Pentagon defers billions to build Trump’s border wall

Construction crews replace a section of the primary wall separating San Diego, above right, and Tijuana, Mexico, below left, seen from Tijuana, Mexico. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Defense Secretary Mark Esper approved the use of $3.6 billion in funding from military construction projects to build 175 miles (282 kilometers) of President Donald Trump’s wall along the Mexican border.

Pentagon officials would not say which 127 projects will be affected but said details will be available Wednesday after members of Congress are notified. They said half the money will come from military projects in the U.S. and the rest will come from projects in other countries.

Esper’s decision Tuesday fuels what has been a persistent controversy between the Trump administration and Congress over immigration policies and the funding of the border wall. And it sets up a difficult debate for lawmakers who refused earlier this year to approve nearly $6 billion for the wall but now must decide if they will refund the projects that are being used to provide the money.

Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon comptroller, said the now-unfunded projects are not being canceled. Instead, the Pentagon is saying the military projects are being “deferred.” The Defense Department, however, has no guarantee from Congress that any of the money will be replaced, and a number of lawmakers made it clear during the debate earlier this year that they would not fall for budget trickery and sleight of hand to build the wall.

“It is a slap in the face to the members of the Armed Forces who serve our country that President Trump is willing to cannibalize already allocated military funding to boost his own ego and for a wall he promised Mexico would pay to build,” said Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. He said the funding shift will affect the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Congress approved $1.375 billion for wall construction in this year’s budget, same as the previous year and far less than the $5.7 billion that the White House sought. Trump grudgingly accepted the money to end a 35-day government shutdown in February but simultaneously declared a national emergency to take money from other government accounts, identifying up to $8.1 billion for wall construction.

The transferred funds include $600 million from the Treasury Department’s asset forfeiture fund, $2.5 billion from Defense Department counterdrug activities and now the $3.6 billion pot for military housing construction announced Tuesday.

The Pentagon reviewed the list of military projects and said none that provided housing or critical infrastructure for troops would be affected, in the wake of recent scandals over poor living quarters for service members in several parts of the country. Defense officials also said they would focus on projects set to begin in 2020 and beyond, with the hope that the money could eventually be restored by Congress.

“Canceling military construction projects at home and abroad will undermine our national security and the quality of life and morale of our troops, making America less secure,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.

The government will spend the military housing money on 11 wall projects in California, Arizona and Texas, the administration said in a filing Tuesday in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. The most expensive is for 52 miles (84 kilometers) in Laredo, Texas, at a cost of $1.27 billion.

The Laredo project and one in El Centro, California, are on private property, which would require purchase or confiscation, according to the court filing. Two projects in Arizona are on land overseen by the Navy and will be the first to be built, no earlier than Oct. 3. Seven are at least partly on federal land overseen by the Interior Department.

The 175 miles (282 kilometers) covered by the Pentagon funding represents just a small fraction of the 1,954-mile (3,145-kilometer) U.S.-Mexico border.

Army Lt. Gen. Andrew W. Poppas, director of operations for the Joint Staff, told reporters that shoring up the wall could eventually lead to a reduction in the number of troops who are deployed along the border. About 3,000 active-duty troops and 2,000 members of the National Guard are being used along the border to support Homeland Security and border patrol efforts. About 1,200 of the active-duty troops are conducting surveillance in mobile truck units.

Pappas and other officials couldn’t say how soon or by how many the troop numbers could go down. Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said the troops would remain at the border for as long as they are needed. It could depend in part on the number of attempted border crossings by migrants and other issues.

The ACLU said Tuesday that it would seek a court order to block spending the military money. It sued earlier over the use of Defense Department counterdrug money, but the Supreme Court lifted a spending freeze on that money in July, allowing the first Pentagon-funded wall project to break ground last month in Arizona.

ACLU attorney Dror Ladin said, “We’ll be back in court very soon to block Trump’s latest effort to raid military funds for his xenophobic wall.”

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Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.

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Pentagon: Lousy place to depend on ‘acting’ leaders

Secretary of the Army Mark Esper. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)

It’s a perilous time to have temps running the Pentagon.

President Donald Trump’s brinkmanship with Iran is on the boil, spilling beyond diplomacy to a planned air attack on Iran that Trump said he ordered, then pulled back at least for now. This, as the U.S. undertakes an unusual troop deployment to the Mexican border , tends its nearly two-decade-old war in Afghanistan and grapples with stalled talks with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.

Through it all, the U.S. has no defense secretary , but rather an acting one who is taking over from another acting one, who suddenly quit.

And the latest one, Army Secretary Mark Esper, who takes over Sunday, might only be able to serve as acting Pentagon chief for less than two months under the rules, requiring yet another short-term boss before it’s all sorted out. On Friday night, Trump officially announced he intended to nominate Esper for the permanent job.

Temporary leadership is a hallmark of Trump’s administration . “It gives me more flexibility,” Trump has said of the many people in acting leadership jobs, not always by his choice.

The practice lets Trump quickly, if temporarily, install allies in important positions while circumventing the Senate confirmation process, which can be risky with Republicans running the chamber by a slim 53-47 margin.

But the Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, says it’s out of hand.

“With everything going on in Iran and all the provocations and counteractions, and to have no secretary of defense at this time is appalling,” he said. “It shows the chaos in this administration. They have so many empty positions, revolving doors, in the most sensitive of security positions.”

Tensions with Iran quickly escalated this week after an attack on freighters at sea that the U.S. blamed on Iran. Tehran announced it was breaking from commitments it made under the accord that restrains its nuclear ambitions — a deal Trump withdrew from last year. Iran then downed a U.S. drone, prompting Trump to order a retaliatory strike that he said he shelved 10 minutes before Iran was to be hit.

As the situation grew more dangerous this week, the acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, stepped down, saying he wanted to spare his family a public airing of domestic problems linked to his messy divorce nearly a decade ago. Trump said months ago he would nominate Shanahan for the defense job and seek his Senate confirmation but he never did. Officials said repeatedly that the vetting of Shanahan was dragging on.

Trump immediately named Esper as the new acting secretary, but because of limitations laid out in court decisions and legislation governing how top vacancies are filled, he may only be able to serve for six weeks. Inside the Pentagon, lawyers are debating how to get Esper through what would be a difficult legal and congressional confirmation process. Defense officials said Thursday they had yet to find a clear way forward.

For the moment both Shanahan and Esper have been attending White House and other meetings and taking part in debates over how to respond to Iran’s destruction of the drone.

Esper is slated to take over as acting defense secretary at midnight Sunday, then head out Tuesday to a meeting of NATO defense ministers. There it will be critical for Esper to convince allies that he is now in charge, and that the U.S. national security leadership is stable and able to make decisions in crises.

While lawmakers have expressed initial support for Esper, who is well known on the Hill and previously served on committees as legislative staff, there is no guarantee he’ll get quick approval.

As a former executive at defense contractor Raytheon, Esper may have to excuse himself from decisions involving the company. That could include sensitive, top-level negotiations with Turkey over its decision to buy a Russian missile defense system, and America’s counteroffer of the Raytheon-made Patriot surface-to-air weapon.

The law prohibits Esper from being nominated for the job while also serving as acting secretary. If he is nominated, he’ll have to step down and move to another job until the Senate votes on his confirmation. So that would mean yet another acting secretary meantime.

Anyone chosen to fill in temporarily won’t have all of the decision-making power that a defense secretary needs when the nation is at war in several countries and conducting major military operations in dozens.

If the administration’s churning leadership suits Trump’s style, it’s not always his intent.

Appointments have been marked by missteps and confusion: Trump has withdrawn 63 nominees, compared with 31 pulled back by President Barack Obama at this point in his first term, according to the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. He’s also decided against nominating some candidates he favored after realizing the Republican-led Senate would reject them.

Altogether, 22 of the top 42 people in Cabinet jobs have been acting, or slightly over half, from the 2017 start of Trump’s presidency through mid-April, according to data compiled by incoming Yale political science professor Christina Kinane.

