Report

U.S. Military Readies to Pay for Trump’s Border Wall

The Pentagon is looking through its accounts for spare change in case the president declares a national emergency.

U.S. President Donald Trump, center, with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, left, and Reggie Singh, the brother of a police officer who was allegedly killed by a man in the United States illegally, speaks during his visit to U.S. Border Patrol McAllen Station in McAllen, Texas, on Jan. 10. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump, center, with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, left, and Reggie Singh, the brother of a police officer who was allegedly killed by a man in the United States illegally, speaks during his visit to U.S. Border Patrol McAllen Station in McAllen, Texas, on Jan. 10. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

If U.S. President Donald Trump declares a national emergency as a way to divert military funding to pay for his long-promised border wall without lawmakers’ consent, the Pentagon will be prepared with roughly $3 billion in ready funds, a U.S. defense official told Foreign Policy Thursday.

The Department of Defense has $2 billion to $3 billion in unobligated military construction funds—money that has been appropriated by Congress but not yet issued for specific projects—that the president could legally redirect to a wall at the southern U.S. border in a national emergency, the official said.

The Pentagon is preemptively looking through those accounts for funding that could be directed to the wall and, if called to do so, will provide multiple courses of action for the president to review, according to the official.

It is not clear yet if using military funding for the wall would automatically require redirecting military personnel—certain entities, such as the Army Corps of Engineers, frequently use contractors for projects, the defense official said.

In addition, DOD has about $700 million in available funds that the Secretary of Defense could, under a separate statute, provide to the federal law enforcement agencies at the border for certain counterdrug activities, according to the official.

Trump has asked Congress for $5.7 billion to build the wall.

The possibility of using the military to pay for the wall is looking increasingly likely. As he departed the White House to travel to the border between Texas and Mexico Thursday, Trump warned that he will “probably” take the rare step of declaring a national emergency on the southern border if talks with congressional Democrats continue to crumble. The continuing standoff has prompted a partial government shutdown that has now lasted 20 days.

“We have not been tasked with this yet, but we are taking this as ‘if this happens, this is what we are going to do,’” the official said. “There has been no formal tasking, but we’re readying in the event of.”

Notably, Army Secretary Mark Esper on Thursday joined Trump and other top officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, for a roundtable discussion on immigration and border security at the U.S. Border Patrol McAllen Station in McAllen, Texas, according to the White House pool report.

Legal experts also point to another option for diverting military funds to the wall: a statute that allows the president to reprogram funds from the Army civil works program in the case of a national emergency.

While legally some have argued Trump is on solid ground, the move would likely stoke a backlash from Congress and would likely end up in the courts.

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, the ranking member on the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, met with acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan on Jan. 9 to warn him against complying with such a request.

“Using DoD funds to pay for the wall, when Congress was never asked to approve of such a plan, is a major breach of relations between DoD and the oversight committees,” Durbin said in a statement. “In my meeting with Acting Secretary Shanahan, I cautioned him that if President Trump directs DoD to circumvent Congress in such a legally dubious way on such a major issue, Congress will have to reevaluate its relationship with the Department and judge whether each instance of broad flexibility granted to the Department is worth the risk of abuse by President Trump.”

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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