President Trump informed Congress on Tuesday that he will trigger his emergency powers to divert $3.6 billion away from the Pentagon’s facilities budget and instead use it to build more of his border wall, seeking to make as much progress as possible before next year’s election.
Mr. Trump signed the emergency declaration earlier this year. The administration had already tapped more than $2 billion in other Pentagon money but was somewhat coy about whether it would siphon off the $3.6 billion in military construction money.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper outlined 11 projects he said the money would be spent on, with the first $1.8 billion coming from projects outside the U.S. that he said are already facing delays, and the other $1.8 billion from interior projects.
That totals about 152 miles of wall — though most of it will replace existing fencing or add a second layer behind existing fencing. Fewer than 55 miles is expected to seal off new parts of the border, according to the notification to Congress.
Costs average nearly $24 million a mile — far higher than the Bush and Obama administrations paid.
Members of Congress who were notified of the president’s move Tuesday were not happy about it.
“This isn’t just an attempt to shift funding; it’s a bid to shift power away from Congress to the president,” said Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said Mr. Trump was stealing money from military construction projects across the country, delaying upgrades the troops need in their facilities to pay for the wall.
“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,” Mr. Schumer said.
Democrats pleaded with the courts to step in and stop the president, but the Supreme Court over the summer cleared the way for the president to spend the initial $2 billion, even as legal challenges developed in lower courts.
The Trump administration says it’s not canceling the military construction projects and indeed says they may not even be delayed — as long as Congress rushes money to backfill what the president has siphoned away.
The administration requested the replacement funding in its 2020 budget.
But congressional Democrats, who control the House and have leverage in the spending process, say they don’t want to reward the president’s aggressive approach to his planned border wall.
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, has reportedly grown more aggressive with his demands that border wall construction be sped up. He is looking to have an accomplishment he can tout as he runs for reelection next year.
In 2015 and 2016, then-candidate Trump vowed a concrete wall along the 1,954-mile southern border and insisted he would make Mexico pay for it. Each time Mexican officials complained about the symbolism of the wall, Mr. Trump vowed to build it even higher.
Now in office, Mr. Trump regularly touts the pace of construction, which to date has replaced outdated fencing along large sections of the border but hasn’t fenced off any new mileage.
“The Wall is going up very fast despite total Obstruction by Democrats in Congress, and elsewhere!” Mr. Trump tweeted last week after The Washington Post reported that his belief in the worth of the barrier was waning.
Where Mr. Trump has failed, by most measures, is to get Mexico to pony up for the cost.
Instead, U.S. taxpayers have been asked to foot the bill, and Mr. Trump has had to scale back his vision of a concrete edifice.
For fiscal 2018, Mr. Trump requested $1.6 billion but got about $1.3 billion, with restrictions imposed by Congress denying him the ability to use the money for any of his own wall designs. He had to build with designs that existed before 2017.
For 2019, Mr. Trump initially asked for $1.6 billion but came back with a $5 billion request. Congress was poised to approve $1.6 billion, but the president at the last minute rejected that deal, sending the government into a record 35-day partial shutdown.
The president eventually caved and agreed to a bill that included $1.375 billion — but he immediately announced he was triggering emergency powers allowing him to spend nearly $7 billion more by siphoning money from a Treasury Department forfeiture fund, a Pentagon drug interdiction account and the military construction money.
The Defense Department previously announced it would use the $2 billion in drug money to build border barriers but told Congress that no final decision had been made on the $3.6 billion portion from military construction.
Democrat-led states, immigration activists and environmental groups sued to try to block the transfers. They argued that Mr. Trump was overstepping his authority and encroaching on Congress‘ power of the purse specified in the Constitution.
The administration argues that Congress gave the president some powers to transfer money and that he could use it for the wall unless lawmakers explicitly forbade it.
A federal district court in California sided with the Trump critics, halting the spending. That was affirmed by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, cleared the blockade, saying the administration can spend the money while the case is argued further.
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