Trump Appointee Takes ‘Slash and Burn’ Approach to Key USAID Bureau

Peter Marocco, after tumultuous tours at Pentagon and State, is stopping the agency’s newest division in its tracks, critics claim.

Dockers unload U.S. humanitarian aid in Sudan
Dockers unload humanitarian aid provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development at Port Sudan, Sudan, on June 5, 2018. Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images

Peter Marocco, a Trump political appointee hired in early July by the U.S. Agency for International Development to run its conflict prevention bureau, is seeking to ramp up funding for programs to defend Christian minorities while shortchanging initiatives designed to help countries such as Bosnia and Ukraine survive transitions to democracy.

The effort—if successful—would mark a dramatic shift in priorities for USAID’s new Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization, launched last year to promote peace building and conflict prevention in countries undergoing political transition. Marocco’s effort to rewrite the bureau’s mandate and slash its overall funding not only threatens to hamstring the new bureau’s operations, former officials say, but it could put USAID on a collision course with leading Democrats and Republicans in Congress who helped drive the creation of the conflict prevention bureau to nurture delicate political transitions.

This article is based on interviews with more than 20 former and current U.S. officials, congressional staffers, and outside experts, most of whom only agreed to speak on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of internal administration deliberations.

Since taking up his post as assistant to the administrator, Marocco has held up funding for scores of transitional initiatives, including a program in Ukraine aimed at countering Russian efforts to destabilize the country’s democratic government. At the same time, he has maintained support for programs favored by the White House, including an initiative to promote peace in Colombia and a plan backed by Vice President Mike Pence to protect religious minorities, particularly Christians and Yazidis, in Iraq.

Marocco has also expressed an interest in scaling back funding for the bureau. He has confided to colleagues that he is under pressure from the White House Office of Management and Budget to impose wide-ranging spending cuts.

In his first two months on the job, Marocco has sought to centralize control over the bureau’s activities, insisting that he personally approve all hires and sign off on thousands of contracts over $20,000—contracts previously authorized by USAID officials in the field. He has also asked his staff to compile reviews of staff members to ensure their work is consistent with his visions for the bureau.

“Stabilization and governance mean better security for the United States,” said Dave Harden, a former USAID assistant administrator and now managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group. “These cuts put us at greater risk.”

Marocco has tried to wield his budgetary knife with abandon. In late June, John Barsa, the acting director of USAID, announced a $356 million contribution to Sudan’s democratic transition, which included funds to support the country’s pandemic response and food-security initiatives.

The office has played a vital role over the past year in Sudan, where civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok is leading a transition to a democratic government after decades of military rule. Pence turned to the bureau to invest in programs aimed at protecting religious minorities, a move that fueled controversy after the vice president’s office meddled in aid funding and grant applications to reroute money to favored organizations working to protect Christian groups in the Middle East.

Shortly after Barsa’s announcement, Marocco proposed cutting funds for the Sudan program—an initiative that Barsa quickly shot down.

But Marocco has reinforced Pence’s call for greater action to protect religious minorities. He has proposed revising the mandate of a USAID program aiming at strengthening democratic institutions, promoting good governance and security in Nigeria. The new mandate would make the protection of religious minorities in Nigeria—which has struggled to contain Islamist extremists from such groups as Boko Haram and the Islamic State—a key priority.

Marocco also placed holds on the Global Reconciliation Fund, which supports international conflict mediation, and on $5 million for programs in Myanmar and Somalia from the Women, Peace, and Security fund, which seeks to comply with a United Nations Security Council resolution that promotes a larger role for women in peacemaking. He proposed that money, including Women, Peace, and Security funding for Somalia and Myanmar, be returned to the Treasury Department, according to one official. But a second official said the money for the women’s fund is ultimately expected to be allocated.

Since taking office, Marocco has ordered a major review of tens of millions of dollars in funding for the Office of Transition Initiatives, a critical congressionally mandated unit that seeks to help fledgling democracies take root and that accounts for more than half the bureau’s approximately $200 million annual budget. Every Office of Transition Initiatives program, Marocco recently told a congressional delegation, would have to be “scrutinized” to ensure it supported U.S. national security interests.

“He will say it’s about getting results and getting value for the taxpayers but he definitely has a slash and burn approach to foreign assistance,” said a U.S. official who worked with Marocco. “He’s doing everything he can to make himself look good to the White House looking like a money-saving hard charger.”

