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Trump World express an alarming interest in 'welfare reform'

The more Donald Trump and his team talk about "welfare reform," the more the public should be concerned.
TOPSHOT - US President Donald Trump leaves after speaking during the first meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity in the...

Donald Trump's to-do list doesn't yet have a lot of check marks. The president's push to overhaul the nation's health care system hasn't gone especially well, his tax plan faces an uphill climb, and the White House's infrastructure plan doesn't yet exist.

And so it came as something of a surprise a month ago when Trump declared at a cabinet meeting, "One thing we're going to be looking at very strongly is welfare reform. That's becoming a very, very big subject... We are going to be looking very, very strongly there for welfare reform. It's going to be a very big topic under this administration."

No one was entirely sure what this meant. Trump is clearly a little too fond of the word "very," but the White House has had little to say about the president's welfare plans.

The topic nevertheless came up again this week, when CNBC's John Harwood sat down with Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council at Trump's White House.

Harwood: Are you thinking that you'll deal with that Social Security/Medicare/baby boomer retirement issue later by entitlement reform that reduces benefits?Cohn: Look, the president on the economic front laid out three core principles. Number one was [regulatory] reform, number two was taxes and number three was infrastructure. We're working our way methodically through [regulatory] reform, taxes and infrastructure. I think when he gets done with those, I think welfare is going to come up. That's our near-term economic agenda right now.

There's ample reason for the public, especially those who value social-insurance programs, to find comments like these alarming.

When Trump talked last month about "welfare reform," it was widely assumed that he was referring to initiatives such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and other policies that make up the nation's safety net. (The president may not realize how little there is left to reform.)

But Cohn's comments to CNBC point in a different direction: when the White House and congressional Republicans are done delivering tax breaks to the wealthy, conservative policymakers will apparently shift its attention to "welfare" -- which in context, came in response to a question about Social Security and Medicare.

These fights don't appear to be imminent -- the GOP's tax plan is clearly the party's front-burner issue -- but it looks like Trump World is laying the groundwork now.