SALT LAKE CITY — During the impeachment trial the president’s attorneys made it clear that he’s not a fan of foreign aid.
They argued that President Donald Trump’s distaste for handing over millions of taxpayer dollars to another country was central (initially) to his decision to withhold aid last year from Ukraine.
So it shouldn’t be shocking that Trump’s recent budget proposal slashes foreign aid by 21% or more than $40 billion. State Department and international aid programs would be cut by $3.7 billion, while disaster relief would be reduced by $3 billion. The budget would also dramatically reduce or eliminate aid to international organizations, including the United Nations, according to various news accounts.
But the reports sounding alarms on cuts to foreign aid in one sentence, tone it down in the next, saying presidential spending plans are merely messaging by an administration and they seldom survive the political parsing of Congress. Trump’s latest proposal will be no exception.
“Like the president’s previous budgets, this year’s request is a waste of the paper it’s printed on. Proposing such reckless cuts to our critical foreign policy tools isn’t a serious proposal,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., said in a statement. “That’s how we know that this budget is nothing but red meat for the president’s political base. Congress will again reject this proposal in resounding bipartisan fashion.”
Even the White House Office of Management and Budget’s acting director acknowledged the spending plan is dead on arrival.
“They have certainly ignored this president’s savings proposals for the first three years. That may very well continue this year. But it would be unfortunate,” Russell Vought told reporters at a briefing earlier this week.
Trump’s “America First” approach to foreign policy tapped into sentiment that the government was doing more than its fair share in world affairs and other nations should step up.
But public survey research by the Brookings Institution found attitudes were largely based on perceptions of how much government spends on foreign aid and how that aid is spent.
Public opinion polls find many people believe the U.S. spends around 20% of its annual budget on foreign aid. Under that perception, 49% to 59% of Americans believe the government spends too much on foreign aid.
Foreign aid actually comprises 1% of the federal budget, according to the Congressional Research Service.
“Asked to ‘imagine that you found out that the U.S. spends 1%t of the federal budget on foreign aid,’ the number saying the U.S. spends too much drops 26%,” Brookings reported.
Support for foreign aid also rises when people are asked about how it’s spent. Large majorities support humanitarian aid that combats hunger, poverty, disease and other needs in impoverished areas of the world.
“Contrary to the Trump administration’s push to emphasize aid that serves U.S. interests, aid for strategic purposes is the type of assistance that Americans support the least,” the Brookings report said.
But strategic objectives have been the foundational rationale for U.S. foreign aid since the end of World War II, wrote Daniel Runde in 2017, when critiques of the Trump’s foreign policy and approach toward aid began surfacing in the president’s first year.
He said the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II was a hard sell to Congress and the American public. But its success and impact has reverberated for decades since it officially ended in 1953.
“The nations we aided have become some of our top trading partners and greatest allies, particularly in defense issues,” Runde wrote. “Five of these countries (Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands) remain in the top 15 of the U.S. trading partners and are members of NATO.”
‘Keeping American safe’
In an interview with NPR, Vought suggested many of the proposed cuts to foreign aid target wasteful spending, while increasing funding in other areas.
“For instance, we need to get rid of funding like the Bob Dylan statue in Mozambique or the NASA space camp in Pakistan or the professional cricket league in Afghanistan,” he said. “There is waste across the globe the taxpayers are funding, and that doesn’t mean that we can’t do both.”
Funds for disaster relief and to help refugees overseas, which would be consolidated into a new International Humanitarian Assistance account, would drop from $9 billion to $6 billion, The Washington Post reported.
“Even at $6 billion, we are still the largest donor in the humanitarian aid space,” said James Richardson, director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources at the State Department. “We’re really looking for the rest of the world to step up.”
The argument to cut waste has few opponents on either side of the political spectrum, according to the Council of Foreign Relations.
But critics of Trump’s latest proposal say the foreign aid cuts go beyond waste and imperil U.S. global leadership and national security when other countries such as China and Russia are also competing for influence beyond military might.
In a letter earlier this month to congressional leaders, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote that full funding for international affairs “is essential to keeping America safe in a complicated and dangerous world.”
In a handwritten note at the end of the letter, Mullen said “The more we cut the international affairs budget, the higher the risk for longer and deadlier military operations.”
Congressional and budget leaders expressed either criticism or faint praise for the overall spending proposal, blasting cuts or the overall $4.8 trillion price tag. And if last year’s response to Trump’s foreign aid cuts is any indication, the administration’s proposals for 2021 won’t fare well.
Facing bipartisan opposition to slashing $4 billion in foreign aid that Congress had already approved, the Trump administration scrapped the idea in August. Among the countries whose assistance was frozen was Ukraine. The $391 million in military aid, which was central to the impeachment inquiry into Trump, was released about a month later.