A group of immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally are stopped in Granjeno, Texas on June. 25, 2014.
Photo by Eric Gay/AP

Trump tries, fails to defend his dangerous aid plan for Central America

It’s been about a week since Donald Trump announced plans to slash U.S. aid to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador – Central America’s “Northern Triangle” – over his dissatisfaction with migrants from the countries. The president offered his first public comments about his position over the weekend, and it didn’t go especially well.

“I’ve taken a lot of heat from the stupid people,” he said at a Republican Jewish Coalition event. Trump added, “The Democrats say, ‘How dare you do that. That money is used for all these good.’ But no, it’s not. It’s largely stolen.”

Let’s take these two points one at a time. First, it’s true that the president’s policy has been widely panned as ridiculous, but to see the critics as “stupid people” is to revile quite a few officials who know far more about the subject than Trump does. Vox noted yesterday, for example, that five leading retired military officers who oversaw American operations in the region publicly denounced the president’s gambit.

The former four-stars were all the chiefs of US Southern Command, the military organization that orchestrates operations in Latin America and the Caribbean, and served in that post at varying points throughout the previous three administrations. One, retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, was once rumored to be in consideration as Trump’s secretary of state.

According to them, Trump’s decision will not stop the flow of migrants trudging northward. On the contrary, it’ll only make things worse.

“Improving conditions in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador is a critical way to address the root causes of migration and prevent the humanitarian crisis at our border,” the retired soldiers, sailors, and Marines wrote on Monday. “Cutting aid to the region will only increase the drivers and will be even more costly to deal with on our border.”

Vox added that Kevin McAleenan, the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection echoed the sentiment late last year, arguing, “We also need to invest in Central America…. [B]oth on security and the economic front in Central America, we need to foster that and help improve the opportunities to stay at home.”

McAleenan, of course, will become Trump’s acting Homeland Security secretary tomorrow.

As for the president’s other point – aid to Northern Triangle doesn’t do a lot of good, so there’s no point in maintaining the aid – it’s pretty easy to prove how demonstrably wrong Trump is about this.

The Washington Post reported last week:

The United States has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years on programs aimed at bringing stability to one of the world’s most dangerous countries. Money has been spent to train police officers, fund after-school programs and improve local governance.

U.S. officials argued repeatedly that those programs were successful, and they offered the crime and migration statistics that they said proved their claim.

“What [El Salvador is] doing is working, both on the security front and on the economic opportunity front,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said in July.

In other words, Trump’s rhetoric is contradicted by data from the Trump administration – and assessments from an official the president now wants to lead the Department of Homeland Security.

Michael Gerson added last week that Trump’s position “reflects an authentic and alarming ignorance.” So long as the president sees those who tell him the truth as “stupid people,” that ignorance will persist.