The Pentagon plans to tap into $3.6 billion in funding set aside for military construction projects and instead funnel it toward building a wall on the U.S. southern border with Mexico helping to make good President Donald Trump’s signature campaign promise.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Tuesday signed off to reallocate the money from 127 different projects — typically intended for building construction, maintenance and repair — located inside and outside the United States and instead pay for 175 miles of border wall, Pentagon officials said.
With the decision, the Defense Department is now planning to divert at least $6.1 billion toward building 295 miles of wall since Trump declares an emergency on the border in February. The Army Corps of Engineers is now beginning a contracting process for construction companies to bid on building barriers, both new and refurbished, across stretches of the southwestern United States.
“It’s a combination of areas of where there was no barrier previously and areas where we’re replacing existing, older, less capable barrier,” Kenneth Rapuano, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security, told reporters at the Pentagon.
The official list of projects getting funding diverted was not made public, pending notification to lawmakers and diplomats whose regions are expected to be impacted. Both Democrats and Republicans have been critical of reallocating such funds out of fears that projects in their home states will be targeted. Pentagon officials began informing Congressional members to detail the plans to raid the funding, about half of which will come from construction projects inside the states and half will come from projects outside.
Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters the money would not be taken from “family housing, barracks or dormitory projects.”
Still it will be tricky to launch construction in all parts of the border. Some of the area is private while other areas go through federal land. The easiest place to build is along military property like the Barry Goldwater Air Force Range in Arizona. But even then, the soonest that construction could begin is three months or more, Pentagon officials said.
The U.S. military’s border mission, which began almost a year ago, is now expected to last well into 2020 and perhaps beyond, the officials said. There are now about 5,700 troops, including 2,000 members of the National Guard, deployed along the southwest border. U.S. troops have welded coils of razor wire atop border fences and points of entry with Mexico in California, Arizona and Texas. They have coated parts of the fence with “anti-climb” paint. They also operate telescopic video cameras, known as “Mobile Surveillance Cameras,” in all nine border Patrol Sectors in each of the four states bordering Mexico. The devices are armed with infrared cameras, enabling troops to watch for illegal border crossings to operate day or night.
The Defense Department has already approved $2.5 billion toward more than 120 miles of barrier construction requested by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in the El Paso, Texas, and Yuma and Tucson, Ariz. sectors.
Earlier this year, Congress gave Trump funding to build 55 miles of wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, but Trump declared a national emergency — a move aimed at accessing $6.7 billion in federal funding without receiving Congressional approval. That decision was widely seen as a last-ditch “nuclear option,” and has since sparked legal challenges and rattled the balance of power in the federal government. So far this year, only replacement barrier has been built, not the wall Trump promised on the 2016 campaign trail.
At the Defense Department, officials have played what amounts to a bureaucratic shell game to get the other $2.5 billion for the wall. The Pentagon took leftover money that had been allocated for military personnel and transferred it into a counter-drug account, a move that gave the military authority to take measures to support federal law enforcement efforts to stop drug trafficking, like building a wall.
The Sierra Club, American Civil Liberties Union and Southern Border Communities Coalition are currently challenging the decision in the courts. However, the Supreme Court said last month in a 5-4 vote that wall construction can continue while the federal appeals process plays out.
Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Trump administration “is trying to circumvent Congressional authority” and said the action should struck down by the courts. “If it stands, future Presidents will make similar end-runs to try and tap defense dollars for anything a President wants to label a ‘national emergency,’” Reed said, adding: “With this move, President Trump is short-changing our troops and taxpayers and forcing them to bear the burden of his broken, preposterous campaign promise.”
The U.S. military has been forbidden to take part in domestic law enforcement since the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. Service members can only assist, and that’s exactly what they have done since Trump directed the military to support DHS on the border more than a year ago. The Defense Department has approved multiple DHS requests, including for providing aerial reconnaissance, ground surveillance, search and rescue support, medical support, engineering support, helicopter transportation, personnel protection and other needs.
The Department of Defense said last week it has obligated about $450 million for active duty and National Guard deployments to the southwest border in support of DHS, in addition to the $2.5 billion for the border wall.