Trump hits State Department in 'hard power' budget blueprint

Andrew BEATTY
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USAID sends humanitarian supplies to more than 100 countries

President Donald Trump proposed drastic cuts in spending on the arts, science, foreign aid and environmental protection Thursday, in a military-dominated budget blueprint that has already met fierce Congressional opposition.

The Republican leader -- translating hardline campaign promises into dollars-and-cents commitments -- proposed scrapping dozens of agencies and programs, from public broadcasting to bioscience, to pay for $52 billion in new military spending.

Trump described the plan as "a budget that puts America first" -- one that would help the military "win" and "set free" the dreams of Americans.

The Environmental Protection Agency -- which helps enforce air, water and other standards -- and the State Department would be the biggest losers, seeing their funding slashed by around a third.

The latter could bring steep reductions in foreign aid and funding to UN agencies, with knock-on effects around the world.

An alarmed UN warned against "abrupt funding cuts" that would undermine its longer-term reform efforts.

In the United States, the national endowments for the arts and humanities would be scrapped entirely, and funding for the National Institutes of Health -- a globally respected research facility -- would see funding cut by almost $6 billion.

"This is a hard-power budget, it is not a soft-power budget," said White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney, who said he trawled through Trump's campaign speeches for inspiration.

- Pentagon up, State down -

The Pentagon would be the major winner if Trump's proposed spending priorities go through, with a nearly 10 percent boost for a defense budget that is already bigger than that of the next seven nations combined.

Separately, Trump would earmark around $4 billion in the next two years to start building a wall along America's border with Mexico.

Trump has repeatedly claimed that Mexico will pay for the wall -- which will cost at least $15 billion, according to estimates by Bernstein Research, a consulting firm.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking in Tokyo, said he would not oppose deep cuts to his department, and would "willingly" accept Trump's challenge to tighten the budget.

"Clearly, the level of spending that the State Department has been undertaking in the past -- and particularly in this past year -- is simply not sustainable," Tillerson said. "We are going to be able to do a lot with fewer dollars."

Although politically explosive, Trump's broad-brush proposal covers only a small fraction of the $3.8 trillion federal budget -- which is dominated by health care, pension and other baked-in costs.

The text will be heavily revised and fleshed out by Congress, before a full budget is released around May.

In that sense, the plan is as much a political statement as a fiscal outline, a fact not lost on the White House.

Trump's top advisor Steve Bannon promised the administration would bring about the "deconstruction of the administrative state."

- Playing to the base -

More immediately, the budget is meant to be a signal to Trump's supporters that he is a man of action, and not a typical Washington politician.

Trump is looking to rally his base amid multiple controversies including his Twitter outbursts, Russian meddling in the election that brought him to power and a simmering rift with Congressional Republicans over health care reform.

According to Gallup, Trump has approval ratings of 40 percent, a low for any modern president at this point into his tenure.

But security has been a major vote winner. An Economist/YouGov poll found that 51 percent of Republicans believe the United States will be safer from terrorism at the end of his term.

The budget may also be seen as a signal to the world that Trump's United States will be less engaged internationally and will put "America first."

Diplomats and some former defense officials have already warned that less spending on areas like democracy promotion and humanitarian aid will spell more trouble, and military spending, down the road.

More than 120 retired generals and admirals recently signed a letter warning that "many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone."

All Democratic members on the House Foreign Affairs Committee sent a letter to the chamber's speaker, Paul Ryan, echoing those concerns: "Our diplomats settle disputes so that they do not have to be settled with bombs and bullets," they wrote.

- 'Drastic cuts' -

Trump's spokesman Sean Spicer defended the blueprint as focused on a search for "efficiencies" -- not blind cuts.

"There's this assumption in Washington that if you get less money it's a cut," he said. "I think that the reality is that in a lot of these there's efficiencies, duplicity, ways to spend money better."

But the plan, under fire from Democratic lawmakers, also received a markedly cool response from Trump's Republicans, with House Speaker Ryan saying he looks forward to reviewing the document.

The budget "turns the page from the last eight years," Ryan said.