watson added.
On Wednesday, Trump suggested an alternate source for the first time – the general fund of government revenues – per Fox Business.
“At the end of the year, on the assumption that I win, I’m going to terminate the payroll tax,” he said at a press conference. “We’ll be paying into Social Security through the general fund.”
When questioned about the $2.8 trillion deficit now facing the federal government, Trump claimed the economy is “going to have tremendous growth” next year.
Notably, it's not within a president's power to unilaterally change tax law or re-appropriate government funds, experts told the New York Times.
If reelected, Trump could continue to defer the payroll tax with executive orders, but he could not eliminate the payroll tax entirely or provide a new source of funding for Social Security without support from Congress.
Are eliminating the tax and ending Social Security equivalent?
In defense of its posts, Social Security Works argued that advocating for termination of the payroll tax and termination of Social Security are the same. The payroll tax is known as the Federal Insurance Contribution Act tax, after all.
Linda Benesch, a spokeswoman for Social Security Works, told USA TODAY that there is "not" a distinction between cutting Social Security and cutting its dedicated source of funding.
"Nearly 90% of Social Security's funding comes from payroll contributions, and if Trump terminated payroll contributions, the other funding sources would be insufficient," Benesch wrote in an emailed statement. "By law, Social Security is forbidden from paying benefits if there is not sufficient revenue to cover the cost."
Nancy Altman, the president of Social Security Works, told USA TODAY that the Social Security trust fund has a surplus of $2.9 trillion – only enough to last three years without new tax revenue.
"The payroll taxes bring in close to a trillion dollars every year, and the benefits cost around a trillion dollars," Altman said. "By 2023, there's no more money in the trust fund."
But Altman admitted that the administration's actions to date "aren't going to end Social Security."
It's what Trump has said he will do – terminate the tax – that they believe is equivalent to a promise to end Social Security.
"That's why we've really focused on his words," she said. "He says, 'If elected, this is what I'm going to do.' And there's no question at all that that will, at the worst, end the program, and at the least, give him enormous leverage over Democrats."
Ending Social Security is not on the agenda for the re-election campaign, though. It's the campaign's position to protect it while making the payroll tax deferral permanent.
Zach Parkinson, the Trump campaign's deputy communications director, told USA TODAY that claims that cutting the payroll tax will hurt social security are "misinformation."
"President Trump has been clear: a payroll tax cut will have ‘zero impact’ on Social Security benefits or the seniors that rely on the program," Parkinson wrote. "He supports transferring money from the government’s general coffers, protecting the program’s Trust Fund."
Our rating: Partly false
Based on our research, the claim that Trump said he will "terminate" Social Security if he is reelected is PARTLY FALSE. Trump recently signed an order offering temporary relief from the payroll tax that funds Social Security, and he has repeatedly said he'd terminate the tax entirely if he's reelected.
But ending the tax that pays for Social Security and ending the Social Security program itself are not the same. When asked, Trump said he the measures would have "zero impact" on Social Security, and he said he'd "protect" the program. And it's true that he could advocate an alternate source of funding, like the general fund — although it would have to go through Congress first.
Our fact-check sources:
Social Security Administration, How is Social Security financed?
The White House, Aug. 8, Memorandum on Deferring Payroll Tax Obligations in Light of the Ongoing COVID-19 Disaster
The Washington Post, Aug. 8, Trump promises permanent cut to payroll tax funding Social Security and Medicare if he’s reelected
CNN, August 10, President Trump Holds Press Conference At White House
Emailed Statement from a White House Official, August 11
Emailed Statement from Garrett Watson, Senior Policy Analyst at the Tax Foundation, Aug. 11
Fox Business, Aug. 12, Trump plans to terminate payroll tax but will protect Social Security
New York Times, Aug. 12, Advisers Consider Whether Trump Can Cut Taxes Without Congress
Emailed Statement from Linda Benesch, Spokesperson for Social Security Works, Aug. 11
Interview with Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works, Aug. 11
Emailed Statement from Zach Parkinson, Deputy Communications Director for the Trump Campaign
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Donald Trump hasn't said he will terminate Social Security