Defense Secretary James Mattis on Wednesday pushed back on criticisms that the deployment of more than 5,200 service members to the U.S.-Mexico border was a political stunt from the Trump administration before the midterm elections.
“We don’t do stunts in this department,” Mattis told reporters, according to a Pentagon pool report.
Mattis said the military support to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “is practical support based on the request from the commissioner of customs and border police.”
“We do this following storms, we do this in support of the Department of Homeland Security. This is a different aspect of it, but that's what we are doing,” Mattis said after meeting with the South Korean defense minister at the Pentagon.
President Trump last week ordered the Pentagon to move forward on the troop deployment in response to a shrinking caravan of several thousand Central American migrants.
The president in the past month has increasingly portrayed the group as a threat to national security, tweeting on Wednesday that the caravan included “some very bad thugs and gang members.”
The caravan is still several weeks away from reaching the border, but with the midterm elections on Tuesday and the control of the House up for grabs, Trump in the past month has upped his rhetoric on the threat of illegal immigration to the United States.
Mattis on Friday approved a request for assistance from DHS to send the troops.
The Pentagon then announced on Monday that more than 5,200 active-duty troops would be sent to the border in Texas, Arizona and California as part of Operation Faithful Patriot.
A day later, U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command head Gen. Terrence O'Shaughnessy – who oversees the effort – said that number is expected to rise.
The Pentagon has not said how many troops it is looking to ultimately send, nor given a cost estimate for the operation.
As of Wednesday the Pentagon had identified about 7,000 active-duty troops who could be deployed to the border if needed, Reuters reported.