During the 2016 campaign, Republican candidate Donald Trump assured prospective voters that Mexico would pay for a wall on the southern border. “It’s an easy decision for Mexico,” he said, “Make a onetime payment of $5-10 billion to ensure that $24 billion continues to flow into their country year after year.” Shortly before his inauguration, that promise turned into an IOU, as Trump tweeted in January 2017 that “any money spent on building the Great Wall (for sake of speed), will be paid back by Mexico later!” In early 2019, that burden finally, inevitably came home to the U.S. taxpayer, when the president shut down the government for 35 days to get $1.375 billion earmarked for wall funding — though Democrats offered $1.6 billion prior to the winter closure.
Now, the military is joining the push to fund Trump’s dream hybrid of politics, real-estate development, and xenophobia: On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper agreed to the Trump administration’s request to route $3.6 billion in funding for military construction projects to the building of 175 miles of new or reconstructed barriers along the southern border. According to the Washington Post, doing so “will effectively defund 127 military construction projects using emergency authorities.” The Post also lays out Esper’s explanation for the move, as well as Trump’s authority to raid the Pentagon for the funds:
Esper determined that the use of the military construction funds was necessary to support American forces deployed to the southern border with Mexico under the national emergency that Trump declared in mid-February. The formal determination allows Trump, under an obscure statute in the federal code overseeing the military, to tap the funds appropriated for other purposes without sign-off from Congress.
The Department of Defense has not released the details of the 127 military construction projects from which it will siphon funding, though a spokesperson claimed they would be available later this week. (They did state that half of the sites are on American soil, and half are abroad.) The Pentagon also said that the projects wouldn’t be delayed if Congress would “backfill” the money for the projects. Naturally, Democratic lawmakers weren’t thrilled with the idea of refunding the projects they’ve already paid for. “The president is trying to usurp Congress’ exclusive power of the purse and loot vital funds from our military,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Tuesday. “Robbing the Defense Department of much-needed funds is an affront to our service members and Congress will strongly oppose any funds for new wall construction.”
Schumer added that the decision is equivalent to a “slap in the face” to men and women in the military, a comment that taps into a common theme of Trump’s relationship with the armed forces: celebrating the pomp of American military power without heeding the advice of actual military officials, or supporting the welfare of veterans. The president is fond of having generals around him who are straight out of “central casting,” but has little interest in listening to them. Trump has also allowed members of his Mar-a-Lago resort to influence policy at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and did not earmark enough money in his 2020 budget to implement the VA Mission Act, a piece of reform legislation approved by Congress last year that boosts veterans’ access to private physicians.
On Tuesday, Pentagon comptroller Elaine McCusker told reporters that construction with the $3.6 billion will begin in mid-January, just in time for the president to boast of progress on the southern-border barrier to rally the pro-wall base for reelection. However, the progress isn’t automatic: To date, the Trump administration has replaced just 60 miles of old sections of the border wall with new fencing, and has built only 46.7 miles of new barriers — a fraction of the 654 miles that were in place before Trump became president.