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Pentagon restarts projects defunded for Trump’s wall, helping some GOP senators

President Trump visited a portion of the U.S.-Mexico border near San Luis, Ariz., on June 23.
President Trump visited a portion of the U.S.-Mexico border near San Luis, Ariz., on June 23. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

President Trump’s decision to use Pentagon money to pay for his border wall created problems on the campaign trail for Republican senators seeking reelection in states that lost military construction projects to the president’s effort.

But the Defense Department’s move in recent months to restart many of those domestic projects has provided political cover to several Republican incumbents facing tough reelections.

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper announced in April that funding would be restored to 22 of the 34 construction projects at domestic military bases that were defunded last year. In a memo, Esper indicated that the Pentagon would obtain the $545.5 million needed to revive the projects by diverting funds from projects overseas — many designed to shore up defenses against Russia.

Some of the revived projects are in states with two Democrats representing them in the Senate. But others are hot-button projects in states such as North Carolina, Colorado and Arizona, where Republican senators in competitive races had been taking heat over their defunding.

In a statement, the Defense Department said that it undertook a “thorough, logical, and non-political process to determine which deferred military construction projects were executable in calendar year 2020,” and that those projects were funded.

“This process obviously did not consider, nor was influenced by, the political affiliation of Members of Congress in whose district or state these projects reside,” the Defense Department said.

Read: Esper’s memo on restarted military construction projects

During the 2016 campaign, Trump regularly said Mexico would pay for the wall, but after failing to obtain sufficient funds from Congress, he resorted to taking money from the Pentagon budget without congressional approval. To do so, Trump declared a national emergency to take $3.6 billion in funds approved for more than a hundred military construction projects and also relied on an obscure counternarcotics law that allows the Defense Department to pay for fencing in drug-smuggling corridors.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled in June that it was illegal for Trump to transfer at least some of the money from the Pentagon, because the Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse. Still, border barrier construction using the funds has continued, with 275 miles finished as of August.

Last year, Trump’s moves began reverberating on the campaign trail.

When the Senate voted for the second time on the emergency declaration last September, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee launched a digital ad campaign targeting Republican Sens. Cory Gardner (Colo.), Thom Tillis (N.C.), Martha McSally (Ariz.), John Cornyn (Tex.), Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the majority leader, all of whom voted to uphold the declaration despite having military construction projects slated to lose funding in their states.

The issue gained attention particularly in North Carolina, where Tillis was accused of flip-flopping after vowing to vote against the emergency declaration in a Washington Post op-ed but then voting twice to uphold it, and in Colorado, where the Denver Post rescinded its endorsement of Gardner, calling his vote to uphold the declaration a “failure of leadership.”

Since then, the Pentagon has restored funding for two of the three live projects at military bases in North Carolina and for the only one affected in Colorado, helping the senators fend off attacks as they head into difficult swing-state elections this November.

The Defense Department didn’t restore funding for all the projects in states with critical Senate races. Funding wasn’t restored for one of the big projects in North Carolina, a $25.7 million complex for the Marine Corps 2nd Radio Battalion at Camp Lejeune.

The only project affected in South Carolina, a new $10.75 million fire station at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, and two projects worth $38.5 million in Texas also didn’t see their funds replaced, leaving Graham and Cornyn more vulnerable to campaign trail attacks on the issue.

Most of the defunded construction projects remain frozen, including a slew in Europe that President Barack Obama authorized to build up NATO defenses against Russia and the restoration of a National Guard base destroyed by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

To pay for Trump’s wall, a hurricane-wrecked base in Puerto Rico loses funding

In North Carolina, the Pentagon initially defunded $80.3 million worth of approved construction projects at military installations to pay for the wall, though one of the projects, a $32.9 million replacement of an elementary school at Fort Bragg, had already been slated for cancellation.

