The U.S. military commander tasked with defending North America said Tuesday that there is no military threat at the southern border, where President Donald Trump has deployed troops to assist law enforcement in stemming illegal border crossings.
“It is not a military threat,” Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, who leads U.S. Northern Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday morning. He quickly added that doesn’t necessarily mean the military should not be involved in the border mission.
But O’Shaughnessy’s comments come just hours before a House vote on a resolution to block Trump’s Feb. 15 declaration of a national emergency along the border.
Trump wants to use his emergency powers to divert Pentagon funds to build a wall along the southern border. Defenders of the wall say it would help block undocumented immigrants and drugs from entering the United States, citing the more than 70,000 domestic drug overdose deaths in 2017 alone.
“If that’s not an emergency, 72,000 dead Americans killed by opioids and heroin in one year, I have no frickin’ idea what an emergency is,” Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said at the hearing.
Democrats have hammered Trump’s emergency declaration, in part because Trump acknowledged that he “didn’t need to do this,” but declared the emergency anyway to potentially expedite the wall’s construction.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., noted that around 40,000 Americans last year were killed by guns, and warned O’Shaughnessy that future presidents could raid the Pentagon budget for other so-called emergencies that are unrelated to Pentagon missions.
Whether Pentagon money will ultimately be used to fund a border wall is an open question. Trump’s emergency declaration is facing legal challenges and some of the defense funds Trump wants to divert have already been spent.
The two defense accounts that Trump and acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan may use to fund the wall could come from military construction accounts and the Pentagon’s counternarcotics accounts.
Trump’s original plan was to use $3.6 billion from unspent military construction money, $2.5 billion in unspent Pentagon counterdrug funds and $600 million from a Treasury Department asset forfeiture account to build the wall.
But just $85 million remains unspent in the Pentagon’s fiscal 2019 counterdrug accounts, complicating the president’s initial plans.
O’Shaughnessy told the panel that Trump consulted with him on the potential use of military construction funds to build the wall before Trump declared the national emergency.
It remains unclear, though, how military construction funds may be used and which military construction projects may be affected by the emergency declaration.
“The actual funding is being worked by the secretary of Defense as we speak,” O’Shaughnessy said before confirming that the fate of the military construction funds initially allocated for his command have yet to be determined.