It's bad enough that the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development are victims of the government shutdown, given that America's diplomats are currently in great demand. Now, President Donald Trump and other top officials are singling out foreign aid funding and arguing that money would be better spent on the southern border. If Trump tries to redirect foreign aid funding to build his wall, he would be undermining security both at home and abroad.
Trump's recent targeting of foreign aid money in the context of the wall funding debate has alarmed lawmakers and the international development community. They suspect that if Trump can't get his wall money by declaring a national emergency and raiding military construction accounts, he will start looking for another target. Last summer, as The Post reported, Trump's Office of Management and Budget wrote a memo threatening to take back billions of dollars in unobligated foreign aid funding that Congress appropriated.
"Congress decides how taxpayer money is spent. That's the law, and we expect the administration to follow it," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., told me. "If I get even a whiff that State Department money might be diverted to pay for the president's silly wall, the Foreign Affairs Committee will have the responsible officials in front of us so fast your head will spin."
Engel and others have watched with alarm as Trump and other officials have staged a series of attacks on foreign aid this week and last. At his Jan. 2 Cabinet meeting, Trump claimed (inaccurately) that Democrats "want $12 billion additional for foreign aid," which he described as "a lot."
"So they're going to give $54.4 billion in foreign aid, but they want $12 billion more than that in foreign aid, but they won't approve $5.6 billion for a wall that's going to pay for itself almost on a monthly basis," Trump said.
On Jan. 5, Trump tweeted that Democrats were demanding foreign aid increases while refusing to fund border security. The same day, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel claimed (inaccurately) in an op-ed that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's budget plan "would waste taxpayer money on ineffective and inefficient international programs, increasing foreign aid to a whopping $54 billion."
As The Post's Fact Checker pointed out, Trump and McDaniel's foreign aid comments are wrong and misleading in several ways. The Senate Appropriations Committee, led on this issue by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., unanimously approved a bill providing $54.4 billion for the entire State Department and USAID budget, of which foreign aid is just one part.
That $54.4 billion number was part of the bipartisan budget deal Congress sent to Trump in December and is roughly the same as last year. The number is $12 billion above the Trump administration's official budget request, but Congress has rejected Trump's attempts to slash State Department funding every year.
Regardless, the fact that Trump is suggesting foreign aid money would be better spent on the wall has the foreign aid community worried. Such a scheme would exacerbate the problems in foreign countries that form the root causes of the migration problem, said Liz Schrayer, president and chief executive of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, which advocates development and diplomacy.
"It's a false choice to pit border security funding - or any other national security tool - against the foreign assistance resources that America needs to stop threats before they reach our border," she told me. "Great nations can do both."
Before the shutdown, Trump threatened to withhold foreign aid as punishment specifically from the Central American countries from which migrants are escaping. Just last week, over two dozen evangelical and other Christian leaders wrote a letter to Trump and Vice President Mike Pence making the case for investment in foreign aid on moral and national security grounds.
"For one percent of the federal budget, development and humanitarian programs are cost-effective and ensure America remains a beacon of hope for those in need around the world," they wrote. "These programs help make the United States a great nation, and they also contribute to our security and continued prosperity."
Even if Trump doesn't actually try to reallocate State Department and USAID money to fund the wall, invoking border security to undermine support for development and foreign assistance funding is a worrisome trend. Pitting the safety of Americans against the stability and prosperity of people in other countries is a false choice. The latter bolsters the former.
Ivanka Trump understands this. She was set to host a huge event at the State Department this week to launch her Women's Economic Empowerment Initiative, which is her signature program to leverage U.S. diplomatic and development resources to advance economic opportunities for women all over the world.
Unfortunately, the event had to be postponed - due to the government shutdown.
Josh Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post.