President Donald Trump’s budget chief, Mick Mulvaney, told reporters at the White House Thursday that the president is intentionally redefining U.S. foreign policy priorities, changing from a focus on “soft power” — diplomacy, participation in international institutions and cultural exchanges — to a laser focus on “hard power” with a big boost to military spending.
Asked about the impact of cuts to foreign aid to people suffering from famine and conflict around the world, Mulvaney said it should come as a surprise to no one that the president plans to spend more money at home and less money abroad, as he promised during the election campaign. But this fundamental shift in spending priorities has drawn swift criticism from a number of Republican and Democratic members of Congress.
Watch: White House Official: Trump Is Sending a Message With Budget
Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“Even the military doesn’t think that would be a good idea. Of course, foreign aid is less than 1 percent of the budget anyway. But even the military will tell you that if we don’t have a diplomatic outreach, what’s going to happen — that [void] will be filled by the Russians and the Chinese,” he told VOA.
Republican Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee said his team remains in close contact with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to discuss how he believes he can accomplish the State Department’s work with this budget.
“While the administration proposes a budget, ultimately it is the role of Congress to dispose it and fund government,” Corker said. “I believe we can strike an appropriate balance that recognizes the critical role of diplomacy in keeping our military out of harm’s way and appropriately advancing our nation’s interests while ensuring taxpayer dollars are used in the most efficient and effective manner.”
Tillerson: Budget not sustainable
Tillerson was asked about the budget cuts at a news conference in Japan during his trip to Asia.
“The level of spending that the State Department has been undertaking, particularly in the past year, is simply not sustainable,” he said. The new secretary of state added that current spending reflects the “level of conflicts that the U.S. has been engaged in around the world as well as disaster assistance.” He said in the future, the U.S. will be engaging in fewer conflicts.
Asked about the percentage of cuts to the State Department and foreign aid, Acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters Thursday that overall cuts amount to 31 percent. Asked to explain Tillerson’s comments that the U.S. will save money by being in fewer wars, Toner said the U.S. has been at war for 16 years now, and that means a lot of secondary costs.
Long budget process
Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan reminded critics that when a president submits a budget, it is a blueprint, the beginning of a long process in which Congress has a critical role to play. Ryan praised Trump for aiming to reduce wasteful spending.
But even some conservative members of Congress who are known to be staunch advocates for cutting government spending rejected the idea of slashing foreign aid and U.S. diplomatic programs, including Republican Representative Ted Yoho of Florida.
“At a time when American leadership is needed more than ever, we must continue to invest in the International Affairs Budget. … This will allow for necessary reforms in our international aid programs while not sacrificing our international security or economy for splashy headlines that say we are cutting American foreign aid, which will ultimately do nothing to address our current debt crisis, and creating yet another vacuum by the lack of American leadership which will be filled by most likely a foe to our country and our ideals.”
Representative Elliot Engel of New York is the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“Every normal program that we’re used to, that we took for granted, is in jeopardy — it’s like cutting the calf, cutting the bone, cutting the leg. There’s nothing there, and it’s just a real shame,” he said.
“One of the things President Trump said during the campaign was chiding President Obama he was weak and the United States was weak in international affairs — well how are we going to look now? How are we going to look now with a 30 percent or one-third cut so the United States cannot do the kinds of things it has been going to do,” he added.
Democratic Representative Brad Sherman of California said the cuts would hurt some of the president’s own priorities, including his calls for “extreme vetting” of any foreigners who want to live in the United States.
Cuts would hurt Trump priorities
“We’re told by the president that he’s going to have extreme vetting — trying to do extreme vetting with extremely little money is extremely stupid,” Sherman said.
Engel added: “The State Department issues over 10 million visitor visas every year. We need people coming here for business, for trade, for tourism, for investment, and they get well over 15 million applications — that’s 15 million decisions. If you have one mistake, you could have a terrorist incident. That’s the importance we place on those officers that issue visas.”
Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware added his voice to the criticism:
“To dramatically increase spending on defense and to significantly cut spending on the diplomats and development professionals who often work hand in glove with our Defense Department in difficult and dangerous parts of the world like Iraq and Afghanistan is unwise,” he said. “I think it shows an over-reliance on the military and an under-appreciation of the power and the effectiveness of diplomacy.”
Liz Schrayer is president and CEO of the U.S Global Leadership Coalition, a nonprofit group that promotes U.S. diplomacy. She said she was encouraged by the swift public outcry on Capitol Hill.
“So we’re seeing a reaction at a bipartisan level from very conservative members of the Congress to very progressive members of Congress that are already reacting in just the few hours that this budget has been out by saying, ‘No this is not where we’re heading and we’re not going to accept it.’”
The White House will provide more budget details in May. Current funding for the U.S. government expires April 28.
Congressional Correspondent Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.