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Analysis: Expect Awkward Moments When Trump Heads to Peru

Democrats likely to cringe when president talks of protecting ‘U.S. way of life’

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and President Donald Trump at the White House in May 2017. The two leaders will meet again next weekend at the Summit of the Americas in Peru. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and President Donald Trump at the White House in May 2017. The two leaders will meet again next weekend at the Summit of the Americas in Peru. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Nervous Democratic members will watch from afar next week when President Donald Trump heads to Peru for a gathering of North, Central and South American leaders he has harshly criticized. They know the diplomat in chief will pull few punches, something senior aides confirmed Thursday.

Trump is slated to participate in the Summit of the Americas April 13-14, putting him face-to-face with heads of state for whom he has had tough words and threats in recent days. In short, expect things to be plenty awkward in Lima.

Senior administration officials made clear Thursday he intends to discuss a number of potentially prickly issues with Central and South American leaders. They used the same kind of tough rhetoric on a call previewing the trip, saying he will press them on “economic aggression” in the Western Hemisphere by some of their governments and investors like China, as well as doing more to combat “transnational criminal organizations.”

He also will bring up his priority to install policies to “protect the U.S. homeland,” one senior official said. The official signaled Trump will use the type of nationalist rhetoric that helped him get elected. The president plans to talk about protecting “the U.S. way of life,” the official said. Language like that makes many of America’s allies nervous, and Trump’s critics will hear it as code for worries that immigrants are changing life in the U.S.

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Asked if the president will be combative in pushing his counterparts on hard-line immigration policies, one senior official predicted Trump “will speak his mind.” Trump has done just that when appearing alongside other world leaders. Last May, he criticized Colombia’s high rate of coca production during a joint press conference with its president, Juan Manuel Santos.

House Foreign Affairs ranking member Eliot L. Engel is among those who will likely be watching Trump’s performance at the summit closely. The New York Democrat recently warned he sees the president — with his “America first” philosophy — engineering “America’s withdrawal from the world at a time when our leadership is needed more than ever.”

Engel and other Democrats — joined by some interventionist Republicans — have warned that Trump’s first two budgets proposed cutting foreign aid too deeply. Engel said late last month that cuts to things like global development aid and global education and pro-democracy programs, if implemented, would “undermine everything … that contributes to our country’s security — and frankly, it’s just heartless.”

Members of both parties believe U.S. dollars promote stability in developing countries and give Washington sway over leaders in places like Central and South America. Trump and many of his closest advisers, however, argue the United States gets little in return — saying most of those dollars should be spent at home.

“We spend billions of dollars in other countries maintaining their borders, and we can’t maintain our borders in our own country. Is there something a little bit wrong with that?” Trump said March 29 in Ohio.

“Things are changing, folks,” he told a friendly audience that day in Richfield. “Now is the time to rebuild our country, to take care of our people, and to fight for our great American workers for a change.”

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Other members, like Rep. Joaquin Castro, want to see Trump combat China’s growing influence in Central and South America, as well as “the situation in Venezuela,” which the Texas Democrat last month said “has grown more dire.”

What the president says next weekend in Peru about U.S. foreign aid and partnerships with some Central and South American countries will also be closely watched by members because of a pair of threats he made earlier this week.

Trump used a Tuesday morning tweet to warn leaders of Honduras and Mexico — both of whom are slated to attend the summit — that he was prepared to retaliate if a caravan of immigrants from the Central American that was traveling through America’s southern neighbor reached the U.S.-Mexico border.

Had the group entered the U.S. illegally, Trump tweeted he was considering cutting off U.S. aid to Honduras and terminating the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he says benefits Mexico. Trump also succeeded in slashing security and other aid to the Central American country, which is among a group in the region from which he and his team believe immigrants are “pouring” into the United States, bringing, as Trump put it in a recent tweet, “CRIME!”

The presidential bluster showed again how Trump is often tougher on America’s longtime partners and neighbors than on adversaries and rivals like Russia and China. As the caravan slowed, Trump took a victory lap on Wednesday and Thursday, claiming his threat moved Mexico’s government to act.

Expect Trump’s tough love for America’s neighbors to continue in Lima.

His dual threat to Honduras and Mexico this week was classic Trump: Pressure an individual or government to do his bidding, betting they will eventually or immediately give in. The president believes this worked with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, and he is trying to use a similar strategy here.

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Trump has a history, as the senior administration official put it Thursday, of speaking his mind to Central and South American leaders. Last May, after Colombia’s Santos did not bite when asked about his U.S. counterpart’s proposed southern border wall, Trump did.

“Walls work. Just ask Israel,” Trump said, apparently referring to its West Bank barrier. “They work. Believe me, they work.”

Democrats might cringe, but many Republican lawmakers will be cheering from afar.

One is Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, who said Thursday he supports Trump’s decision to request southern border-state governors send National Guard troops to the boundary with Mexico to help stop individuals from some countries participating in the summit from entering the United States.

“Congress has been derelict in its duty to secure the border,” Biggs said in a statement that used rhetoric similar to Trump’s. “This should be a top priority for Congress, and I will not give up the fight to preserve our nation by securing our border.”

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