During the 2016 election, Donald Trump repeatedly pledged that, as president, he would get Mexico to pay for the construction of his much-promised wall along the U.S. southern border.
On Tuesday, his administration revealed that it would be paying for the wall instead by diverting funds meant for the construction of elementary schools, hazardous waste warehouse facilities, and fire stations, among other Department of Defense initiatives.
The revelation came in the form of a list of projects that DOD sent to Capitol Hill that it says it will now be putting on hold as the president transfers funds from that department to wall construction. All told, DOD pinpointed more than $1 billion in mainland priorities that it was now shelving, in addition to $1.8 billion in foreign-based projects, and nearly $700 million in projects based in Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands—all U.S. territories.
Among the notable items now on the backburner include $62 million for a middle school at Ft. Campbell in Kentucky, $13 million for a “child development center” at Joint Base Andrews near Washington, more than $40 million to replace a hazardous materials warehouse in Virginia, nearly $11 million for a fire station replacement in Beaufort, South Carolina; nearly $95 million for an elementary school at Camp Mctureous in Japan; and nearly $80 million for an elementary school replacement project in Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany.
Lawmakers in Congress had fought the president’s ability to divert such funds to border wall construction. But a recent Supreme Court ruling left little doubt that Trump retained the legal ability to make such transfers, and congressional aides do not expect that the courts will come to their rescue at this point.
Since the Trump administration signaled in February it would raid military construction funding to pay for the wall, the working assumption on Capitol Hill among Democrats had been that the White House would probably privilege funding in states held by Republicans while maximizing the pain for areas represented by Democrats.
That’s true to some extent. New York, the home of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, will take the biggest hit of any state, with diversions from planned projects at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point tagged at $160 million. New Mexico, Virginia, and Maryland will all see significant cuts, too.
But the administration will also divert plenty of dollars from projects in states with Republican representation, complicating politics for a handful of GOP senators with the most difficult re-election fights in 2020, including Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ), Cory Gardner (R-CO), and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC).
Tillis’ home state of North Carolina will see roughly $80 million in projects put on hold. McSally, who was appointed to her seat, will have to deal with the loss of $30 million for an Army facility in southern Arizona to her constituents.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who is up for re-election too, will see roughly $60 million in projects for his state put on pause.
But the final list may hurt territories, which have no electoral votes, the most— particularly Puerto Rico, which has been a persistent source of agitation for the president. The island will see over $400 million in funding for military projects there deferred.
Almost all of the projects contained in the list appear in a larger list of unspent military construction funds circulated by congressional Democrats in a letter to the then-Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanhan and warned that diversion of funds from the projects “imposes known and unknown risks on the military services’ ability to train the force, maintain readiness, and support military missions.”
The projects postponed in order to divert funding to Trump’s border wall include a number of congressional defense spending favorites. In Alaska, the Defense Department deferred $8 million for the expansion of a missile field at Fort Greely, home of the missile defense system the Pentagon hopes will help counter missile threats from adversaries like North Korea.
And the Trump administration, which has embraced the use of drones more so than even the administration of Barack Obama, has decided to defer a huge pot of funds intended to fix a sinkhole that is developing at a key site for the U.S. drone program. In New Mexico, the Pentagon will delay $85 million to improve conditions at a drone training program at Holloman Air Force Base, where issues like bad plumbing, poor lighting, and a massive sinkhole prompted Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) to call the situation “unacceptable” during a visit in April.
In Virginia, the Pentagon is delaying over $40 million in funding to bring hazardous waste storage up to current standards in a Naval facility that serves as the main supply point for vessels supporting NATO; it’s also icing $10 million to provide a new sensitive compartmentalized information facility, or SCIF, for the Air Force’s cybersecurity unit.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper spent the past two days informing affected lawmakers of the cuts. In a Tuesday letter, a group of key Democratic senators, led by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), the top Democrat on the Senate panel that appropriates for military construction, demanded answers from Esper over why this group of projects was targeted.
“We also expect a full justification of how the decision to cancel was made for each project selected,” they wrote, “and why a border wall is more important to our national security and the wellbeing of our service members and their families than these projects.”