Critics slam South Dakota allowing GOP donor to pay to send troops to U.S. southern border

Republican Gov. Kristi Noem has raised questions about private armies in the U.S. after she allowed a used car dealer from Tennessee to finance expenses of South Dakota National Guard soldiers
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaking with attendees at the 2020 Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

First published at Common Dreams

Progressive Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib on Thursday added her voice to those outraged that an out-of-state billionaire Republican donor’s foundation is paying for South Dakota’s GOP governor to send National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border.

After Gov. Kristi Noem—a potential 2024 presidential candidate who is up for reelection next year—announced the deployment earlier this week, news broke that it is being paid for by a private donation from Willis and Reba Johnson’s Foundation.

“So now we got oligarchs paying for public militaries for personal and political pet projects,” Tlaib (D-Mich.) tweeted, sharing a report from The Hill. “This is so wrong.”

Confirming the donation, Noem spokesperson Ian Fury told The Hill that the governor “welcomes any such donations to help alleviate the cost to South Dakota taxpayers.” Fury declined to provide the exact figures to various reporters.

Politico reported that when asked how a private citizen can fund a National Guard mission, Fury wrote in a text message:

“The governor has authority under SDCL 5-24-12 to accept a donation if she determines doing so is in the best interest of the state. The governor has additional authority to accept donated funds for emergency management under SDCL 34-48A-36.”

Foundation President Willis Johnson, a Tennessee-based billionaire and Vietnam veteran who founded an online used-car auction, also confirmed the donation to multiple media outlets.

“I’m trying to help out the governor and help America,” Johnson told Politco, explaining that he met Noem at a political fundraiser “a while back” and identifies as “a hardcore Republican.”

Johnson told Dakota News Now that he reached out to Noem about the donation. He also criticized President Joe Biden’s handling of migrants crossing the southern border as “wrong,” and praised the South Dakota governor for previously challenging the president.

In a Tuesday statement announcing the deployment of up to 50 South Dakota National Guard troops for 30 to 60 days, Noem also took aim at the president, claiming that “the border is a national security crisis” which “Biden’s administration seems unable or unwilling to solve.”

Noem’s move, the statement explained, came in response to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, requesting “help to respond to ongoing violations of state and federal law by illegal aliens crossing the unsecured border.”

Tlaib was far from the only political figure or observer to criticize the decision.

“Kristi Noem has turned our military into mercenaries. It is morally wrong to deploy troops for political purposes using private funds,” tweeted the South Dakota Democratic Party.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said during a Wednesday interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “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 one thing we’re going to do on the Armed Services Committee,” Smith said, “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?’”

Politico noted that “Republican governors from Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, and Nebraska have also promised to send border security officers to Texas.”

Responding to the news out of South Dakota for Esquire, Charles P. Pierce wrote:

Here we have a cabal of Republican governors using their law-enforcement apparatus—and now, their National Guard troops—in a coordinated exercise in political gamesmanship, if not outright sabotage… What’s to prevent this band of ghouls from putting this kind of thing together to take more, ah, “active” measures against the administration in the future? The last time governors decided to use their states’ military as an argument in national politics, people wound up ducking behind things in Fort Sumter. People like Kristi Noem don’t care, but they are activating forces in this country that they don’t understand, and that they never will be able to fully control.

“Biden should federalize the South Dakota National Guard immediately and then order it to stay where it is,” Pierce suggested. “Let Noem scream into the prairie winds about it. This is a lot bigger than her futile ambitions.”