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Pentagon won't say if it will seek congressional approval to move billions for wall
Pentagon officials on Friday would not say whether the Defense Department will seek approval from Congress before it moves billions of dollars from its counter-drug program coffers to fund President Trump's southern border wall.
At question is $2.5 billion from the Pentagon's drug-interdiction program, which the White House has indicated it plans to repurpose under Trump's national emergency declaration last week to help build a barrier at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Traditionally, when the Pentagon seeks to reprogram large amounts of dollars, it must notify Congress in advance. Lawmakers are then given the chance to agree or deny the request, though the Defense Department is not required by law to obtain an approval before it moves forward.
"It has been the practice of the Department of Defense to request approval and it's not required by law," one official told reporters when asked if the Pentagon would move forward on the reprogramming if Congress does not approve the request.
The official also told reporters that officials would notify Congress of such a reallocation, as legally required.
Should the Pentagon move the money without congressional approval, it would upset years of precedent and add to already tense pushback from lawmakers over the plan.
Defense hawks, in particular, have urged Trump not to divert the Pentagon dollars, insisting it would hurt military readiness.
Also complicating matters is how much money is in the counter-drug account. Defense officials said that there is currently less than $80 million that could be used for the wall from that funding pot.
That means the Trump administration would have to identify dollars from other areas in DOD, reprogram the money to the counter-drug fund, and only then could it use it for a wall.
In a separate executive action, the White House also plans to redirect $3.6 billion from the military construction funds budget.
The defense officials on Friday stressed that the money will not come from military family housing budgets, rather, "unawarded projects, recapitalization projects that update or replace existing structures."
The officials also noted that if the administration obtains the funds it is seeking, it will still be months before construction on a wall would start.
Pentagon leadership is still awaiting a priorities list from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which would be used to justify transferring military funds to build a wall, the officials said.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday that he has asked DHS "for input facts, data, priorities," which DOD would then "match that with our mission analysis" before moving forward.
Complicating matters is the legal requirement that the defense secretary must determine that the military dollars put forward for the wall are strictly being used to support the armed forces.
But the officials said that "there are not formal criteria for that assessment."
"[Shanahan] will make a very deliberate decision per the law but the law does not proscribe explicit criteria," one official said.
Added up, moving forward on wall construction would take months or more.
"We're talking a matter of weeks for the assessment leading up to the decision by the secretary and then we're looking at months for the actual implementation to the point of construction, breaking ground, and then we're talking longer than months for the completion of the construction," the defense official said Friday.
The future of Pentagon funds has received intense scrutiny since Trump announced last week that he would declare a national emergency to construct a border wall. The proclamation came after Congress included only $1.375 billion for physical barriers along the border in a massive government funding bill, far below the $5.7 billion the president has sought.
Trump in October claimed that he would be sending active duty troops to shore up the border, warning of an impending migrant caravan. Critics lambasted the move as a political stunt meant to whip up supporters ahead of the midterm election in November.
There are now more than 5,000 military personnel currently at the southern border, and the defense officials said it will grow to roughly 6,000 by March 1. The group will be comprised of 2,100 National Guard and 3,900 active duty forces.