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Billionaire GOP Donor Bankrolls National Guard Border Deployment

6 minute read

As many as 50 National Guard members are heading to the U.S.-Mexico border to help law enforcement deal with the ongoing migrant crisis. But the cost of the deployment isn’t being paid by local, state or federal government. Instead, a deep-pocketed Republican donor who made billions from auctioning off wrecked cars is footing the bill.

The peculiar arrangement was revealed Tuesday when South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem formally announced that she was sending National Guard troops from her state down to the southern border in Texas. A news release stated the deployment, which is expected to last for between 30 and 60 days, “will be paid for by a private donation.”

The National Guard is usually called upon by state governors when there is a massive hurricane, earthquake or other natural disaster. On rare occasions, Guard members are sent across state lines to help a neighbor. The costs incurred are typically paid by state or federal funding following an emergency declaration.

Ian Fury, Noem’s spokesman, tells TIME that this particular South Dakota deployment will be paid by Willis and Reba Johnson’s Foundation, a charitable group from Franklin, Tenn. “Governor Noem welcomes any such donations to help alleviate the cost to South Dakota taxpayers,” he said.

Willis Johnson is the founder of Copart Inc., a publicly traded auto salvage and auction company. Forbes estimates Johnson is worth $2.2 billion. According to Federal Election Commission filings, he has donated to a variety of GOP candidates in recent years, including $200,000 to the Trump Victory Committee in 2020 and a donation for the same amount four years earlier.

Wayne Hall, a National Guard Bureau spokesman, said the national bureau doesn’t have visibility into how individual states choose to pay their Guard deployments, but noted each state has their own laws regarding funding. He referred all other questions to Noem’s office.

Noem’s announcement came just a day before former President Donald Trump is scheduled on a “tour of the unfinished border wall” in Texas. Noem, seen as a potential presidential contender for the 2024 GOP nomination, was lambasted by critics who say the decision to deploy state forces more than 1,000 miles away had more to do with politics than national security.

“We’re flabbergasted,” said Mandy Smithberger, a national security accountability expert with the non-profit watchdog Project on Government Oversight. “Our military and Guard should be used for advancing our national security and safety, and it’s extremely troubling to see the Guard’s actions being dictated and supported by a private donor. It sets a troubling precedent and risks further politicizing our forces.”

South Dakota State Sen. Reynold Nesiba, a Democrat, was similarly concerned that an individual donor is paying for the deployment. “SD National Guard members signed up to serve our state and country, not to generate airtime for our Governor on Fox News or to be mercenaries for some wealthy donor,” he tweeted. “Our National Guardsmen and women are not professional soldiers for hire.”

In announcing the decision, Noem criticized the Biden Administration for weak policies that left an “unsecured border.” She joined a growing list of Republican governors rushing to aid Texas amid Governor Greg Abbott’s recent requests for help to halt illegal crossings from Mexico.

Earlier this month, Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a fellow Republican, invoked the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, a mutual aid agreement between all 50 states. “With your help, we can apprehend more of these perpetrators of state and federal crimes, before they can cause problems in your state,” the pair wrote in a June 10 letter to fellow governors.

Critics say Abbott and Ducey’s plea for help is a political ploy to deride President Joe Biden over border security. Republican governors from Florida, Iowa and Nebraska have already promised to send their state police forces, helicopters, and drones to help Texas and Arizona law enforcement on the ground.

Rather than send state police, though, Noem opted to send service members— a stark departure from other governors’ action. “The border is a national security crisis that requires the kind of sustained response only the National Guard can provide,” Noem said. “We should not be making our own communities less safe by sending our police or Highway Patrol to fix a long-term problem President Biden’s administration seems unable or unwilling to solve.”

There are now about 3,600 service members, many of them members of the National Guard, already deployed along the 2,000 mile-long southwest border. Noem could’ve opted to send troops to help in that mission, instead of under the command of Texas officials.

The military mission at the border began in late 2018 when Trump directed the Pentagon to support of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to protect the U.S. against what he called “an invasion” by a caravan of impoverished Central American migrants traveling north through Mexico.

The soldiers didn’t meet the caravan with force. Since the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, the U.S. military has been forbidden to take part in domestic law enforcement. Instead, the troops carried out support missions, such as hanging coils of razor wire atop border fences and points of entry with Mexico in California, Arizona and Texas.

Trump subsequently declared a national emergency on the U.S.-Mexico border in February 2019—a move that was widely decried by Democrats as a last-ditch effort to divert billions of dollars in government funding for a border wall without receiving Congressional approval.

The troops along the southern border have been handed a wide range of other tasks during their mission, including aerial reconnaissance, ground surveillance, search-and-rescue support, medical support, engineering support, helicopter transportation, personnel protection and painting the border wall with “anti-climb” paint. A little over two years on, the mission has cost taxpayers more than $900 million, according to the Pentagon.

Biden ended Trump’s emergency proclamation shortly after entering office and issued an executive order to halt all construction of the border wall.

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Write to W.J. Hennigan at william.hennigan@time.com