On July 21, 2020, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations conducted a hearing on the nomination of Carlos Trujillo to be Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA). If confirmed by the Senate, here is what Trujillo’s appointment will mean for U.S.-Latin American relations, as well as morale in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.
Carlos Trujillo is one of the least qualified nominees in the position’s history
The norm for the position of Assistant Secretary, which dates to the 1940s, is for a career Foreign Service Officer (FSO), or at least someone with many years of experience in U.S.-Latin American relations, to hold the post. Trujillo, the son of Cuban immigrants, is a Florida lawyer who became a State Representative in 2010 at the age of 27. In 2016, he campaigned for President Donald Trump and talked of Democrats using fake news, undocumented immigrants as felons, and of Trump as an outsider who “will end the rigged system.” His commitment and loyalty to the president, combined with Senator Marco Rubio’s recommendation, garnered him the nomination for U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS) in 2018, where he now serves.
When he was chosen for the OAS position, a friend from the legislature approvingly referred to his credentials, highlighting that Trujillo understands “that Argentina policy is completely different than, say, Cuba.” Compare that to someone like Roberta Jacobson, who served as Assistant Secretary from 2011-2016 and started her State Department career over 20 years earlier in WHA.
The Trujillo nomination is similar in ideology to the George W. Bush selections of Otto Reich and Roger Noriega in the early 2000s, in that they were laser-focused on Cuba and Venezuela and tended to view multilateral relations from that lens. Nonetheless, even they had considerable diplomatic experience before taking the position. Trujillo has the Trump ideology without much independent experience.
He will exert little-to-no influence
The upside to no experience is that there is little indication that any nominee would have much policy clout. Nowadays, Latin America policy goes beyond simply being White House-centered—it comes from Donald Trump’s own ideas and whims, often tweeted impulsively. Policy advisors routinely find their ideas ignored or their positions undermined. Bureaucratic positioning and infighting within the executive branch is eternal, but policy is now more highly centralized than ever. For example, White House aide Stephen Miller exerts tremendous influence over immigration policy, at times to the point of veto power, which means the president even reverses his public statements to follow Miller’s hardline positions. Meanwhile, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was once not even aware when the Mexican foreign minister was in Washington, because he was meeting with Trump’s son-in-law. Further, John Bolton complained in his recently published memoir that the president would not follow his own hardline recommendations.
Nonetheless, even if the Assistant Secretary does not carry much policy weight, Trujillo could have considerable influence over the tenor of relations. Evan Ellis’s recent account for Global Americans about his time working for the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning staff, noted the importance of WHA because, among other things, they receive dignitaries and work daily with regional partners. The Assistant Secretary sets the tone for those relationships. In fact, Ellis believed that outgoing Assistant Secretary Michael Kozak’s State Department experience “was apparent in the confidence and skill with which he managed WHA.” Trujillo, lacking that experience, will have a much steeper learning curve in front of him. He has not managed a bureaucracy whose hallmark is effective, quiet diplomacy.
He is the perfect pick for Trump
The Trump administration’s Latin America policy centers largely on immigration, trade with Mexico, and the so-called “Troika of Tyranny” of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. The State Department does not make immigration policy these days, and the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement is already in effect. That leaves the regional antagonists. When he was nominated to the OAS, Trujillo said, “It’s a great platform to bring the issues facing Venezuela and Cuba to the forefront.” As Mike Pence swore him in, the vice president repeated references to the troika. Everyone is most definitely on the same page.
In short, Trujillo shows all signs of being a loyal Trump appointee who will wholeheartedly embrace the president’s priorities. In that sense, he is quite similar to Secretary Mike Pompeo. The big question is whether Trujillo will be respectful of the career diplomats working under him. In those terms, Pompeo’s style has been decidedly negative for morale. It remains to be seen whether Trujillo will adopt the Trump/Pompeo disdain for those who made the State Department a career, whom they have condemned as the “deep state” enemy. That would require an independence of mind that has not yet been evident.
What is certain, however, is that Carlos Trujillo’s nomination represents a strong continuity of the Trump administration’s overall foreign policy stance, with a clear signal that loyalty matters above all.
Greg Weeks is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at UNC Charlotte, where he is Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies.