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Trump Stealthily Seeks to Choke Off Funding to U.N. Programs

Leaked emails and behind-the-scenes battles show how the administration, after failing to slash congressional aid, used bureaucratic levers to stifle money flows.

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses outside U.N. General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 25. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump addresses outside U.N. General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 25. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

In early July, a U.S. State Department political appointee fired off an email to the National Security Council detailing how to thwart Congress’s intent to fund a range of United Nations international aid programs opposed by White House conservatives, including initiatives benefiting Palestinian refugees and providing reproductive health services to impoverished women.

The author of the email, Mari Stull, a senior advisor in State’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs, claimed the administration had the latitude to eliminate funding for programs that clash with White House priorities. She suggested that the administration could use a number of bureaucratic levers—such as imposing onerous accounting and reporting requirements—to kill off programs the White House opposes while Congress was still funding them.

The email, obtained exclusively by Foreign Policy, provides a snapshot of a wider effort by the White House and its appointees in the State Department to starve America’s foreign assistance programs through bureaucratic maneuverings, even though those programs retain broad bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

For several months, senior Trump appointees in the State Department have engaged in fierce behind-the-scenes battles with Congress over employing this tactic on funding for key human rights and women’s issues programs at the U.N., according to State Department officials and congressional aides familiar with the matter.

“They have tried every trick in the book to slash funding for diplomacy and foreign aid, but so far they have failed,” said one Democratic Senate aide. “It’s come down to trying to micromanage the uses of the funds.”

At the end of the fiscal-year deadline, which is Sept. 30, the State Department appointees relented and agreed to abide by Congress’s directives to fund most programs, but they still plan to withhold more than $25 million in funding for U.N. human rights programs in violation of U.S. treaty obligations to the U.N., the State Department officials and congressional aides say.

They are also trying to control more than $10 million in voluntary contributions to U.N. human rights and women’s rights programs by restricting what the recipients can spend the money on, these sources say.

The cuts include more than $7 million in contributions to the U.N.’s regular budget to cover costs for the U.N. Human Rights Council, and more than $16 million for programs run by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which oversees U.S.-backed investigations into human rights violations from Myanmar to Syria and North Korea.

At one point last month, the senior State Department appointees pushed to strip all U.S. funding from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and allocate it instead to the Organization of American States, a regional forum for North and South American governments. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s office ultimately axed that plan, according to State Department officials familiar with internal deliberations.

The battle between the State Department and administration reflect Trump’s dramatic turn against multilateral institutions, which was on full display at the U.N. General Assembly last week. There, Trump said in a speech the United States is undertaking a major review of foreign assistance.

“The United States is the world’s largest giver in the world, by far, of foreign aid. But few give anything to us,” Trump said. “Moving forward, we are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends. And we expect other countries to pay their fair share for the cost of their defense.”

Meanwhile, the administration has also long pressed for draconian cuts in all U.S. foreign assistance, including more than a billion dollars in U.N. peacekeeping and humanitarian aid programs. At each turn, Congress rebuked the proposed cuts following fierce resistance and criticism.

The congressional aides say they recognized that some of the new cuts from the administration make sense: for example, the administration’s plans to cut funding for the Human Rights Council following the U.S. decision to withdraw from the body in June. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley justified the move at the time by accusing the council of anti-Israel bias and hypocrisy for allowing well-known human rights violators, such as Russia, China, and Egypt, on the council.

But they say that the administration’s failure to fund the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights—which is separate from the Human Rights Council—could constitute a violation of a U.S. treaty obligation to the U.N.

A State Department spokeswoman, in an email response, denied the administration was micromanaging funds, calling the assertion “not accurate.” She added that the department consulted with Congress on “multiple occasions” and is “not deviating” from the funding amounts Congress allotted.

The Trump administration also wants to exercise greater control over the way the U.N. spends voluntary U.S. contributions. For instance, the United States is seeking to determine that the $7 million in discretionary, voluntary contributions it provides to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) will not be spent on programs that scrutinize Israel’s human rights record or compile a list of companies that do business in Israel settlements. Israel and the United States have vociferously opposed the creation of the database, which they say serves as a boycott.

The administration intends to apply the so-called Mexico City policy to the more than $8.5 million funds for U.N. Women, a U.N. agency dedicated to gender equality and women’s empowerment. The policy, referred to by critics as the global gag rule, prevents U.S. aid money from going to organizations that provide abortion services, counsel about abortion options, or advocate liberalizing abortion laws. But money will be available for programs that promote women’s economic empowerment, combat violence against women, and promote a greater role for women in resolving conflicts.

In response, the department spokeswoman said: “This year, the intended uses for the funding being provided to OHCHR and UN Women does not include activities that are contrary either to U.S. national interest or administration priorities.”

That tactic was showcased in the internal email obtained by FP. The email, dated July 2 and sent by the State Department senior advisor, Stull, acknowledges the administration is “obliged to contribute” to programs appropriated by Congress despite its efforts to zero out U.N. contributions. But she says that the administration has the latitude to spend the money in a way that can “further the President’s policies and Secretary’s priorities.

“We have the latitude to require accounting, reporting, transparency, benchmarks, etc.,” she wrote. “We can further EXCLUDE any funding to be used for any programs or projects in conflict [with] the Administration’s policies.”

She singled out programs that assist Palestinians or support “sexual reproductive health services” for cuts. She also expressed a commitment to cut funding for “Open Society Network” programs, an apparent reference to billionaire George Soros’s pro-democracy foundation.

State Department officials said they were puzzled by Stull’s reference to the Open Society Foundations, saying it does not receive any direct financial support from her department. The State Department said it does not comment on or confirm the authenticity of allegedly leaked documents.

The email also shows how the Domestic Policy Council, a group of White House officials that reports to one of Trump’s closest aides, Stephen Miller, has expanded its influence over the State Department, installing DPC members in several middle management posts at the department and exercising influence over policies on refugees and international organizations.

“Next step … is to convene a tight meeting w[ith] DPC, NSC, and critical stakeholders fr[om] interagency and just hammer out new priorities down the list,” Stull wrote, appearing to refer to the Domestic Policy Council and National Security Council.

Last month, Politico reported the director of the Domestic Policy Council, Andrew Bremberg, is leaving the White House at the end of the year and will be Trump’s nominee as ambassador to the U.N. Mission in Geneva, a position that requires Senate confirmation.

After months of internal disputes and pushback with Capitol Hill, it appears Congress largely got its way on most of the money it allotted for U.N. funding. But beyond the hard numbers and cuts to the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner, the administration also wants to micromanage what the U.N. can spend on women’s issues.

Bathsheba Crocker, a former assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs under the Obama administration, said attaching strings to U.S. funding sets a bad precedent and could hamper the U.N. organizations’ ability to spend money where needed.

“If every country in the world said I like spending on X and don’t like Y, you just tie the U.N. up in knots,” she said. “You end up with a bunch of confusing little pots of money that then won’t add up to a greater whole.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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