Trump to Raid Pentagon’s War Account to Build Border Wall

The White House plans to divert $3.8 billion from across the Department of Defense to build Trump’s long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

U.S. soldiers reinforce the U.S.-Mexico border fence
U.S. soldiers reinforce the U.S.-Mexico border fence in El Paso, Texas, as seen from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on April 4, 2019. HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump is preparing to divert $3.8 billion in total from programs across the Department of Defense, including a controversial war account used to fund emergency requirements as well as the procurement of ships, F-35 fighter jets and Army vehicles, to help build his long-promised wall along the southern border, Foreign Policy has learned.

For the second year in a row, Trump will raid the Department of Defense’s coffers for money for the U.S.-Mexico border wall, dipping into fiscal year 2020 funds earmarked for counterdrug activities and military construction. But this year, a significant chunk of those dollars will be funneled from a war account known as the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, according to a Feb. 13 reprogramming action sent to lawmakers that was obtained by Foreign Policy.

The Overseas Contingency Operations fund was established after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to fund emergency requirements. It has been criticized as a “slush fund” used to circumvent mandatory spending limits set by Congress.

As it did last year, the White House is planning to transfer funds from elsewhere in the Pentagon’s budget into the counterdrug account. From there, the White House has argued it can legally transfer that money to build additional miles of the wall under U.S. Code Section 284 (b).

The  money will go toward “barrier projects,” including building fences, roads, and lighting, in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, said Robert Salesses, deputy assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense integration and defense support of civil authorities, on Thursday at the Pentagon.

The administration has justified using the Pentagon’s counterdrug funding to build the wall by saying that the barriers will help keep violent Mexican drug cartels at bay.

“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,” Salesses said. “The improved ability to impede and deny illicit activity within the border barrier area projects will help to deter and prevent illegal cross-border activity and stem the flow of illegal narcotics into the United States.”

In total, the department plans to divert $1.6 billion from the Overseas Contingency Operations account to the counterdrug account, according to the reprogramming, which was signed by acting Pentagon comptroller Elaine McCusker. The money was intended for procurement of two C-130J airlift aircraft and eight MQ-9 unmanned aerial systems, as well as National Guard and Reserve equipment.

In addition, the department plans to transfer $2.2 billion from the base budget—funds that would otherwise have gone to buy Army vehicles, Navy aircraft and ships, and Air Force aircraft—to the counterdrug account. Specifically, the transfer includes $201 million for Army vehicles, $223 million for two Navy F-35s, $155 million for two V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, $180 million for one P-8 maritime aircraft, $650 million for Navy landing helicopter assault ships, $261 million for Expeditionary Fast Transports, $156 million for advanced procurement funds for Air Force F-35s, $196 million for two C-130Js, and $180 million from the now-defunct light attack aircraft program.

Salesses said Defense Secretary Mark Esper conducted a “deliberate process” to determine whether and how the department could support the Department of Homeland Security’s initial request for assistance, which was for 271 mies at a cost of $5.5 billion. Based on recommendations by the secretary of the Army, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the comptroller, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Esper decided to construct 177 miles of the wall—not the full request—on federally controlled land and identified $3.8 billion worth of funding for the project.

“The items to be funded are a higher priority than the items for which the funds were transferred,” Salesses said, stressing that, “The transfer of funds will not adversely affect the military preparedness of the United States.”

The Army Corps of Engineers, which will construct the barriers, should complete the project in the next 12 to 24 months, he said, adding that he does not believe the Department of Homeland Security will ask for additional support for the border wall next year.

The news that the White House is preparing to raid the war account and funding for new equipment comes as the United States commits more U.S. troops to conflicts abroad. Since tensions with Iran spiked last summer, the Pentagon has deployed more than 14,000 additional U.S. forces to the Middle East, including 3,500 soldiers with the 82nd Airborne Division deployed last month after a U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani.

Lawmakers across party lines expressed outrage at the proposal after it was made public. Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Republican from Texas and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said diverting funding allocated for military accounts “undermines the principle of civilian control of the military and is in violation of the separation of powers within the Constitution.”

Meanwhile, in a letter sent to Esper obtained by Foreign Policy, nine Democratic senators who sit on influential defense-related subcommittees expressed outrage at the plan to raid “critical” programs across the department.

“The raid on this funding is quite simply an attack on the efforts to ensure our citizen-soldiers are prepared to respond to disasters, both overseas and in nearly every community in all fifty states and four territories,” wrote Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy, Jack Reed, Brian Schatz, Dianne Feinstein, Patty Murray, Jon Tester, Tom Udall, and Tammy Baldwin.

In particular, the senators expressed concern about the Defense Department’s plan to divert funding from “perennially-underfunded” National Guard and Reserve accounts, including $1.3 billion Congress provided to the National Guard and Reserve Equipment account in fiscal year 2020. They called this the “lifeline of modernization for the National Guard and Reserves, both for warfighting missions and domestic contingencies.”

The senators are also “alarmed” at the decision to transfer funds from the Overseas Contingency Operations account for additional wall construction, according to the letter. That would turn the war account into a “slush fund” for real, the senators warned.

“These accounts were created to separate what was supposed to be temporary war-related spending from the routine operations of our Armed Forces, but critics came to call these accounts little more than a slush fund to evade spending caps,” the senators wrote. “This raid on these funding lines puts an end to any pretense that the critics were wrong.”

The Washington Post reported in January that Trump plans to reprogram $7.2 billion overall in Pentagon funding this year to complete about 885 miles of new fencing by spring 2022. That initially was reported to include $3.5 billion from the counterdrug account—up from $2.5 billion diverted in 2019—as well as $3.7 billion in military construction funding, slightly up from $3.6 billion in 2019. However, the increase to $3.8 billion for the counterdrug account indicates that the overall number could be higher than $7.2 billion.

In total, Trump plans to reprogram $7.2 billion in Pentagon funding this year to complete about 885 miles of new fencing by spring 2022, the Washington Post reported in January. That initially was reported to include $3.5 billion from the counterdrug account—up from $2.5 billion diverted in 2019—as well as $3.7 billion in military construction funding, slightly up from $3.6 billion in 2019.

The move would bring the total amount of federal funds channeled to the border wall to more than $18.4 billion. Building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border was a key 2016 campaign promise for Trump, who faces reelection this year.

A judge in El Paso, Texas, ruled late last year that the White House broke the law in diverting funds for the border wall that had been authorized by Congress for the Pentagon and froze the $3.6 billion. But the administration appealed the ruling, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit lifted the injunction in January, allowing work on the barriers to proceed while legal challenges are pending.

Diverting Pentagon funding for the wall is just one of many instances where the Trump administration has sought to circumvent Congress’s authority, particularly its control over government appropriations.

“This repeated maneuver to transfer funds once again is in contrast to the long-established processes involving consultation with the defense oversight committees of Congress on reprogrammings and transfers,” the senators wrote. “Engaging in this scheme again is not only controversial, but also poisonous to the relationship we seek on national defense matters—which should be above this type of rancor and partisanship”

Esper has defended the move to use Pentagon money for the wall.

“The first priority of the DoD is protection of the homeland,” Esper said during a press conference with his Japanese counterpart in January. “So the southwest border is a security issue. And so we’ll see how things play out, but we remain committed to supporting the Department of Homeland Security and its mission.”

Update, Feb. 13, 2020: This article was updated with information from a letter sent by Democratic senators and with comment from Robert Salesses.

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

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