Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has authorized the diverting of $3.6 billion in military construction funds for 11 wall projects on the southern border with Mexico, according to defense officials and a letter from Esper to the Senate Armed Services Committee, which has been obtained by CNN.
In his letter, Esper told Congress he has “determined that 11 military construction projects along the international border with Mexico, with an estimated total cost of $3.6 billion, are necessary to support the use of the armed forces in connection with the national emergency.”
The letter does not include the word “wall,” as is typical in Defense Department announcements of this kind, but details how the funds will be used for new fencing projects at various border locations.
The announcement fulfills a promise made by President Donald Trump in February to tap military construction funds to build his border wall. The move was slammed by Congress when it was first announced and only recently completed a Pentagon legal review.
On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called the decision “a slap in the face” to service members.
“This decision will harm already planned, important projects intended to support our service members at military installations in New York, across the United States, and around the world,” Schumer wrote in a statement. “It is a slap in the face to the members of the Armed Forces who serve our country that President Trump is willing to cannibalize already allocated military funding to boost his own ego and for a wall he promised Mexico would pay to build.”
Schumer said that the lost funding would delay critical construction projects at military installations in New York, such as the US Military Academy at West Point.
Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, also condemned the move.
“President Trump’s immigration efforts have failed since day one. Today, he made it clear he is willing to take funds from our troops and disaster victims and divert them to try to protect his political right flank. And ultimately, that could put Americans at risk,” he said in a statement.
“This isn’t just an attempt to shift funding, it’s a bid to shift power away from Congress to the president. Clearly, this administration is trying to circumvent Congressional authority and this ill-advised attempt should be legally challenged and struck down by the courts.” Reed added.
The American Civil Liberties Union announced Tuesday that “it would seek a court order blocking use of the funds as part of its lawsuit challenging the president’s abuse of emergency powers to secure funds for a wall Congress denied.”
Military construction projects put on hold
Defense Department officials say 127 military construction projects are being put on hold in order to use the $3.6 billion to fund building 175 miles of southern border wall.
Construction is expected to begin in about 135 days in areas where the federal government already owns the land along the border, including the Department of Defense’s Barry M. Goldwater test range in Arizona, according to Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Comptroller Elaine McCusker.
McCusker said projects on private land could go past 2020 due to issues involved with land acquisition.
According to chief Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman, half the money is coming from deferred projects overseas, and the other half were planned for projects in the US.
The money originally intended for overseas projects will be tapped first.
Though it was not immediately clear which military construction projects would be put on hold, the move could jeopardize the construction of command and control, drone and cyber projects as well as training facilities in the US and overseas.
Which projects will be impacted?
Defense officials said Tuesday that members of Congress whose states or districts will be impacted by the decision are being informed about the list of projects and once that process is completed the public will be told. US allies are also being informed about the impact to overseas facilities.
Hoffman called the impacted projects “important” and said the Defense Department is working to get Congress to appropriate additional money to back fill the funds which are being re-directed to the border as well as attempting to get allies to pick up the tab for the US construction projects overseas.
Democrat appropriators sent a letter to Esper Tuesday requesting additional information about the projects that will be impacted.
Though it’s unclear which military construction would be put on hold, the move could put at risk projects such as command and control, drone, cyber and training facilities in the US and overseas.
White House officials have held talks in the last weeks to begin planning for the move, two administration officials said, which would shift funds from the Department of Defense’s military construction budget to fund the border wall.
The move would rely on Trump’s February emergency declaration, which has faced stiff legal challenges.
Lt. Gen. Andrew W. Poppas, director of operations, J-3, Joint Staff, says “we do” expect to be able to reduce some of the troops assigned to the border mission with the construction of these barriers but would not say by how much.
There are currently some 5,500 active duty troops on the border in addition to some 2,000 National Guard forces.