- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Senate Democrats clashed sharply with the Pentagon on Wednesday over President Trump’s latest move to shift $3.8 billion from defense funds to finance the construction of his border wall.

Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, squared off with Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Pentagon’s $705.4 billion budget request for next year, claiming the move is not in line with the Defense Department’s vaunted National Defense Strategy (NDS) blueprint, which calls for a heavy focus on gearing up to challenge China and Russia.

“It’s hard for you to look us in the eye and say this is very focused on the NDS when I can’t find mention of the border wall or the border in the NDS,” Mr. Kaine said.

“I can’t imagine a scenario in which this committee — I’ll just say it bluntly — would allow a Democratic president to take money out of the defense budget for [a] non-defense priority,” he added.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have criticized Mr. Trump’s plan to use money earmarked for the military for border wall construction, which several members argued is not a national security matter.

Mr. Esper stood by the administration’s decision.

“Border security is national security,” he said, arguing the Pentagon should be “able to transfer that money to support that, much like we do with other things — whether its fighting wildfires, helping with floods [or] whatever the case may be.”

Pentagon officials say they have authority under the law to tap the department’s counternarcotics budget to help build barriers to restrict illegal drugs from flowing through the border.

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.

Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, told the secretary that while he supports the construction of the wall, “I really have a problem with the funding, which I think you all know our position is [funds] should be appropriated by us, that’s our job.”

Mr. Esper has consistently defended the wall funding move throughout several recent congressional hearings. He said Wednesday that while he would prefer wall construction to be funded through the Department of Homeland Security, “[but] we are where we are.”

Lawmakers also took the annual defense budget hearing to address a host of national security-related issues with the Pentagon chief and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley.

Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, questioned the value of preserving the 1992 Open Skies Treaty that allows U.S. intelligence flights over Russia, citing Moscow’s repeated violations of the agreement.

Mr. Esper told the panel he has “a lot of concerns” with Russian “noncompliance,” but said he was holding off on any further action “until we get better direction” from the administration.

Republicans have long called for the U.S. to withdraw from the treaty, while Democrats have insisted the benefits from the treaty outweigh Russia’s violations.

Mr. Esper also defended President Trump’s decision to order the airstrike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in early January, even though lawmakers have questioned the timing and the justification for the attack that brought Tehran and Washington to the brink of open conflict.

“It’s clear that taking [Soleimani] off the battlefield has set back the [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] and the Iranian government with regard to spreading their malign activity throughout the region,” Mr. Esper said.

Since the Soleimani mission, both the House and Senate have since passed legislation to restrict Mr. Trump’s ability to conduct future military action in Iran.

• Madison Hirneisen contributed to this report.

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