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Defense Secretary Esper taps funds from counter-Russia programs for border wall

Aerial view from the town of Sonoyta, Mexico, of border wall construction west of Lukeville, Ariz., on February 20, 2020. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper is directing Pentagon budget planners to defer $545 million worth of construction projects — many in Europe meant to counter Russian aggression — to pay for President Donald Trump’s border wall with Mexico.

In a memo sent Monday to the Pentagon’s comptroller and other officials, Esper lists several projects in Norway, Germany, Spain and elsewhere totaling more than $200 million from which he says funds can be redirected.

Those projects are all part of the European Deterrence Initiative designed to bolster allies and undermine Russia’s growing influence on the continent. The projects include infrastructure for military aircraft, fuel, munitions and cargo.

Esper has the authority to redirect funds from both domestic and foreign construction programs because Trump has declared a national emergency in order to spur funding for one of his top campaign priorities — the southwestern border wall.

Similar moves by Esper and his predecessors in the Trump administration have enraged members of Congress from both parties, who are particularly wary of seeing funding cut for construction projects in their districts or states. And Esper’s initiative would appear to conflict with the National Defense Strategy, which prioritizes “great power competition” with Russia and China.

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Pentagon officials indicated that the projects are only temporarily losing funding.

“Overseas projects have not been canceled but deferred because the projects will not be awarded until FY 2021 or later,” Pentagon spokesman Chris Sherwood said in an emailed statement.

Yet even if the program funding is merely deferred, Congress would have to replenish the funds in order to continue building those projects.

Other foreign projects that would be delayed, or deferred, through Esper’s request include a communications facility and a detention legal office at the naval prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and an air traffic control tower on Kwajalein, in the Marshall Islands.

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© 2020 Bloomberg News

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.