Trump's Surprise Border Mission Is a Politically Motivated Waste of Money: Pentagon Sources

The Trump administration’s plan to deploy thousands of troops to the U.S. border took officials by surprise, with many senior-level Defense Department officers saying they believed the move was politically motivated and a waste of money, multiple Pentagon sources with knowledge of the directive told Newsweek.

Four sources with direct knowledge of how plans for the troop deployment—dubbed Operation Faithful Patriot—came together said that the initial directive to send troops to the border came directly from the president’s office, known in Pentagon parlance as National Command Authority, which would mean President Donald Trump or Defense Secretary James Mattis.

The sources added that even if Mattis, a former U.S. Marine general, had been delegated authority for the operation, it would still have required permission from the commander in chief. But ultimately, the decision to move forward with the southern-border deployment was unexpected by military planners. 

Speaking to Newsweek on condition of anonymity, as they are not authorized to speak to the media, the four U.S. military sources said senior leaders within the Pentagon had derided the deployment not only as a significant waste of taxpayer dollars but as running counter to military readiness, but that a minority lauded the Trump administration’s hardline crackdown on immigration.

Asked Wednesday if the number of U.S. troops on the border was a political stunt, Mattis said: “The support that we provide to the Department of Homeland Security is practical support based on the request from the commissioner of customs and border police. We don’t do stunts in this department.”

Pentagon officials did not reply to Newsweek requests for comment.

Many service members within the higher echelon seemed to agree that the decision to deploy thousands of troops to the border was a politically motivated tactic, with the Trump administration ordering the deployment less than a week before the November 6 midterm elections, the sources suggested.

“There is no practical or tactical reason for this to happen,” one source told Newsweek.

Brownsville_BorderPlanning Planners from the military and U.S. Customs and Border Protection discuss the requirements for DoD support to ensure the security along the Southwest Border on October 26, 2018, in Brownsville, Texas. DoD has a long history of supporting the Department of Homeland Security and CBP with capabilities such as engineering, aviation, and administrative support. Patti Bielling/Operation Faithful Patriot

The remarks come amid the president's doubling down on his immigration rhetoric on Thursday as he spoke to reporters in the Roosevelt Room at the White House.

“Anybody throwing stones, rocks, like they did to Mexico and the Mexican military, Mexican police, where they badly hurt police and soldiers of Mexico, we will consider that a firearm,” Trump said. "We’re not going to put up with that. They want to throw rocks at our military, our military fights back. I told them to consider it a rifle.”

The four Pentagon sources speaking to Newsweek moments after Trump concluded his comments said that service members deploying to the southern border had not received credible intelligence about “bad actors,” and there had not been a change to the rules of engagement that would permit service members to treat rocks as firearms.

Trump had previously called the expected arrival of the caravans an “invasion of our country.” The president had also claimed that the caravan contained terrorist cells and that Democrats were organizing and handing out money to the traveling migrants.

Critics of the president have called the troop deployment a publicity stunt meant to garner Republican support just days before the midterm elections.

Despite the president’s assertions that the caravans were “made up of some very bad thugs and gang members,” documents obtained by Newsweek showed that intelligence officials did not anticipate high involvement of criminal gangs—or any terrorist infiltration—as the caravan continued to follow its projected route.

The documents also showed that the Trump administration had anticipated that “only a small percentage” of migrants traveling with the caravans headed to the U.S. would make it to the border based on historical trends. The assessment said only about 20 percent of the 7,000 migrants, or what equates to 1,500 traveling with the caravan, would make it to the border.

To put this in perspective, this means there would be about 3.5 members of the military deployed for each migrant.

Currently, there are at least four caravans of Central Americans making their way to the U.S. border, with the first group having departed from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on October 13. By Thursday, the main group, which saw its numbers swell to 7,000 before dropping to roughly 4,000, had made it to the city of Juchitan, in southern Mexico. 

Asylum seekers traveling with the caravan still had about 875 miles to go before they reached the closest U.S. port of entry in McAllen, Texas. 

Caravan_Shoe_Pentagon A child's shoe sits along the roadside as members of the Central American caravan head out for their next destination on November 1, 2018 in Juchitan de Zaragoza, Mexico. The group of migrants, many of them fleeing violence in their home countries, took a rest day on Wednesday and resumed their journey towards the United States border on Thursday. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Their journey could more than double, however, if they choose to follow the same route of an earlier caravan of asylum seekers that made the trip to the U.S. border in April—they took a significantly longer trek to Tijuana in the far northwest of Mexico, to claim asylum at San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego, California.

Commanders were briefed on the presentation on Saturday, and it contained U.S. government guidance to subordinate commands handling press relations during the interagency operation led by the Department of Homeland Security, suggesting government officials had planned for its official narrative on the military deployment to be “top-down driven.”

That means that “a lot of these questions will be handled in Washington and by the Pentagon,” said David Lapan, a former Homeland Security spokesman under the Trump administration and a former U.S. Marine, speaking to Newsweek. “Recognizing all the policy and political implications, they’re going to want individual service members to stay away from those things.”

The Department of Defense will make sure to differentiate between uniformed members of the military and “people who are members of the administration or people who hold policy positions in the Pentagon and can talk about political stuff,” Lapan added.

