Trump’s Pentagon chief ruled out troop increase at US-Mexico border

WASHINGTON – President Trump’s Defense Secretary found the idea scandalous.

In the spring of 2020, Mark T. Esper, Secretary of Defense, was alarmed to learn that an idea was under discussion within a military high command and the Department of Homeland Security to send up to 250 000 soldiers – more than half of the active United States. the military and one-sixth of all U.S. forces – on the southern border in what would have been the largest use of the military inside the United States since the Civil War.

With the coronavirus pandemic raging, Stephen Miller, the architect of Mr. Trump’s immigration program, had urged the Department of Homeland Security to develop a plan for the number of troops that would be needed to seal the whole from the 2,000 mile border with Mexico. It is not clear whether it was homeland security officials or the Pentagon that concluded that a quarter of a million troops would be needed.

The concept was passed on to officials of the Department of Defense’s Northern Command, which is responsible for all military operations in the United States and at its borders, according to several former senior administration officials. Officials said the idea was never formally presented to Mr. Trump for approval, but was discussed in White House meetings as they debated other options to close the border at illegal immigration.

Mr. Esper declined to comment. But people familiar with his conversations, who would speak only on condition of anonymity, said he was enraged by Mr Miller’s plan. In addition, Homeland Security officials had bypassed his office by submitting the idea directly to military officials at Northern Command. Mr Esper also believed that deploying so many troops to the border would undermine U.S. military readiness around the world, officials said.

After a brief but controversial confrontation with Mr. Miller in the Oval Office, Mr. Esper completed consideration of the idea at the Pentagon.

Mr. Trump’s obsession with the southern border was already well known by this time. He had demanded a wall with piercing spikes, repeatedly dreamed of a ditch filled with alligators and questioned about shooting migrants in the leg as they crossed the border. His assistants envisioned a ray of heat that would heat the skin of the migrants.

Around the same time officials were considering the massive deployment on the US side of the border with Mexico, Mr. Trump also urged his top aides to send forces to Mexico himself to hunt down the drug cartels. , much like the American commandos tracked down and killed terrorists in Afghanistan. or Pakistan, officials said.

Mr. Trump did not hesitate until after aides suggested that for most countries in the world, military raids inside Mexico could make the United States appear to be committing an act of war against it. ‘one of their closest allies, who is also its biggest trading partner, officials said.

Ultimately, rather than a large military deployment to the border, the Trump administration used an obscure public health rule – which remains in effect to this day – to deny asylum and effectively block the entered the United States from Mexico during the pandemic. But taken together, the ideas under discussion this spring underscore the Trump administration’s view of the military as a tool of the presidency that could be used in the name of Mr. Trump’s domestic political agenda over the course of time. an election year. And it further reveals the rift between Mr. Trump and his senior military officials, who worked behind the scenes to prevent what they saw as the president’s dangerous instincts.

Several collaborators of the former president did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

In “Peril,” a book recently published by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of Mr. Trump’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was concerned that the president could not become a thug and had mentally declined.

Now, new reports reveal General Milley’s frustration that the White House – largely through Mr. Miller and his Department of Homeland Security allies – has tried to pressure Pentagon leaders to quash. ‘They are deploying more troops on the southwest border. A spokesperson for General Milley said the general declined to comment.

Mr. Esper declined to comment on his role in the failure of Mr. Trump’s plans. But he, too, is set to publish another in a long list of books on and inside Trump’s White House, describing his clashes with Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump’s military commanders have publicly stated that they have repeatedly hijacked the president’s calls to send more troops to the border for years, telling him the military is running out of steam and the legal arguments in favor of the use of military units were fragile.

The top brass were frightened by what they saw as the President’s abuse of the military. Just days before the 2018 congressional election, Mr. Trump sent 5,200 troops to the border with Mexico, angering military officials, who believed the forces were being used as political props. And in June 2020, police and National Guard soldiers used tear gas and rubber bullets to rid Lafayette Square of protesters shortly before Mr. Trump left the White House for a photo op. General Milley, who accompanied him, then apologized.

Then came the first waves of death and illness in the first months of the coronavirus pandemic.

As a candidate, long before the virus hit the country, Mr. Trump had falsely claimed that “huge infectious diseases were pouring out across the border.” On March 23, 2020, just one week after addressing the nation from the Oval Office about the virus, Mr. Trump sent a capitalized tweet: “THIS IS WHY WE NEED BORDERS!”

As the administration debated ways to secure the southern border against the virus, Miller urged senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security to provide the actual number of troops it would take to close the entire border. He had become frustrated in the past with the agency’s demands for only a few thousand troops at a time.

“What’s the number you would really need?” He urged officials, according to people familiar with his conversations.

Chad Wolf, who was then acting secretary for homeland security, said that at the start of the pandemic, department officials were dealing with a number of “worst-case scenarios,” such as what they would need they had to do it. completely seal the border.

But he said he didn’t believe a formal appeal had ever been made to the Defense Ministry to do so, and he said the talks about sending 250,000 troops – or something like that – at the border had never reached its level.

By the time Mr. Esper confronted Mr. Miller about the use of troops, the administration was already moving towards enforcing the rarely used legal authority known as Title 42, which gives the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the possibility of refouling immigrants during a health emergency. Miller, who had prevailed in previous clashes with military officials over border troop deployments, did not push the issue, according to a person familiar with his thinking.

Mr Miller declined to comment on the idea of ​​deploying troops to the border, but said using the public health rule was key to preventing migrants from entering the country.

“With failing economies and health systems across the planet, our southwestern border would have become the epicenter of Covid-fueled illicit migration – a giant, never-ending super-spreader event,” he said. declared. “Instead, the border was successfully sealed and offenders and potential spreaders got the message and stayed home. “

If Mr. Trump had completed the troop deployment, it would have been a force two and a half times the size of 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan at the height of the 20-year war there. It would also have eclipsed the American presence in Iraq during the war: the maximum number of troops in Iraq at any one time was around 170,000.

It is not known how the Defense Ministry could have handled such a deployment. The US military has approximately 481,000 active duty soldiers, but many are already deployed around the world, as are thousands of Marines, airmen and other troops. Sending 250,000 troops to the border – many of them crossing difficult and undeveloped land – would also have required a huge logistical effort to house and feed the troops.

In November 2019, nine American members of a Mormon family in the United States – three women and six children – were killed by drug cartels in Mexico as they crossed the Sierra Madre Mountains. Mr Trump and his allies seized it as proof of the need to close the border, a message echoed by Fox News presenters and other conservative media outlets.

“Now is the time for Mexico, with the help of the United States, to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth. We are just waiting for a call from your great new president! Mr Trump wrote on Twitter shortly after the attack.

But inside the White House, Mr. Trump has been even more explicit about the use of force, according to former officials who participated in discussions with the president on the issue.

Mr Trump has repeatedly asked questions about sending troops to Mexico, forcing key national security aides to push back on the idea, pointing out that to most of the world it would look like an American invasion.

In fact, it would: The United States and Mexico have historically worked together to combat cartels, usually through joint police and FBI operations at the invitation of the Mexican government. But despite his tweet promising to wait for cooperation with Mexican authorities, some in the White House feared that Mr. Trump was suggesting something different – the unilateral use of military force to prosecute cartels without necessarily securing the authorization from the Mexican government.

Then Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador explicitly rejected Mr. Trump’s tweeted offer to “wage war” on the cartels.

“We very much appreciate and thank President Trump and any foreign government that wishes to help, but in these cases we must act independently,” he said.

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