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U.S. officials shield Ivanka Trump’s and Mike Pence’s projects in review of foreign aid

Weavers greet White House adviser Ivanka Trump during her tour of a manufacturing center of textiles and traditional crafts in Addis Ababa, Ethi­o­pia, on April 14.
Weavers greet White House adviser Ivanka Trump during her tour of a manufacturing center of textiles and traditional crafts in Addis Ababa, Ethi­o­pia, on April 14. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

The Trump administration has decided to shield the signature projects of White House adviser Ivanka Trump and Vice President Pence as it looks to cancel billions of dollars in foreign aid for other projects around the world, U.S. officials said.

In coming days, the White House is expected to send a proposal to Congress for returning billions of dollars of unspent foreign aid funds to the Treasury in a process known as rescission. Officials say they will safeguard funding for global health programs.

Because U.S. aid agencies often do not designate funds until the end of a fiscal year, the White House could claw back between $2 billion and $4 billion in foreign aid projects approved by Congress for fiscal years 2018 and 2019.

Senior Republicans and Democrats say the review threatens to undermine Congress’s authority to appropriate funds, but U.S. officials insist they are targeting only projects that are unnecessary or of questionable value.

The Office of Management and Budget is reviewing a vast array of programs but has already ruled out canceling funds for global health programs amid an outbreak of Ebola in Congo, Ivanka Trump’s Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative, and Pence’s programs for Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities in the Middle East.

Aid advocates criticized the move for attempting to protect the pet projects of the president’s inner circle.

“Our international affairs budget should go to the programs that save the most lives and go the furthest to make our planet safer — not just the ones with the Trump name on them,” said Scott Paul, the head of humanitarian policy at Oxfam America.

A senior U.S. official said it was appropriate for the White House to protect the programs it values most.

“Continuing to support Christians and other religious minorities as well as females across the world is something this administration has fought hard for and will continue to do,” said the official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because the proposal has not been sent to Congress yet.

Officials pointed to programs they opposed, such as a soccer camp in Guatemala, a space camp in Pakistan and solar panels in the Caribbean. They also said that if the money was so important for these programs, it already would have been spent. The proposal exemptions were first reported by CQ.

Aid advocates say a number of factors explain why the funding hasn’t been obligated in some accounts, such as a government shutdown and a delayed congressional appropriations process.

Several Republicans have said they oppose taking unspent money from programs already approved by Congress.

“The administration is coming back to Congress solely focused on one of the smallest parts of the federal budget — not surgically — but looking to cancel significant programs that impact our national security. It just doesn’t make sense for U.S. interests,” said Lester Munson, the former Republican staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Former Republican senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who remains involved in foreign policy issues, also said he opposed “going around Congress” and taking away funds appropriated for programs in the “Indo-Pacific, Africa and Eastern Europe.”

Another official said the president’s interest in the rescission package stems from his opposition to aid for the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Trump has withheld hundreds of millions of dollars of aid from those countries, saying they must do more to reduce migrant flows into the United States.

Some lawmakers critical of the move said that some of the aid that could be affected is designed to improve conditions in those countries, where high homicide rates have contributed to the exodus of people.

The programs that could be affected also include democracy support for Venezuela, Ukraine and Tibet; security initiatives in Kenya aimed at countering the militant group al-Shabab; and efforts to help countries being overwhelmed with refugees such as Bangladesh and Colombia. Ahead of its expected proposal to cancel funds, the White House has imposed daily limits on spending.

Once the Trump administration submits its proposal to Congress, there are three possible outcomes. Lawmakers could accept the proposal, which would promptly return the unspent money to the Treasury, or reject it, which would unfreeze the funds and allow the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to spend the money.

The most likely outcome, how­ever, is that Congress ignores the proposal, given the summer recess and a busy congressional agenda in September. In that case, the State Department and USAID may not have enough time to spend the unfrozen money before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30, and the funds would go back to the Treasury.

Last year, the Trump administration dropped a similar rescission proposal after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued against it amid bipartisan complaints in Congress that it undermined the legislative branch’s spending authority. In December, the Government Accountability Office opposed the notion of a rescission so late in the budget year and declared that the White House must provide enough time for “prudent obligation.”

This year, Congress’s opposition to a rescission appears to be just as strong as evidenced by a letter to the White House from top lawmakers this week.

“Slashing crucial diplomacy and development programming would be detrimental to our national security while also undermining Congress’s intended use for these funds,” lawmakers including Sens. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in the letter.

Ivanka Trump’s project aims to help women succeed as entrepreneurs, supporting vocational training in the tech and energy sector, as well as reintegrating victims of gender-based violence into the economy. Pence’s project has, among other things, directed funding to persecuted Christian and Yazidi communities in Iraq as part of a broader effort to rebuild areas liberated from the Islamic State.

Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.