That’s well above the average. From the 1977 start of Jimmy Carter’s presidency through Obama’s administration, 224 people held Cabinet posts and 57 were acting, or just 1 in 4, Kinane’s figures show.

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Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed to this report.

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Can Trump declare a ‘national emergency’ on his wall?

Capitol is seen as the partial government shutdown lurches into a third week with President Donald Trump standing firm in his border wall funding demands, in Washington, Monday, Jan. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Trump administration is weighing using a national emergency declaration to circumvent Congress and the budget stalemate and force construction of the president’s long-promised southern border wall.

“We’re looking at a national emergency because we have a national emergency,” President Donald Trump told reporters Sunday amid stalled negotiations. He said during a press conference Friday that he would prefer to win the money he’s demanding via Congress, but could “absolutely” call an emergency “and build it very quickly.”

Such a move would be a dramatic escalation of the current showdown, which has forced a partial government shutdown that’s now in its third week. Here’s what we know:

WHY AN EMERGENCY DECLARATION?

The administration has spent months trying to figure out how the president might be able to move forward with the wall — the central promise of his 2016 campaign — if Congress refuses to give him the money.

As early as last March, Trump was publicly floating the idea of using the military for the task. “Building a great Border Wall, with drugs (poison) and enemy combatants pouring into our Country, is all about National Defense. Build WALL through M!” he tweeted then.

But it’s Congress — not the president — that controls the country’s purse strings and must appropriate money he wants to spend.

Enter the emergency declaration, an option the White House counsel’s office is currently reviewing. Among the laws Trump could turn to is Section 2808 of the Title 10 U.S. Code pertaining to military construction.

According to the statute, if the president declares an emergency “that requires use of the armed forces,” the Defense secretary “may undertake military construction projects, and may authorize the Secretaries of the military departments to undertake military construction projects, not otherwise authorized by law that are necessary to support such use of the armed forces.”

Pentagon budget officials are analyzing the 2019 construction budget to determine how many unobligated dollars would be available to use for the wall if Trump settles on a declaration. Under the provision, only those construction budget funds that are not already obligated to other construction projects could be used for the wall.

There are more than 100 such provisions giving the president access to special powers in emergencies. And Congress has typically afforded the president broad authority to determine what constitutes an emergency and what does not, said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

“Absolutely it’s an abuse of power for the president to declare a national emergency when none exists and to use it to try to get around the democratic process,” she said. “But we are in a situation where our legal system for emergency powers almost invites that kind of abuse.”

WHAT WOULD HAPPEN THEN?

Such a move is sure to spark a flood of legal challenges questioning the president’s authority as well as whether the situation at the border really constitutes an emergency. Trump has been trying to press that case in recent days, insisting the situation qualifies as a security and humanitarian “crisis.”

He’ll also run into other questions.

“The problem for the Trump administration is that border security is fundamentally a law enforcement issue that does not require the use of the military,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, via email. “So I think they would be on shaking legal ground trying to use emergency authorities this way, and it is almost certain that they would end up in court.”

Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it would be inappropriate for Trump to use Section 2808.

“We are not at war with Mexico, and the proposed border wall has no core (Defense Department) function. Indeed, the Pentagon’s most recent National Defense Strategy doesn’t mention the southern border as a national defense priority,” said Reed, D-R.I.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, speaking on CNN, said that even if Trump could declare an emergency, it would be a “huge mistake.”

“There clearly is no national emergency. But they asked me, ‘Can he do it?’ Yeah he can. It would be wrong, it would be horrible policy and I’m totally and completely against it. But from a legal standpoint he can do it,” said Smith, D-Wash.

He and others agreed that any declaration would surely be challenged in court.

SO WILL HE DO IT?

It’s unclear. Back when Trump dispatched active-duty troops to the southern border ahead of the midterm elections in what critics panned as a politically-motivated abuse of power, he described the situation as a “national emergency,” but never signed an official proclamation.

