Tension looms during Newsom’s trip to El Salvador over Trump’s decision to pull aid

California Gov. Gavin Newsom during a meeting at the Divina Providencia Hospital facility in San Salvador on April 9.
(Salvador Melendez / AP)

Officials at the U.S Embassy in El Salvador set a rule for a meeting with California Gov. Gavin Newsom: no reporters.

Hours later during the governor’s Monday tour of La Chacra, a facility to process deportees returning from the United States or Mexico, U.S. Agency for International Development employees declined to publicly discuss the potential effects of President Trump’s call last month to cut financial support to the Central American country, along with neighboring Guatemala and Honduras.

Tensions over Trump’s foreign policy have been evident on Newsom’s trip to El Salvador, where he is seeking to counter the president’s immigration narrative. And while U.S. officials in El Salvador may have been willing to speak candidly with Newsom behind closed doors, in public they’ve stayed quiet about Trump, adhering to what the embassy describes as standard protocol for diplomats abroad.


“I want to be respectful of the confidentiality because there are literally individuals’ jobs that are at stake,” Newsom said when asked about his private meetings at the embassy.

Newsom said unnamed officials at the embassy were surprised by Trump’s announcement that the U.S. would withdraw $500 million in foreign aid to the three countries as a punishment for migration. Days before the president’s decision, some of the officials met with then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and signed an agreement to fight illegal immigration together, Newsom said. Nielsen resigned Sunday.

“Without breaking any confidences whatsoever, not one person that I’ve talked to has said that [withdrawing aid] will do anything except make the migrant issues worse for the United States,” Newsom said. “That is pretty universally accepted down here.”

It’s not unusual for appointees or U.S. government workers to refrain from discussing foreign policy. Further details about the president’s decision and how it would be carried out remain unclear.

United States Ambassador to El Salvador Jean Manes, a career diplomat, declined to be interviewed by reporters traveling with Newsom and said that as a policy, engagement with the U.S. media requires pre-approval from Washington. Manes, who was appointed to her current role by former President Obama, has been tapped in the past for other posts by both Republicans and Democrats.

Earlier in the week Newsom said that political appointees in the Trump White House “have to toe the line.”


“They seem to be coming and going every week in this administration,” he said.

Academics have criticized the president’s approach to the Northern Triangle, a term to describe El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the number of Salvadorans immigrating illegally to the U.S. at the southwest border with Mexico declined in fiscal year 2018 as migration from Honduras and Guatemala soared. Border patrol agents apprehended 4,949 unaccompanied Salvadoran minors, down nearly 56%, and 13,669 family units, a 46% percent drop from one year prior.

Instead of trying to understand programs that may work in El Salvador to replicate them in the other two nations, Trump is punishing all three, said Mike Allison, a political science professor at the University of Scranton who is an expert on the region.

“In the United States, we talk about all three of them as if they are the same thing,” Allison said.

Newsom has said he believes that pulling foreign aid would make migration to the U.S. worse.

El Salvador’s outgoing President, Salvador Sánchez Cerén met privately with Newsom Monday. On Tuesday, the governor met for another private conversation with President-elect Nayib Bukele at El Salvador’s Museo de Arte.

Afterward, Bukele took questions from reporters with Newsom at his side and called the governor’s trip well-intentioned.

“I’ve followed him since he was mayor of San Francisco,” Bukele said. “He’s a very smart, cool, interesting person.”

Bukele said he hopes to work with Newsom to attract American tourists to the country’s surf towns.

He offered a diplomatic response when asked about Trump.

“We have to work with any administration in the United States,” Bukele said. “We don’t want to meddle into U.S. politics.”

While Newsom’s conversations with several dignitaries have been conducted in private, local elected officials in El Salvador have been outspoken about Trump’s policies during the visit.

Panchimalco, a colonial city about 10 miles outside San Salvador, hosted Newsom for a celebration on Monday at which young boys performed music on pan flutes, and girls wearing colorful head scarves made of traditional textiles danced with partners in straw hats.

“Sometimes, we get very angry in defending our borders, like what is happening in the U.S., with President Trump,” Panchimalco Mayor Mario Meléndez said. “We are all brothers. We are all brothers, and the world is one. Human civilization is one.”

San Salvador Mayor Ernesto Muyshondt said Sunday that Trump could spend American money more wisely.

“It would be a much more profitable investment for the U.S. government to invest in our countries in the region and opportunities for our people instead of investing in a wall,” he said.

More stories from Taryn Luna »

Follow @tarynluna on Twitter.