The Pentagon’s move to divert some $3.6 billion from military construction coffers to fund 175 miles of border fencing will defund planned projects in 23 states, three U.S. territories and at bases in 20 other countries, the Defense Department announced Wednesday.
The Pentagon is confident that Congress will later provide another $3.6 billion for the 127 planned construction projects worldwide from which funds were diverted to pay for sections of border wall to be built in Texas, Arizona and California as part of President Donald Trump’s February national emergency proclamation, a senior defense official said Wednesday. The Defense Department has no “Plan B” should lawmakers decide not to backfill those funds to build the defunded projects, said the official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in impacted states largely expressed dismay at the decision approved by Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Tuesday, which came months after Congress provided the Trump administration some $1.375 billion for wall construction after the White House had requested $5.7 billion.
Pentagon officials released the list of impacted projects Wednesday after lawmakers and foreign allies were notified of impacted projects within their jurisdictions. Pentagon officials insisted all of the projects listed remained important to the Defense Department, which would seek future funding for every project that it listed for defunding this week.
Locations hit hardest by the fund transfers included Puerto Rico, which saw some $400 million worth of projects — primarily construction of buildings impacted by 2018’s Hurricane Maria — defunded.
In New York, $160 million in planned projects at the Army’s storied U.S. Military Academy at West Point — a parking facility and an engineering center — were defunded, drawing condemnation from Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who called the decision a “slap in the face” to the military.
Virginia and North Carolina also saw large cuts. In Virginia, some $90 million for four projects was defunded, including for a cyber operations facility at Joint Base Langley-Eustis. North Carolina saw about $80 million for projects defunded, including a battalion complex at the Marines’ Camp Lejeune.
In Alaska, Pentagon officials diverted more than $60 million of planned construction projects, including $8 million from a planned extension of Fort Greely’s missile field No. 1, a key component of U.S. missile defense capabilities. The senior defense officials said the expansion was to build two backup missile silos and would not impact the military’s ability to defend the nation from a ballistic missile strike.
The list of defunded projects also includes projects to build or upgrade nine Defense Department schools, including one at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, three in Germany, two in Japan and one in the United Kingdom.
The Pentagon decision drew criticism from Democratic lawmakers, who accused the Trump administration of abusing power and circumventing Congress to pay for the president’s border wall with military funds.
Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said the Trump administration was “grossly irresponsible” for moving the funds from the Pentagon’s coffers to pay for portions of the “vanity wall.” The congressman, who is chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on military readiness, labeled Esper as Trump’s “new pawn” for agreeing to divert the funds.
Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md., said Trump was “stealing military construction funds” from needed projects, including at Joint Base Andrews, in Maryland’s 4th Congressional District, which Brown represents. Projects diverted at Andrews included a child development center and an explosive ordnance disposal range.
“It is outrageous that President Trump is abusing his power to cancel military construction projects in Maryland and around the world in order to fulfill a campaign promise,” Brown said Wednesday in a statement. “This will hurt morale, degrade readiness and make America less safe. President Trump should not build his ineffective, xenophobic vanity project on the backs of our servicemembers and military families.”
The American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday evening issued a statement announcing it would seek court action to block the movement of funds from Pentagon construction projects to build the border wall.
“The fact that the government sat on these so-called ‘emergency funds’ for seven months further confirms that this is nothing but an unlawful power grab,” Dror Ladin, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project, said in a statement. “We’ll be back in court very soon to block Trump’s latest effort to raid military funds for his xenophobic wall.”
But the move was not met with universal disapproval.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, supported the decision and urged other members of Congress to support backfilling the diverted $3.6 billion.
“We continue to face a very real crisis at the southern border,” Thornberry, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “I regret that the president has been forced to divert funding for our troops to address the crisis. His initial requests to secure the border were not unreasonable and Congress should have been able to come together to find a compromise.”
Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., also expressed support for the movement of funds, though she also said she had lobbied the Pentagon to ensure Arizona military construction projects would not be delayed by the transfer. Only one Arizona project was defunded as a result, a $30 million ground transport equipment building at the Army’s Fort Huachuca, which McSally said had already been delayed by environmental factors. McSally said top Army leaders ensured her the project would be completed in the future.
“We need to secure our border and protect our military. We can and should do both,” McSally said. “As soon as the emergency was declared, I went to the mat to fight for Arizona projects and succeeded by receiving assurances from the highest levels of the Department of Defense.”
The wall projects approved by Esper would build about 175 miles of barrier — described by the Pentagon as pedestrian fencing — in border locations in Texas, Arizona and California.
In a note to members of Congress dated Tuesday, the defense secretary said the building of the barrier wall was “necessary to support the use of the armed forces” in their mission to support Department of Homeland Security operations on the border. The Pentagon has about 5,000 servicemembers deployed along the southern border with Mexico, who perform duties including surveillance, vehicle maintenance, ferrying CBP officers around the border and busing migrants to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol stations.
Esper hinted building the new barriers could mean less troops serving along the border in the near future. Pentagon officials said Tuesday that it would take at least 100 days before any construction would begin.
“These projects will deter illegal entry, increase the vanishing time of those illegally crossing the border, and channel migrants to ports of entry,” Esper wrote in his memorandum. “They will reduce the demand for personnel and assets at the locations where the barriers are constructed and allow the redeployment of DOD personnel and assets to other high-traffic areas on the border without barriers.”
The diverted funds would include nearly $1.2 billion for three phases of a border project near Yuma, Ariz., that would primarily replace fencing and vehicular barriers — areas where military vehicles line the border — with a new, permanent barrier largely on the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range.
Another $1.27 billion would fund a project in Laredo, Texas. The money transfer also funds border barrier planned for San Diego and Texas’ El Centro and El Paso. The projects in El Centro and Laredo are on private property, which defense officials said could delay their construction start.
The White House’s proposed $718 billion Defense Department budget for fiscal year 2020 included $3.6 billion in an emergency fund to backfill money taken from 2019 construction projects for the wall as well as an additional $3.6 billion marked for potential new construction at the U.S. southern border. The House and Senate have passed defense budgets, but need to reconcile their differences during the fall session to draft a compromise on the spending plan.
The Defense Department is already paying $2.5 billion for about 150 miles of border wall through a drug interdiction fund, authorized earlier this year by then acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan. The Army Corps of Engineers have awarded all but 20 miles worth of those construction contracts, because those final miles were approved by Esper last week.