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Sen. Jeff Merkley slams Trump administration over FEMA funding

Last Updated Sep 12, 2018 9:57 PM EDT

Newly revealed documents show the Trump administration took nearly $10 million away from FEMA and other federal agencies apparently to pay for immigration detention centers. A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, which also houses FEMA, said that under no circumstances was any disaster relief funding transferred from FEMA to immigration enforcement efforts.

CBS News' Jeff Pegues reported that the money in question was transferred back in August to ICE. A source at DHS told Pegues the funds were transferred to ICE for adult detention beds, not to house children. The funds were transferred from FEMA's operational account at FEMA headquarters.

Over the last year there have been questions about whether FEMA's resources have been spread too thin as it responds to hurricanes -- the $10 million has attracted attention, but it is a small portion of FEMA's annual $15 billion budget. Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley first made the budget adjustment documents public, and has called the transfer a "scandal."

Merkley told CBSN's "Red & Blue" on Wednesday evening that he believed "these documents should help fill in Americans about what this administration is doing." He added that he hoped FEMA and the Trump administration learned from the response last year to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

"What I think all of us want to hear from the administration is not what the president says is an A+ performance, which it clearly wasn't, but what went wrong," Merkley said, referring to a quote by President Trump Tuesday that the response to Hurricane Maria was an "unsung success." Nearly 3,000 people died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Merkley also said that he hoped "for the sake of all Americans who are impacted" that FEMA is prepared for the effects of Hurricane Florence.

In the request for a transfer of funds, more than $4 million of the funds from FEMA are listed as "response and recovery" or "preparedness and protection". But the document says "mission impact is minimized as FEMA will curtail training, travel, public engagement sessions, IT security support and infrastructure maintenance."

The 40-page report also says that without the transfer of funds "ICE will not be able to fulfill its adult detention requirements" this year.

DHS said the funds cut from FEMA were from routine operating expenses, not from funds that would have been used for hurricane response, adding that under no circumstance was any disaster relief funding transferred from FEMA to immigration enforcement efforts.

The documents came to light as Hurricane Florence, called "the storm of a lifetime," emptied homes and hospitals in the Carolinas. More than five million people are now under hurricane warnings with the Category 4 storm expected to make landfall on Friday or Saturday. 

Florence could cost the East Coast more than $170 billion and damage nearly 759,000 homes and businesses, according to the analytics firm CoreLogic. That would make Florence the costliest storm ever to hit the U.S. in terms of property loss.

  • Grace Segers

    Grace Segers is a politics reporter for CBS News Digital.