The Trump administration’s decision to divert $3.6 billion in funding for military construction projects to help build a wall along the southern border with Mexico prompted swift, and mostly critical, responses from lawmakers in Washington but on the ground in areas that will be impacted, the reaction has varied, ranging from extreme outrage to tempered support.
Responses from politicians and residents in areas affected covered a wide spectrum but were primarily shaped by how those individuals feel about President Donald Trump and his commitment to building a border wall.
There was a sense of outrage in Puerto Rico, where the Defense Department’s move to divert more than $400 million in funding from projects in the territory has prompted accusations of racism.
Yet many in border states support the decision, including Arizona, where a $30 million local military construction project will be affected.
While Trump’s promise to build a border wall was a cornerstone of his 2016 campaign and has remained a top priority throughout his presidency, the move to redirect $17 million from a construction project at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida is raising questions about the President’s commitment to fulfilling another pledge he made earlier this year.
While visiting the base in May, Trump declared it would be rebuilt “better than ever” after suffering significant damage during Hurricane Michael.
“I pledge to you unwavering support and the support of our nation until you have fully recovered and rebuilt and we will never ever leave your side. We’ve already given you billions of dollars and there’s a lot more coming as you do it, and to support your recovery from Hurricanes Michael and Irma,” he said at the time.
But less than four months later, Trump is now putting construction of a $17 million fire rescue station on hold in order to divert that money to help build a border wall.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was one of 12 lawmakers from Trump’s own party who unsuccessfully voted to override the President’s national security declaration in March, which allows him to use military funding for border wall projects.
A spokesperson for Rubio said on Thursday that the senator “remains committed to seeing Tyndall AFB fully rebuilt” but would not say whether he was given advance notice that a project in his state would be affected.
Florida Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees military construction, offered a much harsher assessment Wednesday, saying Trump was “stealing” funding for a “critical project” in the state.
“I visited Tyndall, and I saw the damage that still exists there. This theft of funding for an essential life-safety project adds insult to injury for our state and the servicemembers living and working there,” she said in a statement.
The commissioner of Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services also slammed the decision.
“Florida was spared the brunt of Hurricane Dorian — only to be whacked by our own President. Our military families deserve better. Floridians deserve better. Americans deserve better,” commissioner Nicole “Nikki” Fried said in a tweeted statement that linked to the Tyndall account.
A spokesperson at Tyndall Air Force base declined to comment. But a senior defense official told CNN on Friday that it “doesn’t make sense” to immediately build a fire and rescue station at the base when there are plans for a more robust infrastructure rebuild in the works.
“When we requested this project we hadn’t had that hurricane yet. And so now it just doesn’t fit into the same kind of time frame as it had before,” the official said, adding that the Pentagon is “committed to the rebuild of Tyndall.”
‘Pork barrel money’
But in Arizona, where the state’s 2nd Congressional District is home to a $30 million project that will be impacted by the move to divert military construction funds, the response was a bit different.
The reaction from two of the state’s congressional lawmakers – Republican Sen. Martha McSally, who previously represented the 2nd District, and its current representative Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick – appeared to split along party lines.
McSally offered a somewhat tempered statement Wednesday, arguing that – while she fought for Arizona to be exempted from the reprogramming effort – the $30 million project at Fort Huachuca that will be impacted would have been delayed anyway.
Kirkpatrick, on the other hand, said the military facility at Fort Huachuca “desperately needed this funding for restoration and repairs.”
“I have seen the Ground Transportation Building at the Fort and it desperately needed this funding for restoration and repairs, in fact, the funding is long overdue. Fort Huachuca is such a vital asset to our local economy and our entire national security; this decision harms important planned projects intended to support our military in Southern Arizona, across the United States, and overseas,” she said.
However, CNN spoke to two ranchers living in Arizona’s 2nd District who, despite acknowledging Fort Huachuca’s importance to the local economy, said they support the President’s decision to divert funds away from a project there to help pay for the wall.
“Most of the money going to these projects is pork barrel money – it just isn’t necessary. I am good with diverting that money. There is lots of waste in the military, especially on the bases. Fort Huachuca, they’ve got everything they need – so divert the money to the border,” said John Ladd, who lives on the US-Mexico border in Naco, Arizona.
Asked about Trump’s overall immigration policy, Ladd said he backs it, saying: “I am supportive of him, but when it gets to Congress it’s dead. Trump has the best plan of anyone I’ve dealt with in 30 years. He’s just enforcing the law.”
Peggy Davis, a rancher who lives with her husband 25 miles north of the border, says she still feels the effects of living near Mexico.
While she acknowledged that she needed to look into the decision to reprogram military construction funds, Davis told CNN that her “gut reaction was that if Congress won’t step up, I don’t know what recourse can be taken.”
