In the summer of 2021, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem deployed the South Dakota National Guard (SDNG) to Texas’s Mexico border with a $1 million private donation from billionaire GOP donor and Tennessee resident Willis Johnson. The use of the private donation to activate the troops was widely covered in national media not only as unprecedented, but also unethical and legally dubious. New records obtained by CREW via a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit provide a behind-the-scenes look at how Noem’s and SDNG staff communicated about the donation amid mounting controversy in the final days of June.
An email from Aaron Scheibe, Noem’s then-chief of staff, reveals he made significant edits to an initially simple script for Noem to recite the day after the deployment’s announcement. In an effort to seemingly boost support for the decision, Scheibe added copious anti-immigration rhetoric, including that “thousands of illegal aliens are coming into our country,” “illegal” drugs pouring over the border were “devastating communities,” and Americans deserve a government “that secures the Southern Border and protects us all from the threat posed by uncontrolled, illegal immigration.” He added on behalf of Noem, “That’s why I’m doing this.”
Then-SDNG Adjutant General Jeffrey Marlette was also involved in framing Noem’s language around the deployment and the donation, despite later asserting that he was unaware that a private donation would be used until the deployment was already planned. Upon reviewing Noem’s press release about the deployment, he replied, “I think the statement ‘The deployment will be paid for by a private donation’ will start a flurry of inquiries from the media, but it is a true statement.” The message and an update about the timing of the release was received by Edwin Vanderwolde, SDNG’s director of Joint Staff, who forwarded the thread to an Air Force official who only responded, “Ack.”
Days later, on June 30, 2021, Marlette sent an email to Noem’s team providing bullets on how to defend the donation in a script for Noem following the announcement. The bullets included, “Private donations to the State of SD are not illegal or uncommon,” and “this is a National Security risk to our country and ul [sic] to our State.” He said his approach “defeats the media’s misguided assumptions that this is political, illegal, or not within [Noem’s] powers.”
The same morning, members of the state government were alerted by Kristi Turman, the director of South Dakota Department of Public Safety’s Office of Emergency Services, that the Department of Defense and the National Guard Bureau were “discussing the legality of whether or not National Guard troops can be paid for with a private donation.” The message was sent with an “Importance: High” note to Craig Price and Dan Lusk, the South Dakota Department of Public Safety’s secretary and deputy secretary, respectively, at the time. Lusk replied that they needed to verify that the private donation goes to the state’s emergency and disaster fund instead of directly to salaries for the National Guard members, and asked the director of the department’s grant oversight division to “do some more leg work” on the matter.
In a separate thread, South Dakota Sen. John Thune’s policy advisor Jon Abdnor said that the deployment being funded by the private donation “stood out” in questions following the announcement, and asked if there would be more information provided about the use of the money. There ultimately wasn’t, apart from Marlette saying that the SDNG expected to spend over $1.3 million by the middle of September, with the state’s emergency and disaster fund covering what the donation would not. Johnson’s donation reportedly flowed through this emergency fund to deploy the soldiers to Texas.
According to documents previously obtained by CREW, the troops Noem sent to the border had uneventful days with no encounters and little to do. In May 2022, CREW obtained records revealing that the deployment cost $1,451,699.59.