WASHINGTON — On Oct. 17, Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney took to the White House briefing room to defend President Donald Trump against allegations he had misused U.S. security assistance in pursuit of his own political agenda.
After a reporter pointed out that the situation he was describing — a transaction with a foreign government involving U.S. assistance — fit the definition of a quid pro quo, Mulvaney offered a now-famous response.
“We do that all the time with foreign policy,” Mulvaney said.
“It wasn’t unusual for Trump to look for quid pro quos with foreign aid dollars that made NSC staff uncomfortable.”— former staffer, White House National Security Council
He pointed to the example of U.S. development assistance to countries in Central America’s Northern Triangle.
“We were holding up aid at the Northern Triangle countries ... so that they would change their policies on immigration,” he said. “And I have news for everybody. Get over it. There is going to be political influence in foreign policy.”
While U.S. security assistance — arms and defensive equipment for foreign governments and militaries — and U.S. humanitarian and development assistance serve different functions and flow from different parts of the U.S. government, Mulvaney’s argument described them both as part of the same basic philosophy.
Aid experts who spoke to Devex differ about whether or not Trump’s suspension of security assistance to Ukraine constitutes a clear violation of the constitution. But they generally agree that the episode highlights a general breakdown in the administration’s understanding of how aid serves the U.S. national interest. In addition, Mulvaney’s remarks resurfaced questions about when it is, and is not appropriate to use assistance in pursuit of narrow interests, as opposed to the broader aim of attempting to help people in need or contribute to a more prosperous world.
Read more on US aid
“Every administration and every president uses foreign aid in the national interest. Then it’s a question of what do they consider the national interest to be,” said George Ingram, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network.
On that question, the Trump administration has taken a much narrower view than many of its predecessors, holding that the U.S. government’s assistance resources are helpful to the extent they can be used to extract or compel other countries to do what the administration wants.
A draft of a White House foreign assistance review, which has yet to be made public, made this outlook explicit.
“Aid recipients should support key United States political and security objectives,” it reads, noting that U.S. aid should “focus assistance on friends and allies,” and “advance identifiable United States national interests.”
The administration’s aid policies for Central America are a clear reflection of this tendency, as is its reorientation of development policy around competition with China.
“It wasn’t unusual for Trump to look for quid pro quos with foreign aid dollars that made NSC staff uncomfortable, even when it did not seemingly benefit him directly like the Ukraine call would have,” said a former staffer on the White House National Security Council.
“When the African heads of state would come in, he would always ask something to the effect of, ‘what do we get out of this,’ such as buying or bullying votes at the United Nations.”
“When you do transactional foreign aid, you reduce the likelihood the program will succeed.”— Andrew Natsios, former USAID administrator and director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs
The Trump administration is not the first to tie assistance resources to specific policy objectives.
In the wake of the 1978 Camp David Accords that established a framework for a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, the U.S. government committed billions of dollars in aid to those two countries, which continues today. Those kinds of arrangements, while perhaps justified in achieving important outcomes, are not without their downsides, said Andrew Natsios, a former U.S. Agency for International Development administrator and director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at Texas A&M University.
Former Egyptian President Hosni “Mubarak used to constantly say, ‘that’s my money,” Natsios said, explaining that by lashing its assistance to a specific transactional agreement, the U.S. government limited its ability to advocate for future democratic and economic reforms in the country.
“When you do transactional foreign aid, you reduce the likelihood the program will succeed,” Natsios said.
The aid experts who spoke to Devex generally agreed that while it may be appropriate in some cases to attach specific policy goals to direct government assistance, doing so with aid to individuals is generally indefensible.
“To say across the board that aid is used as a political tool is a real misnomer,” said Sarah Margon, foreign policy director at the Open Society Foundations. “Aid to people is very different than aid to governments.”
The distinction between which resources should and should not be used for transactional purposes has broken down in recent decades, Natsios said. He explained that in the 1990s, when USAID saw steep budget cuts, money from the State Department’s “Economic Support Fund,” which is typically more political in nature, was earmarked to support broader development programs which would usually be funded from USAID’s “Development Assistance” account.
“If you’re going to use it for transactional purposes you should not earmark it, and let the State Department use that money for transactional purposes for diplomatic negotiations,” he said.
“Now, whether they should be used in the case of Ukraine is a different question,” Natsios said.
In this case, even though the aid was security assistance to the government, its purpose was to help Ukraine defend itself from an imminent threat posed by Russia.
“In the case of Ukraine, the country is threatened by Russia, and in my view there is no other issue that is more important than that. The president making any aid conditional, however legitimate the purpose would be, is not acceptable, because it’s putting the country at risk to Putin’s Russia,” he said.
For others, the basic premise of Mulvaney’s argument fails to hold up, because they argue the president was not actually trying to achieve a legitimate policy goal. Unlike the president’s suspension of assistance to Central America, which was consistent with a broader administration priority, the suspension of aid to Ukraine was part of a personal, parallel agenda that operated outside official policy channels, said Jeremy Konyndyk, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and former director of USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance.
“I think [Trump] is wrong to suspend aid to the Northern Triangle, but it is a legitimate policy purpose — totally wrong — but a legitimate policy purpose to use aid to the Northern Triangle to achieve migration outcomes. There’s nothing illegal or underhanded about that. It’s deeply stupid, and it’s incorrect, and it’s not going to work, but that doesn’t make it illegal,” Konyndyk said.
Instead, in the case of suspending aid to Ukraine, the administration has pursued “the personification of policy,” said Margon. “That has nothing to do with U.S. policy. That’s a manipulation of U.S. policy,” she said.
The irony is not lost on members of the U.S. aid community that President Trump’s belief that U.S. foreign assistance is a purely transactional instrument to get what the administration wants is what has led him to the brink of impeachment.
“That’s what’s doing him tremendous political damage right now,” said Konyndyk. “There’s no one around him who either: a) understands that that’s not the role of aid; or b) is able to articulate that to him.”
For the U.S. aid community, which finds itself unusually close to the center of American politics, the experience could serve as a litmus test for how well it has articulated its principles, the purposes of aid, and the standards that should govern how it is used.
For Ingram, it provides further evidence of “why the development community has to continue to push the development narrative.”
“So that when you get an aberrant — I don’t know if the word is aberrant or abhorrent — action like Trump and Mulvaney have taken on Ukraine, you’ve got the rest of the policy community pushing back on them, because the rest of the community understands that’s not the purpose and it’s not a legitimate way to use foreign aid,” he said.