Washington — The Pentagon will cut funding from military projects like schools, target ranges and maintenance facilities to pay for the construction of 175 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, diverting a total $3.6 billion to President Donald Trump’s long-promised barrier.
Projects in 23 states, 19 countries and three U.S. territories will be stalled or killed by the plan, though just $1.1 billion in cuts will strike the continental U.S., according to a list released Wednesday by the Pentagon. Almost $700 million will come from projects in U.S. territories, with another $1.8 billion coming from projects on overseas bases.
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat, condemned the transfer of money. He said in a news release that the list of projects that will now be deferred includes sorely needed road improvements at Fort Meade and two projects at Joint Base Andrews in Prince George’s County.
“This is blatantly stealing billions from crucial projects that directly benefit our military families, their quality of life and troop readiness. The President couldn’t get Mexico to pay for his wall and he couldn’t convince Congress to pay for it either,” Congressman Ruppersberger wrote. “These projects were duly-appropriated by both Democrats and Republicans and have a far bigger impact on the security of our nation than a wasteful wall. On the contrary, the wall was explicitly rejected by Congress, which alone has the power of the purse.”
“You can bet the President will soon come back to Congress and request funding for the same projects he is now declaring expendable. I hope both sides the aisle will support our new Appropriations efforts to ensure no Administration can raid the coffers for their own vanity projects.”
Fort Meade is home to the National Security Agency, U.S. Cyber Command and other federal agencies. The money would have paid for the construction of primary route improvements that run through the campus, improving bottlenecks and congestion.
At Joint Base Andrews, $50 million for a hazardous cargo pad and child development center will also be deferred.
Trump’s move will take the biggest step yet in delivering on his promise to build a wall to block immigrants from entering the country illegally. But it might come at the expense of projects that the Pentagon acknowledged might be difficult to fund anew. Capitol Hill Democrats, outraged over Trump’s use of an emergency order for the wall, promised they won’t approve money to revive them.
A senior defense official told reporters the Pentagon is having conversations with members of Congress to urge them to restore the funding. The official agreed that the department has "a lot of work ahead of us," considering that Congress has given no guarantee it will provide money for the defunded projects. The official was not authorized to discuss the details publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.
In addition, new stretches of fencing proposed along the Rio Grande and through a wildlife refuge in Arizona promise to ignite legal battles that could delay the wall projects as well.
The military base projects facing the chopping block tend to address less urgent needs, like new parking at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and a variety of small arms ranges at bases in Wisconsin and Oklahoma. But a “cyber ops facility” in Hampton, Virginia, and the expansion of a missile defense field at Fort Greeley, Alaska, face the ax, too.
Trump has so far succeeded in building replacement barriers within the 654 miles of fencing built during the Obama and Bush administrations. The funding shift will allow for about 115 miles of new pedestrian fencing in areas where there isn't any now.
"The wall is being built. It's going up rapidly," Trump said Wednesday. "And we think by the end of next year, which will be sometime right after the election actually, but we think we're going to have close to 500 miles of wall, which will be complete."
New stretches of fencing are sure to spark legal battles with angry landowners and environmentalists. The Pentagon plan also fuels the persistent controversy between the Trump administration and Congress over immigration policies and the funding of the border wall.
“It doesn’t take any input from the local communities. It will take away from the private property rights,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Texas. “We are going to do everything we can to stop the president.”
Cuellar suggested Democrats will look at a must-pass funding bill this month — required to prevent a government shutdown Oct. 1 — to try to take on Trump. But a more likely venue for the battle could be ongoing House-Senate negotiations over the annual Pentagon policy measure.
Lawmakers who refused earlier this year to approve nearly $6 billion for the wall must now decide whether they will restore the projects that are being used to provide the money.
“To pay for his xenophobic border wall boondoggle, President Trump is about to weaken our national security by stealing billions of dollars from our military,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from Florida who chairs a key military construction panel. “The House of Representatives will not backfill any projects he steals from today.”
One of the Senate’s most endangered Republicans in the 2020 election, Arizona Sen. Martha McSally, reported that her state is getting nicked for just $30 million from a project that was being delayed anyway. Georgia, where two potentially competitive Senate races loom next year, will be spared entirely, though powerful Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, himself facing reelection, will lose a $63 million middle school at Fort Campbell.
"We need to secure our border and protect our military; we can and should do both," McSally said. "I went to the mat to fight for Arizona projects and succeeded."
Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon comptroller, said the now-unfunded projects are not being canceled. Instead, the Pentagon is saying the military projects are being "deferred."
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Congress approved $1.375 billion for wall construction in this year's budget, same as the previous year and far less than the $5.7 billion that the White House sought. Trump grudgingly accepted the money to end a 35-day government shutdown in February but simultaneously declared a national emergency to take money from other government accounts, identifying up to $8.1 billion for wall construction.
The transferred funds include $600 million from the Treasury Department's asset forfeiture fund, $2.5 billion from Defense Department counterdrug activities and now the $3.6 billion pot for military housing construction announced Tuesday.
The Pentagon reviewed the list of military projects and said none that provided housing or critical infrastructure for troops will be affected, in the wake of recent scandals over poor living quarters for service members in several parts of the country. Defense officials also said they will focus on projects set to begin in 2020 and beyond, with the hope that the money could eventually be restored by Congress.
The government will spend the military housing money on 11 wall projects in California, Arizona and Texas, the administration said in a filing Tuesday in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. The most expensive is for 52 miles (84 kilometers) in Laredo, Texas, at a cost of $1.27 billion.
The Laredo project and one in El Centro, California, are on private property, which will require purchase or confiscation, according to the court filing. Two projects in Arizona are on land overseen by the Navy and will be the first to be built, no earlier than Oct. 3. Seven are at least partly on federal land overseen by the Interior Department, including a 31-mile stretch through the Cabezza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona, a major wilderness area.
The 175 miles (282 kilometers) covered by the Pentagon funding represents just a fraction of the 1,954-mile (3,145-kilometer) U.S.-Mexico border.
Baltimore Sun staff and Associated Press reporter Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this article.