The Trump administration is still reviewing what to do about nearly $1 billion in already-approved aid to three Central American countries, nearly two weeks after President Trump announced he had cut the funding and planned to spend the money elsewhere, according to U.S. officials.
The lag provided the latest example of a government bureaucracy racing to catch up to the whims of a president whose brief remarks March 29 put scores of anti-poverty, anti-gang and counternarcotics programs in jeopardy and raised a flurry of questions in Congress.
Lawmakers on Tuesday sharply criticized the proposed cuts, noting that the programs were aimed at decreasing hunger and violence in the Central American countries and that scrapping them could increase the number of migrants.
“I believe that this decision from a policy standpoint, if you really analyze that, could make the situation worse, not better,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (Tex.), the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
In budget testimony Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that “we have ceased allocating new funds” to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Pompeo did not speak to the money appropriated, but not yet spent, over the previous two years that Trump said he cut. The president charged that those countries had failed to prevent their citizens from leaving and trying to gain entry to the United States.
The State Department told Congress on Monday that it still intends to “reprogram” money from 2017 and 2018 for those countries, most of which remains unspent, but was “reviewing” what to do with it, congressional aides said. Congress must agree to any reprogramming of funding it has already appropriated.
Trump caught lawmakers and administration officials off guard last month when he accused the Central American governments of purposely sending migrant “caravans” to the United States and announced the end of foreign aid to those governments.
“We were paying them tremendous amounts of money. And we’re not paying them anymore. Because they haven’t done a thing for us. They set up these caravans,” he told reporters during a trip to Florida.
The number of apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border has soared recently, with more than 76,000 migrants taken into U.S. custody in February, most of them from Central America.
Trump’s abrupt announcement to cut aid led to confusion in the State Department and U.S. embassies as officials tried to determine if they had to cancel existing contracts or simply not renew them.
Democrats said Trump’s demand that impoverished countries physically bar citizens from fleeing poverty and violence was out of step with American values.
“Can you think of precedent, historical precedent where the United States has urged another country to stop people from leaving?” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) asked during a hearing on foreign aid Tuesday. “I mean, we urged the Soviet Union to allow Soviet Jews to leave, we have condemned North Korea for stopping people from leaving its country. We would be outraged if the [Nicolás] Maduro regime would stop people from leaving. How would this even work?”
In response to the question, Mark Green, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said he could not explain the policy and that it would be best directed to the State Department.
After the administration took no action on Trump’s original statement that he was canceling all aid, lawmakers requested more information. In a response sent to Congress on Monday, the State Department said it was “reviewing” fiscal 2017 funding agreements with the three countries and was still “planning to redirect” 2018 appropriations, “potentially up to $450 million, to other foreign policy priorities.”
“During this review period,” it said, all “previously scheduled and paid for activities” for 2017 should continue. For reprogramming of 2018 appropriations, it said, Congress would be notified “regarding the intended use of funds at a later date.”
To reprogram funds already appropriated by Congress, the administration must send notice to lawmakers of where it proposes to transfer money. If Congress does not object, the reprogramming goes forward. If there are objections, past practice has been for informal negotiations between applicable committees and the administration. Rarely, without specific legislation forbidding the transfer, the objection is ignored.
That is what the administration did when Trump insisted that $20 million be reprogrammed to the Department of Homeland Security to pay for airfare to send migrants back to Mexico, although the demand was eventually dropped. An administration’s other option, in the face of congressional objection, is simply to refuse to spend the money, allow the appropriation to expire and return the money to the Treasury.
In recent statements and interviews, both Trump and Pompeo have emphasized that U.S. aid is to be used in part to physically prevent Central Americans from leaving their home countries, rather than improving the conditions that make them want to leave.
“Are they willing to stop people from leaving the country?” Pompeo said in a Fox Business Network interview Friday. “We’ve given them hundreds of millions of dollars over the past years to create the capacity for them to do so. They have not demonstrated the will . . . we have not yet seen enough demonstration of their commitment for actually preventing these folks from crossing into Mexico.”
Pompeo’s budget testimony also offered lawmakers the chance to question him on other foreign policy issues. Pompeo, one of the president’s favorite Cabinet members, began his prepared statement by saying he was now “nine days short of one year” in the job. Republican Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) provoked laughter in the room, and even a smile from Pompeo, when he interrupted to quip: “Longest-serving member of the Cabinet, right?” a reference to the executive branch’s rapid turnover among senior officials under Trump.
During the hearing, Pompeo faced criticism from lawmakers about the lack of accountability for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who was killed last year in Istanbul by Saudi agents. Though the U.S. intelligence community believes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered his death, Washington’s response has been largely confined to restricting the travel of fewer than two dozen Saudi officials accused of carrying out the killing.
On Monday, the State Department publicly barred 16 individuals, as well as their immediate family members, from entering the United States for their role in the killing. The 16 people, however, were already barred from traveling to the United States under a previous sanction.
In response to criticisms from Democrats, Pompeo said the Trump administration was “continuing to pursue facts” and could take action in the future. Lawmakers expressed exasperation given that Khashoggi was killed in October.
On Israel, Pompeo was also asked multiple times whether the U.S. would support the country’s unilateral annexation of the West Bank, something previous U.S. administration have opposed but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently vowed to do. Pompeo refused to weigh in, saying “I’m not going to engage in this conversation.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the news outlet that interviewed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It was Fox Business Network, not Fox Business News.