The U.S. Army North documents showed that Pentagon officials were well aware of the political effect that deploying thousands of U.S. forces to the southern border might have on the upcoming November midterm elections well before the Trump administration announced the deployment.

Presentation slides provided guidance on the role that the November elections could play in driving narratives around the arrival of the caravan in an “information environment analysis” completed by the operations wing of U.S. Northern Command, the Pentagon unit overseeing the southern border deployment.

“Midterm elections NOV 06 will be the dominant driver of competing narratives and increase competitive and combative nature of IE,” stated a slide titled “Public Affairs.”

The president insisted his show of military force had little to do with next week’s elections. “I’ve been saying this long before election[s], Trump said. "I've been saying this before I ever thought of running for office. We have to have strong borders. If we don’t have strong borders, we don’t have a country.”

KellyField_Border Deployers from the 541st Engineering Company, 19th Engineering Battalion, Fort Knox, KT., land at Kelly Field, San Antonio, in support of Operation Faithful Patriot, October 30, 2018. SrA Alexandra Minor/U.S. Air Force

The public affairs documents go on to instruct officials to emphasize the collaborative nature of the interagency deployment, and how it will avoid any potential legal trouble.

The Department of Defense was asked to direct all communications coordination to the Department of Homeland Security, with public affairs officials being told to highlight the temporary nature of the mission to members of the press.

“From a military standpoint, the timing or reason for a mission is out of our control. We get an order from the commander in chief, and we do that mission when they tell us to. If you have a question about why you’re doing it, you don’t talk about it because that’s not you, that’s the White House,” Lapan said.

He continued: “It’s a tricky situation for military service members to be in given how politically fraught the situation is right now. I don’t know why the policymakers are doing this now or how they’re going to answer those questions. I haven’t seen any policymaker answer the question of why they’re doing this now and whether it has to do with midterms."

Trump has staunchly defended his administration’s decision to send as many as 15,000 troops to the border, telling ABC News chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl that the U.S. needed to “have a wall of people” standing guard at the border for when the caravans eventually arrive.

The U.S. Army North operation order used to coordinate tasks at the southern border paints a dire picture of the situation there, which seems to echo Trump’s sentiments: “CURRENT SITUATION. THE SECURITY OF THE UNITED STATES IS IMPERILED BY A DRASTIC SURGE OF ILLEGAL DRUGS, DANGEROUS GANG ACTIVITY AND EXTENSIVE ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION THREATENS SAFETY OF CITIZENS AND UNDERMINES THE RULE OF LAW. THE SITUATION AT THE BORDER HAS REACHED A POINT OF CRISIS AND POTUS HAS TAKEN ACTION TO SECURE OUR BORDERS. DOD WILL SUPPORT THE DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY (DHS) AND THE UNITED STATES CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION (CBP).”

Brad Moss, a Washington, D.C., based national security attorney, told Newsweek: “The deployment of thousands of active duty personnel to the border remains a decision with unclear motivations or intentions…[but] under federal law, military personnel are limited in what they can do, particularly in terms of domestic law enforcement.

“They certainly have the authority to provide technical and intelligence assistance to local law enforcement and DHS personnel, but they are prohibited from directly handling seizure and detention of any undocumented immigrants from the ‘caravan’ that reach the U.S. border.

Moss continued, saying that “This isn’t an area of differing interpretations. Under the Posse Comitatus Act, the military is strictly prohibited from handling domestic law enforcement tasks absent an explicit grant of authority by Congress or a presidential determination regarding the existence of an emergency.

The Posse Comitatus Act is a longstanding federal statute that restricts the government’s ability to use the U.S. military as a police force; however, language contained in the documents give an overview of the legal authorizations for deploying U.S. troops domestically.

The president maintains an “inherent authority” exception, according to the documents. Trump could use those executive powers to restore order in extraordinary circumstances, even if a state governor objected to the president wielding his authority.

Trump had initially vowed to send up to 5,200 troops to the southern border in anticipation of several caravans of Central American migrants heading toward the U.S. border, but the president more than doubled that figure on Wednesday, indicating that he could send as many as 15,000 military troops to multiple ports of entry locations across the southwest border.

PublicAffairs_Document_Caravan A screenshot from a presentation obtained by Newsweek showing a tweet from Dana White, the Pentagon's chief spokeswoman. Defense Department sources say the southern border mission was a surprise from the White House, with many believing it was politically motivated. Newsweek

The surge in troop levels aligned with Newsweek’s report on Monday revealing how government documents showed that the Pentagon had placed roughly 7,000 troops on notice to deploy to the southern border within 24-hours. A Defense Department official told Newsweek it didn't believe the number of U.S. forces would surpass the 15,000 figure touted by Trump.

In a presentation briefed to commanders on Saturday, a public affairs slide included a Twitter screenshot from the verified account of Dana White, the Pentagon’s chief spokeswoman. The date stamp showed the tweet had been posted on the same Saturday as the briefing.

@DeptofDefense is in support of @DHSgov request to provide support to the @CBP. #SecDef Mattis’ signed order did not specify the number of troops that will support this mission. Media reports of 800 or 1000 troops deploying are inaccurate."

Four sources told Newsweek that while it was true that the order Mattis signed did not indicate troop strength numbers when he signed the directive this past Friday, operational planners at the Defense Department knew the troop levels would surge to more than 14,000 before White’s October 27 tweet.

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