A surprise New Yearâ€™s Day tweet by President Donald Trump in which he appeared to decree an end to U.S. aid for Pakistan, sent U.S. officials scrambling to suspend security assistance without even knowing how much aid they were freezing, four U.S. officials said.
The decision to freeze up to about $2 billion in security aid, according to a later estimate by U.S. officials, to a nuclear-armed ally is the latest example of how, nearly a year into Trumpâ€™s presidency, U.S. officials sometimes have to scurry to turn his tweets into policy.
The Trump administration had been weighing an aid freeze for months, including in a meeting of top national security advisers before Christmas. Washington has for years demanded that Islamabad stop providing sanctuary and other support for the Afghan Taliban and the allied Haqqani network.
At the time of Trumpâ€™s tweet, a U.S. assessment of Pakistani compliance with those demands was still under way. A cohesive U.S. policy – including preparations for possible Pakistani reaction – was not expected to be completed until March or April, three U.S. officials interviewed said.
â€œNone of the elements of a coherent policy was in place, or even close at hand, when the president, in effect, made a policy announcement,â€ said one U.S. official, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity. â€œDespite a mad scramble to backfill a tweet, we still donâ€™t have … an effective policy in place.â€
Michael Anton, a spokesman for the National Security Council, did not address whether the tweet had sped up the policy process, saying Trump had made clear his intent to take a new, tougher stance toward Pakistan as part of the Afghanistan war strategy he unveiled in August.
â€œThis action is being taken after months of careful interagency review. Any suggestion to the contrary is false,â€ he said.
The State Department declined to comment.
Trump was at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida when he posted his tweet at 7:12 a.m. on Jan. 1, after hosting a lavish New Yearâ€™s Eve party. Until then he had kept a relatively low public profile while he mostly golfed.
The United States, he tweeted, had â€œfoolishlyâ€ given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid and â€œthey have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!â€
It is not clear what prompted Trump to issue the tweet, which infuriated Pakistani officials. Pakistanâ€™s National Security Committee of senior civilian and military chiefs denounced it as â€œcompletely incomprehensible.â€ U.S. Ambassador David Hale was summoned to the foreign ministry for an explanation.
Caught by surprise on their New Yearâ€™s Day holiday, a small group of White House aides and other top officials scrambled to make good on the presidentâ€™s unexpected statement, said a senior U.S. official who was part of the consultations.
There was no time to issue a formal White House policy directive outlining the amount of frozen funds, four officials said.
When the administration confirmed that it was suspending security aid to Pakistan four days after Trumpâ€™s tweet, the State Department was still not able to quantify how much aid was at stake, underscoring how far U.S. officials had been from implementing any policy before the presidentâ€™s statement.
U.S. officials later said the decision could affect about $1 billion in planned security assistance and $900 million to reimburse Pakistan for counter-terrorism operations.
Another sign of the haste was the failure to give Pakistan the usual diplomatic courtesy of a warning before the presidentâ€™s tweet, U.S. officials said.
Perhaps most seriously, they said, there was no time to prepare for possible retaliation.