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How a lawless president funds his wall

A reinforced section of the US-Mexico border fence as seen from Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico. GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

It’s not just that the Trump border wall proposed for the Mexican border is an offense to American values.

It’s not just that it’s a waste of time and money and effort.

What it has now become is a giant siphon of $3.6 billion in Defense Department construction funds that were destined for far more worthwhile projects that were truly aimed at keeping this nation safer, not simply keeping an ill-advised campaign promise.

Trump, you’ll recall, promised during the 2016 campaign that his vast negotiating skills would enable him not only to build the wall but also to charge Mexico for the costs. Once elected, though, it turned out that by “Mexico” he meant “American taxpayers.”


When Congress, first under a Republican majority and later with Democrats in control of the House, balked at funding a wall along the nation’s southern border, President Trump last February simply declared a national emergency along that border, allowing him to tap Defense Department funds.

With the Pentagon now under the new and more compliant management of Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, the formal decision to divert the funds to pay for 175 miles of barrier construction on the southern border came this week. In a letter authorizing that diversion, Esper insisted the border wall “will reduce the demand for [Department of Defense] personnel and assets at the locations where the barriers are constructed and allow the redeployment of DoD personnel and assets to other high traffic areas on the border without barriers.”

It’s nonsense, but all part of the required boilerplate that enables the diversion.

Accompanying that letter was the list of 127 projects in 23 states, three territories, and 20 countries. And it’s far more than a list of Defense nice-to-haves. It includes some critical defense infrastructure projects. For example, some $400 million has been diverted from the rebuilding of military installations in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands devastated during Hurricane Maria in 2017. Guam, which came under threat from North Korea in 2017, stands to lose more than $280 million.


There is a school of thought that there is more than a little Trump-generated payback involved in the hit list of “deferred” projects. Hence the major blow to Puerto Rico and the $54 million loss to projects in Utah, home to US Senators Mitt Romney and Mike Lee, two Republicans who opposed Trump’s use of emergency powers to fund the wall.

Just as shameful is the abandonment of some $770 million in projects aimed at hardening US defenses and protecting allies in Europe, including a facility for special ops forces in Estonia, and facilities in Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia. The projects were part of the European Deterrence Initiative created in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. (Why, it’s almost as if Trump doesn’t mind Russian aggression.)

Pentagon officials insist that most of the domestic projects are simply “deferred,” put on hold until Congress once again appropriates funds to “backfill” them. But with Democrats accusing Trump of “stealing” funds already appropriated, and with trust in rather short supply on Capitol Hill, a reappropriation seems unlikely — for now.

The real issue, however, isn’t the $3.6 billion diversion from a Defense budget that annually runs in excess of $700 billion. The real issue is the lawlessness of a president who used an obscure Cold War-era law to ride roughshod over a coequal branch of government to get his way.


Utah’s Lee has proposed legislation that would make it more difficult for presidents to abuse those emergency powers in the way that Trump now has. That bill would be a good place to start. And the shared pain of these foolish cuts should be just the impetus members of Congress — Republicans and Democrats alike — need to find their voice and to push back against presidential overreach.