Fact Check: US National Debt Was NOT Paid Off In 2017 -- Last Time Was 1835

Fact Check

  • by: Uliana Malashenko
Fact Check: US National Debt Was NOT Paid Off In 2017 -- Last Time Was 1835 Still Exists

Does a viral video show proof that the U.S. national debt was paid off in 2017? No, that's not true: The U.S. Treasury website shows the current U.S. national debt, which is about $33.7 trillion, a number accepted by U.S. financial markets, independent economists and the Federal Reserve Bank. The video relies on paperwork that has nothing to do with the supposed payment. The entity said to have paid off the U.S. national debt does not represent any government agencies or legitimate international organizations.

The claim appeared in a video (archived here) on TikTok on September 21, 2023. In the recording, an unknown woman partly showed some official-looking papers. She said (at the 3:58 mark):

This is your proof that our debt was paid off, we don't have any debt. Don't listen to the news. Period.

This is what the post looked like on TikTok at the time of writing:

Screen Shot 2023-11-15 at 9.32.55 PM.png10

TikTok screenshot

(Source: TikTok screenshot taken on Wed Nov 15 01:32:55 2023 UTC)

The woman began by reading a letter allegedly sent to then-President Donald Trump in 2017. It was signed by a man named "General Zeleny" who referred to as a representative of an organization described as the "Office of Military Settlements." The letter made a reference to a monetary "gift" supposedly sent to "offset the Federal Public Debt" to the Bureau of Fiscal Services in West Virginia.

The claim, however, contradicts a well-established fiscal fact without providing credible independent public verification.

U.S. national debt

As of this writing, the U.S. Treasury website showed that the current U.S. national debt -- the total amount of money the federal government has borrowed to cover its expenses through various financial instruments -- was roughly $33.7 trillion.

The most recent U.S. government financial report for the 2022 fiscal year does not contain any information suggesting that it is $21 trillion less.

Respective reports for 2017 and 2018 say nothing about the purported repayment.

The national debt was fully paid off only once -- in 1835, not in 2017.

Had it happened in 2017, the national debt would not be a matter of fierce debate in the fall of 2023, when it is the subject of campaign rhetoric and commentary in the financial, political and general interest media.

The amount of the purported payment -- $21 trillion -- dramatically exceeds what any -- even the most affluent --person in the U.S. owns: In 2023, the top 20 richest Americans combined are worth 10 times less than that.

The 'Office of Military Settlements'

One mechanism the video used in an attempt to create an aura of credibility was a reference to an organization whose name implied it is somehow tied to the U.S. government and the Department of Defense.

However, on November 15, 2023, a Pentagon press officer told Lead Stories via email about the "Office of Military Settlements":

That is not an office associated with the Department of Defense.

A Google search across U.S. government resources did not reveal any mentions of the said "office":

Screen Shot 2023-11-16 at 8.45.06 PM.png

(Source: Google screenshot taken on Thu Nov 16 02:45:06 2023 UTC)

Furthermore, the website of the organization of this name was nowhere to be found on the Internet:

Screen Shot 2023-11-15 at 2.22.42 PM.png

(Source: Google screenshot taken on Wed Nov 15 18:22:42 2023 UTC)

Lead Stories, however, discovered multiple pages that offered modifiable, pre-generated official-looking forms allegedly issued by the "Office of Military Settlements." (While the name is written "Settlement" singular below, it is plural in all other examples in this article and the address below is a match; see below.)

Here is one example:

Screen Shot 2023-11-15 at 10.29.02 AM.png

(Source: US Legal screenshot taken on Wed Nov 15 14:29:02 2023 UTC)

The address from these pre-generated forms matched the address seen in the top left corner of the "official" document in the video on TikTok.

It matched a one-story California building with a FedEx logo on it:

Screen Shot 2023-11-15 at 2.09.03 PM.png

(Sources: Google Maps screenshot taken on Wed Nov 15 14:21:02 2023 UTC; Google Maps screenshot taken on Wed Nov 15 14:39:52 2023 UTC; Google screenshot taken on Wed Nov 15 14:40:50 2023 UTC; composite image by Lead Stories)

The same address was also linked with the business named Mail Depot of Upland. According to its website, it offers mailbox rental services, not actual office space rentals.

