Mark Green, Trump's top foreign aid chief, departs with warning against cuts and US 'stepping back'

Green led the U.S. Agency for International Development for nearly three years.

April 10, 2020, 7:40 PM

Mark Green's last day couldn't have come at a worse time.

The top U.S. official for foreign aid departed Friday as the world struggles to contain the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump threatened to cut funding to the World Health Organization, and governments around the world battle over medical supplies in an increasingly every-country-for-itself mentality.

Amid those forces, Green, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, had a strong warning that could contrast with his boss -- foreign assistance is "important" and that "especially in times of challenge, we need to keep those investments, those tools, and that leadership."

"I believe that America is a force for good, and we must be. I don't believe that the world is better if we do step back or recede," he said Friday in an interview, adding that while his message is for "all of us," "As a Republican, I aim it at my own party," especially.

President Donald J. Trump speaks at a Coronavirus Task Force briefing at the White House, in Washington, April 10, 2020.
Kevin Dietsch/POOL/EPA via Shutterstock

After nearly three years on the job, Green has been one of the longest-serving agency chiefs in an administration marked by high turnover. At USAID, he's in charge of the U.S. government's key arm for foreign aid, providing millions of dollars a year in food assistance, clean water and sanitation and health care. But beyond donations, USAID's mission is to empower local governments and institutions, especially by strengthening health systems, farming communities and democratic elections, with the idea of ultimately working itself out of a job, as Green likes to say.

Green, who announced his departure on March 16, said he is leaving to "return to the private sector" and thanked Trump and Vice President Mike Pence "for their support of me and this remarkable agency."

But from the president's first budget, the Trump administration has made clear that foreign aid is generally not favored, and sometimes even used as a cudgel to strong-arm smaller countries. Trump has called for slashing USAID and the State Department's funding by one-third in his first two budgets and about one-fourth in more recent years.

As the new coronavirus has spread throughout the globe, critics have blamed not just those proposed cuts, but the steps taken that have left the U.S. government less prepared. Two months before the outbreak, for example, USAID moved to end a global health surveillance project called PREDICT to study diseases in animals that could infect humans, which is how the novel coronavirus started.

A member of medical staff, assists a Yazidi displaced woman to wear a protective face mask, following the coronavirus outbreak, at the Sharya camp in Duhok, Iraq, March 7, 2020.
Ari Jalal/Reuters

On Friday, Trump pushed for another cut -- to the World Health Organization. Trump and other top Republicans have accused the United Nations agency of cozying up too closely with the Chinese government and regurgitating data about the novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, without any on-the-ground verification. That could have cost the world weeks of responding and let the outbreak worsen.

But cutting funding to a critical U.N. agency amid a pandemic could have deleterious effects and leave it more vulnerable to Chinese influence. The U.S. provides nearly a quarter of WHO's operational budget and hundreds of millions of dollars more each year for specific initiatives and public health crises.

Even as he highlighted the "value of the investments we've all made," Green deferred questions about any cuts to the White House, saying, "They determine policy." Instead, he highlighted the administration's "significant" humanitarian assistance, with $499 million announced so far.

That kind of diplomatic maneuver has helped Green keep his job. He's won accolades across the political aisle while never drawing the ire of the president or being hamstrung from doing his job, like former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

"Administrator Green has worked tirelessly on behalf of the American people to promote thoughtful, sensible, and comprehensive policies to advance U.S. foreign policy objectives. ... He leaves a legacy of working honestly and transparently across the Executive and Legislative Branches to do what is in our collective interest," said top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez, who doesn't often have words of praise for administration officials.

United States Agency for International Development (USAID) administrator Mark Green speaks to members of the press during a briefing at the Munich Security conference in Munich, Feb. 14, 2020.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

Green attributes that bipartisan support to his honesty, especially with lawmakers like Menendez and his Republican colleagues, who consistently rejected Trump's budget proposals and provided more funding to USAID and the State Department.

It also helps that he's not regularly in the public eye. While USAID is its own agency, its administrator reports directly to the secretary of state, not the president -- leaving Green with little face time at the White House and off cable news.

But the former Republican congressman and U.S. ambassador to Tanzania under George W. Bush is departing his post to head the McCain Institute for International Leadership, named after the Republican senator who sparred often with Trump -- an indication, perhaps, of where Green comes down on the ideological spectrum.

For now, Green remains a diplomat, declining to openly discuss ideological differences with the president.

Once he leaves USAID, however, "I do plan on talking often about what I've learned, what I see and the importance of American leadership," he said.

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