Trump May Have $21 Billion in Military Funds Available for the Wall

The president plans to sign a federal spending bill and declare a national emergency to bankroll his long-promised border wall.

By Lara Seligman and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A view of the border wall between Mexico and the United States, in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico on Jan. 19, 2018.
(Herika Martinez/AFP/Getty Images)
A view of the border wall between Mexico and the United States, in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico on Jan. 19, 2018. (Herika Martinez/AFP/Getty Images)

The announcement Thursday that U.S. President Donald Trump plans to declare a national emergency over the southern border is very likely to rope in the Pentagon, as the White House seeks to divert military funds to build his long-promised wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Congress believes the Pentagon has $21 billion in unobligated military construction funding—money that has been appropriated by the legislature and set aside for specific projects but not yet issued—that the president could use to build the wall over objections from Congress, according to two congressional aides. 

The money, which would be taken from construction projects such as hospitals, family housing, and maintenance, would not be replenished until Congress passes another defense appropriations bill, the aides said. This could leave critical infrastructure improvements in limbo.

It is still unclear which projects the money would come from, the aides said.

Trump is expected to use a legal provision that allows the president to redirect military construction funds in the event of a war or national emergency.

The $21 billion comes from funds in the Defense Department’s budget that were appropriated for various military construction projects over the last five years but not yet spent, the aides said. The largest chunk, $10 billion, is from the appropriation for fiscal year 2019, which Congress just passed and is largely unspent. The rest, about $11 billion, comes from the previous four years.

However, the aides noted that in the case of a national emergency, the legal provision requires that the funds must be used in support of the armed forces.

“There will be legitimate question about whether building a fence along the border is in support of the armed forces,” one aide said. “That would be worked out in court.” If he does declare a national emergency, Trump will likely be met by legal challenges over the constitutionality of such a move.

The money is immediately available for use by the president, the aides said, but it will take some time to for him to spend it. Building a wall across the southern border will require lengthy negotiations with private landowners, they noted.

The $21 billion estimate is significantly higher than the $2 billion to 3 billion figure the Department of Defense floated in January. A department spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Sercices Committee, urged the president not to divert signficant funds from important military projects.

“Doing so would have detrimental consequences for our troops as military infrastructure was one of the accounts most deprived during the Obama-era defense cuts,” Thornberry said in a statement. “And it would undercut one of the most significant accomplishments of the last two years – beginning to repair and rebuild our military.”

”I hope that the President will pursue other options.”

As part of the White House’s plan, Trump will sign a government spending bill agreed to by Congress to avoid a second government shutdown and spare some 800,000 federal workers from another wave of financial uncertainty. A political impasse over the wall sparked a 35-day shutdown of much of the federal government—the longest government shutdown in U.S. history—that ended with an interim deal in early January. The shutdown ground much of the federal government’s work to a halt and hamstrung many routine U.S. diplomatic efforts worldwide.

“President Trump will sign the government funding bill, and as he has stated before, he will also take other executive action—including a national emergency—to ensure we stop the national security and humanitarian crisis at the border,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement to reporters on Thursday afternoon. “The President is once again delivering on his promise to build the wall, protect the border, and secure our great country.”

Trump’s decision to sign off on the federal spending package, which Congress is expected to advance in a vote Thursday evening, settles a fierce months-long battle over federal spending with border wall funds.

As part of the compromise, Congress will allocate $1.375 billion to construct steel post fencing along 55 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border—a far cry from the $5.7 billion for over 200 miles of wall that Trump first demanded prior to the shutdown.

But the new deal is set to open a fresh round of political battles and potential legal challenges with the Democrats over the national emergency declaration.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who emerged as Trump’s top rival on his quest to build the wall, said she is considering filing a legal challenge and reviewing other options to curb funding for it.

Sanders said the White House was “very prepared” for a legal challenge but said there shouldn’t be one. “The president’s doing his job. Congress should do theirs.”

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

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer