The Pentagon informed Congress Thursday it will siphon another $3.8 billion from its accounts to build President Trump’s border wall, as he rushes to get as much construction done as possible before the end of the year.
Mr. Trump has now funneled nearly $10 billion from Defense Department accounts toward his wall over the last two years, sparking bipartisan condemnation from a Congress that says he’s stealing their power of the purse and shortchanging the troops.
The president on Thursday renewed his declaration of a border national emergency, which he said gives him the power to take the money,
“The ongoing border security and humanitarian crisis at the southern border of the United States continues to threaten our national security, including the security of the American people,” the president said in a message to Congress.
“The executive branch has taken steps to address the crisis, but further action is needed to address the humanitarian crisis and to control unlawful migration and the flow of narcotics and criminals across the southern border of the United States.”
The Pentagon said Department of Homeland Security officially requested the transfer last month, saying it needs more than the $1.375 billion Congress gave it this year. Defense officials said they concluded the wall was a high enough priority to shift the money over.
“All of these areas along the Mexican-U.S. border are home to some of the strongest and most violent drug cartels in the world,” said Bob Salesses, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense Integration and Defense Support of Civil Authorities.
The American Civil Liberties Union vowed an immediate lawsuit to try to stop the new cash grab, even as other cases are still raging from last year’s similar diversion of funds.
The new request takes $1.3 billion from National Guard funds and the rest from defense-wide procurement. The money is being shifted into a Pentagon account for drug interdiction, where it will be used to build the border wall under a provision of the law that allows barriers to be built in drug corridors.
Mr. Salesses said the Defense Department’s comptroller has determined that the money is “excess,” or too early to be spent now, so shifting it won’t hurt readiness.
Congressional Democrats said Mr. Trump is stretching the law beyond its breaking point by moving the cash around.
“President Trump is once again disrespecting the separation of powers and endangering our security by raiding military resources to pay for his wasteful border wall,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey and defense subcommittee Chairman Pete Visclosky in a statement.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, pointed out that Mr. Trump had promised Mexico would pay for the wall, and said the president was using the Pentagon as “a slush fund” for his own purposes.
The border wall is perhaps the most visible of Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign pledges, and as he runs for re-election he is intent on convincing his voters that he has made progress despite bipartisan opposition in Congress.
Mr. Trump last year siphoned more than $6 billion from Pentagon construction accounts, delaying projects for the troops to boost his wall-building.
He is turning to the Pentagon after Congress, in the funding bills for fiscal 2019 and 2020, limited him to just $1.375 billion — far less than the $5 billion he sought in each year.
A White House official last year told The Washington Times they were not sure they could spend more than the $1.375 billion that ended up in the final spending bill.
Thursday’s move suggests they’re going to try.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said this year’s cash will come out of Navy ship-building, new weapons and equipment for the troops.
Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the National Guard money will dent the guard’s ability to be a backstop for disaster response, with the cash coming out of firefighting and engineering accounts.
“It is clear to me, and anyone with experience in national security policy, that a wall on our southern border will do nothing to support our strategic advantage over Russia and China, support counterterrorism, address rogue states, or enhance relations with partners and allies,” said Mr. Smith, Washington Democrat.
Mr. Salesses said the additional money will pay for 177 miles of steel bollard fencing at the U.S.-Mexico boundary.
That works out to a cost of about $21 million per mile. That’s down slightly from the cost of Mr. Trump’s previous round of wall-building.
The government already owns the land the new fencing will be built on, and construction should be done within two years, he said.
He said he expects this will be the final year that the Pentagon is asked to pony up for the wall.
Mr. Trump first declared a border emergency amid last year’s migrant surge. He said that boosted his powers to move money to speed up his campaign promise of a border wall.
That border surge had mostly dissipated, well before the wall-building hit its stride in the fall. Security experts say the key was changes to U.S. policy that ended “catch-and-release” for 95% of migrants.
Several lower court judges ruled against Mr. Trump’s wall money grab, but the Supreme Court said the money could continue to flow while the cases are being argued.
Customs and Border Protection says it needs $11.1 billion to build 576 miles of wall.
About half of that will replace outdated fencing or vehicle barriers, with the rest sealing off new sections of the border or adding a new second layer of wall set off from the border.
As of Feb. 7, 1,087 miles of replacement wall had been built. One mile of new border has been fenced in by a Trump wall.
A top CBP official says they expect to have nearly 450 miles of the wall project done, or nearly done, by the end of the year.
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