Congress

Pentagon to begin diverting construction funds for border wall

Democrats quick to slam move as an executive power grab

Pentagon officials say the diverted money would be used to build 11 separate segments of wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Mario Tama/Getty Images file photo)

The Pentagon announced Tuesday it would begin diverting $3.6 billion in military construction funding for a wall along the U.S. southern border, even as court challenges continue.

The release of defense money makes good on President Donald Trump’s plan to fund a wall with money never approved by lawmakers for that purpose. Trump declared a national emergency earlier this year to tap military construction accounts and funnel the money to the border instead.

The money would be used to build 11 separate segments of wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, defense officials told reporters at a briefing Tuesday evening. They said 127 military construction projects could be delayed, but not terminated, as a result. Half of the money would come from funding for overseas construction projects, and the other half would come from money set aside for domestic construction.

“If Congress were to backfill the projects, none of the projects would be delayed,” Pentagon comptroller Elaine McCusker said. “They’re definitely not canceled.”

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Defense Secretary Mark Esper is in the process of notifying members of Congress whose states or districts include an affected construction project. Hoffman said the department could release the list of projects as early as Wednesday after Esper speaks to the relevant members.

Senior Democratic lawmakers immediately denounced the Pentagon announcement as an executive power grab that would undermine national security.

“It is a slap in the face to the members of the Armed Forces who serve our country that President Trump is willing to cannibalize already allocated military funding to boost his own ego and for a wall he promised Mexico would pay to build,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said in a statement. 

The New York Democrat said the U.S. Military Academy at West Point would be one of the facilities that lose funding. “The president is trying to usurp Congress’ exclusive power of the purse and loot vital funds from our military,” he said. 

In a letter to Esper, senior Senate Democratic appropriators asked for a “full explanation” of how the decision was made for each affected construction project. They also asked Esper to explain “why a border wall is more important to our national security” than the construction projects Congress approved.

Within an hour of the Pentagon’s announcement, the American Civil Liberties Union said it would seek a court order blocking use of the funds for a border wall as part of its lawsuit challenging the president’s emergency powers. “We’ll be back in court very soon to block Trump’s latest effort to raid military funds for his xenophobic wall,” Dror Ladin, staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project, said in a statement.

The White House announced its intention in February to reprogram up to $6.7 billion for the border wall, after Congress agreed to provide only $1.375 billion in fiscal 2019. The administration said it planned to tap $3.6 billion from military construction projects, $2.5 billion from Pentagon counterdrug programs, and $601 million from the Treasury’s asset forfeiture fund.

By declaring an emergency, Trump can make use of a 1982 military construction authorization law, giving him the power to order construction projects at times of war or “national emergency” that “requires the use of the armed forces.”

Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, however, the statute has never been invoked to fund a project anywhere in the world on the size or scale of the proposed border wall, according to Pentagon data obtained by CQ Roll Call earlier this year. The statute has been used for 18 small-scale projects since 2001 that collectively cost $1.4 billion, the data show. And all but one of those projects were built overseas.

Environmental groups and lawmakers have challenged the funding diversion plan in court, saying it usurps the power of Congress to appropriate money. But in a 5-4 ruling in July, the Supreme Court handed Trump a partial victory by agreeing to let the administration begin spending $2.5 billion in Pentagon counterdrug money on the border while litigation continues.

In all, the 11 new barrier sections would stretch 175 miles. The Pentagon said the new projects would both reinforce already-built sections of the border wall and add entirely new construction with the goal of stemming illegal border crossings and funneling migrants toward official points of entry into the United States.

The new construction will be contracted out by the Army Corps of Engineers, McCusker said, and will most likely begin on military land, making Arizona’s Goldwater Range a potential starting point.

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