On March 29, during a weekend jaunt to Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump announced a major policy decision that surprised top-ranking officials in several government agencies. The United States was cutting off aid to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, the president said. Never mind that Trump lacked the authority to unilaterally scrap and redirect the funds in question; his decision was sure to please supporters such as the Fox News host Laura Ingraham, who had previously argued that one of the only ways to stop the “border crush” is to threaten a “foreign aid cut-off.”
Stunned State Department officials hurried to put together a statement that evening. The letter promised to “[carry] out the president’s direction and [end] FY 2017 and FY 2018 foreign assistance programs for the Northern Triangle. We will be engaging Congress as part of this process.” A similar situation played out in January 2017, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection was sent into a frenzy trying to implement Trump’s Muslim ban seven days after he took office.
A month and a half has passed since the president’s Central America announcement, and according to lawmakers and aides, the administration is not advancing the issue. Senator Patrick Leahy, who serves as the ranking member of the subcommittee that funds foreign aid, told me that this was the inevitable result of an “impulsive and illogical” decision by the president. “It caught the State Department and USAID by surprise, and they have been scrambling to figure out how to limit the damage it would cause,” Leahy said.