Military projects lose out to Trump’s wall

Migrants from Guatemala walk for miles along the Mexican side of the border wall looking for a way to enter the United States near El Paso, Texas. Ilana Panich-Linsman/New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon will delay or suspend 127 military construction projects so that $3.6 billion can be diverted to shore up President Donald Trump’s border wall, Defense Department officials said Tuesday.

Pentagon officials on Tuesday began notifying congressional representatives from areas that house the affected projects, and the decision to divert the funding prompted an outcry from Democrats over what they viewed as a violation of Congress’ authority to set spending.

The move is part of Trump’s declaration in February of a national emergency to gain access to billions of dollars that Congress refused to give him to build a wall along the border with Mexico. After losing a battle with lawmakers over that funding — a fight that led to a partial government shutdown — the president argued that the flow of drugs, criminals and unauthorized immigrants from Mexico constitutes a national security threat that justified using the military without specific approval from lawmakers.

Defense Department officials declined to identify the affected projects until lawmakers had been notified, but they said that about half of the $3.6 billion would be taken from planned military construction projects overseas. The remainder would come from planned projects in the United States.

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point is one such project, said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader. In a statement, he called the decision “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.”

In a letter sent to lawmakers that was obtained by the New York Times, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper identified 11 projects that the money would go toward, including new construction and some fencing replacement along the southwestern border.

The projects would span Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, with the largest amount of new pedestrian fencing — about 52 miles — slated for Laredo, Texas, along the Rio Grande.

And while Esper did not use the word “wall” in the letter, it is likely to serve as evidence for both the president and his reelection campaign that he is upholding his promise to build one.

Department officials insisted Tuesday that the military construction projects were only being delayed, not canceled. But regaining money for those projects will be up to Congress, which would have to approve new money to fund them, something that Democrats who control the House are loath to do.

“My view of it is that stealing money from military construction, at home and abroad, will undermine our national security, quality of life and morale of our troops, and that indeed makes America less safe,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California told members of her caucus on a private call Tuesday, according to a Democratic official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to publicly discuss a private phone call.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., who leads the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees military construction, said on the same call that the committee would continue to resist replacing the diverted funds, according to the Democratic official.

“Every project that has been affected has gone through a rigorous multiyear review of the appropriateness and necessity of the construction process,” said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., who oversees the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee. In an interview, he said he had not yet spoken with Esper, but warned “it will not be a pleasant conversation for him.”

Democrats on the Senate Appropriations Committee, in a letter to Esper on Tuesday night, demanded more information about how the decision was made and “why a border wall is more important to our national security and the well-being of our service members and their families than these projects.”

Several groups have challenged the Trump administration over the president’s efforts to divert funding for the wall. But in July, the Supreme Court gave Trump a victory in a separate but related case, overturning an appellate decision and ruling that the administration could tap money to proceed with wall construction while the matter proceeds. The court said the groups challenging the administration did not appear to have a legal right to do so, in an indication that the court’s conservative majority is likely to side with the administration in the end.

New York Times

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