Trump’s Quiet Meeting with Former Colombian Presidents Matters

by Steve Benen

April 21st, 2017


When Donald Trump traveled to his private Florida resort last weekend, he made time for golf, but as the Miami Herald reported, he also made time to meet with Álvaro Uribe and Andrés Pastrana, former presidents of Colombia, and it wasn’t just to exchange pleasantries.

President Donald Trump quietly met a pair of former Colombian presidents last weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, thrusting his administration into an ugly power struggle in Latin America that threatens to undermine the country’s controversial peace agreement with rebel leaders.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is expected to push Trump to support the peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia at their first meeting at the White House next month. He wants the Trump administration and Congress to maintain the $450 million in foreign aid promised by former President Barack Obama to implement the plan to end Latin America’s longest armed conflict.

Uribe and Pastrana oppose the plan, and the meeting with Trump was reportedly arranged by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who also opposes the Colombian plan.

Part of the problem with this is the secrecy. It’s one thing for a president to visit with foreign dignitaries; it’s something else to leave these meetings off the president’s official schedule and fail to disclose them to journalists who were there to report on his activities.

There’s also the apparent dishonesty to consider. A White House spokesperson told McClatchy News the meeting happened, but said this was an instance in which the former Colombian presidents were at Mar-a-Lago and they “briefly said hello when [Trump] walked past them.” Pastrana, however, extended his thanks to Trump for the “cordial and very frank conversation” about Colombia’s challenges.

As a rule, when the White House finds it necessary to lie about what Trump’s up to, it only raises more questions about why the dishonesty was deemed necessary.

There’s also, of course, the ethical concerns. The White House said Uribe and Pastrana were at the private resort as guests of an unnamed member. Even if we assume that’s true, it suggests a $200,000 membership fee can lead to special access to the American president.

And then there’s the significance of U.S. policy towards Colombia. While Trump hasn’t expressed an opinion about the proposed agreement, what we have here is a group of powerful freelancers: the Miami Herald noted that the former Colombian presidents circumvented diplomatic channels to speak to Trump, and at the same time, Trump appears to have hosted this conversation without coordinating with the U.S. State Department, which is supposed to be responsible for overseeing high-level diplomatic talks.

Indeed, that’s what makes stories like these so interesting to me; the president’s willingness to marginalize the State Department, failing to even consider the agency as an afterthought, is an astonishing development for U.S. foreign policy.

Early last month, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray was in D.C. for talks, and a reporter asked the State Department for information about the discussions. The State Department’s spokesperson was forced to concede that the agency was completely “unaware” of the fact that the Mexican official was even in the city.

A month later, Trump dipped his toes into a very complex situation in Colombia, and by all appearances, the State Department played no role in the process.

The Atlantic recently spoke to one unnamed State Department officer who said, in reference to White House officials, “They really want to blow this place up…. I don’t think this administration thinks the State Department needs to exist.” There’s every reason to take concerns like this seriously.

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