U.S. diplomats and aid workers have been afraid that President Donald Trump wants to sideline them in favor of the military.
On Monday, they got even more reason for concern.
The Trump administration is developing a federal budget proposal the White House says will give defense programs a $54 billion boost while cutting funding to the State Department and foreign aid programs.
Lawmakers, foreign embassies and others were scrambling to get the details of the budget plan Monday.
Officials at the State Department declined to share their budget reduction targets — it was not clear if the guidance had yet been delivered to them — but some reports forecast as much as 30 percent reduction, a devastating blow.
The proposed cuts are the latest sign that Trump is bent on pursuing hard military power, not diplomacy or other “soft” tools, as the main vehicle to advance U.S. interests abroad.
It’s a stance that could put Trump at odds with the Pentagon and his own defense secretary, James Mattis, who once told lawmakers: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”
Critics of the Trump budget plans noted that cuts to foreign aid could damage the U.S. standing in numerous strategically important countries. Beneficiaries of American non-military aid include Pakistan and Afghanistan, which are critical to U.S. anti-terrorism efforts.
More than 120 retired generals and admirals sent a letter on Monday to the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, urging them not to cut foreign aid and State.
“The military will lead the fight against terrorism on the battlefield, but it needs strong civilian partners in the battle against the drivers of extremism — lack of opportunity, insecurity, injustice, and hopelessness,” the military leaders wrote in the letter, which was distributed by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. “We urge you to ensure that resources for the International Affairs Budget keep pace with the growing global threats and opportunities we face. Now is not the time to retreat.”
Funding for the State Department and foreign assistance falls under what’s called the “international affairs budget,” a category that doesn’t include the military. Those programs overseas — including everything from embassy security to pandemic prevention to refugee assistance via the United Nations — cost roughly $58.8 billion. The vast majority of that figure goes to the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. While polls show many Americans believe the U.S. spends a quarter of the federal budget on foreign aid, it’s actually less than 1 percent.
On a call with reporters, officials with the Office of Management and Budget noted that most federal agencies will be expected to trim their budgets. But they singled out foreign aid programs in particular, indicating the administration believes that other countries are merely taking advantage of the United States.
“This budget expects the rest of the world to step up in some of the programs this country has been so generous in funding in the past,” one official said on the call.
James Stavridis, a retired admiral briefly floated as a possible secretary of state for Trump, said trying to separate foreign aid from other parts of the national security apparatus was short-sighted.
“You need the hard power, and I applaud a strong allotment to the Department of Defense, but to do that on the back of soft power, which is also part of our national security, is simply a mistake,” Stavridis said. “This will reduce our abiity to build a bench of allies and that bench is critically imortant in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya [and] counter-piracy missions.”
Mark Toner, State’s acting spokesman, declined to give specifics about what divisions of his department could be affected. “The department remains committed to a U.S. foreign policy that advances the security and prosperity of the American people,” Toner said in a statement.
But other State officials said they were girding for a fight in Congress and beyond. “It’s a bad sign, but we’ll see what actually happens in practice,” one department official said. “No one’s gonna stand pat.”
Democrats in Congress argue that cuts to foreign aid and diplomacy will actually undermine U.S. national security by leading to more failing states in the developing world and fanning anti-Americanism.
“Foreign assistance is not charity. The aid we provide to countries around the world directly advances U.S. national interests by fostering a safer and more stable world,” said Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware. “Fortunately, members of Congress of both parties appreciate the value of foreign assistance to our foreign policy, and I’m confident Republicans and Democrats will work together to defend this small but vital sliver of federal spending.”
Some at the department hope that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, will be able to exert some influence on Trump. But so far, Tillerson appears unable to crack Trump’s inner circle, although an aide said the secretary was advised of the budget plans ahead of Monday’s announcement. He was due to meet with Trump on Monday afternoon. The Tillerson aide did not immediately respond when asked if the secretary agreed with the cuts.
The fact that Tillerson has yet to appoint a deputy secretary — his first choice, George W. Bush administration veteran Elliott Abrams, was vetoed by Trump — or fill many other top positions at the department has fueled suspicions at State that the department is intentionally being left to wither under Trump, possibly for budget-cutting reasons.
When counting all of its employees, from Foreign Service officers to local employees hired in embassies abroad, more than 75,000 people work for the State Department.
Alex Guillen contributed to this report.