USAID officials confirmed to me that Barsa chose Mark Kevin Lloyd to be USAID’s new “religious freedom adviser.” His first day was Tuesday. In 2016, the Associated Press reported that Lloyd (then the Trump campaign’s Virginia field director) had made and shared several Islamophobic posts on his personal social media accounts. On June 30 of that year, he shared a post on Facebook that called Islam “a barbaric cult,” the AP reported.
Four days after the Orlando terrorist attack that same June, he shared a meme saying potential gun buyers should be forced to eat bacon. In another post, Lloyd wrote that “those who understand Islam for what it is are gearing up for the fight,” the AP reported. Those post are no longer public, but Lloyd’s Facebook account as of Tuesday still shows public posts where he accuses Barack Obama of ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and says people who believe Islam is a peaceful religion don’t understand history.
“No one with a history of spewing hatred and bigotry has any place helping to lead one of our government agencies,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) told me. “It’s especially outrageous that someone with a track record of Islamophobia would be put in a role dealing with religious freedom.”
“The comments he made four years ago were in reference to radical Islam, not Islam,” a USAID spokesperson said, referring to the “barbaric cult” example, but declining to explain any of Lloyd’s other Islamophobic statements. The spokesperson also said Lloyd has experience working for a faith-based provider of global relief assistance, called Gleaning for the World, that will be valuable during the covid-19 pandemic.
Two officials at the organization told me Lloyd hadn’t worked there since at least 2005. USAID declined to clarify his role there. His appointment is just one of the moves officials and experts cite as evidence that Barsa is politicizing and mismanaging USAID, a $31 billion agency.
The White House named Barsa acting administrator last month without even consulting the State Department, reaching down to elevate him over more qualified senior officials. In the brief period since his appointment, Barsa has already gotten into hot water by writing a harshly worded letter to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres demanding the removal of references to “sexual and reproductive health” from a recent U.N. pandemic response plan, and insisting that no funding be allowed to go to abortions.
That brought him rebukes both from Democrats in Congress, who took issue with Barsa’s characterization of the U.N. plan, as well as the Trump administration’s own U.N. ambassador, Kelly Knight Craft, who called Barsa to dress him down for not clearing the letter with top State Department and U.S. Mission to the United Nations officials in advance.
Barsa’s brazenness is fueling suspicion inside the administration that he is auditioning publicly for his next administration job, perhaps in the leadership of the Department of Homeland Security, where he worked during the first year of the Trump administration. That is also intensifying speculation about his likely successor. Candidates include Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s former congressional chief of staff James Richardson, now the head of the State Department office of foreign assistance. Former White House aide to the chief of staff Robert Blair and Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) are also said to be under consideration.
But with a pandemic raging and Congress preoccupied, it’s likely Barsa will be in charge at USAID for the rest of the year. If Barsa doesn’t start actively defending his agency’s interests, we can only expect the current weakening of its role to continue apace.
Meanwhile, development officials and experts are watching nervously as the administration makes plans that could further erode USAID’s role in fighting the pandemic. The White House is proposing to set up a new office inside the State Department that would be in charge of the government’s international pandemic response. The plan’s defenders say it would improve coordination and oversight of the government’s efforts to fight the pandemic both at home and abroad. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator who presented the plan to senior officials last week, is also said to be the favored candidate to lead the new office.
“It is a power grab,” one leading aid organization executive said. “This is an attempt to do what people have long suspected this administration has wanted to do, which is to hobble USAID and concentrate control at the State Department.”
Barsa’s narrow focus on his political agenda means USAID stands to lose more authority and resources on his watch. The Trump administration’s lack of concern for its role (USAID is not even on the White House coronavirus task force), embodied by the appointment of Lloyd, is contributing to that steep decline.
The sad result is clear: USAID, the agency that should be leading our vital international response to the pandemic, is in terrible shape. And the people it is charged with helping will suffer as a result.
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