When former President Donald Trump awarded the permanent basing of U.S. Space Command headquarters to Alabama, where he had some of his highest approval ratings, in his final week in office, he yanked the command from front-runner Colorado Springs. In so doing, he triggered a pair of government investigations that lawmakers say could ultimately doom Trump's decision.
Where Space Command is based has wide-ranging implications, from U.S. efforts to confront adversaries’ hostile actions in orbit to billions of dollars in unneeded investments of taxpayer funds, leaders have argued. Trump overruled the Air Force secretary’s advice by choosing Alabama on Jan. 13, just seven days before he left office. For now, the 45th commander in chief's order to move the command stands, but the results of the reviews could sway his replacement or Congress to reverse it.
That prompted a Defense Department Inspector General investigation launched in February and a Government Accountability Office inquiry started in March. Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond told the Washington Examiner recently that while he was consulted on the initial selection among six finalists, he wasn't consulted about any new selection process, which may take months or years.
“As part of the process, I was asked for my best military advice. I gave that best military advice,” Raymond told the Washington Examiner as part of a recent virtual press availability to announce the launch of Space Systems Command.
“On the reviews that are going on, I have not yet been asked as part of those reviews” where he would put the headquarters, he added. “I know there are reviews going on, and we'll interact with that as asked to do so.”
Colorado Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn, whose district includes the current Space Command headquarters, told the Washington Examiner the process was politicized and flawed from the beginning.
"Their decision was originally for Colorado Springs," he said. "They were told by the president, 'You change this to Alabama,' and they just went back and found ways to justify that decision."
The office of the Inspector General's office said its evaluation process is independent of any Air Force internal review process, but the service insists it is not conducting any review to rethink the Trump decision.
Lamborn says it doesn't matter what the Air Force thinks now.
"It really doesn't matter to me what the Air Force wants to do because the military is under civilian control," Lamborn said.
"They do blow it sometimes. And this is just another example of that," he said. "This is out of their hands. This is in the hands of Congress and the [Biden] administration at this point."
The headquarters is slated to remain at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs until at least 2026, and a final basing decision will not be made until 2023 after an environmental impact study is completed.
At the Pentagon, Air Force spokeswoman Sarah Fiocco made clear the service is not freezing any preparations in light of the investigations.
“The Air Force has not been told to pause activities,” she told the Washington Examiner. “This decision is considered our preferred location.”
The Inspector General will review, in part, the Air Force selection process that led former Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett to deliver to Trump at the White House the military decision that Colorado Springs was the top candidate.
Still, Trump decided to award the command to Huntsville, Alabama, in what some see as a nod to the six members of the Alabama congressional delegation that voted not to certify the presidential election results in several states in January.
"It was based purely on political considerations," Lamborn said. "Alabama being a red state with Republican senators, Colorado being a blue state in recent years with Democrat senators."
Inspector General's office spokeswoman Dwrena Allen said their investigation has no bearing on the Air Force’s decision, and the investigation could take longer than usual to conduct because of COVID-19 restrictions on meeting in person.
“The evaluation is ongoing,” Allen told the Washington Examiner. "Just remember, some of those timelines are going to be expanded because we're in a virtual environment.”
Allen said investigators will question people involved in the decision, and will examine at processes and documents in order to make a recommendation or come to a conclusion. The spokeswoman declined to provide a timeline, other than to say a process that may have taken six to eight months or a year “may be expanded."
The investigations are “separate and apart” from the Air Force decision process. Neither agency can halt or reverse the Air Force decision, she added.
Six cities competed for the coveted 11th military combatant command headquarters, which currently consists of 1,400 airmen and thousands of civilian workers. Aside from Colorado Springs, which is also home to U.S. Northern Command, finalists included Patrick Air Force Base in Cape Canaveral, Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, Port San Antonio, Texas, and Redstone Army Airfield, Alabama.
At the time, the Air Force said the top choice would be made based on existing infrastructure, mission, community support, and cost to the DOD.
In March, a bipartisan group of senators from Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska, and California wrote to the Pentagon inspector general questioning the decision. Colorado’s senators asked President Joe Biden to suspend the decision. So far, he has not.
Nor has the White House nominated an Air Force secretary, leaving the service without a civilian leader to speak on behalf of its processes.
"No one knows how long it's going to be," admitted Lamborn. "Certainly, it will be within the time frame of the two-year environmental impact statement process, which is ongoing right now."