The Trump whisperer: Marco Rubio has the president’s ear on Latin America

Sen. Marco Rubio speaks at an event where President Donald Trump announced a revised Cuba policy aimed at stopping the flow of U.S. cash to the country's military and security services while maintaining diplomatic relations, Friday, June 16, 2017, in Miami.
Sen. Marco Rubio speaks at an event where President Donald Trump announced a revised Cuba policy aimed at stopping the flow of U.S. cash to the country's military and security services while maintaining diplomatic relations, Friday, June 16, 2017, in Miami. AP

Donald Trump has a distaste for the State Department and its legions of diplomats tasked with crafting the nation’s foreign policy.

So when it comes to Latin America, the CEO-turned-president is listening to a man he derided on the campaign trail a year ago: Marco Rubio.

It was Rubio who set up a White House meeting with Lilian Tintori, a human-rights activist married to jailed Venezuelan dissident Leopoldo Lopez. After the meeting, Trump tweeted his support for Lopez, a public rebuke of embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

It was Rubio who helped draft a changed Cuba policy in recent weeks, culminating in Trump’s first presidential visit to Miami to fulfill a campaign promise to the conservative Cubans who helped him win the White House.

And Rubio is well-positioned to take advantage of a vacuum of leadership in the State Department and communicate directly with a president who dislikes diplomacy-as-usual on Latin American foreign policy, according to interviews with former Rubio foreign policy staffers and State Department officials.

“They’ve asked for my input on basically every issue in Latin America and the Western Hemisphere and … we’ve been engaged with them and they’ve been very open,” Rubio said. “In some ways, the fact that they didn’t come in with preconceived ideas of what to do has created the space for that debate to occur.”

There’s plenty of space.

Six months into his administration, Donald Trump has yet to appoint dozens of high-level State Department employees, including the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, the top diplomat in charge of Latin America.

And the president bucked the advice of some of his own senior officials and a slew of congressional Republicans in favor of Rubio to finish the Cuba deal.

Rubio “found a way to say, ‘You don’t want to listen to the experts, listen to me,’ ” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a group that lobbies for closer Cuba ties and is opposed to Trump’s policy changes. “He found a really successful way to tell Trump, don’t listen to your own bureaucracy.”

Not that Trump needs an excuse to eschew the federal bureaucracy, which will be massively downsized if the White House gets its way.

Trump wants to cut the State Department’s budget by 30 percent, repeatedly rails against foreign aid and openly disagreed with his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, during a dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

“It is a genuine problem not to have people that are diplomats, trained people that really are very loyal and dedicated American citizens who want to represent their country,” said former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, a Democrat who served under Bill Clinton. “I’ve just been traveling abroad, and our embassies don’t have enough people.”

Since Trump hasn’t bothered to fill many of the positions that report to Tillerson, Rubio has more space to shape Latin America policy.

In the absence of a well-functioning State Department, Trump is relying more on the National Security Council, a group composed of Cabinet secretaries and senior military officials, to make foreign policy decisions.

The NSC has been more focused in recent months on the Middle East, North Korea and fighting ISIS, the big-ticket foreign policy issues that could require military intervention and demand Trump’s daily attention.

Usually, the State Department takes the lead on situations that still require U.S. attention but may not be an immediate threat to national security, but the current upheaval at the agency leaves it unable to effectively do its job.

A former senior State Department official who maintains contact with numerous diplomats says “everyone’s kind of winging it” when it comes to Latin American issues.

“The problem right now is without any kind of leadership, you have these embassies but the ambassadors don’t know what to do.”

Ever since taking office in 2010, Rubio has been outspoken on Latin American foreign policy issues, notably opposing Barack Obama’s changed Cuba policy and pressing the State Department to take a strong stance against left-leaning leaders like Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

But under Obama, Rubio was confined to publicly opposing a White House that preferred to negotiate behind closed doors through the State Department instead of a wielding a heavy hand.

Under Trump, the roles have changed.

“I think the problem with the State Department is less about the philosophy — you have career service people there who are aligned with an Obama-type agenda. But I also think that’s the truth of when you work 20 to 30 years in government, your perception changes, you’re just fine taking it slow,” said Alberto Martinez, who worked as Rubio’s chief of staff until March. “For sure, Marco Rubio is not a guy to take things slow.”

If Rubio wants to maintain his clout in a region often ignored by Trump, implementing the changed Cuba policy, overseeing the deteriorating situation in Venezuela and playing a role in the Colombian peace process are the three issues likely to command immediate political attention in the coming months.

“He’s been following these issues for a very long time, and there are very few other members who have the personal knowledge and experience in Latin America,” said Otto Reich, a former assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs under George W. Bush and a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. “There are some who speak Spanish, but he speaks native Spanish.”

Reich said the Obama administration was willing to “sit down” with leaders like Maduro, a policy that Rubio would never support. Now that Trump occupies the White House, Rubio has an intraparty ally who won votes with his tough rhetoric toward certain world leaders.

Take, for instance, the meeting with Tintori, a former professional athlete who was thrust into the international spotlight after her husband, Lopez ,was jailed by Maduro in 2015.

Under Obama, Tintori never publicly met with the president, even though Vice President Joe Biden told Maduro during a brief 2015 encounter that Venezuela must release political prisoners.

Under Trump, Rubio organized the meeting, which led to the president’s symbolically important tweet.

“Sen. Rubio was the man to get this done,” said Jared Genser, an international human rights lawyer who works for Lopez and Tintori. “I had been pressing for Lilian Tintori to meet with the Obama administration for six months, and they refused to meet.”

Genser said the Obama administration was concerned with the deteriorating situation in Venezuela but worried that public appearances with an opposition leader would undermine the behind-the-scenes work by the State Department and the Vatican.

Trump, master of the late-night tweet, had no such qualms.

“Venezuela should allow Leopoldo Lopez, a political prisoner & husband of @liliantintori (just met w/@marcorubio) out of prison immediately,” Trump tweeted.

Rubio is a voice on Latin American issues outside of the White House.

In March, he said it would be difficult to protect the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Haiti from possible cuts in U.S. foreign aid if they voted against Venezuelan sanctions at the Organization of American States.

“This is not a threat, but it is the reality,” Rubio said in March. “We have a very difficult situation in Washington, where massive cuts in foreign aid are under consideration. And it will be very difficult for us to justify assistance to those countries if they, at the end of the day, are countries that do not cooperate in the defense of democracy in the region.”

All three countries, who have voted against sanctioning Venezuela in the past, ended up voting against the measure again despite Rubio’s statements.

Rubio also pushed for sanctions on Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, which were announced in February, and in May the Trump administration sanctioned eight Venezuelan Supreme Court judges, freezing their assets and banning them from traveling to the United States.

“I think we’re seeing a lot of very interesting and different approaches,” Genser said. “I’m very pleased that Sen. Rubio is having the influence he’s having with the new administration. Despite the rocky start to their relationship, from the outside in it appears that Rubio has influence.”

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty