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Trump looks to raid Pentagon budget for wall money using emergency powers

President Trump declared a national emergency to build a border wall on Feb. 15. Here's what you missed. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post, Photo: Oliver Contreras/The Washington Post)

President Trump plans to take more than $6 billion from the military budget for the construction of a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, and possibly mobilize reservists under emergency powers, putting the Pentagon front and center in his move to see through one of his campaign promises.  

Trump’s decision to tap the Pentagon’s budget for a nonmilitary purpose amounts to an end run around lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who hold the power of the purse in Washington and so far have refused to appropriate the sum Trump wants for the wall. 

Using a national emergency declaration, Trump intends to draw $3.6 billion from already appropriated military construction funds that go to purposes as diverse as building hospitals on bases and overhauling barracks housing. Trump will access those funds under a little-known statute that allows the defense secretary to undertake military construction projects “not otherwise authorized by law” when they are in support of troops deployed in a national emergency. 

President Trump on Feb. 15 outlined the legal battles he thinks his national emergency declaration will face in the coming days. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In addition, the president plans to draw $2.5 billion from the military’s counterdrug support activities under a separate statute that does not require an emergency declaration. Because Congress appropriated only $1 billion for those counterdrug activities this fiscal year, the Pentagon will need to redirect money into that account from other places in its budget through a process called reprogramming. In the past, reprogramming has been done with congressional approval, but a Pentagon spokesman said a sign-off from Congress is not required by law.

Under the counterdrug statute, the president authorized the Defense Department to support the counternarcotics activities of other federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, “with the construction of roads, fences and lighting to block drug smuggling corridors across international boundaries,” a statement from the Pentagon said.  Trump also authorized the activation of reservists to perform a federal mission at the direction of the defense secretary, in accordance with an emergency powers statute. So far, the Pentagon has not called up reservists or announced a deployment. The active-duty troops and guardsmen on the border have not been tasked with building the wall.

All told, Trump intends to obtain $8 billion for the wall, only a small portion of which was authorized for that purpose by Congress. The total includes the $6.1 billion from the Pentagon; $600 million from a Treasury Department drug forfeiture fund; and the $1.375 billion that Congress authorized for border barriers in a recent bill passed to avoid a second government shutdown.

The money is unlikely to be enough to build a wall along the full 1,954-mile border with Mexico. A recent study by Bernstein Research estimated that the border wall would cost at least $15 billion and as much as $25 billion, depending on materials and whether existing border barriers are replaced.

Trump’s actions create a difficult situation for the Pentagon, now forced to decide which military programs already funded by Congress should be delayed or axed to free up money for the wall. 

Speaking in the White House Rose Garden on Friday, Trump dismissed the possibility that the funds he plans to take from the Pentagon’s military construction budget would prevent members of the armed forces from receiving the modern infrastructure and facilities they need. Trump said certain funds were being used at the discretion of generals, anyway, and some of the generals think this is more important.  

“I was speaking to a couple of them,” Trump said. “They think this is far more important than what they were going to use it for. I said, ‘What were you going to use it for?’ And I won’t go into details, but it didn’t sound too important to me.”

Trump said he secured a $700 billion budget for the Pentagon in his first year in office and a $716 billion budget during his second year, pledging to continue building up the military with a “pretty big” budget this year, too. He characterized the wall funding he was taking as a small amount.  

“When you think about the kind of numbers you’re talking about, so you have $700 billion, $716 billion, when I need $2 billion, $3 billion out of that for a wall. . . . When you have that kind of money going into the military, this is a very, very small amount that we’re asking for,” Trump said.

Officials at the Pentagon for weeks have been going through the books to figure out which projects should be discarded or frozen to pay for the wall, should the president tap military funds. Navy Capt. Bill Speaks, a Pentagon spokesman, said no final decisions have been made. “But I can tell you that military family-housing projects will not be affected,” he said.

Acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan was asked at a Pentagon news conference last month whether he has several billion dollars on hand in the military construction budget that could be repurposed for a wall on the southern border.

