U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) roundtable discussion after touring the CBP National Targeting Center in Sterling, Virginia, U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

State Department Calls Trump Drug-Interdiction Remarks Unhelpful

(Bloomberg) -- A senior State Department official said that President Donald Trump’s remarks about cutting aid to countries that allow drugs into the U.S. was unhelpful, exposing anew the rift that’s emerged between the White House and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s agency.

Trump made the comments Friday, the same day that Tillerson was meeting with top Mexican officials and delivering a message of greater cooperation in efforts to stem the flow of drugs across the border. Tillerson said it was only fair the U.S. take some of the blame because it drives the demand for those drugs.

During a roundtable at the Border Patrol National Targeting Center in Sterling, Virginia, Trump discussed the flow of drugs with Kevin McAleenan, acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. McAleenan informed the president that cocaine sent to the U.S. was produced “in Colombia and Peru, primarily” and trafficked up through Central America and Mexico.

“I won’t mention names right now, but I look at these countries, I look at the numbers we send them -- we send them massive aid and they’re pouring drugs into our country and they’re laughing at us,” Trump said. “So I’m not a believer in that. I want to stop the aid. I want to stop the aid.”

‘Joint Effort’

Tillerson is on a week-long tour of the region, visiting Argentina and Jamaica as well as Peru and Colombia, following a one-night stop in Mexico City.

The senior State Department official, who asked not to be identified to speak freely, suggested that the remarks complicated Tillerson’s efforts. At the same time Trump was speaking, Tillerson was holding a press conference with Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray to discuss new joint initiatives on combating drug- and gun-trafficking.

“So this is a joint effort that is very, very active, it is very robust, and we intend to maintain this effort well in until we have resolved this problem,” Tillerson said.

It was only the latest example of conflicting messages emerging from the White House and the State Department. After Tillerson visited Beijing in 2017, he raised the possibility of direct talks with North Korea -- an idea that Trump swiftly dismissed over Twitter. Earlier in his term, Tillerson had sought to strike an even tone on the Qatar blockade, while Trump came down firmly on the side of Saudi Arabia, which led the economic crackdown.

Aid Threats

Trump has repeatedly threatened to cut off aid to countries or organizations that have angered him. He followed through in recent months by cutting security assistance to Pakistan over its failure to crack down on terror groups, and slashing aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, which assists Palestinian refugees.

In his State of the Union speech, Trump also said he would ask Congress to pass a law to “ensure American foreign-assistance dollars always serve American interests, and only go to America’s friends.”

Tillerson, meanwhile, has struck a more moderate tone. He successfully persuaded Trump to release at least some financial help to UNRWA and took a far more moderate tone in Mexico on issues such as illegal immigration, describing the U.S. as a nation of immigrants and all people as deserving respect.

Steve Goldstein, the State Department’s undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, said there was no daylight between Tillerson’s actions and the administration’s stance.

“Different people speak different ways but the policy hasn’t changed,” Goldstein said. “We have more to do but we’re all on the same page and heading toward the same goal.”

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