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Why Trump Wants U.S. to Default on Debt

And why Biden now says he’s “looking at” invoking the Fourteenth Amendment.
May 22, 2023
Why Trump Wants U.S. to Default on Debt
A car passes a bus shelter showing the national debt in Washington, DC, on May 21, 2023. US President Joe Biden will meet with Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on May 22, 2023, for another round of talks on raising the US debt ceiling less than two weeks before a key deadline to avoid a disastrous default, officials said on May 21, 2023. (Photo by Mandel NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Late last week, amid the on-again/off-again White House negotiations with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on raising the debt ceiling, Donald Trump lobbed a grenade. Knowing full well that President Joe Biden won’t simply cave, Trump urged Republicans to allow a default “unless they get everything they want. Do not fold!!!”

Lest you have any doubt, the three exclamation points are Trump’s. You could be excused for thinking he wants a default. He loves chaos.

But he also has a purely self-serving reason to seek an economic catastrophe. You don’t need to be a stable genius to know that a bad economy typically hurts the incumbent in a presidential race. And Trump is desperate to get the immunity from prosecution that being elected president would provide him. He’s terrified of what’s coming from Special Counsel Jack Smith. So he’ll apparently nuke the world economy to protect himself.

His MAGA minions in the House of Representatives also understand that voters’ first instinct for an economic crisis is to blame the incumbent president. But just in case that point was missed by the few GOP representatives who still worry a bit about what’s best for the country, Trump’s Truth Social post on Friday was sending them a message. He might as well have written, I’ll come after you if you vote to raise the debt ceiling.

The dynamics of the House Republican Conference—with a small number of the most Trumpy members able to disrupt or end McCarthy’s speakership—make it difficult for McCarthy to give an inch in negotiations, especially now with Trump himself piping in. Which means that the risk that no agreement will be reached is very real. The American people would be nothing but collateral damage to Trump.

Still, it’s possible that Biden can negotiate a deal that’s acceptable to both sides. If not, he can blast out messaging about the support for veterans and kitchen table benefits that Republicans would kill.

At a press conference yesterday in Japan, President Biden signaled that he is considering taking an unprecedented action to prevent a default: invoking the Fourteenth Amendment. “I’m looking at” it, he said. “I think we have the authority.”

Specifically, if sued, the administration would challenge the constitutionality of the 1917 law establishing the debt ceiling, on the grounds that applying it violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s mandate forbidding a default: “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law . . . shall not be questioned.”

Invoking the Fourteenth would not completely avoid uncertainty because the outcome of litigation would be unknown for months—but that uncertainty is far less grave than immediate default. And while not every academic agrees, leading legal scholars are clear that the president has good constitutional arguments to make.

By invoking the Fourteenth, Biden could avert the immediate crisis and tell the American people that he will act to save the economy, their jobs, and their families’ well-being—all of which would be at stake with a default.

By screaming, “Do not fold!!!” to Republican House members, Trump has pinned the tail of blame on his own donkey.

He could have stayed out of this fight and let others take the political hit if the worst-case scenario occurs. But he wants to be sure it happens. Should it occur, no one should forget his central role—certainly not as the 2024 presidential campaign heats up.

Keep in mind, too, Trump’s glaring hypocrisy here: This is the self-described “King of Debt” who spent like a drunken sailor during his four years in office, raising the national debt by $7.8 trillion.

He’s not in it to keep America safe from overspending. He’s in it for himself.

He doesn’t even mind telling us he’s a hypocrite. At the CNN town hall on May 10, host Kaitlan Collins confronted Trump with his prior statements on raising the debt ceiling:

Collins: You once said that using the . . . debt ceiling as a negotiating wedge just could not happen. You—you said that when you were in the Oval Office.

Trump: Sure, that’s when I was president.

Collins: So why is it different now that you’re out of office?

Trump: Because now I’m not president.

Trump can’t help saying the quiet part out loud. As he did by insanely bellowing in his January 2017 inaugural about “American carnage.” That is precisely what he seeks to bring about now, in service of his own interests.

It is up to President Biden to protect the nation and avert the chaos Trump is aiming for. And in the months ahead, it is up to sane middle America to speak, act, organize, and vote to ensure that Trump does not get the second term for whose sake he is eager to see the economy crash.

Dennis Aftergut

Dennis Aftergut, a former assistant U.S. attorney and former Supreme Court advocate, is currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.