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Pentagon will shift an additional $1.5 billion to help fund Trump’s border wall

The acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, speaks to the media outside the Pentagon on May 10. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

The Defense Department will reprogram an additional $1.5 billion originally designated for other U.S. military projects to help fund President Trump’s border wall, acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan said Friday, a move immediately decried by Democrats as a way of sidestepping congressional oversight.

The reprogramming comes in addition to $1 billion the Pentagon pulled out of Army manpower accounts in March that allowed the administration to build another 80 miles of wall on the southern border.

Shanahan, speaking outside the Pentagon, said his department will not be reprogramming any more money for the wall. But he confirmed that $1.5 billion more will be set aside for the border that came in part from “money we were underrunning or saving or whatever terminology you want to use from Afghanistan.”

“We have very smart people here in the department, and we found ways to do this without having any impact on readiness,” Shanahan said.

The $1.5 billion includes about $604 million that will be pulled from the Afghan Security Forces Fund, which sustains the Afghan military that the United States has been training and advising for years, the Associated Press reported, citing two anonymous defense officials. They said the money was found in a review of the fund’s management, the AP reported.

Another $251 million will be shifted from a project to destroy chemical munitions and agents to comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention, $344 million will be removed from undisclosed Air Force programs and $224 million comes from saving associated with a military retirement account, the AP also reported.

The move was disclosed one day after the White House said Trump intends to nominate Shanahan to be his defense secretary.

Defense officials would not immediately comment on those numbers. The Pentagon released a statement Friday afternoon after Shanahan’s comments, saying that the Defense Department had notified Congress that it has “agreed to undertake fence replacement on four additional projects” in and near Tucson, and El Centro, Tex., that total more than 78 miles and $1.5 billion.

“The funds were drawn from a variety of sources, including cost savings, programmatic changes and revised requirements,” the statement said, without elaborating. “This transfer of funds will not affect military preparedness, nor impact service member benefits.”

Shanahan said he will go to the southern border with the acting Department of Homeland Security secretary, Kevin McAleenan, on Saturday, and they will examine whether the kinds of support the Defense Department is providing to DHS at the border are effective.

“I’ll let you know how that goes,” Shanahan said.

Democratic lawmakers responded to the new round of reprogramming in a tersely worded letter. They said Shanahan did not disclose the decision while testifying Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee’s defense subcommittee and noted the timing of the White House announcement on Shanahan’s nomination.

“Once again, the Department of Defense has ignored decades of precedent and cooperation with Congress in carrying out a transfer of funds without regard to any consultation with the Appropriations Committee,” said the letter, issued by Democrats on the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee and Senate Appropriations subcommittee on military construction, veterans affairs and related matters.

The lawmakers rejected Shanahan’s assertion that using the money for the border wall would not affect military readiness. They noted that outgoing Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said recently that the cleanup at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida following Hurricane Michael last October has been affected by a lack of money.

“We are dismayed that the Department has chosen to prioritize a political campaign promise over the disaster relief needs of our service members, given the finite reprogramming authority available,” the lawmakers said. “We remind you that we continue to work diligently on a supplemental appropriations bill that will provide relief to all Americans affected by natural disasters, despite the fact that the President of the United States has requested no emergency funding to address the current needs for hurricane and flood relief.”

The letter concluded by noting that the lawmakers are looking forward to how Shanahan intends “to repair the damaged relationship between the defense oversight committees” and the Defense Department.

Lawmakers have previously pressed defense officials about whether reprogramming money for the border wall affects the military’s ability to do its job.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a former Army officer, said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in March that the Army has a $2.3 billion unfunded priority list for 2020 and could have applied the money to other needs, such as repairing helicopters.

“In a sense, you are forgoing at least the immediate use of those funds for military purposes like aviation readiness, is that correct?” Reed asked.

Army Secretary Mark T. Esper acknowledged that possibility in response.

“The needs always exceed the means, so yes, we could have used that money as the other services to continue to improve our readiness,” Esper said.