But Trump is now under growing pressure to find a way to end the shutdown without appearing as though he’s caved on the wall.

Trump “needs to use every tool available to him as the commander-in-chief of our armed services to go and enforce our laws by putting the military on our southern border, by having them build the wall if they need to,” his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski urged on Fox News.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president remains “prepared to do what it takes to protect our borders, to protect the people of this country.”

“We’re looking and exploring every option available that the president has,” she said.

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Associated Press National Security Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report.

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Follow Colvin on Twitter at https://twitter.com/colvinj

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Trump’s $92 million on-again, off-again military parade delayed

Military units participate in the inaugural parade in Washington in 2017. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

The Defense Department says the Veterans Day military parade ordered up by President Donald Trump won’t happen in 2018.

Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, said Thursday that the military and the White House “have now agreed to explore opportunities in 2019.”

The announcement came several hours after The Associated Press reported that the parade would cost about $92 million, according to U.S. officials citing preliminary estimates more than three times the price first suggested by the White House.

According to the officials, roughly $50 million would cover Pentagon costs for aircraft, equipment, personnel and other support for the November parade in Washington. The remainder would be borne by other agencies and largely involve security costs. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss early planning estimates that have not yet been finalized or released publicly.

Officials said the parade plans had not yet been approved by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

Mattis himself said late Thursday that he had seen no such estimate and questioned the media reports.

The Pentagon chief told reporters traveling with him to Bogota, Colombia, that whoever leaked the number to the press was “probably smoking something that is legal in my state but not in most” — a reference to his home state of Washington, where marijuana use is legal.

He added: “I’m not dignifying that number ($92 million) with a reply. I would discount that, and anybody who said (that number), I’ll almost guarantee you one thing: They probably said, ‘I need to stay anonymous.’ No kidding, because you look like an idiot. And No. 2, whoever wrote it needs to get better sources. I’ll just leave it at that.”

The parade’s cost has become a politically charged issue, particularly after the Pentagon canceled a major military exercise planned for August with South Korea, in the wake of Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump said the drills were provocative and that dumping them would save the U.S. “a tremendous amount of money.” The Pentagon later said the Korea drills would have cost $14 million.

Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said earlier Thursday that Defense Department planning for the parade “continues and final details are still being developed. Any cost estimates are pre-decisional.”

The parade was expected to include troops from all five armed services — the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard — as well as units in period uniforms representing earlier times in the nation’s history. It also was expected to involve a number of military aircraft flyovers.

A Pentagon planning memo released in March said the parade would feature a “heavy air component,” likely including older, vintage aircraft. It also said there would be “wheeled vehicles only, no tanks — consideration must be given to minimize damage to local infrastructure.” Big, heavy tanks could tear up streets in the District of Columbia.

The memo from Mattis’ office provided initial planning guidance to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His staff is planning the parade along a route from the White House to the Capitol and would integrate it with the city’s annual veterans’ parade. U.S. Northern Command, which oversees U.S. troops in North America, is responsible for the actual execution of the parade.

Earlier this year, the White House budget director told Congress that the cost to taxpayers could be $10 million to $30 million. Those estimates were likely based on the cost of previous military parades, such as the one in the nation’s capital in 1991 celebrating the end of the first Gulf War, and factored in some additional increase for inflation.

One veterans group weighed in Thursday against the parade. “The American Legion appreciates that our President wants to show in a dramatic fashion our nation’s support for our troops,” National Commander Denise Rohan said. “However, until such time as we can celebrate victory in the War on Terrorism and bring our military home, we think the parade money would be better spent fully funding the Department of Veteran Affairs and giving our troops and their families the best care possible.”

Trump decided he wanted a military parade in Washington after he attended France’s Bastille Day celebration in the center of Paris last year. As the invited guest of French President Emmanuel Macron, Trump watched enthusiastically from a reviewing stand as the French military showcased its tanks and fighter jets, including many U.S.-made planes, along the famed Champs-Elysees.

Several months later Trump praised the French parade, saying, “We’re going to have to try and top it.”

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