Po­lit­i­cal show­down on the bor­der

Law­mak­ers reach a ten­ta­tive deal to keep the gov­ern­ment open, while Trump and a pos­si­ble 2020 ri­val face off in El Paso.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE -

EL PASO — Pres­i­dent Trump falsely told a rau­cous rally in El Paso on Mon­day night that he is al­ready build­ing a wall on the ad­ja­cent bor­der with Mex­ico, as a po­ten­tial Demo­cratic chal­lenger as­sailed him at a large protest nearby and, in Wash­ing­ton, con­gres­sional ne­go­tia­tors an­nounced a ten­ta­tive fund­ing deal with­out the bil­lions he de­manded for a wall.

Be­neath ban­ners read­ing “Fin­ish the Wall,” Trump hailed what he called a “big, beau­ti­ful wall right on the Rio Grande,” though no such con­struc­tion is known to be un­der­way. When sup­port­ers launched into a chant of “Build the wall!” — stan­dard at his ral­lies — Trump cor­rected them: “You mean fin­ish the wall.”

The pres­i­dent al­luded to law­mak­ers’ an­nounce­ment of a deal, which came mo­ments be­fore he took the stage, but did not give it his bless­ing. Nor did he dis­par­age it though one of his fore­most con­fi­dants, Fox News host Sean Han­nity, came on the air mid­way through the pres­i­dent’s rally and con­demned the re­ported agree­ment as “this garbage com­pro­mise.”

With­out the pres­i­dent and Con­gress agree­ing to a bor­der se­cu­rity fund­ing bill by mid­night Fri­day, the gov­ern­ment could be par­tially shut­tered again, just three weeks af­ter a shut­down that at 35 days was the long­est ever. The “agree­ment in prin­ci­ple” called for $1.375 bil­lion for 55 miles of new bar­rier on the 2,000-mile bor­der — less than a quar­ter of the $5.7 bil­lion Trump de­manded.

He told the crowd that he hadn’t both­ered to find out the par­tic­u­lars of the agree­ment be­cause he was ea­ger to take the stage. “I could have stayed in there and lis­tened, or I could have come out to the peo­ple of El Paso, Texas,” he said. “I chose you.”

Out­side the El Paso County Coli­seum, thou­sands of pro­test­ers, bun­dled against the even­ing chill, marched along the Rio Grande to a nearby park. There, El Paso’s for­mer con­gress­man and a pos­si­ble Demo­cratic 2020 pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, Beto O’Rourke, joined other lo­cals who spoke of El Paso and neigh­bor­ing Juarez, Mex­ico, as one com­mu­nity and ex­pressed in­dig­na­tion over Trump’s false char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of their city as a vi­o­lent one in last week’s State of the Union ad­dress.

“With the eyes of the en­tire coun­try upon us, all of us to­gether are go­ing to make our stand. Here in one of the safest cities in the United States of Amer­ica — safe, not be­cause of walls but in spite of walls,” O’Rourke said, in the sort of rous­ing speech that brought na­tion­wide at­ten­tion to his Se­nate race last year, though he lost to GOP Sen. Ted Cruz.

“Let’s own this mo­ment and the fu­ture and show this coun­try there’s noth­ing to be afraid of when it comes to the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der,” O’Rourke said to cheers. “Let’s make sure our laws, our lead­ers and our lan­guage re­flect our val­ues.”

Late Mon­day, the HouseSe­nate com­mit­tee bar­gain­ing over bor­der se­cu­rity fund­ing and try­ing to avert an­other shut­down reached an “agree­ment in prin­ci­ple,” ac­cord­ing to Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), chair­man of the Se­nate Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee. Talks had stalled on the week­end, Repub­li­cans said, over Democrats’ de­mands to limit the de­ten­tion of un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants, many of them seek­ing asy­lum.

Should Con­gress pass a com­pro­mise, the onus would be on the pres­i­dent to ac­cept it, or risk tak­ing blame again for a par­tial fed­eral shut­down. Be­fore ar­riv­ing in El Paso, Trump sought to pre­emp­tively shift blame to Democrats should the leg­isla­tive ef­fort ul­ti­mately fail. Af­ter the re­cent shut­down, polls showed the pub­lic put the blame squarely on him, and his ap­proval rat­ing slid.

With both his rally and the protest fea­tur­ing O’Rourke re­ceiv­ing na­tional cov­er­age, the split-screen mo­ment promised some­thing of an au­di­tion of a hy­po­thet­i­cal 2020 matchup, ef­fec­tively cre­at­ing a live de­bate be­tween the pres­i­dent and a charis­matic po­ten­tial chal­lenger on the is­sue that most an­i­mated Trump’s fol­low­ers in 2016 and prob­a­bly will again in his re­elec­tion bid.

Be­fore leav­ing the White House, the pres­i­dent sig­naled that he too saw the duel­ing ral­lies as an early com­pe­ti­tion, with his fa­mil­iar em­pha­sis on crowd sizes. “We have a line that’s very long al­ready,” Trump told re­porters at the White House, re­fer­ring to peo­ple wait­ing to en­ter his El Paso venue. He added, “I un­der­stand our com­peti­tor’s got a line too, but it’s a tiny lit­tle line.”

At his rally, Trump bragged that 10,000 sup­port­ers were in­side the arena and 25,000 more were stand­ing out­side. Ac­cord­ing to the El Paso Fire Depart­ment, 6,500 peo­ple — the build­ing ’s ca­pac­ity — were al­lowed in­side, while at least 10,000 at­tended the protest rally. Or­ga­niz­ers, how­ever, had a slightly lower es­ti­mate.

“We have 35,000 peo­ple tonight and he has 200 peo­ple, 300 peo­ple,” Trump said. “Not too good. That may be the end of his pres­i­den­tial bid.”

While the bor­der visit was in­tended as an op­por­tu­nity for Trump to pro­mote his sig­na­ture is­sue, he wan­dered widely in his re­marks — at­tack­ing Democrats re­peat­edly, in­clud­ing on abor­tion and on a so-called Green New Deal en­vi­ron­men­tal plat­form that some are ad­vo­cat­ing, and mock­ing Vir­ginia Democrats for con­tro­ver­sies that have roiled the state’s gov­ern­ment.

Trump’s drum­beat on im­mi­gra­tion has yet to pay po­lit­i­cal div­i­dends be­yond his own sup­port­ers, and it has fur­ther gal­va­nized his op­po­nents. His fear-mon­ger­ing dur­ing cam­paign ral­lies last fall over car­a­vans of im­mi­grants failed to pre­vent a Demo­cratic wave that cost Repub­li­cans a net 40 seats and their ma­jor­ity in the House.

And dur­ing his State of the Union ad­dress, his in­cor­rect por­trayal of El Paso — he said it had “ex­tremely high rates of vi­o­lent crime” and was “one of our na­tion’s most dan­ger­ous cities” un­til the gov­ern­ment built a “pow­er­ful bar­rier” there — touched a nerve among civic lead­ers and ci­ti­zens.

The El Paso County Com­mis­sion­ers Court on Mon­day ap­proved a res­o­lu­tion as­sail­ing the pres­i­dent and his ad­min­is­tra­tion for mis­in­for­ma­tion and lies about a “cri­sis sit­u­a­tion” on the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der, and not­ing that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment said “no cri­sis ex­ists” and that “fis­cal year 2017 was the low­est year of il­le­gal cross-bor­der mi­gra­tion on record.”

Yet Trump, at the rally, de­nounced his crit­ics and me­dia fact-check­ers who dis­puted his claims that ex­ist­ing bor­der fenc­ing had slashed crime rates in El Paso. “They’re full of crap when they say it doesn’t make a dif­fer­ence,” he said, sug­gest­ing that lo­cal of­fi­cials tried to “pull the wool over every­body’s eyes” by re­port­ing low crime rates.