“The money that we have assigned for military construction was appropriated for specific tasks,” Shanahan answered. “So those have already been allocated and assigned to certain missions and requirements.”

The White House’s move to draw Pentagon funds, which almost certainly will be challenged in court, has provoked ire among Democrats and Republicans alike on Capitol Hill; lawmakers generally authorize annual funding of the U.S. military with bipartisan support and approve reprogramming requests from the Pentagon with agreement across the aisle. 

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, accused the president of stealing money from projects that support the military and their families without congressional approval, all for a political stunt driven by misguided anti-immigrant fervor.  

“It is clear that there is no national emergency — only a manufactured crisis — and there has been no attempt to explain how the wall has anything to do with supporting U.S. military needs, as the law intends,” Smith said in a statement.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (Tex.), the highest-ranking Republican on the committee, said in a statement that the decision to send military personnel and resources to the southern border by the past five administrations made it clear that Congress was not adequately funding the agencies overseeing who and what crosses the border. But he urged the president not to draw on military funds.  

“Doing so would have detrimental consequences for our troops as military infrastructure was one of the accounts most deprived during the Obama-era defense cuts,” Thornberry said. “And it would undercut one of the most significant accomplishments of the last two years — beginning to repair and rebuild our military.” 

Trump’s decision to take funds from the Pentagon’s construction budget comes amid an outcry over the decrepit living conditions that some military families endure on bases. A recent survey found instances of black mold, lead and vermin infestations in privatized military housing, which lawmakers described in a hearing this week as shocking and infuriating.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to Shanahan on Friday noting that the Pentagon recently said the military had a maintenance backlog of more than $116 billion, with 23 percent of the department’s facilities in poor condition and 9 percent in failing condition.  

Kaine expressed concern that Trump, in taking $3.6 billion from military construction, was seeking to divert nearly a third of what Congress appropriated for the purpose this year, even as the Pentagon faces the challenge of correcting housing problems and rebuilding facilities in Florida and North Carolina that were affected by hurricanes.

“I am concerned that a project that the president stated would be paid for by Mexico will now be borne by military servicemembers and their families, as they will be forced to remain in ‘poor’ or ‘failing’ conditions,” Kaine wrote.

Trump administration officials, in a call with reporters Friday, said the Pentagon would not be drawing money from projects that affect the readiness of the force.  

“We would be looking at lower-priority military construction projects,” a senior Trump administration official said. “We would be looking at ones that are to fix or repair a particular facility that might be able to wait a couple of months into next year.”

Officials said that in the coming year’s budget request, the administration will try to “backfill” the Pentagon accounts from which it pulls money. The Defense Department is supposed to release the coming year’s budget request this month. 

The statute in the U.S. code that authorizes the defense secretary to undertake military construction projects in support of troops deployed in a national emergency limits the administration to accessing what are called unobligated funds — or money that Congress has appropriated for military construction projects but which has yet to be committed by contract.

The Pentagon has about $21 billion in unobligated military construction funds remaining in its budget, according to a congressional aide — about $10 billion from this fiscal year and some $11 billion that rolled over from the previous five years.

Because the statute allows the defense secretary to undertake military construction projects without congressional authorization when those projects are necessary to support troops in a national emergency, the Trump administration will have to argue that the wall supports its deployment of troops to the border, a point that could be challenged in the courts.  

It is unclear where the Pentagon will find the $1.5 billion or more it has to redirect into the counterdrug account to meet the proposed $2.5 billion Trump wants to pull from that fund.

Also unclear is how the decision will affect the activities now financed by that account. Those include a National Guard program that aids law enforcement authorities with counterdrug training, reconnaissance and technical support.

Though Congress allows the Pentagon to redirect funds within its budget, the Defense Department can reprogram a maximum of $4 billion in a fiscal year. By reprogramming at least $1.5 billion for the wall in the counterdrug account, the Pentagon would expend a significant portion of that allotment, potentially reducing budget flexibility for the rest of the fiscal year.