The Pentagon on Thursday slashed billions of dollars in funding for 17 Navy and Air Force aircraft and other military programs to free up money for the construction of President Donald Trump's long-sought U.S.-Mexico border wall, angering not just Democrats but also GOP defense hawks.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper approved the $3.8 billion border wall request from the Department of Homeland Security, and the Pentagon acknowledged that more cuts could be coming to provide additional funding for Trump's signature campaign promise.
Thursday's decision only heightened sharp divisions between Trump and members of Congress who have opposed the use of military funding for the wall construction. Trump has repeatedly claimed that Mexico is paying for his promised "big beautiful wall," but that has never happened.
The Pentagon's decision, announced in "reprogramming" documents provided to lawmakers, strips money from major aircraft and procurement programs that touch Republican and Democratic districts and states. And it got bipartisan condemnation, including from the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House Armed Services Committee.
"Today's reprogramming request confirms once again that the President is obsessed with fulfilling a campaign promise at the expense of our national security," Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the panel's Democratic chairman, said in a statement. "This Administration has already stolen billions from the Department of Defense in order to begin building the President's vanity wall and today they are doubling down on bad policy."
Rep. Mack Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the committee, said Congress has the constitutional authority to determine how defense dollars are spent and "the re-programming today is contrary to Congress's constitutional authority."
Despite congressional opposition, Trump faced no consequences when making similar transfers last year, when the Pentagon canceled dozens of military construction projects to free up $3.6 billion and transferred $2.5 billion in counter-drug money.
All together, Trump has obtained just over $3 billion for border barrier construction by working through regular congressional channels, subject to limitations imposed by lawmakers. And he has used various transfer and emergency authorities to shift almost $7 billion more from the emergency declaration, a forfeiture fund containing money seized by law enforcement, and funding for military counter-drug activities.
Bob Salesses, the deputy assistant defense secretary, told reporters on Thursday that this latest plan would build 30-foot fencing on federally controlled land in six border areas: San Diego and El Centro, California; Yuma and Tuscon, Arizona, and El Paso and Del Rio, Texas. He said a review by the Defense Department concluded that all the sectors are "high intensity drug trafficking" areas and that money from military operations and maintenance accounts will be transferred to the counter-drug fund to be used for the barriers, roads and lighting.
DHS last month asked the Pentagon to fund the construction of 271 miles of border wall at a cost of about $5.5 billion, as part of a counter-drug effort. Esper approved a portion of that.
Asked if more defense funding cuts could be forthcoming later this year, Salesses said discussions are ongoing within the department but no decisions have been made. He acknowledged that it is possible more military construction projects could be canceled this year in order to free up funding for the wall.
Last year the Pentagon cut funding from projects such as schools, target ranges and maintenance facilities across 23 states, 19 countries and three U.S. territories. The move, which affected numerous projects in Republican districts and states, triggered outrage on Capitol Hill.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement that the cuts represent another broken promise Trump has made to service members. "This latest effort to steal Congressionally-appropriated military funding undermines our national security and the separation of powers enshrined in our Constitution," they said.
Specifically, the plan targets money for two F-35 fighters sought by top House Appropriations Committee Republican Kay Granger and other members of the Texas delegation. It also cuts funding for eight Reaper drones, four Air Force C-130 transport aircraft, two Marine V-22 Osprey helicopters and also for amphibious ships, National Guard equipment and Army trucks.
Many of the programs are favored by lawmakers for the jobs they bring to their districts and states. For example, the cuts affect an amphibious assault ship built in Mississippi and an Expeditionary Fast Transport ship that's built in Alabama, a state represented by Sen. Richard Shelby, the Republican chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
"This is a congressional special interest item," said the Pentagon documents, referring to the targets of many of the cuts.
Trump's action comes less than two months after he signed a huge appropriations package into law and just days after the administration unveiled its fiscal 2021 budget. That budget contains a $2 billion request for the wall, less than Trump asked for last year, which reflects the fact that Trump has more money for the wall than can be spent immediately.