President Donald Trump got headlines he wanted over the weekend, in the vein of "Trump cuts aid to Central America."
Did he, though? As with many of his other claims and gyrations regarding immigration and the southern border, basic facts and law are in dispute. This news flash could well join a list of threats from the president that proved hollow.
Trump aims to give the impression of resolve in pressuring Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to keep migrants and refugees from coming north. Logically enough, the announcement accompanies his threat to "close the border" with Mexico at ports of entry.
But funds such as the $180 million in aid in question for the 2019 fiscal year are allocated in annual federal budgets, not at the president's whim.
Mark Feierstein, a senior adviser for the centrist Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of the "cutoff" announcement in a Newsweek article in October: "No, I don't think he can legally do that."
In 1974, a major law was enacted in reaction to President Richard Nixon impounding funds for programs he didn't like. That could come into play here. Elected officials from both political parties approved this aid program in the name of strengthening security in Central America, the breakdown of which fuels the migrations.
Even Trump's State Department seems to acknowledge a legal concern. A spokesman quoted by CNN over the weekend said: "We will be engaging Congress as part of this process."
Further, Trump's own State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development — not the governments of the three affected countries — manage the bulk of the funds, according to Politico. And there is funding from past budgets already in the pipeline, which means it could take years before any halt is even noticed.
If announcement of this "cutoff" seems an impotent gesture, Feierstein does not sound unsympathetic to Trump's position. "He threatens when he feels powerless and cornered, and it is a very frustrating issue. Migration is extremely difficult."
The funding program began under the Obama administration where Feierstein worked. For Trump, that may be an incentive to kill it. Democrats call the announcement counterproductive.
Trump's defunding threat echoes one he hurled less than three months ago at the state of California. “Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for Forest fires that, with proper Forest Management, would never happen,” Trump tweeted Jan. 9.
“Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money. It is a disgraceful situation in lives & money!”
But by Feb. 20, FEMA responded to a Freedom of Information request from a website called Muckrock that it could find no documentation of Trump giving such an order.
Maybe it was fake news all along.