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.
“We have heard nothing so far,” a senior Democratic official on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which must sign off on any funds that State wants to reallocate, told me. “What money are we talking about? For what purposes? What’s the timeline for this? It’s been weeks now, and we’ve asked multiple times, and we know nothing.” (A State Department spokesperson told me the department is still undergoing a “review of all Department of State and USAID FY 2017 foreign assistance funding on current agreements and awards” in order “to provide detailed data to the Secretary to determine the best way forward pursuant to the President’s direction.”)
In the Trump White House, a month and a half is more like a lifetime, meaning that many officials, voters, and reporters—not to mention Trump himself—have long since moved on from the momentary chaos. (Indeed, one outside adviser to the president’s 2020 campaign told me he didn’t even recall that Trump had pledged to cut off the aid.)
This routine has both drawbacks and benefits for the president. But for American taxpayers and citizens of other countries, the effects can be devastating. By impulsively announcing a policy, Trump often harms his chances of actually seeing it brought to life, given a directive’s typical lack of vetting. But because so much of the news cycle is driven by Trump’s off-the-cuff statements and tweets—and not necessarily the follow-through—his supporters are often left with the image of a president who has, in fact, slashed aid to Central America, even if the money is still flowing into the three countries in question. (It is.) As one senior Trump-campaign official told me last week, the president’s appeal is about “the fight,” not “the resolution.”
Since assuming office, Trump has issued many private demands to aides that have either been slow-walked or altogether ignored. But when the president dictates those spontaneous orders publicly, officials are suddenly accountable to a much broader audience—at least in theory—to make them a reality.
Take an early morning in July 2017, when Trump tweeted that he was banning transgender individuals from serving in the military. According to two former White House officials, who asked for anonymity to share private conversations, Trump tweeted news of the ban from the residence shortly after a phone call with a handful of senior aides, in which the president had broached the topic, but agreed to wait and discuss it with the aides and other Defense Department officials in the Oval Office that afternoon. “We had literally just spoken to him about holding off on a decision and having a conversation later that day, maybe even bringing in Mattis and McMaster for it,” one of the sources recalled. “But then he tweeted it, and there wasn’t really any easy or effective way to walk it back.” (White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders declined to comment on the record for this story.)
On April 12, nearly two years after Trump’s order-by-tweet, and after prevailing in four court battles, the Pentagon officially implemented a policy that bars anyone diagnosed with gender dysphoria or who has undergone a sex change from enlisting in the armed forces. The president, meanwhile, has not tweeted about the topic at all since that summer morning in the residence.
This cycle is a source of frustration among many of the aides tasked with trying to bring the president’s impulsive public demands to life. Even if Trump fixates on an entirely different issue the next day—perhaps something gleaned from that morning’s episode of Fox & Friends or the previous night’s Hannity—multiple officials across the federal government are still left to allocate resources and finagle some sort of response. (He is the president, after all.) Sometimes that means containing the fallout of Trump’s hastiness by walking back a decision, but doing so in an obsequious manner.
In December 2018, Trump took to Twitter to announce the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria—a decision that blindsided his own generals, Congress, and American allies. Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned the next day. The officials who stuck around were eventually able to coax a walk-back from Trump—an “immediate withdrawal” shifted to an agreement to keep 400 troops deployed in the country indefinitely. But even as they managed to persuade the president to soften his stance, they didn’t dare suggest that his initial instincts had been ill-advised. In January, four Americans were killed by an Islamic State suicide bomber just one month after Trump tweeted that ISIS had been defeated, and Vice President Mike Pence remained insistent that “the caliphate has crumbled.”
Beyond finding some way to make these pronouncements happen, or gently push back on them, government officials have a third, if rarer and riskier, approach: Ignore the president’s directives altogether. “If it was a tweet that could conceivably be about another agency, normally those things would just kind of be policy pronouncements that would steer toward—not a slow death, necessarily, but a general opinion of the president,” a former White House official told me. “We felt like we could kind of sit quietly on those.”
Consider one early morning in March, when Trump broke his silence on the national conversation around Jussie Smollett. The Empire actor alleged he had been the victim of a hate crime, alleging that two white men had tied a noose around his neck, poured bleach on his head, and shouted “This is MAGA country” on the streets of Chicago. Smollett was eventually charged with filing a false police report and, to the surprise of many, released with all charges dropped. “FBI & DOJ to review the outrageous Jussie Smollett case in Chicago. It is an embarrassment to our Nation!” the president tweeted. When I asked a Justice Department spokeswoman whether DOJ was in fact reviewing Smollett’s case, she declined to comment. An FBI spokesperson didn’t respond to multiple emails about the case. And when I asked the White House why the president had tweeted this—had he received assurances that investigations had been opened?— Sanders did not respond.
In March 2017, linking to a Politico article that showed a photo contradicting Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s claim that she’d never met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, the president tweeted: “I hereby demand a second investigation, after Schumer, of Pelosi for her close ties to Russia, and lying about it.” Grandiose language aside, nothing seemed to come of that unusually formal tweet, either. I asked one of the former White House officials whether anyone in the administration had attempted to follow up on the issue. “No,” the source said. “Doubt anyone did. The ‘demand’ would be of DOJ.” When asked how the department had reacted to the president’s tweet, if at all, the DOJ spokeswoman again declined to comment.
But for law-enforcement agencies to actually probe the Smollett case, or examine Pelosi’s interactions with Russian officials—well, it’s likely that was never really Trump’s point. As with the president’s claim that the U.S. had ended all aid to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, Trump’s exhilaration stemmed from his projection of toughness, not necessarily the fine print. As one of the former White House officials put it to me, Trump’s fitful orders are more about “venting” and “public messaging” than goal-setting. “Although he wishes the ‘demands’ would come true,” the source explained, “that’s secondary and perhaps not even expected.”
“Whether Trump even cares about this in six months, who knows,” said the Senate Appropriations Committee senior official, about the Central American funding debacle. “But we’re the ones that have to try and fix it.”
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