Politics

Trump Finds Strange Bedfellows on Cuba Policy

US-Cuba analyst: Given executive powers, president needs little Hill buy-in

Tourists walk near a poster of Cuban President Raul Castro and then-President Barack Obama in Havana last year. On Friday, President Donald Trump announced changes to Cuba policies instituted by Obama. (YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images file photo)

By wading into the always-tricky domestic politics of U.S.-Cuba relations, President Donald Trump finds himself working “hand in glove” with some former foes and new allies.

The businessman turned chief executive promised during the campaign to roll back some of President Barack Obama’s policies aimed at warming relations with America’s Caribbean neighbor. In doing so before his 200th day in office, Trump defied the wishes of some lawmakers and corporate titans.

Trump on Friday announced “targeted” changes to Obama-era policies that are aimed at preventing U.S. dollars from flowing into the coffers of what the administration views as, in the words of a senior official, “repressive members of the Cuban military government.”

The new rules will place restrictions on Americans’ ability to travel there, and install some restrictions on U.S. companies’ ability to do business with Cuban entities that are owned by its military and intelligence services.

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Reversing Obama

During an event Friday in Miami in which he signed an order on the changes and delivered lengthy remarks, Trump called the Obama administration’s Cuba policy “terrible and misguided.”

“We now hold the cards. The previous administration’s easing of restrictions on travel and trade … only [enriches] the Cuban regime,” he said.

Senior White House officials say they met with lawmakers in both chambers and from both parties as they crafted Trump’s rule changes. One official said those lawmakers and White House staff, as well as the president, worked closely on the matter.

“These members also worked with us hand in glove in providing technical guidance and policy suggestions as we continued to formulate the policy and went through multiple drafts,” the senior official said. “The president and other principals also met with members on both sides of the aisle in this process [and] additionally, were sharing thoughts with those who have, I think, been advocates, in particular, [of] agricultural trade with Cuba.”

Several aides who work for GOP senators supportive of Obama’s efforts to open Cuba as a market for American firms while also trying to prod the Raul Castro regime — and the one that follows — toward economic and political changes reported that those members never heard from Trump.

Notably, the president’s Cuba push saw him work with some members with whom he had prickly relationships, or little, if any, including Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Rubio became harshly critical of Trump, who referred to him dismissively as “little Marco.” But on the Cuba rewrite, there is a new tone: the senior White House official called the senator “central” to the effort.

More broadly, little by little, Trump and Rubio have worked to develop a working relationship. They even had a private dinner at the White House with their wives. The culmination of the unlikely relationship came Friday when Trump put his signature on an order directing the policy changes.

“Sen. Rubio has been working diligently behind the scenes with the administration,” said an aide to the former Trump critic.

Rubio, a Cuban-American, has appeared eager to declare the policy overhaul a personal victory. He did several interviews in which he described working closely with Trump, and cited changing Obama’s policies toward the island country as a reason for seeking re-election.

His office was eager to provide a reporter information about the coming policy changes, stressing that the Trump policy aligns with “statutory provisions passed by Congress which govern U.S.-Cuba policy” and “furthers what is in the best interest of U.S. foreign policy and U.S. national security,” according to the Rubio aide.

The Florida senator’s aide also previewed the policy by touting it as “mindful of the long term” because it lays “the groundwork for that transition and empowers the Cuban people to develop greater economic and political liberty” after Raul Castro. Castro announced Friday he will retire in 2018.

Rubio on Friday posted a picture on Twitter of him sitting with Florida GOP Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a fellow-Cuban American, that featured this curious message: “Picture of the night @MarioDB and I hammered out the new Cuba policy.”

Trump administration officials have no problems with Rubio’s public descriptions of his role, a White House spokeswoman told Roll Call, adding that the policy crafting was a “collaborative” effort.

Rubio spoke Friday before Trump, lavishly hailing his push on the policy changes as unprecedented. In Rubio, Trump appears to have a vocal ally on the issue in the Senate. And, should the Castro regime or its successor answer the president’s Friday “challenge” to enter into talks about a new deal, Trump could need even more congressional allies.

GOP skeptics

But aides to other GOP senators who were warm to Obama’s policies said their bosses were never brought in like Rubio and Diaz-Balart.

One who has heard radio silence from the Oval Office is Arizona GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, according to an aide. And in a statement prepared for Roll Call, Flake made clear his reluctance to back Trump’s policy.

“Any policy change that diminishes the ability of Americans to travel freely to Cuba is not in the best interests of the United States or the Cuban people,” Flake said.

Other Republicans, like Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Jerry Moran of Kansas and Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, support freer movement and trade policies with Cuba.

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Though Trump has yet to reach out to pro-Cuba members such as Flake, his embrace of Rubio and Diaz-Balart reflected a president who knew the outcome he wanted and found two influential members to help him make it happen.

That’s in line with the 45th president’s transactional approach — which also largely is about ticking off what he perceives as victories and keeping campaign promises.

On the latter, a senior administration official who briefed reporters Thursday about the Cuba changes mentioned those campaign pledges six times.

“The president vowed to reverse the Obama administration policies toward Cuba that have enriched the Cuban military regime and increased the repression on the island,” the senior official said. “It is a promise that President Trump made, and it’s a promise that President Trump is keeping.”

The next day in Miami, he told a crowd he was there to announce the changes “like I promised” during a campaign stop there.

Ignoring the Hill?

John Kavulich of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, which advises private-sector American firms on aspects of relations between the two countries, said Trump “doesn’t really need any buy-in from Congress.”

He ticked off a list of lawmakers who supported Obama’s policies, then added: “The bottom line is they just aren’t that important to this White House.”

“And to those who say [Trump] can’t do something like this if it’s not bipartisan: Excuse me?” Kavulich said. “Look what George W. Bush and Barack Obama did on these kinds of issues for 16 years using regulation and executive branch authorities.”

And Trump can claim at least some bipartisan support for his move.

Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a Cuban-American, is a hardliner on relations with the island nation, and was a harsh critic of Obama’s policies toward it. 

“The Trump Administration’s decision to reinstate tighter controls, to enforce standing law that I authored, and prevent American companies from making a quick buck by partnering with entities owned by the Castros and the Cuban military is a good first step,” Menendez said in a statement Friday.

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