ANKARA, Turkey – President Donald Trump's U.N. ambassador visited a UNICEF center providing emotional support for Syrian refugee children and asked how the U.S. could better care for their needs. Then her boss proposed ending all U.S. funding to the organization.
Trump's 31 percent budget cut to the State Department and U.S. overseas assistance would dramatically reverse decades of support for programs that Democrats and Republicans held up as vehicles for promoting U.S. values and helping the world's neediest. And it's putting American diplomats in the uncomfortable position of defending the nation's continued status as a world leader even as the Trump administration signals its priority is at home.
"It's starting the conversation," Nikki Haley, Trump's U.N. envoy, said of the White House's Tuesday budget proposal. "It doesn't mean that's where it will end up. He's going to have that conversation with Congress on where we should fall on this."
Haley said during a trip to Turkey that Trump "had to show some signs" of commitment to reducing the U.S. budget deficit and eliminating waste in federal spending. She suggested the damage would be mitigated by Congress, which is already pushing back on the cuts.
A day earlier, Haley watched refugee children play music at a UNICEF program in Jordan that provides support and life skills training. Asking Iraqi and Syrian refugees about their hopes for the future, she told them that Americans "believe in you, and we think you're meant for great things."
When Brig. Gen. Jehad Matar, head of Jordan's Syrian Refugee Affairs Directorate, said Jordan sought more U.S. support, Haley's answer was concise.
"That's why I'm here," she said.
At the camp, Haley was briefed on unmet needs by the U.N.'s humanitarian office and refugee agency — organizations whose U.S. accounts are eliminated in Trump's budget. American officials said they'll still receive some money through other accounts. Any such funding would likely be at far lower levels.
In all, Trump's budget cuts $780 million in U.S. payments to international organizations, and eliminates $1.6 billion in funding for climate change programs. There's also a $222 million cut to a global international fund for fighting AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and a steep cut to U.N. peacekeeping missions in far-flung and violent locales like Congo, South Sudan and Haiti.
The White House sent its budget to Congress as Trump flew from Israel to Italy on his first overseas trip as president. A key theme of Trump's trip is reassuring foreign leaders the U.S. is "back" after what Trump is trying to paint as years of decline for America's global prestige.
"He's going around now from country to country on the world stage, but he doesn't want us to put our money where our mouth is," Rep. Eliot Engel, the House Foreign Affairs Committee's top Democrat, told The Associated Press. "It's just so totally destructive."
Engel said he would work with Republican lawmakers — some of whom also oppose the cuts — to maintain funding levels as best as possible. Doug Pitkin, the State Department's budget director, acknowledged that Congress may dictate different spending levels.
"We intend to stick to those," Pitkin said.
Echoing Trump's campaign mantra, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the budget released Tuesday puts "America First" by prioritizing "the wellbeing of Americans," their security, borders and prosperity. In anticipation of a massive cost-cutting overhaul, the State Department has already started to reshape its workforce and will reduce staffing levels through attrition and targeted buyouts. The budget projects almost 2,000 job cuts by September 2018.
Haley said America's status as the global humanitarian leader is "not going to stop."
However, she said there is room to cut "fat around the edges" from nonprofit organizations, the U.N. and the State Department. She insisted Trump cares about refugees.
"He gets the fact he's got a massive deficit he's got to work on. He gets the fact he's got to build up his military, and he gets the fact we've got to walk that line in the middle," Haley said. "My job is to help them walk that line."
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.
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