Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to the Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @fridaghitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.
President Donald Trump may have put on his Sharpie spectacle this week to distract us from a much bigger outrage. The Trump administration is taking $3.6 billion from approved military construction projects to pay for part of the wall. Yes, that wall — the one Trump said Mexico would pay for.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper formally authorized the diversion of these funds, a move that is egregious on so many fronts it’s hard to know where to begin.
The wall is a fantasy conjured by Trump to get elected. While Trump has imbued the wall with near-mythical powers, many experts say it will do little to stop the current flow of migrants from Central America, who typically turn themselves over to authorities to seek asylum, rather than trying to sneak in undetected. In the horror story Trump told voters in 2016, America was being invaded by rapists, drug dealers and other criminals who “threatened” the country.
In Trump’s telling, the barrier would not only keep Latinos out, it would also be free.
Who can forget the roar of the 2016 campaign rallies, where Trump supporters regularly chanted “build that wall?” In dozens of rallies, like one ahead of the Nevada caucus in 2016, Trump confidently declared, “We’re going to build that wall, don’t worry about it.” When he asked his frenzied followers, “And who’s going to pay for the wall?” the crowd responded by shouting, “Mexico.”
In his speech at the Republican National Convention in 2016, Trump spoke of a dystopian America with a broken political system and broken borders, before taking on the mantle of the superhero by declaring, “I alone can fix it.” It helped his nationalist, xenophobic theme to cast brown-skinned immigrants as the enemies he would defend the country from, and the solution involved a giant construction project — convenient for a man with no background in public service to suggest that his experience in real estate would qualify him for president.
Trump barely mentions Mexico anymore. Now, it turns out, he wants to pay for a portion of the wall by taking money legally appropriated by Congress, which has the power of the purse under the Constitution and using it for what is essentially a self-serving political project. It’s no wonder there are multiple lawsuits challenging Trump’s authority to derail and reroute congressionally mandated spending by declaring a national emergency.
Trump is doing this by using a statute allowing presidents to take military money for emergencies. While plenty of Presidents have utilized the National Emergencies Act since it was enacted in 1976, no other president has used it to circumvent congressional refusal to fund a pet project. A certain honor system prevented previous administrations from abusing the power to declare national emergencies. But it appears there’s a shortage of honor in the Oval Office these days, where decisions affecting the national interest are routinely contaminated by the President’s interest.
When Trump announced he was declaring a national emergency at the border, he admitted, “I could do the wall over a longer period of time. I didn’t need to do this. But I’d rather do it much faster.”
The real crisis for the President may be that he has failed to produce the border wall after nearly three years in office. Despite a subservient Republican majority in both the House and Senate for two of those years, Trump has not been able to deliver the centerpiece of his campaign promise to his core supporters.
Trump has often lied about the wall, tweeting that it’s already under construction. In February, when Trump supporters reprised their chants, the President said, “Now, you really mean ‘finish that wall,’ because we’ve built a lot of it. It’s ‘finish that wall.’ We have,” even though it was patently false.
In fact, the administration has mostly done maintenance on existing barriers, replacing about 60 miles of old barriers with new fencing. According to Politifact, there were 654 miles of barriers along the 2,000-mile border when Trump took office, and that number has not increased.
With the 2020 election just 14 months away, Trump urgently needs to show progress — even if it means sidestepping the Constitution and scrapping projects that had been deemed necessary — to please his base and win reelection.
It’s hardly surprising that Puerto Rico is by far the hardest hit by this plan to divert money from defense projects. Local leaders say the decision reeks of racism, and the move exacerbates the President’s ongoing feud with officials there. Just last week, Trump insulted and mocked the island as it braced for what could have been another devastating hurricane.
Altogether, 23 states and three US territories are losing $1.8 billion in funds, and another $1.8 billion will come from construction overseas. Among the projects losing money, according to the Pentagon, are military bases devastated by hurricanes in Florida, North Carolina and Puerto Rico, funding for the US Military Academy at West Point, cyber operations facilities, schools for the children of service members, upgrades to facilities storing hazardous waste and Navy ship repairs.
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All told, the Pentagon is defunding 127 construction projects for what appears to be the sake of the President’s political future.
So, no, Mexico is not paying for the wall. It never was, and it never will, no matter how many ways Trump has claimed that will happen. If Trump really wants to slow the flow of asylum seekers, he needs to take very different actions, but those would not be very popular with his base.
Instead, he is hurting the military and military families, harming national security, politicizing the Defense Department, and playing games with the Constitution, for his own political benefit.