Defense

Pentagon transferring $3.8 billion to border wall

The Pentagon is moving $3.8 billion from various weapons programs such as the F-35 fighter jet to pay for President Trump's southern border wall, according to a notice sent to Congress on Thursday.

The notice sent to Congress said the money is going toward the "support of higher priority items" and is "required to provide support for counter-drug activities of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)."

"DHS has identified areas along the southern border of the United States that are being used by individuals, groups, and transnational criminal organizations as drug smuggling corridors, and determined that the construction of additional physical barriers and roads in the vicinity of the United States border is necessary in order to impede and deny drug smuggling activities," the notice says.

In a statement later Thursday afternoon, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell said the money will build about 177 miles of border fencing, following DHS's January request for assistance. 

"The Department of Defense is committed to supporting the Department of Homeland Security's efforts to secure the southern border by constructing fences and roads and installing lighting to block drug smuggling corridors," he said. "We will continue to support DHS and other agencies as needed to keep our homeland is secure."

Democrats immediately slammed the move as a raid on military resources for what they called a "vanity project."

But they put some of the blame on congressional Republicans, who refused to include provisions blocking Trump's transfer authority in 2020 spending legislation that passed in December.

"While some of our Republican colleagues will lament the President's decision, they enabled this theft by blocking our efforts to stop the President from raiding defense accounts," House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said in a joint statement with Appropriations Defense Subcommittee Chairman Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.).

"Until they stand up to President Trump, our national security will continue to be threatened and our Constitutional system of government will continue to be undermined," they added.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the top Senate appropriator, said that Trump "has stolen from the men and women of our military, their families, and the American taxpayers all to pay for a failed campaign promise and endanger our national security."

The top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry (Texas), called for Congress to take action over the latest funding transfer.

"The re-programming announced today is contrary to Congress's constitutional authority, and I believe that it requires Congress to take action," Thornberry, who is retiring at the end of his term, said in a statement. "I will be working with my colleagues to determine the appropriate steps to take.

"To be clear, I continue to believe that the situation on our southern border represents a national security challenge for our country-- one that has been exacerbated by partisan politics in Washington," he continued. "The wall should be funded, but the funding must come through the Department of Homeland Security rather than diverting critical military resources that are needed and in law."

Congress twice voted to overturn Trump's emergency declaration, which allowed him to reprogram defense funds for the wall, but were unable to override his vetoes.

The money being reprogrammed Thursday is being taken under a different executive authority that allows counter-drug funds to be used on the wall.

The notice says that $2.2 billion from the Pentagon's base fiscal 2020 budget and $1.6 billion from a war fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account will be transferred to the Pentagon's counter-drug fund, which will then be used on the wall.

Among the big-ticket items taking a hit is the Air Force's F-35 program, which will lose $156 million for procurement. The funding "is excess to current programmatic need," the notice says, adding that "it was based on a higher number of aircraft than" was requested in the fiscal 2021 budget.

In all, aircraft funding will lose $1.4 billion, according to the notice.

Shipbuilding will also take a hit, with the landing helicopter assault replacement program losing $650 million and the expeditionary fast transport program losing $261 million. Money for both programs is "early to current programmatic need," according to the notice.

Equipment for the National Guard and reserves makes up the bulk of the money being taken from the OCO account at $1.3 billion. Those funds are also "available because they are early to current programmatic need," the notice says.

In his 2021 budget request, Trump only asked for $2 billion for the wall, a departure from the $5 billion or more he's requested in previous years and closer to the $1.4 billion Congress has typically handed over for barriers. The White House said it needed fewer appropriated funds because it had managed to reprogram billions through other means.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) expressed regret that money is being taken from the Pentagon for the wall even as he voiced support for Trump.

"I like the wall, I support the president, I wish they'd find the money somewhere else," Shelby said. "I wish we could fund it through the regular process."

Dipping into Pentagon funding for the wall, he added, has not "threatened national security yet, but if we keep taking and taking it could affect it down the road."

In a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Democratic appropriators in the Senate expressed "strong opposition" to the move, and pointed in particular to the $1.3 billion National Guard and Reserve Equipment (NGRE) account.

"The NGRE account has been the lifeline of modernization for the National Guard and Reserves, both for warfighting missions and domestic contingencies.  The same can be said of many of the other programs targeted," they wrote. 

Trump didn't request any funding for that account in his 2020 budget request, but Congress funded it anyway out of conviction for its importance.

"The raid on this funding is quite simply an attack on the efforts to ensure our citizen-soldiers are prepared to respond to disasters, both overseas and in nearly every community in all fifty states and four territories," they added.

Updated at 4:46 p.m.

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