U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel walk along a section of the recently-constructed fence at the U.S.-Mexico border on Feb. 26, 2013 in Nogales, Ariz.
Photo by John Moore/Getty

Trump admin struggles to explain why troops are deployed to the border


Defense Secretary James Mattis visited with U.S. troops deployed to the southern border yesterday, and he conceded that the military mission is “non-traditional” because the mission is on American soil. But perhaps the most interesting moment of the Pentagon chief’s time with the servicemen and women came during the Q&A. BuzzFeed reported:

“What are the short and the long-term plans of this operation, sir?” asked another young soldier.

“Short term right now, you get the obstacles in so the border patrolmen can do what they gotta do,” Mattis responded.

“Longer term, it’s somewhat to be determined,” he said, adding that “if we were in war right now, you’d be asking the same question” and that the mission was a “dynamic, unpredictable kind of thing.”

As part of the same answer, Mattis added, “We’ll just have to see what the situation develops in, and then we’ll get you an answer.”

Oh. So the United States deployed thousands of troops for an operation that will cost taxpayers “at least $220 million” by the end of the year. The servicemen and women are there to stop a caravan of Central American migrants, who are still not near the border, and many of whom will never arrive at the border.

Asked to explain what the mission hopes to accomplish, the Secretary of Defense yesterday seemed to be reduced to effectively telling the troops, “We’ll have to get back to you on that.”

The New York Times  reported last week on the experiences of the troops stationed at Base Camp Donna in Texas, where access to electricity and water are limited, there is no air-conditioning, and many of those stationed there realize they’ll miss Thanksgiving with their loved ones.

The article added, “Two thousand miles away, at the Pentagon, officials privately derided the deployment as an expensive waste of time and resources, and a morale killer to boot.”

New York magazine added, “Former secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called it ’political distraction of the highest magnitude,’ lamenting that thousands of highly trained American soldiers were being sent ‘to a border where there is no need, no threat.’ Several retired generals, including Martin Dempsey, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have also spoken out against the mobilization of military resources to serve blatantly political ends, calling it both wasteful and dangerous.”

By some accounts, Trump wants the military to do more as part of the mission, but it fell to the Pentagon to explain that the president’s wishes fall outside the Defense Department’s legal restrictions.

On the campaign trail recently, Barack Obama told voters, “They’re telling you the existential threat to America is a bunch of poor refugees 1,000 miles away. They’re even taking our brave troops away from their families for a political stunt at the border. The men and women of our military deserve better than that.”

If Trump administration officials have a compelling response to this assessment, they haven’t yet shared it.