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National Security Analyst Discusses Diverting Military Funds For Border Wall


We begin this hour with President Trump's decision to use military funds to build a southern border wall. Now that Congress has refused to set aside money for the project, President Trump has declared a national emergency, which is being challenged in court. When Trump made the announcement on Friday, he described talking with a couple of military generals about the money.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I said, what were you going to use it for? And I won't go into details, but - didn't sound too important to me.

SHAPIRO: Well, Mackenzie Eaglen has been looking into what some of those projects might be. She is a national security analyst at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, and she has previously worked on defense budgets at the Pentagon and in Congress. Welcome.


SHAPIRO: What kinds of projects do you think President Trump is talking about here?

EAGLEN: Well, no one has yet identified a specific list, but Pentagon officials are looking it over right now. My suspicion is that they will look to overseas projects first, but that would include things like family housing in South Korea and Germany and a necessary training range in Guam, for example.

SHAPIRO: Well, President Trump talked on Friday in the press conference about this idea of unobligated funds, military money that's not tied to a specific project. This is what he said.


TRUMP: We had certain funds that are being used at the discretion of generals, at the discretion of the military. Some of them haven't been allocated yet.

SHAPIRO: I know you spend lots of time looking at military budgets. Explain this concept of unobligated funds. Are they available to use for whatever?

EAGLEN: I wish there was more discretion in the defense budget but, actually, in this specific case, the president couldn't be more wrong. Military construction money is pinpointed down to the location and the amount and the year that it should be spent. There is some wiggle room in there, which is probably what he's talking about - money that is yet to go under contract. But it doesn't mean it's unused or unspent. It's just waiting to be spent.

SHAPIRO: The president argues that he's talking about a relatively small amount of money compared to the entire military budget. We're talking about something like 8 billion for the wall out of a military budget of roughly 700 billion. Is that 8 billion really enough to make a difference in what the military does?

EAGLEN: It's a very fair point. It's a huge budget - it's eye-poppingly large - that we use to fund the military. But what I would notice is that they're going after a very small pot of money within that larger budget. And that pot of money - the Military Construction account specifically - has been chronically underfunded since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started for that purpose - right? - to direct money towards more immediate needs like drones and armored vehicles in the desert.

And so the military leadership has been testifying repeatedly in the last decade that they have 116 billion in deferred maintenance. They have a backlog in this account already. So it would be setting back - what the chiefs are saying is a priority for recruiting and retention and morale of the forces.

SHAPIRO: It's clear that you disagree with the president's move here. Overall, what are your biggest objections?

EAGLEN: My first objection is using the military as cover to pilfer funds for a priority that hasn't been approved in Congress. So if Congress represents the taxpayer and the voting American public and they've approved money for one reason, it's not OK to go make it for another reason just because you couldn't cut a deal.

Now, there is wiggle room. And the president is the president of the United States, and he needs flexibility in his authority for true and genuine national emergencies. But that's the second objection, which is, this move now opens the door for presidents of either party from this day forward to let a national emergency be like pornography. We'll know it when we see it, or it's in the eye of the beholder. That's really going to come back to haunt the Republican Party. It could be anything from gun control to climate change, which other politicians have already said that they're going to look to use an emergency for in the future.

SHAPIRO: Mackenzie Eaglen is a defense fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank. Thanks for joining us today.

EAGLEN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.