McALLEN, Texas -- President Donald Trump arrived in a border town Thursday to discuss a crisis that Democrats say does not exist, repeating his request for a long-promised border wall that has led to a bitter political impasse and a 20-day government shutdown.
Flanked by Border Patrol officers, as well as Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security, and a cache of drugs, cash and weapons seized by authorities at the border, Trump again blamed the protracted shutdown affecting vast areas of the federal government on Democrats. He reiterated his claim that Mexico would indirectly pay for the wall through a revamped trade agreement, and heard from people whose loved ones had been killed by immigrants.
"If we had a barrier of any kind, whether it's steel or concrete," Trump said after hearing stories involving violence and human trafficking, "they wouldn't even bother trying. We could stop that cold."
But as the government shutdown neared the end of its third week, the president left Washington with no additional negotiations scheduled with congressional leaders over a possible compromise that could both provide border security and open the government. In remarks to reporters Thursday, Trump did not rule out declaring a state of national emergency that could allow him to bypass Congress to fund the wall.
Asked if he would make such a declaration, an action that would likely face legal challenges, Trump said: "If this doesn't work out, probably I will do it. I would almost say definitely."
The president maintains he has the option of declaring a national emergency to fund construction for the wall, perhaps the central promise that he made during his campaign, and bypassing a legislative solution. The head of the Army Corps of Engineers traveled with Trump to Texas on Thursday. Redirecting funds from the Army's construction agency to build the wall is one option Trump could use in a national emergency.
Trump said he had the legal authority to make the declaration. "This is a thing that the lawyers tell me is 100 percent," Trump said.
A congressional official said the White House has directed the Army Corps of Engineers to look for billions of dollars earmarked last year for disaster response for Puerto Rico and other areas that could be diverted to a border wall as part of the emergency declaration. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly.
In the meeting with Border Patrol officials, Trump did not emphasize the need for an emergency, but invited locals to help him make his case.
A local pastor declared the problem a "humanitarian crisis." Border Patrol officers used visual aids showing stash houses, road checkpoints and drug caches to emphasize the demand for border security and a wall. And at one point, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who waged a hard-fought political battle with the president as an opponent during the 2016 primaries, praised Trump for "infusing more backbone" in the capital.
Trump repeated his demand for the money from Congress while telling the group that Mexico would somehow provide funds indirectly for the wall.
"I didn't say they're going to write me a check for $10 billion or $20 billion," Trump said Thursday. "If Congress approves this trade bill, they'll pay for the wall many times over. When I say Mexico's going to pay for the wall, that's what I mean."
In Texas, Trump listened to tearful stories from people who described violent deaths of siblings and sons, including one woman whose son, a Border Patrol agent, had been killed by someone in the country illegally.
"Thank you," Trump said as he walked over to hug her. "I'm very proud of you right now."
Also Thursday, Trump announced he was canceling his trip to Davos, Switzerland, scheduled for later this month, citing Democrats' "intransigence" on border security. He was to leave Jan. 21 to attend the World Economic Forum.
While Trump was in Texas, Democrats sought unsuccessfully Thursday to pass bills to reopen shuttered government agencies. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., rebuffed efforts to pass spending bills that would reopen shuttered government agencies, including several that had nothing to do with border security.
After Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., sought consent to move forward with a bill, McConnell objected, calling the Democratic strategy "pointless, absolutely pointless."
"This will not produce a result," McConnell said. "It won't solve the problem because the president has made clear he won't sign them."
Speaking on the floor, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., unsuccessfully pleaded with McConnell to take up the legislation.
"Let's separate our disagreements over border security from the government shutdown, reopen all the government agencies unrelated to border security, and let's continue to work to resolve our differences," Schumer said. "Do not hold all of these workers as hostages, as pawns, as leverage."
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., warned his Republican colleagues of the consequences of not acting by today.
"I will tell you your phones will all be ringing off the hook tomorrow when federal employees miss that first paycheck," Van Hollen said. Some 800,000 workers, more than half of them still on the job, were to miss their first paycheck today under the stoppage, and Washington was close to setting a dubious record for the longest government shutdown in the nation's history.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that she thinks Trump "loves the distraction" that the partial government shutdown has created.
Pelosi also questioned whether Trump is truly confident that a border wall makes sense.
"If you have confidence in your own position, why do you say, 'I have to shut down government to get people to heed what I'm saying?'"
"I don't even know if the president wants the wall. I think he just wants the debate on the wall," she added.
By midafternoon, Vice President Mike Pence, who was on Capitol Hill to meet with Republican senators, ruled out any agreement that involved protections for "dreamers" brought to the country illegally as children.
"When we get the resources that we need to build a wall and secure our border, this is a president that also wants to ... fix our broken immigration system. We believe the opportunity after the Supreme Court case will be the time to do that," Pence said, referring to the high court's expected ruling on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Deal-minded Senate Republicans had been shuttling between meetings with McConnell and Pence on Thursday morning. They batted around a proposal that would include Trump's desired $5.7 billion in wall funding; a renewable, three-year status for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival recipients and beneficiaries of the Temporary Protected Status program; and other matters, according to multiple people familiar with the discussions.
"I think there is some good discussion going on, and we're looking for options and alternatives, and that's an important part of the process right now," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
But the GOP senators were much more interested in hashing out a process agreement that could pave the way forward for a potential deal to end the shutdown, the people said. That would include holding congressional hearings on immigration -- most likely in the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Under the process idea, the Senate would put forward the president's immigration funding request for a committee and ultimately a floor vote, with the understanding that Trump's plan would be subject to amendments.
Graham said late Thursday afternoon that talks were over and that he saw "no way forward."
"I have never been more depressed about moving forward than right now. I just don't see a pathway forward," he said.
Also Thursday, Trump disputed accounts of his brief and contentious negotiation with Democrats and Republican leaders Wednesday in the Situation Room that ended abruptly when he walked out of the room after Pelosi rebuffed his overture to reopen the government in exchange for wall funding.
Before his departure, Trump denied Democrats' reports that he slammed his hand on the table and had what Schumer called "a temper tantrum."
"I didn't smash the table," Trump said Thursday morning before leaving for Texas. "I should have."
Trump also tweeted "[Schumer] told his favorite lie when he used his standard sound bite that I 'slammed the table & walked out of the room. He had a temper tantrum. I politely said bye-bye and left, no slamming!"
Those who have done business with Trump in the past said walking out of the meeting was one of his trademark negotiating tactics. He is also known to have walked out of a judge's chambers during divorce proceedings.
Information for this article was contributed by Michael Tackett, Katie Rogers, Terrence Dopp, John Wagner and Felicia Sonmez of The Washington Post; by Catherine Lucey, Lisa Mascaro, Zeke Miller, Jill Colvin, Colleen Long, Alan Fram, Deb Riechmann and Nomaan Merchant of The Associated Press; and by Michael Tackett and Katie Rogers of The New York Times.
A Section on 01/11/2019
Print Headline: Trump visits Texas border, insists building wall only solution