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In Defending Trump’s Border Wall, Esper Faces First Political Test

The new U.S. defense secretary must strike a balance between placating angry lawmakers and satisfying the White House.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks to members of the press during his first joint press conference at the Pentagon Briefing Room on Aug. 28.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks to members of the press during his first joint press conference at the Pentagon Briefing Room on Aug. 28. Department of Defense photo by Staff Sgt. Nicole Mejia

Defense Secretary Mark Esper has signed off on diverting of $3.6 billion in military construction funds to build 175 miles of U.S. President Donald Trump’s promised border wall with Mexico, setting up a showdown between angry lawmakers and an administration gearing up for a heated presidential race.

For Esper, the decision marks the first test of his ability to walk a precarious political tightrope. On the one side, the new defense secretary must placate a frustrated and hyperpartisan Congress. On the other, he must satisfy an impatient boss with his eye on the 2020 elections. 

Democratic lawmakers immediately condemned the move on Tuesday, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer calling it a “slap in the face” to service members, who will likely see important infrastructure projects delayed. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, vowed to challenge the “irresponsible” decision in court.

A group of Democrats on the Senate Appropriations Committee sent Esper a letter demanding “full justification” for the decision and warning that it will cause lasting damage to the relationship between Congress and the Pentagon.

“Our working relationship, and the inherent trust contained within, has been further degraded and will necessarily result in stricter controls on funding appropriated,” lawmakers warned in the letter, which was obtained by Foreign Policy. “We look forward to a prompt and thorough response in order to begin to restore a functional working relationship.”

The letter was signed by Sens. Brian Schatz, Dick Durbin, and Dianne Feinstein, as well as other influential senators.

The southern border is a particularly fraught issue, one that Esper’s predecessor, James Mattis, also struggled with just weeks before his resignation. Mattis drew fire for defending Trump’s initial decision to send thousands of active duty troops to the border late last year, with critics arguing that the deployment politicized the military. 

In addition to managing a precarious relationship with Congress, Esper must also satisfy Trump that he is carrying out the wishes of his commander in chief—something Mattis often failed to do. The southern border is a signature issue for the president, who promised during the 2016 campaign to build a wall to stem the flow of immigrants from South and Central America crossing the border illegally into the United States.

“We are talking about an invasion of our country with drugs, with human traffickers, with all types of criminals and gangs,” Trump said in February.

But Esper appears determined to balance both sides. In an effort to smooth the way, he began notifying lawmakers and affected embassies of the decision on Tuesday, placing a call to Pelosi and sending a letter to defense congressional committees laying out the details.

Esper explained in the letter that he would make the funding available in two tranches, the first coming from deferred overseas projects and the second planned for projects within the United States. The intent is to “provide time” to work with lawmakers to figure out how to restore funding for the projects, “as well as to work with our allies and partners in improving cost burden sharing for the overseas construction projects,” he wrote in the letter, which was obtained by CNN. 

Those who know Esper say he is an adept political operator and well prepared to navigate the delicate process of getting things done in Washington, drawing on his extensive experience in the defense industry, the Pentagon, and on Capitol Hill. He sailed through his confirmation, with just eight senators—all Democrats, including five running for president in 2020—voting against it.

While he did face criticism during his confirmation hearing, primarily from Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, about his ties to Raytheon, a top defense contractor where he was vice president of government relations, most of the questions were friendly. Republican Sen. James Inhofe, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, had particularly glowing words for Esper. He said he was “impressed” by Esper’s communication with troops in the field during a recent trip the two took together to Fort Sill.

“At that time, I just thought, you are really the guy for this job,” Inhofe said.

Esper’s reception on Capitol Hill is a stark contrast to lawmakers’ grilling of Patrick Shanahan, who served as acting secretary of defense for six months, over the border deployment and his ties to Boeing during a series of lackluster appearances before Congress earlier this year. At the time, insiders said the sense among lawmakers was that Shanahan came off as unprepared.

But Esper has not yet had to contend with Congress’s wrath over what legislators see as the White House’s repeated attempts to undermine normal processes. The border issue has become a particular flash point, with lawmakers calling the president’s Feb. 15 move to declare a national emergency and redirect $3.6 billion in unobligated military construction funds—money that has been appropriated by Congress and set aside for specific projects but not yet issued—an affront to military families. The money will not be replenished until Congress passes another defense appropriations bill, leaving critical infrastructure improvements in limbo.

Mattis, Esper’s predecessor, drew criticism for defending the initial deployment of active duty troops to the border late last year ahead of Trump’s national emergency declaration, arguing that it provided wartime training. But he resigned just weeks later over another controversial issue: Trump’s decision, since reversed, to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria. 

Esper appears determined to give the president no reason to doubt his loyalty. On Tuesday, chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman stressed the historical precedent for the Defense Department’s support to the Department of Homeland Security on border security, citing President George W. Bush’s Operation Jump Start in 2006. He added that in this case the use of military troops is “necessary and appropriate.”

The 127 projects impacted do not include family housing, barracks, or dormitory projects, projects already awarded, or projects expected to have fiscal year 2019 award dates, Hoffman said. The full list of projects, which will likely include work on base infrastructure, will be released on Wednesday after notifications are completed, he added. 

Based on analysis by the department and advice from the various players, including the Department of Homeland Security and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, Esper determined that 11 military construction projects along the southern border are “necessary to support the use of the armed forces in conjunction with the national emergency at the southern border,” Hoffman said.

“Such construction will allow DoD to reprioritize forces conducting military missions that assist the Department of Homeland Security in gaining operational control of the southern border,” Hoffman said. 

Update, Sept. 4, 2019: This article has been updated to clarify chief Pentagonspokesman Jonathan Hoffmans comments. 

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

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