Lyda Ness-Gar­cia, a lawyer and founder of the Women’s March of El Paso, said or­ga­niz­ers of Mon­day night’s protest were mo­ti­vated to coun­ter­act Trump’s “lies” about their city. “There was a deep sense of anger in our com­mu­nity, from the left and the right. It’s the de­mo­niza­tion of our bor­der. It’s the mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion that the wall made us safe when we were safe long be­fore,” she said.

In truth, vi­o­lent crime dropped in El Paso af­ter a peak in 1993. It was at his­toric lows be­fore Con­gress autho­rized a fence along the Rio Grande in 2006. Crime be­gan to rise again over the next four years, af­ter the fenc­ing went up.

The city’s Repub­li­can mayor, Dee Margo, ad­mon­ished Trump af­ter the State of the Union speech, say­ing dur­ing an ap­pear­ance on CNN that the pres­i­dent’s de­pic­tion of El Paso is “not fac­tu­ally cor­rect.”

Fer­nando Gar­cia, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Bor­der Net­work for Hu­man Rights, said or­ga­niz­ers in­tended the march as a com­mu­nity cel­e­bra­tion rather than an an­tiTrump or pro-O’Rourke po­lit­i­cal event. “The ad­min­is­tra­tion, they didn’t be­lieve our com­mu­nity would re­act, that peo­ple would get up­set about the lies,” he said. “Our com­mu­nity spoke in num­bers.”

Gar­cia noted that res­i­dents had seen the fall­out from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “zero tol­er­ance” im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies first­hand, both in fam­ily sep­a­ra­tions and in asy­lum-seek­ers be­ing turned away from bor­der bridges and re­quired to re­main in Mex­ico while they await hear­ings.

“Trump has cre­ated poli­cies and strate­gies that have cre­ated deep wounds in our re­gion,” Gar­cia said. “We are not a vi­o­lent city. We are not crim­i­nals. We are part of Amer­ica and we de­serve re­spect from this pres­i­dent.”

Al­though the protest event brought to­gether roughly 50 lo­cal groups, O’Rourke’s po­lit­i­cal star power gen­er­ated sig­nif­i­cant me­dia cov­er­age.

“If you’re Beto, there couldn’t be a bet­ter, more vis­ual con­trast,” said Jen Psaki, a for­mer com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor to Pres­i­dent Obama. “By lead­ing a march, he gets back to his grass-roots ori­gins and it al­lows him to stand toe to toe with the pres­i­dent of the United States and to echo a mes­sage that even lo­cal Repub­li­cans agree with. It gives him a plat­form and a mega­phone at a ben­e­fi­cial time.”

Joe Raedle Getty Im­ages By Eli Stokols and Molly Hen­nessy-Fiske

PRES­I­DENT TRUMP ad­dresses sup­port­ers at a rally in El Paso. His speech was met with a coun­ter­protest by res­i­dents an­gry about the pres­i­dent’s por­trayal of El Paso as “one of our na­tion’s most dan­ger­ous cities.”

Rudy Gutier­rez As­so­ci­ated Press

BETO O’ROURKE, who may run for pres­i­dent, de­fended the city he once rep­re­sented in Con­gress.

Rudy Gutier­rez As­so­ci­ated Press

OP­PO­NENTS of Pres­i­dent Trump at­tend a rally out­side the arena in El Paso where the pres­i­dent spoke. At least 10,000 peo­ple took part in the demon­stra­tion.

Ni­cholas Kamm AFP/Getty Im­ages

BACK­ERS of Pres­i­dent Trump in El Paso. With­out Trump and Con­gress agree­ing to a fund­ing bill by mid­night Fri­day, the gov­ern­ment could be shut­tered again.

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