Donald Trump
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Last Thursday, Trump tweeted this:

That came on the same day that his Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, made this announcement:

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen M. Nielsen traveled to Tegucigalpa, Honduras where she met with security ministers representing the countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The multilateral discussions mark the continuation of a multi-year diplomatic process and the signing of a historic Memorandum of Cooperation (MOC) on border security cooperation in Central America.

That was followed on Saturday with an announcement that the U.S. State Department would cut off foreign aid to the countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

The United States is cutting off aid to the Northern Triangle, otherwise known as the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the State Department told CNN Saturday, one day after President Donald Trump said they had “set up” migrant caravans for entry into the United States.

“We were paying them tremendous amounts of money. And we’re not paying them anymore. Because they haven’t done a thing for us. They set up these caravans,” Trump said Friday.

In other words, while Trump’s Secretary of Homeland Security was signing an agreement with the three countries in what is called the “Northern Triangle” to work on stemming the tide of refugees, the president decided to punish them because “they haven’t done a thing for us.”

It would be understandable for the leaders of those three countries to be completely confused about what the United States wants from them. As Dara Lind suggests, that’s because those working for this president are confused. Prior to actually cutting off aid, here is what was happening:

[I]t seems that Trump’s complaints about how those countries “have taken our money for years, and do Nothing” are beginning to affect his administration’s actual policy. The Trump administration is reportedly stalling on disbursing Northern Triangle aid — with a substantial portion of its budget from last year still unspent.

And the reason, according to Politico’s Ted Hesson, is that officials don’t want to make Trump mad.

“People don’t know what the president wants,” an anonymous State Department official told Hesson. “No one wants to do something that looks like they’re not following his guidance.”

That means that confusion reigns.

Confusion is par for the course when the Trump administration does things because Donald Trump wants to do them, not because the officials actually implementing the policy think it’s a particularly good idea. And that’s exactly what’s going on here.

The reason all of this is happening is because what the president wants to do—cut off all aid to these countries—doesn’t make a lick of sense to anyone with even half a functioning brain. There are those who have suggested that this move is some kind of strategy designed to drive even more refugees to our border so Trump can justify his manufactured crisis. While I wouldn’t completely dismiss that possibility, I think it gives Trump more credit than he actually deserves.

The truth is that the president has consistently demonstrated that he doesn’t see the people coming from what he described as “shithole” countries as being human, but merely pawns that their government uses against us.

You might remember that on the day he launched his presidential campaign, Trump said, “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems.”

One of the consistent lies Trump has told about immigration is related to the diversity visa lottery. Over and over again, he has described it by saying, “If you take a look at the visa lottery — when there’s a lottery, do you think they’re putting their best people into those lotteries?”

What Trump is doing in the current situation with the Northern Triangle, along with those two other examples, is projecting his own authoritarian view of how governments are supposed to work. The people they are responsible for leading are merely pawns that the government must control. To the extent that they fail, the governments are to blame and must be punished.

None of that obviates Trump’s commitment to using cruelty against individual refugees as a deterrent. In some ways, he is acting out the authoritarian cruelty he thinks the governments of the Northern Triangle should implement to stop the flow of migrants.

This situation provides a window into this president’s view of power. It is steeped in the kind of dominance that is diametrically opposed to everything undergirding the norms of our democracy. The more Trump feels empowered, the more we’ll see that being made manifest here in the United States, as well as in his dealings with other countries.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.