- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Trump administration is facing renewed warfare with a critical Congress over the White House’s demand to shift more money earmarked for the Pentagon to help pay for the president’s signature border wall.

Lawmakers on Wednesday gave a glimpse into the looming battle during a four-hour hearing examining the Pentagon’s budget request, as the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House Armed Services Committee teamed up to slam the administration’s latest plans to “reprogram” $3.8 billion from military procurement and drug interdiction programs to President Trump’s southern border wall.

Committee Chairman Adam Smith, Washington Democrat, and Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, the panel’s ranking Republican, kicked off a budget hearing with Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of State head Gen. Mark Milley with repeated shots at the wall money switch.

“This is substituting the judgment of the administration for the judgment of Congress,” Mr. Thornberry complained.

Mr. Trump has ignored mounting congressional complaints to funnel nearly $10 billion from the Defense Department’s budget toward his wall over the last two years — racing to complete as much of the barrier as possible before the November election.

“This is a deeper issue than the wall,” said Mr. Thornberry, who is retiring from Congress at the end of his term. “But I’m deeply concerned with the Congress’ role in national defense and whether that’s being overridden.”

Mr. Esper repeatedly defended the move, telling the panel, “The president has decided there’s a national emergency on the border.”

But Mr. Smith countered that the shift undercut the Pentagon’s own arguments for more money to fund priority project inside the Defense Department, and the department’s own strategic analyses do not identify the Mexico border as an area of concern.

“It undercuts the congressional process. This basically says that Congress doesn’t spend the money, the president does,” Mr. Smith said.

Mr. Esper staunchly defended the administration’s overall $740.5 billion budget request, which the secretary said was formed through “tough decisions to ensure our highest priorities were adequately funded.”

“We are in the midst of rapid technological change that has the potential to fundamentally alter the character of war,” he told the panel.

He also addressed concerns that the Pentagon’s new strategic focus on China and Russia could mean unstable areas such as sub-Saharan Africa — now dealing with a mounting jihadi threat — will be shortchanged.

“There are no plans to completely withdraw all forces from Africa,” Mr. Esper said

But he added Wednesday that he is “looking to make sure I can resource the missions that are actually required, and to right-size the force consistent with that and the need to build readiness across the force so I can deal with China and then Russia.”

Gen. Milley told lawmakers there are no plans to U.S. military intervention along the Syrian-Turkish borders, despite rising fears of a humanitarian crisis as President Trump has pulled back U.S. buffer forces and the Russian-backed Syrian army advances relentlessly on rebel-held Idlib province.

“There’s no intent nor plans to reengage in the Syria-Turkish war nor put troops back on the Syrian-Turkish border,” Gen. Milley said.

The U.S. still has roughly 750 troops in eastern Syria working with a local group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces to fighting the remnants of Islamic State.

“They have broken down into small groups, and they are continuing to conduct insurgency and terrorist operations in a very desegregated way,” Gen. Milley said, “but they are no longer the threat they were a year ago.”

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