Lawmakers from both parties rap plan to use $7.2b in Pentagon money for Trump’s border wall

In this September photo, contractors were erecting a section of border wall along the Colorado River in Yuma, Ariz.
In this September photo, contractors were erecting a section of border wall along the Colorado River in Yuma, Ariz. Matt York/File 2019/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers from both major parties criticized White House plans to take an additional $7.2 billion this year from Pentagon funds to pay for President Trump’s border wall project, as more congressionally approved renovation and construction plans for US military installations risked losing their funding.

For the second year in a row, the White House is planning to obtain the majority of the funding it wants for Trump’s barrier project by defunding construction and maintenance projects on military bases at home and abroad and taking money from elsewhere in the Pentagon’s budget by funneling it through the counternarcotics program.

Senior Republicans grumbled about the plan but mostly put the blame on Democrats, who agreed to provide $1.4 billion in border barrier funding this year — far less than the $5 billion Trump requested.


‘‘I wish they’d get the money somewhere else, instead of defense,’’ said Senator Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. ‘‘But I do support building the wall.’’

The White House shifted $2.5 billion using counternarcotics authorities last year, but this year Trump plans to boost that to $3.5 billion. Trump administration officials also plan to take $3.7 billion in military construction funding, slightly more than the $3.6 billion diverted in 2019.

‘‘I think it’s outrageous,’’ said Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the armed services committee, who called it ‘‘a slap to the military as well as a slap to Congress’’ and ‘‘another example of Congress sitting down and trying to direct resources that are of critical need to the Department of Defense, and then having those needs disregarded by the president for a project that is more political than necessary for national security.’’

The additional funds would give the administration the money to build about 885 miles of new barriers by 2022, significantly more than the 509 miles the administration had set as a target for the end of Trump’s first term.


Despite launching his run for the presidency on a promise to make Mexico pay for a ‘‘border wall,’’ Trump has struggled to convince lawmakers the project is necessary and useful. If his administration diverts $7.2 billion again this year, it will bring to $18.4 billion the total amount of funds budgeted for Trump’s wall.

Most of that money, $13.3 billion, would come from Department of Defense money appropriated by Congress for other purposes.

‘‘I’m not in favor of diversions of budgets that were appropriated for specific purposes, and I’d rather see specific appropriations for the wall,’’ Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah said Tuesday.

Lawmakers appropriated $1.05 billion for drug interdiction and counterdrug activities in the 2020 fiscal year, far less than the $3.5 billion the White House is seeking to divert from those programs this year. That means the Pentagon would have to find money elsewhere in its budget for the remaining $2.45 billion.

Trump administration officials have repeatedly tried to play down the potential impact of the funding maneuver on military assets and operations, depicting the move as an act of creative accounting.

The $3.6 billion the White House shifted from 2019 military construction projects would be ‘‘deferred,’’ Pentagon officials said last year, and would proceed, in some cases without delay, once Congress ‘‘backfilled’’ the diverted funds in the 2020 budget.

But that has not happened. In December, House Democrats and Senate Republicans agreed on a $1.4 trillion spending package that didn’t backfill the money. As a result, the construction projects the Pentagon defunded in 2019 for the wall in effect were canceled.


For those projects to go forward, Congress would again have to appropriate funding for them. House Democrats have opposed such a maneuver, which they view as acquiescence to the president’s defiance of their spending authorities. The Constitution gives the power of the purse — or the authority to fund the government’s initiatives and operations — exclusively to Congress.

The military projects that lost funding to the border barrier in 2019 included schools on military bases at home and abroad, as well as repairs to military installations in Puerto Rico that suffered damage from Hurricane Maria. The Navy also was forced to stand down on projects meant to fix ‘‘life safety violations’’ and fire hazards at ship-maintenance buildings in Virginia.

European nations also took a hit. More than $700 million was taken from projects the Pentagon agreed to fund in allied nations to help shore up defenses against Russia after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from neighboring Ukraine in 2014.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said those countries, which rely on the United States to protect them in the event of Russian military action, should ‘‘pick up the tab’’ for the projects themselves.