South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, will deploy up to 50 National Guard troops to the southern U.S. border, her office said Tuesday, with a highly unusual caveat – the mission will be funded by a “private donation” from an out-of-state GOP megadonor billionaire.
The Guard members will deploy in response to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s plea to augment border security with law enforcement resources from other states, Noem’s office said in a statement.
Like Abbott, a Republican, Noem is a close ally of former president Donald Trump, whose focus on illegal immigration spurred his controversial deployment of military personnel to the U.S.-Mexico border and remains a pillar of the Republican Party’s political platform. In a statement, she blasted the Biden administration over its immigration policies, which Trump and fellow conservatives have denounced as weak and ineffective.
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.
About 3,600 service members are already on the border supporting Department of Homeland Security operations, the vast majority of whom are National Guard troops carrying out federal orders, defense officials said. Abbott’s request, and Noem’s fulfillment, is for a separate state-led mission overseen by Texas officials.
Ian Fury, a spokesperson for Noem, said the undisclosed amount was paid to the state of South Dakota by Willis and Reba Johnson’s Foundation, a Tennessee-based nonprofit that donates to various groups, including churches and the National Rifle Association, according to 2018 tax filings. Willis Johnson has donated to GOP campaigns for decades, including at least $550,000 to Trump in 2019 and 2020, filings show.
In a brief interview, Johnson said his donation “100 percent” was meant to fund the border deployment. He declined to say how much he paid the state, or if Noem approached him or he acted on his own accord.
“I want to protect America and that’s it,” Johnson said.
More than 180,000 people were taken into custody for crossing the border illegally in May, the highest one month total in two decades, as the Biden administration has undone some of Trump’s hard line policies and struggles to find solutions that will abate the surge.
The South Dakota Guard members are deploying on state active-duty orders, Guard officials said, which means Noem is their commander in chief for the mission. As such, they are permitted to act in law enforcement capacities, which is forbidden for Guard members serving on federal mobilization.
The initial deployment will last 30 to 60 days, Noem’s office said, but it did not provide a further timeline.
But the mission’s political overtones, underscored by the growing speculation that Noem may consider a run for the White House, poses a significant problem for civilian-military relations, said Katherine Kuzminski, a military policy expert at Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.
If Noem had decided it was a national-security priority to augment border operations, she could have found a lever to federalize her troops to support the DHS-led mission, Kuzminski said. Moreover, the governor’s method – using a private donation rather than taxpayer money – sidesteps potential questions from her constituents about the deployment’s cost and purpose.
“This subverts that the military is the instrument of the people,” Kuzminski said. “This puts a marker on individual soldiers as mercenaries they may not be comfortable with.”
The South Dakota National Guard did not say if its troops will volunteer for the mission, if they will be involuntarily activated, or if they have been informed about the nature of the funding.
“They owe the troops some transparency,” said Rachel VanLandingham, president of the National Institute of Military Justice and a former Air Force attorney. “I would want to know who is paying me.”