You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Trump eases off using disaster relief funds for his wall after bipartisan pushback

Washington Examiner logo Washington Examiner 1/12/2019 Josh Siegel
a man wearing a hat © Provided by MediaDC: Washington Newspaper Publishing Company, Inc.

The Trump administration is appearing to ease off a plan to use disaster relief funding to build a border wall amid bipartisan pushback, allies say.

White House officials told various news outlets Thursday that President Trump is weighing using billions of dollars of Army Corps of Engineers funding allocated for states and territories suffering from storm or wildfire damage, including Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas, and California, in order to get around Congress and build his border wall.

But Trump on Friday said he’s “not looking” to declare a national emergency for the border wall right now.

Congressional allies, meanwhile, denied that Trump is looking to divert disaster funding for the wall.

"I've spoken directly with the White House," Texas Rep. Kevin Brady, the ranking member on the House Ways and Means Committee, said in a tweet.

Trump, he wrote, “Fully supports Corps funding to help Harvey communities rebuild/prevent future flooding."

Brady is referring to 2017’s Hurricane Harvey in Houston, which inflicted $125 billion in damage, primarily from flooding. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, also said Friday he opposes “any reprogramming of Harvey disaster funds,” according to comments he made at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and relayed from his office.

Trump backed off the idea of diverting disaster funding after Republicans in disaster-struck states spoke up. Diverting disaster funding would harm communities recovering from storms and wildfires, experts and critics say, and set a dangerous precedent on how presidents use money appropriated by Congress.

“This is weaponizing disaster assistance funding,” Craig Fugate, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the Obama administration, told the Washington Examiner. “It’s using it for purposes to extract concessions or force issues that have nothing to do with a disaster.”

U.S. governors on Friday criticized the potential move, saying it would leave their states and territories vulnerable.

New Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a conservative and Trump supporter, said he opposes the president using hurricane funding for a border wall. Florida is still recovering from Hurricane Michael, which hit the state in October and is blamed for at least 60 deaths.

“No wall should be funded on the pain and suffering of U.S. citizens who have endured tragedy and loss through a natural disaster,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello, a Democrat, said in a statement. Puerto Rico is still recovering from Hurricane Maria’s devastation in 2017.

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., told Bloomberg on Friday the White House is considering using money from $13.9 billion in Army Corps projects funded by Congress in a February 2018 bill providing disaster relief for Puerto Rico, Texas, California, and Florida. Congressional aides also confirmed the White House is reviewing the pot of money to build its proposed $5.7 billion wall.

Disaster response experts say the Trump administration could likely use some of that money for the border wall, because the $13.9 billion represents appropriated Army Corps disaster relief funding that has not been obligated — or used — meaning no contracts have been issued yet for the work.

“Technically, it's maybe not a bad strategy,” Fugate said. “Tactically, I can see their thinking. It makes sense.”

But other experts said lawmakers could sue the administration for diverting appropriated disaster funding for an unintended purpose.

“The main problem is you have set bad precedent that this is just explicitly a slush fund, and if a president wants to decide something is a disaster, you can spend billions of dollars without congressional authorization,” Ray Lehmann, director of finance, insurance, and trade policy at the R Street Institute, told the Washington Examiner.

Garamendi told the Los Angeles Times the Trump administration is specifically targeting $5 billion in Army Corps projects for California and Puerto Rico to fund the border wall.

Army Corps disaster relief funding usually go to flood control and water infrastructure projects, such as dams and levees. Such projects require years of planning before construction begins.

“Diverting this money is going to leave people in harm's way,” Alice Hill, who was director of resilience policy on the Obama administration's National Security Council, told the Washington Examiner. “Floods are our most damaging natural hazard. When you don't increase flood protection, more people are at risk of death, economic damage, and being displaced from homes. To pull the rug from ongoing work delays that protection and is a colossal waste of money.”

Trump has previously taken action that could increase the risk of floods — even as climate change threatens to make storms more severe and expensive.

In August 2017, he revoked Obama-era building standards to protect federally funded infrastructure projects from future flood risk. The Trump administration promised to replace the rules but has not done so.


More from Washington Examiner

Washington Examiner
Washington Examiner
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon