Trump’s Defense-Heavy Budget Plan Sets Up Showdown With State Dept.

Will Rex Tillerson resist a plan to gut the State Department?

Exxon Mobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson addresses a keynote speech during the World Gas Conference in Paris on June 2, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ERIC PIERMONT        (Photo credit should read ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images)
Exxon Mobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson addresses a keynote speech during the World Gas Conference in Paris on June 2, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ERIC PIERMONT (Photo credit should read ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump stunned U.S. diplomats and many security experts on Monday as he pledged what he called a “historic increase” of $54 billion in military spending to be offset by cuts to the State Department and other federal agencies.

U.S. officials said Foggy Bottom would be required to send a plan to the White House within 48 hours to cut as much as 30 percent of its budget, a bold proposal that would force the elimination of foreign assistance programs and a massive reorganization of the State Department.

White House budget plans are merely the first volley in negotiations between the Oval Office and federal agencies, and later must win approval in Congress. But the broad outlines of Trump’s first budget proposal have revived the suspicions of U.S. diplomats and foreign aid advocates that the White House, led by chief strategist Stephen Bannon, places little value on diplomacy, or the broader role of the State Department.

“The White House is essentially telling the State Department: Now you’re going to fit into a size 7 shoe, which toe would you like to cut off?” Peter Yeo, president of the Better World Campaign, a non-profit group that supports foreign aid, told Foreign Policy.

The White House on Monday said that it is preparing a budget plan that would boost defense spending by about 10 percent, or $54 billion, from current levels, though it wasn’t clear if the budget proposal would maintain current levels of additional Pentagon spending earmarked for the cost of overseas combat operations. In order to avoid increasing the deficit, the White House wants to make cuts in other areas of the government — the only places it politically can do so, since Trump ruled out touching programs like Medicare or Social Security.

But it’s far from clear that even that math works. Other agencies, like the State Department, are a fraction of the size of the Pentagon.

It would be both foolish and mathematically impossible for President Trump to offset other spending increases by slashing State Department and development budgets, which represent just one percent of all federal spending,” said Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware.

Federal agencies typically soften the hard edges of a president’s budget request, but the magnitude of Trump’s proposed cuts and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s lack of staff and experience could create an interagency mismatch.

“It’s challenging because Tillerson doesn’t have a lot of his people in place,” said Yeo, noting the absence of a deputy secretary of state. “What number will he settle on? Is he going to comply? I’ve never seen anything where you get 48 hours to respond.”

The State Department declined to comment on the size of Trump’s cuts, but acting spokesperson Mark Toner said Foggy Bottom is “working with the White House and OMB to review its budget priorities.”

“The Department remains committed to a U.S. foreign policy that advances the security and prosperity of the American people,” Toner said.

At any rate, any final budget must secure 60 votes in the Senate. Trump’s first effort has enraged many Democrats and left Republicans awaiting further details.

Democrats across the political spectrum have already blasted the proposal as dead on arrival and questioned the need for more military spending. The U.S. currently spends about $600 billion per year on defense, far more than any country in the world, while spending about $50 billion every year on foreign assistance and the State Department.(The proposed increase in defense spending is almost as much as Russia’s entire defense budget.)

Some Republicans, led by Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, criticized the budget plan for spending too little on defense, pointing to his own $640 billion Pentagon budget. “With a world on fire, America cannot secure peace through strength with just 3 percent more than President Obama’s budget,” he said.  

James Carafano, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation who worked for the Trump transition team, defended the deep cuts for Foggy Bottom, saying State Department funds have been squandered on “past administration’s pet projects including dozens of envoys.”

“There is a real question over whether these penny-packet programs did much more than having allowed the Obama administration to claim it was doing something on everything from counter radicalization to women’s equality,” he told FP.

At the same time, other senior Republicans in Congress remain strong advocates for the foreign aid budget, including Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C) and John Boozman (Ark.) and Reps. Kay Granger (Tex.) and Hal Rogers (Kent.).

Still, Trump’s criticism of U.S. foreign aid was a recurring theme of his campaign, and years of polling suggest the U.S. public has no clue how much Washington really spends on foreign assistance. Since 2009, the Kaiser Family Foundation has polled Americans about how much of the federal budget goes to foreign aid. Though the correct answer is less than 1 percent — a figure that includes military aid to Israel and Egypt — the average respondent thinks it is about 25 percent.

Playing on this theme of ineffective foreign assistance, Trump said on Monday that the U.S. has “spent $6 trillion” in the Middle East and “it’s a mess.” Meanwhile, he said, “we have potholes all over our highways and our roads.”

Trump’s proposal came as a group of 120 former generals and flag officers wrote to congressional leadership, as well as to Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. They warned that “elevating and strengthening diplomacy and development alongside defense are critical to keeping America safe.”

The group, which included ret. Gens. Keith Alexander, former head of the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command, and John Allen, NATO commander and Obama’s anti-ISIS envoy, noted Mattis’s own 2013 comments on cuts to diplomatic resources, when he was commander of CENTCOM: “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

While details have yet to emerge on the full extent of Trump’s requested budget toplines — the administration said it hoped to have a final budget by May — one agency is unlikely to share the pain: the Department of Homeland Security. DHS is expected to get billions of additional dollars, alongside the Pentagon, which officials have framed as in keeping with Trump’s “law and order” campaign theme. On Saturday, FP reported on internal documents outlining a plan to loosen hiring requirements for DHS’s Border Patrol that would cost more than $2.2 billion dollars and take at least 5 years.

Yet Foggy Bottom is critical to implementing the administration’s new immigration directives: The State Deptartment has to coordinate with countries like Mexico on repatriation of aliens, and other forms of assistance, such as funding for Mexico’s own security forces, play a direct part in boosting U.S. border security.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, said Monday that foreign assistance to Mexico and Latin America more broadly is “indispensable.”

“We spend less than one percent of the federal budget on these vital programs,” like training foreign police and military to interdict drug traffickers and criminal networks in Latin America that target the U.S., he told FP.