Amid shutdown, Trump visits Texas in effort to boost argument for border wall
MCALLEN, Texas - Driving home his claim that illegal crossings have created a national humanitarian and security crisis, President Donald Trump took his case for a border wall to this city in the Rio Grande Valley on Thursday, one of the busiest regions of the southern border and the epicenter of his administration's controversial family separations.
The visit came one day after Trump abruptly walked out of budget negotiations with Democrats in Washington to end the government shutdown, now nearing the end of its third week and with no end in sight.
At a U.S. Border Patrol station, where he attended a roundtable on immigration and border security, Trump continued to urge Congress to provide funding for the construction of a border wall, which he maintained would eventually be paid for by Mexico "many, many times over" through a new trade deal that has yet to be ratified by Congress.
"I didn't mean, 'Please write me a check,' " Trump said of his oft-made claim that Mexico would pay for the wall.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump's campaign sent The Washington Post a memo detailing its plan for Mexico to make "a one-time payment of $5-10 billion" to pay for the border wall.
Even if approved by Congress, the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal would not necessarily contribute more money to federal coffers, as countries do not "lose" money on trade deficits.
Trump also blamed Democrats for the partial government shutdown, pushing back against their criticism that the situation at the border was a crisis "manufactured" by the White House.
"It's not. What is manufactured is the use of the word 'manufactured,' " Trump said.
Joining him were Texas' two Republican senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, as well as Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan and the head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite.
Also participating in the roundtable were relatives of law enforcement officers who were killed or suspected to have been killed by people who were in the U.S. illegally. Trump has frequently sought to rally public support for his immigration message at events with "angel families," the term his administration uses for those affected by crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.
Cruz, once a fierce rival of Trump's during the 2016 Republican presidential primary, welcomed the president to Texas and declared that "the American people want the border secure."
"Illegal immigration produces tragedies each day. . . . When we see politicians go on TV and say the border's secure and there is no crisis, they are ignoring reality," Cruz said.
Trump later took a tour along the Rio Grande, where he received a security briefing. Trump also will sit for an interview at the border with Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity, one of the president's friends and outside advisers.
Trump's visit to McAllen put him a few miles away from where the Army established a base camp in the town of Donna early in November from which to carry out border operations. Soldiers primarily strung concertina wire and added other barriers to slow access to the United States from the south.
But in one major sign that that operation is winding down, the military has withdrawn all troops from South Texas, including at the camp in Donna. Troops involved in border support in Texas are now all based in San Antonio, where they are assigned to a headquarters, said Mike Kucharek, a U.S. military spokesman. The military closed Base Camp Donna near McAllen shortly before Christmas, about five weeks after Nielsen and former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited soldiers there.
The Pentagon has about 2,300 active-duty troops on the southern border assisting the Department of Homeland Security, down from a high of 5,900. The operation is approved through Jan. 31, but could be extended again. About 1,100 soldiers and Marines are assigned to border support in California, with an additional 600 troops in Texas and 650 in Arizona.
Trump privately has raised doubts about whether his photo op appearance in Texas will prove persuasive for members of Congress, who three weeks into a partial government shutdown remain dug in and deeply divided over the merits and morality of a border wall.
Talks to reopen the government are at a stalemate as the shutdown nears its fourth week and thousands of furloughed federal workers go without pay. Trump stormed out of a negotiating session Wednesday, saying "Bye-bye" after Democratic leaders said they would refuse to give him the $5.7 billion he is seeking to build the wall.
On Thursday, after meeting with Senate Republicans, Vice President Mike Pence ruled out any agreement that involved protections for "dreamers" brought to the country illegally as children. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters that talks were over and that he had "never been more depressed about moving forward than right now."
Trump's visit to the southern border is orchestrated to convey urgency about building a wall and comes as the president is weighing whether to declare a national emergency at the border - a risky move that would trigger executive powers for him to construct the wall without congressional approval but also invite court challenges and political blowback.
"I have the option," Trump told reporters as he departed the White House en route to Texas. "If this doesn't work out, I probably will do it, maybe definitely."
Trump said that he is not ready yet to declare an emergency and that he would still prefer to work with Congress. He added that he is willing to compromise.
"I would like to do the deal through Congress," he said. "It makes sense to do the deal through Congress . . . It would be nice if we can make a deal, but dealing with these people is ridiculous."
Trump has sought to build public momentum all week for the wall, a signature campaign promise that went unfulfilled during his first two years in office, a period when Republicans had the majority in both houses of Congress.
With Democrats now in control the House, the opposition party is unified and emboldened to stop Trump from building a wall, which he long proposed to be made of concrete but now says he envisions as a barrier built of steel slats.
In a Tuesday night Oval Office address to the nation, Trump said the situation at the border had reached crisis proportions, describing murder, rape and even beheadings by illegal immigrants. But immigration experts said he was dramatically exaggerating the situation, and Democrats accused him of fearmongering and of manufacturing a crisis in an attempt to build a portion of his promised wall.
But Trump was unlikely to see death and destruction firsthand in McAllen, a city of about 140,000. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D), who represents the area, said McAllen has been experiencing some of the lowest crime rates in 30 years. He faulted Trump for not doing enough on border security under existing laws, including not filling some 7,500 vacancies with Customs and Border Protection.
"It would be my hope that the president would come to this realization and put his calls for a physical barrier to rest," Gonzalez wrote in a statement. During Trump's visit to McAllen, Gonzalez added, "He should feel free to walk around and support our local businesses. After all, it is safer to walk around McAllen than it is D.C."
McAllen has become a focal point in the debate over immigration.
Over the past decade, it and the surrounding Rio Grande Valley have become the busiest place along the U.S.-Mexico border for illegal crossings, and a place where U.S. authorities have struggled to cope with a migration shift from single adults to families, teens and children.
Trump's first stop Thursday was the McAllen Border Patrol station. Its holding cells became so overcrowded during a 2014 crisis that the government purchased a nearby warehouse, converting it into a designated processing center for families and children.
Trump is not planning to visit that facility, whose chain-link detention pens were likened to cages during the president's "zero-tolerance" crackdown last spring, when the government separated thousands of migrant children from their parents until public outcry forced the White House to stop.
The president's itinerary Thursday also took him to the Rio Grande and the banks of the winding river where the Trump administration's border wall plan would add dozens of miles of fencing. Because of the river's meandering course, the barriers would be built primarily along flood levees, potentially leaving private farms and ranches in a no man's land between the wall and the border.
Large tracts of private property would need to be acquired by the government to create space for the wall and service roads, driving up construction costs, and several local farmers and ranchers in the McAllen area say they will challenge the administration's plan in court.
Thursday's visit marked Trump's second trip to the U.S.-Mexico border as president. Last year, he traveled to the San Diego area, where he viewed wall prototypes. First lady Melania Trump traveled to the McAllen area last year amid the family-separations crisis to visit migrant children at a border shelter.
This article was written by Philip Rucker and Felicia Sonmez, reporters for The Washington Post. Sonmez reported from Washington. Nick Miroff, Seung Min Kim and Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.