Dems press Pentagon officials to explain why troops are still at border

Dems press Pentagon officials to explain why troops are still at border
© Greg Nash

Democrats on Tuesday pressed top Pentagon officials on why thousands of active-duty troops were deployed to the southern border in October and why they continue to deployed.

The Democratic lawmakers argued that while past presidents routinely sent Guardsmen and reservists to the border, it's unusual to use active-duty troops as President TrumpDonald John TrumpAmash responds to 'Send her back' chants at Trump rally: 'This is how history's worst episodes begin' McConnell: Trump 'on to something' with attacks on Dem congresswomen Trump blasts 'corrupt' Puerto Rico's leaders amid political crisis MORE has done.

“While border security is always a challenge, there’s really not much evidence that right at the moment it is a crisis that would call for the – if not unprecedented, then highly unusual – step of sending active-duty troops to the border,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithThe House Democrats who voted to kill impeachment effort Overnight Defense: Esper officially nominated for Defense secretary | Pentagon silent on Turkey getting Russian missile system | House, Senate headed for clash over defense bill House and Senate head for showdown on must-pass defense bill MORE (D-Wash.) said during a hearing.

He noted that apprehensions of unauthorized crossers at the U.S.-Mexico border is down to roughly a third of its peak in 2004 and 2005.

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Lawmakers used Tuesday's hearing, the panel's first of the new Congress, to question director of operations for the Joint Staff Vice Adm. Michael Gilday and under secretary of Defense for policy John Rood about the deployment of U.S. troops to the southern border.

The hearing comes against the backdrop of the recently ended partial government shutdown and impending bicameral, bipartisan negotiations over border security funding.

Trump has threatened to either shut down the government again in mid-February or declare a national emergency to circumvent Congress to build a wall if lawmakers do not secure funding for the proposal.

An emergency declaration could allow Trump to use military construction funding for the wall.

Trump first ordered National Guardsmen to the border in April 2018, with about 2,200 there now.

In October, Trump also ordered active-duty troops to border as he fixated on a caravan of asylum seekers ahead of the midterm elections.

The active-duty deployment peaked at about 5,900 troops and was originally supposed to end Dec. 15. The mission has since been extended twice, first to Jan. 31 and now to Sept. 30.

Right now, there about 2,350 active-duty troops at the border.

The duties of the troops so far has largely been to “harden” 22 points of entry, which Rood said entailed putting up 70 miles of concertina wire on top of existing barrier and creating barriers other ways including with shipping containers.

The request for an extension also came with a request for another 150 miles of concertina wire.

Trump’s deployment of active-duty troops to the U.S.-Mexico border will cost $132 million by the end of the month, Gidlay confirmed Tuesday.

On top of that, the deployment of National Guard troops to the border cost $103 million last fiscal year and is projected to cost $448 million this year fiscal year, Gilday said.

The Joint Staff official said he could not provide an estimate for the whole fiscal year for active-duty troops because “the requirement is evolving and fluctuating.”

Gidley said active-duty troops were needed in October so U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents could focus on ports of entry since at the time it was unclear which entrance the migrant caravan would go to.

Rood added that the National Guard could not support the additional assistance from the Pentagon that the Department of Homeland Security requested, so the active-duty troops were needed to fill the “delta.”

Rood sidestepped Smith’s question on under what circumstances the Pentagon would deny a request to use military construction (MilCon) funding to build the wall.

“What if they asked you for $10 billion out of MilCon to help build a wall? Would you say no then?” Smith asked.

Rood replied that the president would first need to declare a national emergency and then the secretary of defense would “make certain determinations before we would ever reach that decision.”

Rood said the Pentagon has done “prudent planning” amid the discussion of declaring a national emergency, but neither he nor Gidlay would provide specifics, including what military construction projects could be affected, saying the specifics depend on what authorities the president invokes.

Asked by Rep. Mo BrooksMorris (Mo) Jackson BrooksOvernight Defense: Woman accusing general of sexual assault willing to testify | Joint Chiefs pick warns against early Afghan withdrawal | Tensions rise after Iran tries to block British tanker Conservatives ask Barr to lay out Trump's rationale for census question House sends Trump border aid bill after Pelosi caves to pressure from moderates MORE (R-Ala.) whether the Pentagon would obey an order from Trump to build a barrier at the border, Rood replied the department would “if we judged it to be a lawful order.”

“And I assume it would be,” Rood added.

Republicans throughout the hearing argued the deployment was no different than deployments to the border under previous presidents.

Republican committee staff distributed a chart to reporters at the hearing comparing the duties of troops deployed the border during the George W. Bush, Obama and Trump administrations.

“The previous five administrations have authorized the use of Armed Forces operating under Title 10 authorities in support of border authorities,” ranking member Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryHouse and Senate head for showdown on must-pass defense bill House approves defense bill after adding liberal sweeteners Overnight Defense: Dems confident defense bill will pass despite party infighting | GOP chairman's bill would review US, Saudi ties | Senators briefed on sexual assault allegation against top general MORE (R-Texas) said. “What the administration has done is in line with, consistent with the sort of things that we have asked the military to do for a long, long time.”

Republicans, arguing in support of Trump’s request for $5.7 billion for a border wall, also contended the consistent use of the military on the border shows the Department of Homeland Security has been underfunded.

“What’s it going to take for us to not have to continue this pattern? We’re going to have to adequately fund the Department of Homeland Security instead of continually reaching into DoD to subsidize that department,” said Rep. Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersHillicon Valley: Trump rails against 'terrible bias' at White House social media summit | Twitter hit by hour-long outage | Google admits workers listen to smart device recordings Trump officials defend use of facial recognition amid backlash Republicans say they're satisfied with 2020 election security after classified briefings MORE (R-Ala.), who is also ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee. “I’m just astounded by the fact that we continue to act stupid in Congress and fuss over things like $5.7 billion in fencing and it cost us $11 billion to shut the government down.”