National Security

Trump taking $11 million from SC military project to fund border wall

The border wall region, from the air

In November, a video team from Brookings Productions visited the U.S.-Mexico border region and captured these aerial images of where President Trump has proposed to build his border wall.
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In November, a video team from Brookings Productions visited the U.S.-Mexico border region and captured these aerial images of where President Trump has proposed to build his border wall.

South Carolina will lose nearly $11 million that had been designated for building a new fire station at a local military installation in order to help fund President Donald Trump’s border wall.

The decision to target Laurel Bay at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, announced by the Pentagon on Wednesday, contradicts the assurances from South Carolina Republican elected officials earlier this year that federal funding for military construction projects in the state were not likely to get touched.

“The governor’s office has no reason to believe that planned construction projects in any of South Carolina’s military installations are in jeopardy of losing funding,” Brian Symmes, a spokesman for S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster, told The State in February.

It puts Trump’s staunchest South Carolina allies in a difficult spot as they are busy preparing for Hurricane Dorian to wreak havoc along the state’s coast.

And it gives political ammunition to U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, the South Carolina Democrat whose district includes the Beaufort base.

Cunningham is facing a tough reelection in 2020 and the outcome of his race could depend on voter dissatisfaction with the Trump administration.

Months earlier, when Trump declared a national emergency enabling him to redirect money from existing budget items to fund construction of a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out undocumented immigrants, Cunningham said he opposed that action and warned it could directly affect his district.

He doubled down on Wednesday.

“Military Construction projects like these play a vital role in disaster recovery, troop morale and military preparedness,” Cunningham said in a statement. “This move risks making our military and country less safe, especially at a time when military installations across the country are still recovering from recent natural disasters and the Southeast is under threat of a serious hurricane.

“It is vitally important we continue to work together to secure our borders and ports of entry,” Cunningham continued, “but the executive branch must go through the proper channels as enshrined in the Constitution and work with Congress to address these serious concerns.”

Decision-making process

The announcement comes a day after Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters that Defense Secretary Mark Esper had made a final decision on which eligible military construction projects should be placed on hold in order to fund the construction of a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Hoffman said Esper received guidance from outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford that “military construction projects are necessary to support the use of the armed forces” at the border, which is a spending requirement for using monies from the military construction funding account.

In all, Esper cleared the reallocation of up to $3.6 billion in previously authorized military construction projects. The Pentagon said in choosing the 127 projects that would be either delayed or deferred to fund the wall, the Pentagon decided that no military housing or barracks funding would be touched, and only projects with a fiscal year 2020 award date would be eligible.

Of that total, $1.8 billion is coming from overseas military construction projects, and $1.8 billion from military construction projects in bases in the U.S.

The money will be used to reinforce or add new barriers at 175 miles of border crossing at locations in Texas, Arizona and California, including locations in El Paso, Yuma, Arizona, San Diego, and El Centro in California, among other locations.

The cash will become immediately available, and contracts for some of the construction sites could be awarded in the next 100 to 140 days, according to the officials briefing reporters at the Pentagon late Tuesday.

In a follow-up briefing with reporters Wednesday, a senior Defense Department official said the only factors that were considered on whether to cut a military construction project was whether it had an award date after fiscal year 2020, and that no barracks or family housing would be affected.

“Locations, stakeholders or other factors were not considered,” the official said.

That also meant that bases hit hardest by last year’s hurricane season would not be spared, just as another storm is set to pummel parts of the Southeast. Beaufort was, as of Wednesday evening, at risk of experiencing the effects of Hurricane Dorian and the base was under a mandatory evacuation over.

Downplaying concerns

It was not immediately clear what will happen with the fire station project now that its funding has been officially re-directed.

A Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort spokesman on Wednesday said officials there had not yet been notified of the funding diversion and had no comment currently.

But in February, a base spokesman told The State that “no impacts have been identified at the air station yet.”

Earlier this year, Republican allies of the president were also quick to downplay concerns about the local consequences for Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to build the border wall.

In February, Graham said he was prepared to tell South Carolina military bases to make a sacrifice to build the wall, insisting it would just be a temporary setback in the cause of a greater good.

“I would tell them this: If we need to take money from the military construction account to get a wall up and going, I’m willing to do it, and then on Oct. 1, whatever money you had to forfeit, we’ll replenish it,” Graham promised.

A senior defense official briefing reporters Wednesday confirmed the Pentagon will need Congress’s help in replenishing the funds, but Congress has not yet indicated a willingness to do that.

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., agreed that any money taken from a South Carolina project would be “backfilled immediately on Oct. 1,” which is the start of the new fiscal year.

“When I hear the president talking about taking money out of South Carolina military construction projects, I will voice my concerns effectively and appropriately,” Scott added earlier this year. “I have not heard that, so I am not going to answer the hypothetical.”

Scott’s spokesman, Ken Farnaso, told The State on Wednesday that Scott did “not have a comment at this time” regarding the decision, given the senator was “currently focused on Hurricane Dorian and assisting however he can in preparations.”

Farnaso noted, however, that Scott had not, as of Wednesday evening, received any information from the White House regarding the shift in funds.

Graham and McMaster did not immediately release statements on the news that Beaufort would in fact get tapped for funding.

Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where her reporting on South Carolina politics appears in The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.
Tara Copp is the national military and veterans affairs correspondent for McClatchy. She has reported extensively through the Middle East, Asia and Europe to cover defense policy and its impact on the lives of service members. She was previously the Pentagon bureau chief for Military Times and a senior defense analyst for the U.S. Government Accountability Office. She is the author of the award-winning book “The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story.”
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