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Trump weighs cuts to Coast Guard, TSA, and FEMA to bolster border plan

Members of the US Coast Guard patrolled the Intracoastal Waterway near the Mar-a-Lago resort, where President-elect Donald Trump was spending Thanksgiving weekend in Palm Beach, Fla., last year.)

Scott McIntyre/The New York Times/File 2016

Members of the US Coast Guard patrolled the Intracoastal Waterway near the Mar-a-Lago resort, where President-elect Donald Trump was spending Thanksgiving weekend in Palm Beach, Fla., last year.)

The Trump administration is considering deep cuts in the budgets of the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency as it looks for money to ratchet up security along the southern border, according to a person familiar with the administration’s draft budget request.

The goal is to shift about $5 billion toward hiring scores of additional agents for Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as toward infrastructure to support a crackdown on illegal immigration at the border. A significant portion of the money would go toward erecting a wall along the border with Mexico, one of President Trump’s signature campaign promises.

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To fund those efforts, though, the plan would seek significant reductions in other areas, including a 14 percent cut to the Coast Guard’s $9.1 billion budget and 11 percent cuts to both the TSA and FEMA. The three agencies have played high-profile roles in the Department of Homeland Security’s post-Sept. 11 security architecture.

All told, the plan would increase the department’s budget by 6.4 percent, to $43.8 billion, for the 2018 fiscal year, also using savings from other executive branch departments to fund it.

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News of the proposal, which was first reported by Politico on Tuesday, has befuddled longtime veterans of the Department of Homeland Security. Lawmakers in both parties indicated they would scrutinize, and perhaps even oppose, a slew of potential cuts they argued would not only expose new weaknesses but also undermine Trump’s own strongly stated goals of curtailing terrorism, narcotics, and illegal immigration.

“It’s a little bit like putting an extra lock on the front door and none on the back door,” said Michael Chertoff, who led the Homeland Security Department for four years. “You are not really protecting the house.”

Reports of the proposal were confirmed to The New York Times by an official who had seen the documents and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the closely guarded budgeting process. Trump is expected to present the budget this month, although it already is viewed as a largely aspirational proposal created by the Office of Management and Budget of the White House and individual departments to set priorities for Congress.

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A spokesman for the Homeland Security Department said he could not comment on the deliberations, and John Czwartacki, a spokesman for the budget office, said it was “premature” to discuss any proposals before an official budget blueprint was released.

“The president and his Cabinet are working collaboratively as we speak to create a budget that keeps the president’s promises to secure the country and prioritize taxpayer funds,” Czwartacki said.

Reports of the cuts prompted considerable pushback on Capitol Hill, where several of the lawmakers who will eventually vote on appropriating money to the department expressed doubts that the proposal would serve Trump’s stated goals.

Of chief concern were the potential cuts to the Coast Guard, the nation’s primary domestic maritime security force, which lawmakers and experts said had already been stretched thin by the wars on drugs, illegal immigration, and terrorism.

“Given the vital installations they guard and how many drugs and contraband they intercept along our maritime borders, cutting the Coast Guard to pay for a vacuous and expensive vanity project like a border wall would be dangerous and irrational,” Senator minority leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, said in a statement on Wednesday.

Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican of California, who is chairman of the subcommittee on the Coast Guard and maritime transportation, was even more acerbic, calling the proposal “an insult” that would put the nation’s security at risk.

The proposal also appears to have drawn the ire of Senator Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican, who leads the appropriations committee through which any budget must eventually pass. It was Cochran who in 2015 successfully pushed to build an additional $600 million clipper ship for the Coast Guard at Ingalls Shipbuilding in his home state — an order the budget plan now recommends be canceled.

The proposal would seek other savings to the Coast Guard by cutting the use of Maritime Security Response Teams, patrol and first-responder teams with advanced counterterrorism training, and delaying other new purchases.

“Chairman Cochran appreciates the Coast Guard’s important role in protecting US national security interests,” Cochran’s spokesman, Chris Gallegos, said on Wednesday. “Any proposals to reduce support for the Coast Guard will receive careful scrutiny in Congress.”

In addition to monitoring US waterways for foreign and domestic threats, the Coast Guard plays a significant role in combating problems Trump wants to address. In the 2016 fiscal year alone, it intercepted more than 6,000 undocumented immigrants, and 200 metric tons of cocaine and 52,000 pounds of marijuana worth almost $6 billion, according to its spokeswoman, Lieutenant Amy Midgett.

Should law enforcement officials clamp down on the land crossings into the United States, experts said, the maritime interdiction role would most likely only increase, putting additional pressure on the Coast Guard.

“Where do you think drug smugglers and illegal immigrants will go next if you make the land border more impervious?” said David Heyman, who was assistant Homeland Security secretary for policy from 2009-2014. “It’s obvious they would next try to sneak in by sea or by air, which is precisely what the administration is trying to cut.”

The proposed cuts at the TSA, the agency tasked with protecting air travel in the United States, and FEMA, which is best known for providing disaster relief, are relatively smaller, but they have likewise raised concerns about opening up new vulnerabilities to the nation’s airports, transit hubs, and cities.

Within the TSA, the proposal calls for the elimination of a handful of programs that have played a critical role in airport security and counterterrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. They include a program that trains pilots to respond to an attempted armed takeover of the cockpit; a grant program that supports local law enforcement patrols at airports; and another, the Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response program, that sends both undercover and highly visible officers to conduct security sweeps in high-risk airports and train stations.

At FEMA, potential cuts would target for reduction an array of grants to state and local governments that have helped fund the development of emergency preparedness and response plans for natural disasters and terrorism-related events.

The proposed savings would allow the Homeland Security Department to take significant steps toward addressing Trump’s priorities along the border between the United States and Mexico. The plan would free up funds to begin paying for the border wall, to construct detention facilities, and to hire an additional 500 Border Patrol agents and 1,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who will be responsible for border security and the deportation of immigrants already in the country illegally.

Chertoff said that considering the department’s overall imperatives, it made little sense to so strengthen one portion of the budget at the expense of another, critical area.

“If you are going to look at the mission of DHS, in which priority No. 1 is security, you have to take an approach to the budget that balances all the elements of security,” he said.

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