Marocco’s assignment to USAID caps a tumultuous career in President Donald Trump’s administration, where he rose through the ranks despite courting controversy in other federal agencies, as Politico has previously reported. Marocco faced criticism of mismanagement and creating toxic work environments during previous senior postings at the Commerce, Defense, and State department, according to six current and former U.S. officials who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity.

He served as the deputy assistant secretary of state in the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations until August 2019, and he then moved to the Pentagon, where he served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs.

A spokesperson for USAID did not respond to a lengthy list of questions, but she defended Marocco’s leadership.

“Pete Marocco brings a decade of experience serving in conflict zones to USAID. USAID is pleased to have him serve as Assistant to the Administrator and appreciates his role in launching the Bureau of Conflict Prevention and Stabilization,” USAID’s acting spokesperson Pooja Jhunjhunwala told Foreign Policy by email.

“His experience as the Senior Bureau Official for Conflict and Stabilization Operations at the Department of State, and most recent service as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs, adds to his leadership capabilities, as well as his experience in leading large scale rescue and resettlement operations for persecuted religious minorities,” she added.

Ahead of a report on conflict stabilization and prevention programs due to be sent to Capitol Hill later this month, Marocco has expressed skepticism about many of the bureau’s core programs, which are aimed at improving governance, peace building, and economic development. Instead, he favors hard security programs aimed at training and equipping U.S. allies in conflict zones.

He has frequently cited the White House “America first” 2017 National Security Strategy—which highlights the need to align U.S. financial assistance to fragile states with U.S. economic and security interests, and closely ties diplomacy and aid to work with the military—as a guide. “U.S. development assistance must support America’s national interests,” the 2017 strategy paper says.

He has called on staff to hire more U.S. veterans, expressing concern that the bureau has been biased against veterans—even though the department already has a preferential hiring program for veterans.

But critics say that he has interpreted the strategy too narrowly, noting that the same strategy underscores the importance of promoting good governance and sustainable development while countering violent extremism.

“Stable, prosperous, and friendly states enhance American security and boost U.S. economic opportunities,” the strategy paper reads. “Some of the greatest triumphs of American statecraft resulted from helping fragile and developing countries become successful societies.”

Marocco’s conduct has captured the attention of Congress, where leading lawmakers in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle—including Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Michael McCaul as well as Democratic Sens. Bob Menendez and Chris Coons and Rep. Eliot Engel—have championed the bureau’s role supporting governments at a critical juncture.

Marocco, according to one source, has sought to clamp down on bureau contacts with lawmakers, requesting access to his staff’s calendars to determine whether they have penciled in any telephone calls to congressional staffers.

Last week, Marocco provided a pair of briefings to staffers of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committees to address mounting concerns about the direction of the bureau. During the Senate briefing, Marocco expressed frustration with the transitions office and said he intended to remake its mission statement. He singled out the Ukraine program, telling staffers that it did not align with U.S. national security goals.

Following a heated exchange, Marocco cut short the call and hung up, telling staffers that he had only allotted 45 minutes for the conversation, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Marocco’s arrival has further dampened sagging morale at USAID, officials say, after a spate of controversial Trump loyalists came to the agency after the departure of former Administrator Mark Green in April. Green’s acting successor, Barsa, has publicly defended three of the new appointees who faced criticism over controversial remarks and policy positions, including Deputy Chief of Staff Bethany Kozma, Deputy White House Liaison Merritt Corrigan, and religious freedom advisor Mark Lloyd. (Corrigan, who tweeted in 2019 that “female empowerment was a civilizational calamity,” was ousted from her job in early August.)

Marocco’s handling of the Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization has echoes of his previous controversial tours at the Pentagon. Two U.S. officials told Foreign Policy that Marocco centralized the office around himself, eliminated office directors, and arranged trips to Africa that weren’t approved through the Pentagon’s chain of command. In multiple incidents, Marocco also earned the ire of U.S. Africa Command chief Gen. Stephen Townsend, current and former officials told Foreign Policy, in one case attempting to stop the publication of an unclassified report that had already been approved by the combatant command and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

“He continues to demonstrate that he’s not a fit for these senior positions, and he keeps failing into higher-profile [roles],” said a U.S. official who was a colleague of Marocco.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch