President Donald Trump's latest push to tease border wall money from the Defense Department has hit a wall even more formidable than the one planned to stop illegal immigration: the National Guard.
Trump's latest move to get wall money would repurpose $3.8 billion from the Defense Department. That has worked in the past as he rerouted billions from active-duty construction funds while using emergency powers to skirt congressional reluctance. But getting more than $1 billion from the Guard, which is part of his latest plan, ignited a firestorm with a 50-state lobbying group that even the Pentagon has been reluctant to tangle with in the past.
And the money Trump wants is hard-earned cash the Guard prized from Congress that wasn't part of the Pentagon's annual request.
"The services have historically underfunded the National Guard," retired Brig. Gen. J. Roy Robinson, who heads the powerful National Guard Association, said in an email Thursday. "They have done so more recently knowing that Congress will make up some of the difference. In fact, this gives the services something of an excuse as to why they don't pay more attention to Guard equipment modernization."
The Trump move would use money intended for National Guard aircraft and Humvees to buy miles of wall. And, if the past is a predictor, the president will lose this battle.
The National Guard has operations in every state, and because it works for state governments rather than the feds, its generals aren't reluctant to speak out when they feel their interests are threatened.
Look back to the days of the fractious Continental Congress. The state militias that fought the Revolutionary War were key in getting military cash approved, even when the active-duty troops under George Washington went unpaid.
In modern days, the Pentagon has sometimes found the Guard's lobbying prowess useful. When President George W. Bush found Congress reluctant to approve his missile defense plans, he handed the mission to the Guard.
The National Guard's 100th Missile Defense Brigade in Colorado Springs, which controls interceptor missiles in Alaska and California, is proof that lawmakers listen when the Guard steps in.
A more recent battle saw an Army attempt to raid National Guard stocks of attack helicopters amid Obama-era defense cuts.
Guard generals, including Colorado's adjutant general, cried foul. Congress intervened, and while the Guard gave up some AH-64 Apaches, the part-time troops got brand-new UH-72 Lakotas to replace them.
The Guard's reaction to the wall money move resulted in a warning shot fired at the Pentagon.
The National Guard Association lobbed a letter directed to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, with copies going to every service secretary and the joint chiefs.
"We greatly appreciate your consideration of our concerns as we work toward ensuring our servicemembers have the resources needed to continue their role in the Total Force mission in support of the National Defense Strategy," the Guard Association said, delivering a velvet-covered anvil.
While Trump is unlikely to get money from the Guard, his move could be a smart one.
The reason Trump is digging into the Pentagon's coffers is that lawmakers haven't given him cash in the Homeland Security budget.
By annoying the Guard, Trump has elevated the issue and kicked off a lobbying effort that could alarm lawmakers into action.
This gives members of Congress two choices: They can give Trump other money, or they can do more to oppose his wall. And with the wall set to be a top issue for Trump's 2020 campaign, the president can't lose.