President Donald Trump on Wednesday stood by his administration’s efforts to divert billions of dollars from different corners of the federal government for various initiatives along the U.S.-Mexico border, despite a bipartisan outcry from members of Congress.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper informed congressional leaders on Tuesday of the cash grab from more than 100 military projects — such as upgrading military bases both at home and abroad — that will now be used to build a wall along the southern U.S. border. The move prompted an immediate uproar from lawmakers, who cried foul that the president had infringed on Congress’ appropriation authority.
Of the $1.08 billion in cuts coming from military facilities inside 23 U.S. states, 55 percent came from states Hillary Clinton won, versus 45 percent from states won by Trump, according to a POLITICO analysis.
Hardest hit was New York, where $160 million that was expected to go towards updating the engineering center and a parking structure at the U.S. Military Academy is being diverted. New Mexico and Washington State also had big-dollar projects valued at $125 million and $89 million, respectively, halted.
Nearly $640 million of the proposed cuts in U.S. states — 59 percent of the total — would affect House districts held by Democrats, according to the POLITICO analysis.
Asked by reporters what he told members of Congress who would see projects in their districts affected by the diversion of funds, Trump said Wednesday he had delegated that task to Esper, who had “very good conversations” with “various” members, the president said.
“I didn’t tell [them] anything,” he said of the move. “The secretary of Defense spoke with members of Congress and explained it to them and I think he felt very good about it.”
Trump added that Esper agrees with his assessment that a national security crisis exists along the border.
The cuts would fall even harder on two U.S. territories: Puerto Rico, which stands to lose $403 million worth of projects, and Guam, which would lose $257 million. Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria’s devastation in 2017 — and its government has come under repeated criticism from Trump, who denounced it last week as “one of the most corrupt places on earth” even as the island was facing a lashing from Hurricane Dorian.
The five projects in Puerto Rico are primarily to rebuild after severe damage from Hurricane Maria, a senior defense official said.
The Pentagon selected these projects because many weren’t expected to be awarded until late 2020 or early 2021, according to a senior defense official, who said the Defense Department is working with Congress to backfill the funding. The official declined to say how the Pentagon intends to sway lawmakers, who ultimately decided not to fund the wall, and acknowledged there are “no guarantees” these projects will ever be funded.
“All these projects are important to us … but we also have to respond to the emergency that we’ve been directed to respond to on the southwest border,” the official told reporters at the Pentagon.
The Pentagon is also deferring military construction projects in 19 foreign countries, as well as one classified location abroad. Some of the hardest hit are in Germany, which will see eight projects delayed, and Japan, where five projects will be cut.
Trump’s move frustrated even members of his own party. Republican Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney of Utah criticized Trump’s decision, after the Air Force told the senators that $54 million would be diverted from military construction projects.
“Congress has been ceding far too much powers to the executive branch for decades and it is far past time for Congress to restore the proper balance of power between the three branches,” Lee said in a statement.
Romney added that while funding the border wall is an “important priority, the “executive branch should use the appropriate channels in Congress, rather than divert already appropriated funding away from military construction projects and therefore undermining military readiness.”
House Armed Services Ranking Member Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) did not criticize Trump, but said “it is important that Congress now restore the military construction funding diverted for border security.”
Democratic senators also slammed the move. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) tweeted that a total $66.5 million for three Maryland projects would be diverted, adding that the “unconstitutional money grab undermines our national security.” Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia said in a statement Wednesday that Trump’s plan would take away $77 million from projects in Virginia.
Democrats also rejected the Pentagon’s plan to backfill the funding. In a statement, Democratic Sens. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Dick Durbin of Illinois — all members of the Senate Appropriations Committee — said they “will strongly oppose any request by this administration to provide additional money for the projects it has decided to defund.”
Tuesday’s announcement stems from Trump’s national emergency declaration earlier this year, a step that would allow him to steer $8 billion from various federal accounts to build a physical barrier along the southwest border, including a Treasury Department fund and Defense Department efforts to interdict illegal drugs.
Trump’s raid on military construction projects will likely add another hurdle as lawmakers aim to hammer out must-pass defense policy and spending bills in the coming weeks. House Democrats have sought to impose limits on the Pentagon budget to block money from being diverted to the border. Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have sought to backfill the $3.6 billion in raided military construction money in their version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act.
Separately, Trump also defended a different shifting of funds within the Department of Homeland Security for immigration proceedings and detention facilities along the border. DHS notified Congress earlier this month of the plan, which would siphon $155 million from FEMA’s disaster fund to go toward facilities to hold immigration proceedings. The administration has claimed that this money would not affect the government’s ability to respond to disasters, a main criticism from lawmakers as hurricane season kicks off.
Regardless, Trump said Wednesday he isn’t concerned about the move despite the threat that Hurricane Dorian continues to pose to the East Coast as it continues its churn northward, arguing that it helped that Florida largely escaped a direct hit from the storm.
“Oh yeah,” Trump said when asked whether he is still comfortable with that shift in resources. “We are using much less here than we anticipated. We thought this was going to be a direct — originally this was going to be a direct hit into Miami and we would have been satisfied anyway. No, we need help on the border.”
Despite the administration’s funding shifts, preliminary numbers obtained by POLITICO show that the number of migrants caught crossing the border continued a sharp decline in August, dropping 30 percent from the previous month. That number, which reached record levels earlier this year, has decreased by more than half since May, acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan said in the Oval Office on Wednesday.
Trump on Wednesday also repeated his vow to have at least 500 miles of border wall “almost completed if not complete” by around the time of the presidential election next year, despite progress on that front coming slowly amid litigation over his efforts to fund the projects.
Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.
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