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Raiding military budget for wall would contradict previous Trump administration statements

Mulvaney complained last year of key military projects being underfunded

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter flies over a piece of border fence on Nov. 7 in Mission, Texas. (John Moore/Getty Images file photo)
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter flies over a piece of border fence on Nov. 7 in Mission, Texas. (John Moore/Getty Images file photo)

If President Donald Trump uses emergency powers to tap the military’s construction budget to bankroll a border wall, it would contradict his administration’s previous statements that the so-called milcon programs need more money, not less.

While the president signed into law last September legislation that allocated about $8.1 billion for military construction projects in fiscal 2019, that figure was nearly $800 million less than Trump proposed. And it was almost $1.5 billion less than the military services had wanted at that time.

Last June, when Congress debated scaled-back military construction spending, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told lawmakers the military construction spending request for fiscal 2019 had been carefully assembled to meet important military objectives. Reductions, he said, were not warranted. Mulvaney now also serves as acting White House chief of staff.

In a June 18 letter to Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, Mulvaney complained that the Senate panel’s pending measure “underfunds key investments in critical areas.”

Mulvaney singled out the appropriators’ recommendations for altering military construction spending, including adding programs the administration had not requested and paying for that by cutting initiatives the administration had sought.

“By incrementally funding, rather than fully funding, military construction projects, the bill delays critical resources to complete high-priority projects initiated in 2019 and puts the burden on future budgets to make up the difference,” Mulvaney wrote.

Also watch: Trump, Pelosi dig in to their positions on border security as president heads to Texas

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Emergency option

Presidents have legal authority to declare a national emergency and use military construction funds for programs not approved by Congress to address the purported emergency. Trump is seeking $5.7 billion for a “steel barrier,” funding that would last through September, the end of the current fiscal year.

Trump has not committed to exerting those powers or discussed how much military construction money he would tap to pay for the barrier. But he has said he might do so if negotiations with Democrats over how to resolve the continuing shutdown — now 21 days old and counting — do not end to his satisfaction.

“I really believe the Democrats and the Republicans are working together,” Trump said Wednesday during a bill-signing event in the Oval Office, according to a pool report. “Otherwise, we’ll go about it in a different manner.”

Trump made those comments before a White House meeting with congressional leaders on funding for the border wall ended abruptly. He reiterated that threat Thursday ahead of a high-profile visit to the U.S.-Mexico border, saying of talks with Democrats: “If this doesn’t work out, I’ll probably will do it — maybe definitely.”

Declining spending

The military construction budget is about a third of what it was at the peak of the post-9/11 wars a decade ago, even with a recent surge in spending in fiscal years 2018 and 2019 that reflected growth in overall Pentagon spending in those years.

Regardless, the Pentagon began fiscal 2019 on Oct. 1 with far less money than Trump had wanted for military construction.

While Congress provided $8.1 billion for fiscal 2019 military construction projects, Trump had asked for nearly $8.9 billion. Lawmakers reduced the requested funding for programs at the Naval Observatory in the nation’s capital, for a missile motor facility at Hill Air Force Base, for a fire station at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia, to name a few cuts.

And the congressional allocation was lower still than the roughly $9.6 billion the military services had wanted. In so-called unfunded priorities lists for fiscal 2019 programs, the Marine Corps had asked Congress to provide not only the amount in Trump’s budget request but also $236 million more than Trump had formally requested.

The Air Force, meanwhile, sought $441 million above the Trump request for what the service dubbed “high priority” building projects.

Bipartisan pushback

Members of both parties have bristled at the prospect of Trump diverting money from the military construction projects that Congress has approved to construct the wall.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the top Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, met with acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Wednesday and delivered a blunt message.

“Using [Department of Defense] funds to pay for the wall, when Congress was never asked to approve of such a plan, is a major breach of relations between DoD and the oversight committees,” Durbin said in a statement. “In my meeting with Acting Secretary Shanahan, I cautioned him that if President Trump directs DoD to circumvent Congress in such a legally dubious way on such a major issue, Congress will have to reevaluate its relationship with the Department and judge whether each instance of broad flexibility granted to the Department is worth the risk of abuse by President Trump.”

Rep. Adam Smith, the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, struck a similar note in a statement this week.

“By abusing this authority, President Trump would be saying that he does not actually believe all the money he requests for our country’s defense is needed for legitimate national security purposes,” the Washington Democrat aid. “That would raise major questions about his credibility when he requests his next defense budget from Congress.”

And Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the Armed Services panel, told Fox News on Wednesday that he is against using Department of Defense dollars for any other purpose.

“I’m for a wall and I’m for supporting our troops. None of us should have to choose between the two,” Thornberry said. “We have to do both, and we have to do both fully.”

John T. Bennett contributed to this report.

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