High-ranking Defense Department official tours Donna border wall

U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist walks into a hanger to speak to local press after arriving at McAllen Miller International Airport on Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

McALLEN — The man in charge of managing the U.S. Department of Defense’s budget arrived last Monday morning to tour the ongoing construction of the border wall in Donna — just 11 days after the Pentagon transferred $3.8 billion from military operations to fund the wall.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense David L. Norquist landed at McAllen Miller International Airport shortly before noon and met with more than 40 National Guard troops inside a hangar at McCreery Aviation Co.

“We are here, first and foremost, to see the National Guard troops that are supporting DHS (Department of Homeland Security) on the border,” he said during a nine-minute speech. “We’re also going to get a firsthand look of new border wall construction and other important border security operations in the Rio Grande Valley.”

As deputy secretary, Norquist’s primary responsibility is managing the defense budget and executing the defense secretary’s priorities, which now include border security.

“The ability of a nation to secure its borders is vital to its sovereignty, security and safety,” Norquist said. “Put simply, border security is national security.”

Earlier this month, U.S. Department of Defense Secretary Mark Esper approved the transfer of $3.8 billion in military spending to build about 177 miles on fencing along the southwest border.

“From day one, President Trump has made securing the border a top priority in his administration,” Norquist said. “The Department of Defense has a long history of supporting DHS. Today we have over 5,000 troops supporting DHS operations, and together, DHS and DOD have funded over 700 miles of fencing to secure the border.”

The large funding transfer drew criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike, who argued Congress specifically earmarked the money for military operations. But it’s not the first time the president calls on the DOD for wall funding.

Last year, despite congressional opposition, Trump faced no consequences when making similar transfers by canceling or postponing dozens of military construction projects to free up $3.6 billion.

Norquist said DOD followed the same process as last year in determining which projects to cut.

“We tried to focus on things that were either in excess of our requirements or were early to me. So there are cases, for example, where we received funding for something that we wouldn’t actually need to spend for another year or two,” he said. “And so we tried to prioritize those in order to minimize the disruption on national security. But this is of course a balance.”

U.S. House Rep. Kay Granger, R-TX, and Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite, commanding general for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, accompanied Norquist on his visit. Granger currently serves as ranking member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for funding the federal government.

Semonite advises the Secretary of the Army and others on a number of matters, including engineering, construction, real property and public infrastructure.

Granger said she was here to follow the money.

“We’re seeing how the money’s being used — because it’s been significant money used to build a wall — and see what else is necessary,” she said. “Last time I came here it was right before the Christmas break and the difference was significant in what has been done here and how well it’s been done. So I’m glad to see it.”

The trip marked Norquist’s first visit to the Rio Grande Valley, though not his first tour of the border wall.

“I visited the border construction … 14 years ago,” he said. “This is a very different scale and quality.”

And it might be one of the most difficult sections of the wall to build because of the Rio Grande, he said.

“My understanding, it is in fact some of the most challenging of the border wall construction to do,” he said about the concrete barrier that features bollards on top. “But that’s the part we are going to visit while we’re here.”

Before landing in McAllen, Norquist made a stop in Fort Worth to visit the F-35 production facility.

The Air Force’s F-35 program took a big hit with the DOD’s transfer and lost about $156 million for procurement.