A wealthy Republican donor says he is funding up to 50 South Dakota National Guard troops whom Gov. Kristi Noem is sending to the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I’m trying to help out the governor and help America,” said Willis Johnson, the billionaire founder and chairman of a global company called Copart Inc., which auctions used, wholesale and wrecked cars.
Johnson, a Vietnam veteran who doesn’t live in South Dakota but rather in Tennessee, told POLITICO in a brief interview that he met the governor at a political fundraiser “a while back.”
“I believe in her state and Texas,” he said, calling himself “a hardcore Republican.”
According to FEC records, he has donated tens of thousands of dollars to Republicans in recent years, including Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Noem’s spokesperson Ian Fury said the Willis and Reba Johnson’s Foundation was providing the financial support for the troops, but declined to give a dollar amount for security reasons.
Asked how a private citizen can pay for a National Guard mission, Fury said 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.”
Johnson seems to have enough money to send some to pet causes like securing the border. In 2010, he bought a $28 million house from country music star Alan Jackson that features an 18,600-square-foot home, a gym and a garage that can fit 20 cars. (In 2016, he told The Tennessean: “I am really, really rich.”)
According to his foundation’s 2018 IRS form, the nonprofit gave $1.15 million to a Tennessee Baptist church; $10,000 to Hope Smiles, a Christian group that funds dental procedures for the needy; $509,000 to a nonprofit that work on congenital heart disease; as well as $25,000 to the National Rifle Association.
Noem announced in a statement on Tuesday that she was sending up to 50 National Guardsmen to Texas in response to that state’s governor, Greg Abbott, calling for help because of the number of migrant crossings. The Guardsmen will be there for a month to two months. Other states that are sending help to Texas include Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska and Florida.
“The Biden Administration has failed in the most basic duty of the federal government: keeping the American people safe,” Noem said in a statement. “The border is a national security crisis that requires the kind of sustained response only the National Guard can provide. 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. My message to Texas is this: help is on the way.”
A White House spokesperson referred a request for comment to the Department of Homeland Security. A spokesperson for DHS had no immediate comment.
Noem, who is up for reelection next year, is seen as a likely 2024 Republican presidential candidate and last month started a federal PAC called Noem Victory Fund. She also attracted attention in late May for flying down a Trump ally, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, to the Republican Governors Association in Nashville, Tenn., where he was kicked out of the event.
The surge of migrants at the southern border has become a political football, with Republicans criticizing the administration for not declaring it a “crisis” and for being slow to send Vice President Kamala Harris to the border. Biden put Harris in charge of trying to find a diplomatic solution to address the root causes of migration to the U.S.