White House mulls slimmed-down foreign aid cuts package

Pompeo said to urge Trump not to use budgetary end-run

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly urged President Donald Trump to back away from a plan to rescind more than $4 billion in foreign aid previously approved by Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly urged President Donald Trump to back away from a plan to rescind more than $4 billion in foreign aid previously approved by Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 20, 2019 at 2:14pm

A Trump administration plan to do an end-run around Congress and cancel more than $4 billion in previously approved foreign aid funds could be scaled back, after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged President Donald Trump to back away from the idea in a phone call Monday night.

Details of the conversation between Pompeo, Trump and acting White House budget chief Russell Vought were shared by several individuals close to the foreign aid sector. A senior administration official declined to comment, other than to say it was a private conversation.

Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney — who has been advocating for canceling the unspent funds — was not on the call, according to people familiar with the discussion. It’s still possible Mulvaney could weigh in and convince the president to move forward with an aggressive cuts package.

The senior administration official said the president as of Monday night was still weighing the entire package of proposed cuts to unspent State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development funds. 

Stakeholders expected the White House would formally submit the cuts package to Congress this week, which would trigger a freeze on the funds and make it difficult for lawmakers to save them from expiring because the end of the fiscal year is a little over a month away.

It is possible a rescissions package could still be sent to Capitol Hill, including one much smaller than originally planned. One option under discussion would limit the proposal to canceling hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to Pakistan and the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. 

Various permutations of a rescissions plan are still being debated within the administration and with House and Senate leaders, a person with knowledge of the discussions said. The State Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance declined to comment.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Trump said he was still reviewing potential options on the foreign aid cuts.

“We should let people know sooner than a week,” he said.

The 1974 budget law that created the current rescissions process allows the president to freeze spending on certain programs for 45 days of a continuous legislative session, while lawmakers weigh whether to approve the proposed cancellations.

But given authority to spend the funds would lapse anyway after Sept. 30, there is little they appear able to do to save them. However, some contractors and aid groups who work with State and USAID are discussing the possibility of suing the Trump administration for injunctive relief. 

Lawmakers, administration at odds

Lawmakers and the administration are at odds over whether it is even legal to block the funds for the remainder of the fiscal year when the 45 day period does not expire until after Sept. 30. The Government Accountability Office concluded in December that such a move would violate the 1974 law as it would nullify a requirement that Congress approve any such cuts during that period, or the money must be released.

Reports of the potential cuts package have sparked concerns among Democrats as well as GOP lawmakers including Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and Senate State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, who is close to Trump personally.

Speaking to reporters Sunday in New Jersey where he was vacationing, Trump suggested the $4 billion rescission package was close to finished but also said there was room to negotiate.

“We’ll negotiate it out but you know I’ve cut back a lot on countries,” the president said. “We give billions of dollars to countries that don’t even like us. … We just put a package of about additional $4 billion in and in some cases I could see it both ways. In some cases, these are countries that we should not be giving to.”

Paul M. Krawzak, Kellie Mejdrich and John T. Bennett contributed to this report.