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Administration considers plan to divert billions of dollars in additional funds for barrier

The president has pledged to complete nearly 500 miles of new barrier by the 2020 election, but that construction goal will require far more money than the administration has publicly disclosed.
The president has pledged to complete nearly 500 miles of new barrier by the 2020 election, but that construction goal will require far more money than the administration has publicly disclosed.Evan Vucci/Associated Press/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Senior Trump administration officials are considering a plan to again divert billions of dollars in military funding to pay for border barrier construction next year, a way to circumvent congressional opposition to putting more taxpayer money toward the president’s signature project, according to three administration officials.

The president has pledged to complete nearly 500 miles of new barrier by the 2020 election — stirring chants of ‘‘Build the Wall!’’ at his campaign rallies. But that construction goal will require a total of $18.4 billion in funding through 2020, far more than the administration has publicly disclosed, the administration’s latest internal projections show.

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Planning documents obtained by The Washington Post show the cost of building 509 miles of barriers averages out to more than $36 million per mile. The documents also show that the government would need to obtain — either by eminent-domain claims or purchases — land that lies under nearly 200 miles of proposed barrier.

At a Sept. 11 meeting at the White House led by adviser Jared Kushner, senior officials discussed a plan that would press lawmakers to backfill — or reimburse — $3.6 billion of Pentagon funds that the administration diverted this year to pay for fence construction, the officials said.

The White House also has requested $5 billion for barrier funding in 2020 through the Department of Homeland Security budget, but if that money is not approved, the administration plans to dip into the Pentagon’s construction budget for the second consecutive year to get another $3.6 billion, said the officials familiar with the plan.

The Democratic majority in the House is adamantly opposed to providing additional funding for the project.

If the administration carries out the plan, the White House will have defied Congress to divert a total of $7.2 billion of Defense Department funds over two years, money that would otherwise pay to repair or upgrade US military installations.

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When the White House was asked about the plan Thursday, a senior official responded that the discussion was ‘‘a typical project-management meeting where administration officials discussed border wall progress’’ and that the goal was to ensure that border security priorities were being fulfilled ‘‘and that additional needs were being assessed in the event more funding became available.’’

Trump’s urgency about barrier construction has unnerved top aides responsible for the project’s completion, and it also has raised new concerns about potential shortcuts in contracting and procurement procedures.

Two days after the White House meeting, the head of the House Oversight and Reform Committee sent a letter to Lieutenant General Todd Semonite, the head of the US Army Corps of Engineers, asking for a briefing on border barrier procurement, saying the committee was investigating whether regular contracting processes were being bypassed to build the structure more quickly.

Committee Chariman Elijah Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, said lawmakers also were troubled by revelations in The Post that President Trump had urged the Corps of Engineers to steer contracts to North Dakota-based Fisher Industries, a company whose top executive is a GOP donor and frequent guest on Fox News.

Cummings’s letter cited concerns that the Corps of Engineers ‘‘is being pressured to bypass regular contracting processes in order to complete construction more quickly.’’

The committee gave a Friday deadline for Semonite to provide the briefing, according to the letter.

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The Corps of Engineers also has been directed to hand over information about border construction bids to Senator Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota, who has promoted Fisher Industries to Trump. Cramer has said he has been ‘‘deputized’’ by the president to ensure that barrier construction remains on track.

A spokeswoman for the Corps of Engineers said the agency awards contracts through competitive procedures that provide ‘‘the best value to the government for the particular procurement action being undertaken.’’

The House this week voted down a Republican motion to ‘‘backfill’’ the military construction funds. The money has been diverted from child-care facilities and schools on military bases, as well as from maintenance and repairs on US bases.

Trump has pushed aides to build the border fencing as quickly as possible, brushing off concerns about property ownership and contracting procedures while reassuring others worried about wrongdoing that he will issue pardons if they are targeted for prosecution.

The administration has not said publicly how it plans to obtain funding next year to meet its ambitious construction targets, which will require the government to dramatically accelerate the pace of work and make aggressive use of federal authority to seize private land.