An online video ad released last fall by Tillis’s opponent, former North Carolina state senator Cal Cunningham, shows Trump promising that Mexico would pay for the wall and then cuts to the president’s decision to take $80 million from North Carolina military construction projects to pay for it instead.

The ad ends with a clip from MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” in which Joe Scarborough asks Tillis why he didn’t stand up to Trump. “He just stole $80 million from your state,” Scarborough says. “How weak are you?”

The Pentagon restored funding for two of the projects in North Carolina, an ambulatory care center addition at Camp Lejeune and a storage facility at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, but funding for the 2nd Radio Battalion project at Camp Lejeune wasn’t replenished.

Andrew Romeo, a spokesman for the Tillis campaign, blamed the Democrats for refusing to backfill the money that Trump took from the North Carolina projects.

“Senator Tillis will do whatever it takes to protect the safety of North Carolinians by securing our border and cracking down on illegal immigration, while Cal Cunningham has shown through his desire to ‘enable sanctuary cities’ that he will not,” Romeo said.

Aaron Simpson, a spokesman for Cunningham, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, said the Democratic candidate was committed to securing the border and accused the Tillis campaign of pointing fingers to cover for the senator’s votes.

“It’s clear that, unlike Cal, Senator Tillis doesn’t understand the role our military bases play in keeping us safe at home,” Simpson said in a statement. “If he did, he wouldn’t have voted multiple times to knowingly allow $80 million to be raided from North Carolina military bases and families.”

In Colorado, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee placed an ad last fall striking out at Gardner for voting twice in favor of Trump’s national emergency, as the president was taking $8 million from a planned space control facility at Peterson Air Force Base.

In a fundraising message to supporters at the time, Gardner’s opponent, former governor John Hickenlooper, said he was outraged that the money was being diverted.

“Those taxpayer funds were appropriated to our military here in Colorado. The fact that Cory Gardner is standing by and letting those resources go to President Trump’s border wall is shameful,” Hickenlooper wrote.

The Defense Department restored funding for the Colorado space control facility in April.

Jerrod Dobkin, a spokesman for the Gardner campaign, accused Hickenlooper and his fellow Democrats of wanting to reduce funding for the military.

“The money for the project they reference was restored a few months later and the project should be breaking ground before the end of the year,” Dobkin said in a statement.

Hickenlooper said in a statement that Gardner was too weak to stand up to Trump. “He chose Trump over our military community, over the U.S. Constitution, and over Colorado,” Hickenlooper said. “That says something about where Senator Gardner’s priorities lie.”

The Pentagon’s restoration of funding has also helped other Republican senators.

In Kentucky, McConnell’s home state, a middle school at Fort Campbell that had been defunded is now going forward.

In Arizona, the Defense Department restored funding for a new vehicle maintenance facility at Fort Huachuca, which is replacing a building the Army has said was jeopardizing the safety of personnel. McSally, a retired Air Force fighter pilot, had been faulted by her Democratic opponent, astronaut Mark Kelly, for the defunding of the $30 million project, and welcomed the restoration of the funds.

Projects defunded for Trump’s border wall include military buildings with ‘life safety violations’ and hazmat concerns

In Alaska, the Pentagon restored funding for a $19 million combat arms range at Eielson Air Force Base. Two defunded projects worth $75 million to repair boilers at the base were canceled in favor of a lower-cost solution. The Pentagon didn’t restore funds for an $8 million missile field project at Fort Greely, the site of U.S. missile defense systems.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) faced criticism over the defunded projects from his challenger, orthopedic surgeon Al Gross, who said in an online video in July that Sullivan was “nowhere to be seen” on issues that matter to Alaska. Sullivan also voted to uphold the emergency declaration.

Mike Anderson, a spokesman for Sullivan, said in a statement that there was no stronger advocate for the state’s military importance than the senator, pointing to the housing of ­F-35 fighter jets at Eielson and the expansion of missile defense systems at Fort Greely. Anderson said the senator “has secured and authorized over $1.6 billion in military spending in Alaska.”