“This part of Arizona has long needed border security. That has never changed. This is the job of Congress,” she said. “Once again they are playing politics and not doing their job. From what I can determine the Fort Huachuca project is needed but not in the sense of life and death or housing.”
‘Why he is racist’
Puerto Rico was among the hardest hit of all US states and territories; it will see more than $400 million in funding for planned military construction projects diverted to the wall under the Pentagon’s plan.
That is not a coincidence, according to San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who told CNN Thursday that the Pentagon’s decision to defer a “disproportionate amount” of money from the territory is just the latest in a string of actions by the President that have directly targeted the people there.
“By no means do I want to suggest that Puerto Rico is the center of everything Trump-related, but it certainly is a platform which exemplifies all of the worst traits of the President, why he is racist,” she said.
Trump and local officials have consistently sparred in the aftermath of 2017’s massive Hurricane Maria, with Yulín Cruz and others arguing the President has shown a lack of empathy toward those living in the territory that contrasts with show of concern for storm victims in the continental US.
Last week, Trump attacked Yulín Cruz in a tweet about Hurricane Dorian as it appeared to threaten Puerto Rico.
“We are tracking closely tropical storm Dorian as it heads, as usual, to Puerto Rico. FEMA and all others are ready, and will do a great job. When they do, let them know it, and give them a big Thank You - Not like last time. That includes from the incompetent Mayor of San Juan!” Trump tweeted from the White House.
“Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth. Their political system is broken and their politicians are either Incompetent or Corrupt. Congress approved Billions of Dollars last time, more than anyplace else has ever gotten, and it is sent to Crooked Pols. No good!” he wrote in another tweet later that same day, adding, “And by the way, I’m the best thing that’s ever happened to Puerto Rico!”
In January, Trump was reportedly considering using his authority to invoke a national emergency and utilize disaster relief funds to help build the border wall – an idea that prompted significant pushback from members of Congress and Puerto Rican officials who noted at the time that the territory had still not received money approved for recovery and reconstruction after Hurricane Maria.
While a defense official told CNN on Wednesday that there is still time to backfill the funding that is being diverted from military construction projects in Puerto Rico, many of which were intended to repair damage from Hurricane Maria, Yulín Cruz told CNN that the decision to delay the funding should not be viewed in a vacuum.
“This is like an MRI,” she said, pointing out that there are layers to the situation. “The President was responsible for the deaths of about 3,000 people … and he never apologized for it.”
“President Trump is totally ignorant about the relationship of Puerto Rico and the United States. Once he found out that we were a colony of the United States, even though we’re citizens by law, he decided that he was going to unleash his racism,” she said.
Yulin Cruz slammed the administration for using the funding intended for projects in Puerto Rico to help build a border wall, which she characterized as a “temple of racism,” drawing a parallel between Trump’s animosity toward people of color living in the territory and the administration’s deportation efforts at the southern border.
Trump cuts West Point project
Trump’s move to reprogram military construction funds has come under intense scrutiny from New York Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, the top Democrat of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee. They were told Wednesday that $160 million in funding allocated for an engineering center and supporting structures at the United States Military Academy at West Point would be repurposed.
“The United States Military Academy at West Point was founded as an engineering school, designed to ensure that our Army’s leaders had access to the best resources and education that would enable them to succeed in their military careers in defense of our nation,” Schumer said in a statement.
“Now, we find out that funds that Congress appropriated to design and build a state-of-the-art engineering center at West Point have been redirected for an expensive and ineffective wall at the southern border,” the Senate minority leader added.
Benjamin Haas, who graduated from West Point in 2009 and works as an advocate for the group Human Rights First, told CNN that his graduating class had voted to donate at some $750,000 to the project part of its 10-year anniversary gift to the academy.
Of the total graduating class, nearly 75% voted that the part of the gift should go toward building this new academic building, according to documents reviewed by CNN.
“The fact that this center received such a high proportion of the votes from my West Point class is a strong statement. It suggests that the center would provide meaningful value in preparing the next generation of Army officers to meet crucial technological challenges and to confront current and future national security issues,” Haas said.
Now, Haas says that the class is unsure where the money will go, but told CNN he is disappointed that the federal funding originally intended for the project is now going toward building a border wall.
“President Trump’s decision to divert funds away from this center in order to pay for the border wall demonstrates his disregard for true national security threats and his fixation on a project that will solve no national security issues,” he said. “If President Trump really wanted to solve migration issues, he would use smarter means, including those that would address the root causes.”
“It is disappointing that funds that were dedicated to an important center – one focused on real national security imperatives – will now be used to construct a symbol of exclusion that relinquishes America’s moral authority on human rights,” Haas added.
CNN’s Vanessa Yurkevich and Ryan Browne contributed to this report.