Google Maps produced zero results matching the supposedly well-established "Office of Military Settlements" with any physical location:

Screen Shot 2023-11-16 at 9.01.24 PM.png

(Source: Google Maps screenshot taken on Thu Nov 16 01:01:24 2023 UTC)

'General' Zeleny

A closer look into "General" Deryl Clayton Zeleny -- the person who purportedly paid off the U.S. national debt in 2017 -- shows that he is highly unlikely to have ever been a U.S. public official.

His contacts shown in the video are unusual: a phone number with a Los Angeles area code paired with a Canadian mailing address (middle and right screenshots). And unlike authentic U.S. government emails ending with .gov, Zeleny's email included .org (left screenshot). .Org domains are typically associated with nonprofits or reputable organizations, but business entities can get a .org domain, too.

Screen Shot 2023-11-15 at 1.18.36 PM.png

(Sources: TikTok screenshots taken on Wed Nov 15 14:04:12-14:06:57 2023 UTC; composite image by Lead Stories)

Also, PACER federal court records reveal that Zeleny is a Canadian citizen, not an American:

Screen Shot 2023-11-15 at 1.25.40 PM.png

(Sources: PACER screenshots taken on Wed Nov 15 15:12:07-15:15:02 2023 UTC; PACER screenshot taken on Wed Nov 15 16:55:36 2023 UTC; composite image by Lead Stories)

And to be eligible to become an officer in the U.S. Army, a person is required to be a U.S. citizen.

Court records from 2015 found by Lead Stories on PACER show he was not referred to as a "general" -- in a dispute over some business assets, including a Ford Focus, a compact economy model.

A Lead Stories reporter called the number associated with "General" Zeleny in the video on TikTok and court records. On November 15, 2023, it was still active. An older man picked up the phone. He did not say whether he knew Zeleny or the organization named the "Office of Military Settlements" and suggested that Lead Stories reach out to the Pentagon as if there were some affiliation.

Searches aimed at finding mentions of Zeleny in Canada draw a very different picture. A LinkedIn profile of an Ontario-based person of this name listed him as a "real estate developer." Ironically, in 2013, a man named Deryl Zeleny said in an interview that his property in Canada was foreclosed.

Zeleny was mentioned in an Alberta Law Review article discussing "the phenomenon of Organized Pseudolegal Commercial Arguments" and related scams. In particular, it referred to Swissindo -- a scheme in which a person named Mr. Sino promised "$6 million US payments and monthly stipends drawn from the collective precious metal reserves of the world's royal families." The Zeleny in that context claimed that Sino made him "a Lieutenant General in command of Swissindo-aligned military forces," the article said.

Papers on TikTok

Besides the letter to Trump, the video on TikTok exhibited several other papers. But none of them presented an ultimate proof of anything without additional materials establishing their legitimacy.

One paper was claimed to be signed by Secretary of State John Kerry. But he had this job under Barack Obama, not Trump, and, unlike the U.S. Treasury, the U.S. State Department is not in charge of the national debt.

Screen Shot 2023-11-16 at 2.24.42 PM.png

(Source: TikTok screenshot taken on Thu Nov 16 18:24:42 2023 UTC)

A search for the same language across government websites did not produce an exact match dated December 1, 2016, but did show it is a standard cover page for different diplomatic communications, as seen, for example, here.

A different item partially shown in the video on TikTok (seen here in full size) looked like a check and allegedly demonstrated the proof of a $21 trillion transaction. The funds were supposed to be taken from the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited, so HSBC was "listed" as the drawee (click to view larger):

Screen Shot 2023-11-16 at 10.51.07 PM.png

(Sources: TikTok screenshot taken on Thu Nov 16 18:07:10 2023 UTC; Archive.Today screenshot taken on Thu Nov 16 02:49:55 2023 UTC; composite image by Lead Stories; red markings were added by the party that uploaded the file to the archived page, not by Lead Stories)

While HSBC is considered a major financial institution, it simply did not have $21 trillion at the time of the purported transaction. By the end of 2017, its total assets were only $2.5 trillion:

Screen Shot 2023-11-16 at 11.25.10 PM.png

(Source: HSBC screenshot taken on Thu Nov 16 03:25:10 2023 UTC)

One more paper that briefly appeared in the video on TikTok matched an actual 2018 UCC filing discovered by Lead Stories on the Secretary of State website in West Virginia. This was different from other similar cases when false claims aimed to manufacture credibility by using official-looking papers typically generated through publicly available electronic submission forms without any actual submissions.

Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) "liens filed with Secretary of State offices act as a public notice by the 'creditor' of the creditor's interest in the property," the National Association of Secretaries of State website says.

What is important to understand about the UCC filings is that they are self-reported, typically based on the previously documented but not always public sets of obligations agreed to between private parties.

But in some cases, this self-reporting system creates an opportunity for bogus filings.

In 2014, the National Association of the Secretaries of States recognized such submissions as a "persistent problem." Its report specifically mentioned "government separatist group members" and those aiming "to harass or intimidate public officials" as a major category of such actors using UCC liens to make demands and declarations.

Just like in the previously documented cases, the 2018 West Virginia filing was self-submitted by the "Office of Military Settlements" mentioned, and it described itself there as a secured party without the need to prove that it was actually the case:

Screen Shot 2023-11-15 at 9.05.32 PM.png(Sources: TikTok screenshot taken on Wed Nov 15 01:01:12 2023 UTC; Wv.gov screenshot taken on 01:02:23 2023 UTC; composite image by Lead Stories)

Screen Shot 2023-11-15 at 8.09.51 PM.png

(Source: Wv.gov screenshot taken on Wed Nov 15 00:09:51 2023 UTC)

The record baselessly argued that the U.S. government defaulted on loan payments. The only piece of "evidence" attached to it was what was described as a "public notice of default" that failed to mention the federal government or U.S. Treasury:

Screen Shot 2023-11-16 at 11.37.21 AM.png

(Source: Ws.gov screenshot taken on Thu Nov 16 15:37:21 2023 UTC)

The claim's origin

The documents purportedly proving that the U.S. national debt was paid off under the Trump administration were recorded for the first time on September 19, 2023, in a video blog (archived here) hosted on Rumble by Phil Godlewski, a Pennsylvania-based QAnon promoter once convicted of "corrupting a minor."

At the 20:57 mark of the video on Rumble, he said:

... Trump and the United States government were delivered a $21 trillion check, and they were instructed or asked to pay off the national debt.

Godlewski continued at the 28:34 mark:

It's a lot of documents. The first one is a 52-page PDF file that I will bring to the screen one by one.

Screen Shot 2023-11-15 at 12.03.18 PM.png

(Source: Rumble screenshot taken on Wed Nov 15 16:03:18 2023 UTC)

The video on Rumble showed the same papers as the post on TikTok but included more printouts from the "Office of Military Settlements" as well as other UCC filings filed by this entity.

A closer examination of these submissions creates a window into the conspiratorial narrative based on self-generated -- and at times self-contradictory -- public records unsupported by anything else.

Furthermore, it demonstrates that UCC filings can be misused at a nearly industrial scale by actors aiming to confuse and mislead the general public.

One of those filings matched a January 2017 submission found on the State of Secretary website in California. This time, the discussed amount was already $300 trillion, and the note at the bottom of the first page implied that "the named entities above" were somehow involved in the theft of this amount. Besides HSBC, the top of the page listed the "Office" of Military Settlements.

Screen Shot 2023-11-17 at 12.24.36 AM.png

(Source: Rumble screenshot taken on Fri Nov 17 04:03:03 2023 UTC; Rumble screenshot taken on Fri Nov 17 04:10:06 2023 UTC; composite image by Lead Stories)

A September 2017 modification of this California filing included what looked like one-sided communication to Sheryl Morrow, then still the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Bureau of the Fiscal Service commissioner.

The "Office" of Military Settlements continued to baselessly argue that the government defaulted on its debt, and that was presented as the ground for pushing the Treasury to post the $21 trillion payment that had already purportedly been delivered to the United States and sent to the Treasury.

The attached "proof" of the transfer's existence was an illegible scan with an HSBC logo on it:

Screen Shot 2023-11-16 at 12.17.54 PM.png

(Source: Ca.gov screenshot taken on Thu Nov 16 18:17:54 2023 UTC)

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  Uliana Malashenko

Uliana Malashenko is a New York-based freelance writer and fact checker.

Read more about or contact Uliana Malashenko

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