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Image: South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks in Sioux Falls on June 22, 2020.Stephen Groves / AP file

Is a GOP megadonor funding a National Guard border deployment?

This need not be complicated: private citizens aren't supposed to pay for National Guard missions. It's that simple.


Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) announced late last week that he's dispatching 50 law enforcement officers from his state to Texas in order to help out at the U.S./Mexico border. The politics were hardly subtle.

The governor would not say what the officers' mission would be or who would be paying for the excursion, but the "why" was obvious: DeSantis wants to be able to tell his party's base that he takes border issues seriously, and this transparent campaign stunt will help the Republican check a box.

Naturally, other GOP governors with national ambitions don't want be left behind, which helps explain this press release issued yesterday by South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R).

Today, Governor Kristi Noem announced that up to fifty South Dakota National Guard troops are being deployed to Texas to help the secure the border between the United States and Mexico.... The initial deployment to the border will last for between 30 and 60 days.... The deployment will be paid for by a private donation.

At face value, the politics of these stunts is easy to understand. DeSantis and Noem want to prove their border bona fides to far-right activists ahead of their seemingly inevitable presidential candidacies. It's a mortal lock that when they're standing on a future debate stage against other presidential aspirants, the governors will boast with pride about their performative border deployments.

But did you catch that last sentence in the South Dakotan's written statement? "The deployment will be paid for by a private donation"?

Willis Johnson, a Republican megadonor and a Tennessee billionaire whose company auctions used cars, acknowledged that he's footing the bill for Kristi Noem sending 50 South Dakota National Guard to the southern border.

In case it isn't obvious, the Washington Post helped summarize the problem:

Privately funding a military mission is an affront to civilian oversight of the armed forces, said military and oversight experts, describing the move — a Republican governor sending troops to a Republican-led state, paid for by a Republican donor — as likely unprecedented and unethical. "You certainly don't want our national security priorities up to the highest bidder," said Mandy Smithberger, a defense accountability expert at the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit government watchdog.

This need not be complicated: private citizens aren't supposed to pay for National Guard missions. It's that simple.

For Republicans wondering why this is problematic, I'd encourage them to consider a hypothetical: If some Silicon Valley billionaires and Democratic megadonors decided they didn't like where National Guard troops were stationed, so they wrote checks to a blue-state governor to move the troops to the donors' preferred location, would Republicans shrug their shoulders or would they see this as a ridiculous abuse?

Update: Olivier Knox had a good follow-up report today, quoting a Noem spokesperson saying the megadonor's financial support went to the Emergency and Disaster Fund at the South Dakota Department of Public Safety, not directly to the National Guard.

I won't pretend to have any legal expertise in this area, but I'm not sure the distinction matters. If South Dakota dispatched Guard troops to another state in the wake of a natural disaster, the federal government would pick up the tab. If South Dakota dispatched Guard troops to address an in-state crisis, South Dakota taxpayers would shoulder the costs.

But a governor deploying the Guard to another state under these circumstances, thanks to "a private donation" from a billionaire in an entirely different state, seems problematic even if the donation is indirect.