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Trump Tried — and Failed — to Slash and Burn Foreign Aid Programs

For now, Congress has prevailed, but foreign aid spending remains firmly in Trump’s crosshairs.

President Trump speaks to the media as he departs the White House in Washington, D.C., on August 21, 2019.

For the last few weeks, the Trump administration has publicly mulled canceling roughly $4 billion in foreign aid already voted into law by Congress. On Thursday, facing a barrage of criticism, the administration abandoned those efforts.

The process, known as “rescission,” which reins in approved-but-as-yet-unspent dollars, would have set up yet another huge constitutional fight over which branch of government controls the country’s purse strings and fiscal priorities. For now, Congress has prevailed, but, make no mistake: This is just a temporary victory. Foreign aid spending remains firmly in Trump’s crosshairs.

The administration, avowedly hostile to non-military foreign assistance and international cooperation programs, tried this same rescission trick last year, only to have Congress ultimately override it. This year, it has attempted it again, and, even in failing, has scored points with the “America First” nativist base that now defines the Republican Party: Proposing to slash-and-burn foreign aid, and then backing off in the face of congressional opposition allows Trump to head into an election year having fed more red meat to his base, able to claim that it is only obstreperous politicians and do-gooder NGO-types who are standing in the way of these cuts.

Such a strategy is hardly a surprise; after all, throughout his presidency, Trump has crudely weaponized foreign aid, threatening to cut assistance if overseas governments don’t fall into line with his priorities regarding immigration, relationships with countries such as Iran, and so on. In particular, he has sought to take a knife to assistance programs for Central America. This spring Trump announced that he would deprive some of the poorest countries in the hemisphere of hundreds of millions of dollars — though exactly what would be withheld and when remained murky, and the State Department seemed unable or unwilling to clarify the process.

This time around, however, he may have gone too far: in pushing across-the-board cuts against everything from international peacekeeping programs to public health initiatives, environmental investments and international narcotics control programs, Trump is testing the patience even of diehard congressional loyalists such as Sen. Lindsay Graham. The South Carolinian last week called out the administration for what Graham called “sweeping and indiscriminate” cuts that would weaken U.S. leverage on the global stage and also undermine domestic political negotiations on budget-setting.

There is, of course, more than a whiff of hypocrisy surrounding Graham’s outrage. Compare the Trump administration’s refusal to spend money that Congress has already allocated to the administration’s seizing of billions of dollars earlier this year that Congress specifically refused to allocate to expand the southern border wall with Mexico. In that instance, Graham — and most of the GOP leadership in Congress — more than made their peace with the extralegal proceedings, with 41 senators refusing to support legislation to overturn Trump’s national emergency declaration.

Moreover, what Trump proposed doing with foreign aid was largely a continuation of his wrecking-ball actions on the global stage. These actions have shredded nuclear arms control treaties and environmental accords; ended U.S. participation in the United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization; and imposed a “global gag rule” against the funding of public health initiatives that in any way render abortion accessible to beneficiaries. And while GOP senators don’t uniformly favor such actions, none of them have mustered the courage to truly break with Trump over these shatteringly dangerous policies.

In the Trumpian worldview, diplomacy and soft power always take a distant backseat to military might and hard power. That’s why the overall State Department budget since 2017 has been cut to the bone even while the U.S. has embarked on an enormous escalation in military spending.

Like so much of Trump’s rhetoric and actions, of course, all of this creates a mask of strength temporarily camouflaging the United States’s growing weakness. After all, there’s nothing in the natural order of things that mandates that the United States will always be seen on the international stage as the indispensable player.

As the U.S. withdraws into itself, cutting its links to other countries and refusing to fund development programs, China and other rising powers will fill the vacuum. Witness the trillion-plus dollars in investments that China is making in what it calls its Belt and Road Initiative of global infrastructure, public health, trade and environmental spending.

In the grand scheme of things, Trump threatening to withhold $4 billion in overseas assistance doesn’t hold very much weight against China’s promises of expenditures in the same arena that, over the coming decades, will be several hundred times as large. What it does do, however, and what Congress was so concerned about, is send a signal to other governments and nonprofit groups overseas. It beams out a message loud and clear that the U.S. is preoccupied with domestic political squabbles, and that over the coming decades, if one wants to access superpower investments, it might make sense to align one’s priorities more with China — or with the EU — than with an inward-looking United States.

In addition to their effect on the United States’s global status, Trump’s tantrums and bullying persona are seriously damaging the country’s already deeply flawed system of constitutional checks and balances.

Congress has, for now, successfully pushed back against the entirely counter-productive gutting of foreign aid programs. But this almost certainly isn’t the last time that Trump will attempt to do an end-run around Congress and shred non-military overseas spending.

Ultimately, piecemeal intervention and pushback against individual actions is no longer enough. Legislators must find ways to rein in this lawless presidency and its stunning contempt for the system of checks and balances, once and for all. It is, increasingly, a matter of national urgency to firewall vital matters of state from the harmful, erratic impulses of Trump and his extremist team.

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