Trump criticizes US foreign spending, but proposed cuts to aid draw fierce opposition

U.S. President Donald Trump. Photo by: Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA

President Donald Trump denounced U.S. foreign spending in his address to Congress Tuesday night even as his proposed deep budget cuts to foreign aid drew fierce criticism from Democrats, senior figures in his own party and international development groups.

“We've spent trillions of dollars overseas, while our infrastructure at home has so badly crumbled,” Trump said in a speech that largely focused on domestic policy.  “America must put its own citizens first ... because only then, can we truly make America great again,” he said.

Late in the speech he briefly discussed foreign policy and humanitarian disasters, which Trump said need to be addressed by creating conditions where people can return home.  

USAID 'working with' White House to review budget priorities

The U.S. Agency for International Development says it is working with the White House on reviewing budget priorities as President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal looks likely to include steep cuts to foreign aid.

“Our foreign policy calls for a direct, robust and meaningful engagement with the world,” he said. “It is American leadership based on vital security interests that we share with our allies all across the globe.”

As reports emerged that Trump’s budget proposed 37 percent cuts to the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development — in part to offset significant increases to defense spending — many congressional leaders came out against the proposal.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio from Florida, gave a nearly 20 minute speech on the floor of the Senate detailing his support for foreign aid and its importance both to the U.S. economy and to national security.

“This idea that somehow we can just retreat from our engagement in the world is bad for national security, it’s bad for our economy,” he said, according to a C-SPAN transcript. “It isn’t good for policymakers that want to put the American people first. And by the way, doesn’t live up to the standards of who we are as a people.”

Rubio outlined historic successes of foreign aid, and more recent ones including in Colombia and through the Feed the Future initiative, citing the fact that 12 of the top 15 U.S. trading partners were once recipients of aid.

“I think it’s important for those of us who believe in global engagement and believe in the function of foreign aid to justify it, to never take it for granted and to constantly examine it to make sure the money is being spent well and that it’s worth spending at all,” he said.

He was joined by other senators, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, who told reporters that the Senate would “probably not” pass the proposed budget.

“I for one — just speaking for myself — think the diplomatic portion of the federal budget is very important and you get results a lot cheaper, frequently, than you do on the defense side,” he said. Referring to the section that includes foreign aid, he said, “speaking for myself, I’m not in favor of reducing what we call the 150 Account.”

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona told reporters he was opposed to the aid cuts.

“So many of those programs are very important. They're a popular target, but they're very important,” he said, according to Reuters.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said that the budget would not pass, calling it a “disaster” and saying “it’s dead on arrival.”

“This budget destroys soft power, it puts our diplomats at risk and it’s going nowhere. When I hear if we cut foreign aid we can balance the budget, it’s just a complete lie,” he said, according to the Washington Post. “Foreign assistance is an insurance policy. Investing over there, even though we have needs here, makes us safer. When the Trump administration has a budget that basically destroys soft power, it’s unnerving to me, because clearly they don’t understand how soft power is essential to winning the war. ”

And Republican Senator Johnny Isakson from Georgia tweeted that “Soft power helps us achieve diplomatic goals of promoting democracy & high standards worldwide.”

Democrats Dick Durbin — a senator from Illinois — and Patrick Leahy of Vermont weighed in as well.

Durbin retweeted Rubio adding “Republicans and Democrats agree: cutting America’s foreign aid cuts America’s national security,” and Leahy said that foreign assistance is a bipartisan issue that “advances U.S. interests and values.”

There were several Republicans in the House of Representatives who also voiced their concerns about dramatic cuts to foreign aid.

“I am very concerned by reports of deep cuts that could damage efforts to combat terrorism, save lives, and create opportunities for American workers," said Representative Ed Royce, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, in a statement released Tuesday. He added that “The committee will thoroughly review the administration’s foreign affairs budget request when it’s made available to Congress.”

The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, a Republican from New Jersey, also spoke out about the issue.

“I think foreign aid is pretty important myself, so I'd like to see what the president has to say,” Frelinghuysen said before Trump’s speech, according to Politico. “There are some pretty important programs that keep America open for business and that are vital to our national security.”

A variety of aid groups also spoke out and expressed concerns about the cuts.

The ONE Campaign, an advocacy organization working to end poverty, met with legislators Tuesday to discuss the issue.

“While we certainly expected the Administration to include cuts to State and USAID in its first budget proposal, it’s alarming that the White House appears to be elevating the idea of cuts to foreign assistance, in particular, to help pay for its massive funding increase in military spending,” Tom Hart, ONE’s executive director for North America, said in a statement.

“It’s also especially ironic. If your goal is to increase our national security, cutting our foreign assistance budget is one of the last things you should do,” the statement continued. “Bombs alone cannot prevent radicalization. Bullets cannot prevent despair from turning into dangerous anger. As our war fighters increasingly turn to development to deter conflicts, the President’s budget appears to be going the wrong direction.”

Oxfam America also put out a statement from Gawain Kripke, the organization’s America policy director, calling the proposed cuts “unconscionable” in a world with the most displaced people since World War II and many countries facing the threat of famine.

“The budget represents America’s moral choices. The Administration’s proposal [to] cut spending for the meek and vulnerable is a disgrace to our American values,” Kripke said in the statement. “Cutting foreign aid will do practically nothing to balance the US budget.  But it will eliminate a critical tool in the long struggle to counter violent extremism and terrorism at home and abroad and have devastating consequences for poor people around the world. Congress must urgently fight to protect these vital programs from cuts.”

Pierre Ferrari, CEO of Heifer International — a nongovernmental organization working to end poverty and hunger — said the cuts would be a “terrible move” because “poverty is often a key source of conflict” and urged the administration to keep global development assistance.

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of what the Trump administration means for global development. Read more coverage here and subscribe to The Development Newswire.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.