WASHINGTON—U.S. President Donald Trump lied his way through a visit to the Mexican border on Thursday, returning again and again to false claims as he attempted to promote his proposed wall project.
Trump has been consistently dishonest about immigration during the government shutdown that continued into its 20th day. It does not appear, though, that the tactic is working for him. Democrats remain unmoved by his insistence on $5.7 billion in wall funding, and polls suggest more voters blame Trump than blame Democrats for the impasse.
The Thursday dishonesty barrage began even before Trump left Washington. He told reporters that when he had promised during his campaign that Mexico would pay for the wall, he had never said this would be a direct payment.
“Obviously I never said this, and I never meant, ‘they’re going to write out a cheque,’” he said, adding: “When I said ‘Mexico will pay for the wall,’ in front of thousands and thousands of people, obviously they’re not going to write a cheque. They are paying for the wall indirectly.”
He had not used the word “cheque” during the campaign, but he had, in fact, made clear he was talking about a direct payment. A document still on his campaign website promised he would threaten Mexico with financial harm until it made an “easy” decision: “make a one-time payment of $5-10 billion.”
Trump got more specifically dishonest on Thursday when he arrived in McAllen, Texas for an immigration roundtable at a Border Patrol station. He said he had never said Mexico would write a cheque “for $20 billion or $10 billion.” Ten billion, again, was a specific amount his campaign said Mexico might pay.
Trump claimed that the indirect payment he is now talking about would effectively be made by Mexico through the new North American trade agreement he has negotiated with Canada and Mexico. But that is simple nonsense. Even if the agreement is eventually approved — Congress might take years before voting on it — it will never create a funding stream that can be allocated to an infrastructure project.
In McAllen, Trump derided critics who dismiss walls as outdated and ineffective. He said some old technology, like the wheel, is timeless.
“A wheel is older than a wall,” he said. He repeated it a few seconds later: “The wheel is older than the wall. Do you know that?”
Defensive walls predate wheels by thousands of years. (Jericho’s famous wall existed around 8,000 BC; the wheel is thought to have been invented around 3,500 BC.)
Seeking to portray Democrats as divided on the shutdown, Trump described a “big article” in which he said newly elected Democrats broke with party leadership and described the party’s “no wall” position as “indefensible.” That did not happen. An article in Politico merely included two Democrats expressing mild concern about how voters would respond to the extended shutdown. Both of them continue to oppose the wall.
Trump again sought to use past presidents to bolster his case for the wall, suggesting that they too had wanted to build a wall: “They were going to build this wall in 2003, in 2006. They were going to build it 20 years ago. They were going to build it forever.”
Not true. While George W. Bush approved 700 miles of border fencing in 2006 — not the kind of giant concrete wall Trump campaigned on — Democrat Bill Clinton was president 20 years ago, and he made no effort to build a wall. Nor did Republican predecessors George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan; Reagan explicitly opposed the idea.
As he did in his Tuesday prime-time address, Trump offered a misleading description of Democrats’ position on the wall. This time, he said, “They said, ‘We don’t want a concrete wall.’ I said, ‘That’s OK, we’ll call it a steel barrier.’” Democrats have objected to the project on the whole, not to Trump’s choice of material.
Trump left the Border Patrol station and went to the border itself at the Rio Grande. There, he told reporters, “The nice part about the wall or the barrier is I can have that worked out in 15 minutes. We can start construction.” The construction process, which involves planning, study, contracting and contentious property acquisition, would not begin nearly that fast.
Trying to exaggerate the problem of illegal immigration, Trump said of the Border Patrol: “They have done a fantastic job. Never so many apprehensions, ever, in our history.” In reality, the number of apprehensions on the Mexican border in 2018, about 400,000, was not even a quarter of the total in 2000.
There have been fewer apprehensions during this decade than in any decade since the 1970s.
Daniel Dale is the Star’s Washington bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @ddale8