It didn't come as too big of a surprise this week when South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) announced that she was deploying 50 National Guard troops to Texas in order to "help" at the U.S./Mexico border. The Republican governor is, after all, eager to impress her party's base ahead of a likely bid for national office, so she obviously sees value in performative stunts like these.
But there was an unusual dimension to Noem's announcement: South Dakota's governor assured taxpayers that the deployment "will be paid for by a private donation."
In fact, Willis Johnson, a Republican megadonor and a Tennessee billionaire whose company auctions used cars, acknowledged that he's helping finance the endeavor, creating a truly bizarre dynamic: a private citizen in one state was sending a check to a governor in a different state in order to pay for a National Guard mission in a third state.
Is this permissible? Politico reported that one powerful member of Congress isn't prepared to let this go.
Rep. Adam Smith, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said on Wednesday that he would press Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin about reports that the governor of South Dakota accepted private donations to fund the deployment of National Guard members to the U.S.-Mexico border. When asked about Gov. Kristi Noem's move during an interview on MSNBC's "Meet the Press Daily," the Washington Democrat said the Guard should not be treated like a "private militia."
Smith added, "This is unbelievably dangerous to think that rich people can start using the U.S. military to advance their objectives, independent of what the commander in chief and the secretary of defense think they ought to be doing."
The Democratic committee chair went on to say, "The one thing we're going to do on the Armed Services Committee is we're going to put pressure on the secretary of defense and everyone else to say, 'This should not be happening. How do we make it stop?'"
To be sure, there are other Republican governors -- in Florida, Iowa, and Nebraska, for example -- who've also made border deployments as part of apparent political stunts. But only Noem received private funds from a party megadonor for the Guard mission.
The New York Times reported that officials in South Dakota conceded that they're not sure whether any of this is permissible under existing laws: "I don't have a clue if it's legal," said Roger Tellinghuisen, a Republican who served as South Dakota attorney general. "It's a question in my own mind."
There's also, of course, the question of propriety. State Senator Reynold Nesiba (D-S.D.) told the Times, "We cannot be setting up our Guardsmen to be mercenaries. These are not troops for hire by anyone who calls the governor. They are not hers to dispatch for partisan political purposes."
The same report quoted Geoffrey Corn, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who is a professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston, saying he'd never heard of private funding for American military activity.
I don't imagine we've heard the last of these questions.