President Trump’s recent push to force the military to use more of its $700 billion budget on building a border wall and sending troops to the US-Mexico border has been met with resistance from senior military officials. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford, and White House chief of staff John Kelly have all pushed back on Trump’s plan. The political ramifications that could come from this are unclear at best, but one thing is for sure—the rift between civilian and military leadership in America will only grow wider as we head further into 2020.
“We can’t fight a war against poverty,” General Dunford told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “It’s not what any of us joined for, it’s not what we’re trained to do.” In response to questions from Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), Gen. Dunford said that he would be unable to reach the 2,000-troop target set by President Trump. “I don’t know that the military is his first priority,” Peters said, noting that he would oppose any effort to separate the defense budget from the broader federal discretionary spending bill.
Gen. Dunford’s testimony came on the heels of comments made by Secretary Mattis at a separate Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Mattis voiced his strong opposition to the use of military funds for a border wall and called it “probably not a wise use” of defense money during an earlier Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on February 12th. He went as far as to say that “we don’t do walls.”
These comments came after President Trump declared a national emergency in an attempt to redirect funds from the Pentagon’s budget towards a border wall. Trump first said that he would veto any spending bill if it didn’t contain $5 billion for a border wall at a press conference on February 15th. The next day, House Democrats responded by proposing a spending bill without funding for the border wall. Trump quickly sent a letter to Congressional leadership stating that he would veto any spending bill containing “unobligated appropriations” allocated for the Department of Defense. Trump, in his reply to Speaker Pelosi’s letter, stated that it was unacceptable to allocate funds for soldiers when there is no funding allocated for border security.
In response, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly spoke with Fox News and proposed the idea of using funds from the Department of Defense to fund Trump’s border wall. “There are certain projects that DOD would undertake in the ordinary course of business that fit in the category of border security,” he said, later adding that “there are other things that will be part of it.”
Kelly, Mattis, and Dunford have all been staunch supporters of the defense budget. Kelly, a former Marine Corps General, was once quoted as saying that “a strong military capability sends a signal that we can deal with any security challenge from North Korea to Iran.” Mattis has made similar statements about needing a larger military budget in order to continue the fight against ISIS. Meanwhile, Dunford has called for a “large and effective” defense budget to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
Despite their concerns with Trump’s failure to define and implement long-term plans for building a large military, none of these officials have explicitly stated that they would oppose future funding requests from Trump or Congressional Republicans.