Trump's Central America threat backs USAID chief into a corner

Mark Green, USAID administrator. Photo from C-SPAN

WASHINGTON — United States lawmakers who oppose President Donald Trump’s repeated proposals to slash U.S. foreign affairs spending have largely spared the administration’s development chief from their denouncements.

Mark Green, the Trump-appointed U.S. Agency for International Development administrator, is both a former congressman who enjoys a solid rapport with bipartisan lawmakers and a long-time development leader who has shown his commitment to the cause. When he testifies about U.S. foreign assistance on Capitol Hill, some members of Congress have a tendency to couch their objections to Trump’s proposals with phrases such as, “this is not directed at you,” or “you’re in an awkward spot.” Their questioning can give the impression that they regard Green as an administration official not responsible for the administration’s policies or positions.

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In his opening remarks at a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing about “USAID resources and redesign” on Wednesday, Senator Robert Corker, who chairs the committee, encouraged his colleagues not to even raise budget issues with Green, since they are “not relevant to what [Congress] will be doing.”

“Some on the committee will no doubt use their time to highlight the president’s fiscal year 2019 budget request, but given that Congress decides funding levels despite the request, really the request is not relevant to what we’ll be doing. I don’t mean that with any disrespect. I hope that the hearing will focus on more relevant issues,” Corker said.

Corker’s suggestion came less than 24 hours after Trump’s latest attempt to use foreign aid as a geopolitical bargaining chip — with a proposal many have seen as self-defeating and divorced from reality. Speaking at a small business event in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Trump said he would seek authorization to withhold funding from countries in Central America’s so-called “Northern Triangle,” which he claimed, without evidence, are “sending” migrants to the U.S.

"When countries abuse us by sending people up — not their best — we’re not going to give any more aid to those countries. Why the hell should we?" Trump said.

The president has faced enormous backlash for his “zero-tolerance” detainment policy on illegal immigration, which has resulted in the forced separation of parents from their children. On Wednesday, the president issued an executive order to end this enforcement practice, but has continued to threaten withholding aid from Central American countries.

So far, Green’s apparent distance from Trump — he told the committee Wednesday that he has had no communication from the White House about the president’s statement — has been to USAID’s benefit. Lawmakers have not attributed the administration’s attempts to slash USAID’s budget to Green, while they have largely supported his effort to reorganize the agency.

But for parts of Wednesday’s hearing, that dynamic appeared to reach its limit.

An exchange with Sen. Robert Menendez about Trump’s Central America threat revealed Green’s dilemma: He can neither represent the administration’s views, since the president doesn’t inform the administrator before publicizing his more brazen proposals, and they conflict with things Green has said in the past; nor can he advocate for his own agency’s programs when doing so would undermine the White House’s position.

The result on Wednesday was that Green was left unable to make a strong case that assistance to Central America’s Northern Triangle helps address the root causes of illegal migration — gang violence, poverty, insecurity — and protects U.S. national security.

“Do you believe that cutting off aid to countries in the Northern Triangle would ultimately benefit the United States?” Menendez asked Green.

“I believe that all of our assistance programs should serve our national interest. I believe that they do. I’m certainly open to reviews of our assistance, which we do, continuously, all the time,” Green responded, before Menendez cut him off and charged him with adopting “State Department speak.”

“Do you believe that what we’re doing in the Northern Triangle serves the interests of the United States?” Menendez asked again.

“Our assistance programs? At this point, I do,” Green said.

The exchange continued until Menendez ultimately concluded: “All of those answers are unsatisfactory to me,” and that Green had delivered, “the most unresponsive set of answers that I have had from someone before this committee.”

For more responsive answers, Menendez could have turned to Green’s own testimony, delivered less than eight months ago, when he spoke directly to USAID’s work to address the underlying causes of migration in Central America’s Northern Triangle.

“We do this work because it is the right thing to do. But more to the point, we do this work as an agency contributing to national security — our programs contribute to a safer and more prosperous United States by helping to secure our borders, protect our citizens, and increase economic and business opportunities,” Green told a House appropriations subcommittee in November.

“In addition, evidence suggests it helps mitigate the conditions that drive migrants to make the perilous trip north,” Green argued at the time.

Since Corker is right that Congress, not the White House, has control over the budget, the contradiction between Green’s position in November and Trump’s threat this week is unlikely to have much practical bearing on U.S. assistance to Central America. Congress has the authority to direct the administration to continue spending money in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, regardless of what Trump promises at his rallies.

As the uncomfortable exchange between Green and Menendez showed however, it seems there is a cost of serving at the pleasure of a president who will sacrifice consistent policy in order to send a political message. It gets harder and harder to have convictions.

“It is out of character for you, and it is really disappointing to me,” Menendez told the administrator.

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About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.