Donald Trump has a distaste for the State Department and its legions of diplomats tasked with crafting the nation’s foreign policy.
So when it comes to Latin America, the CEO-turned-president is listening to a man he derided on the campaign trail a year ago: Marco Rubio.
It was Rubio who set up a White House meeting with Lilian Tintori, a human-rights activist married to jailed Venezuelan dissident Leopoldo Lopez. After the meeting, Trump tweeted his support for Lopez, a public rebuke of embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
It was Rubio who helped draft a changed Cuba policy in recent weeks, culminating in Trump’s first presidential visit to Miami to fulfill a campaign promise to the conservative Cubans who helped him win the White House.
And Rubio is well-positioned to take advantage of a vacuum of leadership in the State Department and communicate directly with a president who dislikes diplomacy-as-usual on Latin American foreign policy, according to interviews with former Rubio foreign policy staffers and State Department officials.
There’s plenty of space.
Six months into his administration, Donald Trump has yet to appoint dozens of high-level State Department employees, including the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, the top diplomat in charge of Latin America.
And the president bucked the advice of some of his own senior officials and a slew of congressional Republicans in favor of Rubio to finish the Cuba deal.
Rubio “found a way to say, ‘You don’t want to listen to the experts, listen to me,’ ” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a group that lobbies for closer Cuba ties and is opposed to Trump’s policy changes. “He found a really successful way to tell Trump, don’t listen to your own bureaucracy.”
Not that Trump needs an excuse to eschew the federal bureaucracy, which will be massively downsized if the White House gets its way.
Trump wants to cut the State Department’s budget by 30 percent, repeatedly rails against foreign aid and openly disagreed with his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, during a dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
“It is a genuine problem not to have people that are diplomats, trained people that really are very loyal and dedicated American citizens who want to represent their country,” said former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, a Democrat who served under Bill Clinton. “I’ve just been traveling abroad, and our embassies don’t have enough people.”
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