WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump arrived at the U.S.-Mexico line Thursday to promote his border wall hours after making his most explicit threat yet that he will declare a national emergency to sidestep Congress on the issue.
“If this doesn’t work out, probably I will do it – I would almost say definitely,” Trump said of the need for an emergency declaration to free up money for the wall. “We have plenty of funds if there’s a national emergency.”
Trump is visiting McAllen, Texas, a day after he stormed out of a meeting with Democratic leaders negotiating an end to a partial government shutdown – now in its 20th day – that has left some 800,000 federal workers without pay.
“You take so much heat, so much abuse from people who don’t know what they’re talking about,” Trump told border officials during a roundtable at the U.S. Border Patrol McAllen Station. “We’re going to build a powerful steel barrier.”
Trump, still wearing his white MAGA hat, repeated many of the lines he used during his prime-time address from the Oval Office on Tuesday. He heard from several family members who said their loved ones had been killed by immigrants who entered the country illegally.
Marie Vega, the mother of a Border Patrol agent who was killed, told Trump: “We need the wall.”
Law enforcement officials briefed Trump during the roundtable, explaining the ways they are blocking illegal immigration. Officials showed Trump images of vehicles apprehended at checkpoints smuggling humans and drugs into the U.S. Another image showed a truck that was floated across the Rio Grande with drugs. Another image showed a person who officials said drowned in the river.
“They say it’s immoral,” Trump said. “What’s immoral is all the killing that’s taking place…they all know it’s an indefensible position.”
Despite government data showing that most illegal drugs intercepted at the border come through legal ports of entry, Trump lamented that “the people that are coming in – the criminals, the gangs, the traffickers, the drugs – it’s all crime.”
Trump repeatedly attacked Democrats during the roundtable.
“All they’re doing is looking at 2020,” he said.
Democrats say Trump is manufacturing a crisis at the border to build support for the wall and keep a promise that polls show is important to his base.
The White House hopes the trip will draw attention to what Trump has described as a “crisis” on the southwest border that he says can be fixed by spending an additional $5.7 billion to build 234 miles of “new physical barrier” along the border.
Signaling that the shutdown could continue for at least several more days, Trump announced on Air Force One that he would not attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, scheduled that starts Jan. 21.
Following the roundtable, Trump was expected to receive a briefing from border officials. The president has also granted an interview to Fox News, which the network said will air Thursday night. Before departing the White House, Trump blamed Democrats for the shutdown and said the wall is the “only way” to ensure security on the border.
Even though he repeatedly promised during the 2016 campaign that Mexico would pay for the wall, Trump sought to row back on that, insisting he did not say Mexico would “write a check.” He said Mexico would pay “indirectly,” a reference to the pending trade deal that would bring in new revenue only from U.S. consumers, if it brought in new revenue at all, according to trade experts.
Hanging over Trump’s visit to the border are questions about whether he will declare a national emergency, a move that would allow him to redirect defense money for a wall but would almost certainly trigger court challenges. An emergency declaration could give Trump an off ramp to reopen the government but continue to fight for the wall.
The Pentagon is preparing options to build barriers on the southern border in the event that Trump declares a national emergency, USA TODAY reported Thursday.
Speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill, Vice President Mike Pence shot down the possibility of the White House working out a deal with lawmakers to secure border wall funding in exchange for allowing immigrants brought to the country as children, known as DACA-recipients or dreamers, to remain in the U.S.
The Supreme Court is reviewing the DACA program, which was created by President Barack Obama.
“We feel confident the Supreme Court will find DACA to have been unconstitutional and at that time [Trump] believes there will be an opportunity for us to address not only the issue affecting the dreamers but also a broader range,” Pence said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer accused Trump of storming out of a meeting at the White House on Wednesday while administration officials blamed Democrats for negotiating in bad faith. In Washington, Pelosi told reporters Thursday that Trump prefers a “soap opera” instead of serious negotiations over border security and ending the shutdown.
“I don’t even know if the president wants the wall,” the California Democrat said. “I think he just wants the debate on the wall.”
Schumer sounded a similar message.
“After only a short time in yesterday’s meeting, the president got up, said ‘bye-bye,’ and left,” Schumer said. “Does that sound like someone who’s working to solve this impasse?”
The Wall: USA TODAY’s Pulitzer-winning report on the U.S.-Mexico border
Trump said he finds China “far more honorable” than Pelosi and Schumer because, he said, Democrats have been unwilling to compromise on the wall. Democrats initially proposed $1.6 billion for border security, but none of that money could be used for the kind of wall Trump initially envisioned.
Trump denied Democrats’ claims that he slammed a table on his way out of the meeting, and again blamed Democrats for the impasse.
“I did not rant,” Trump said on Thursday. “I did not rave.”
The effects of the shutdown will only grow with time, even as the White House scrambles to limit the impact. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported a slowdown in food safety inspections, airports cited longer lines at security checkpoints and national parks have been operating for weeks with limited services.
Perhaps a more pressing problem for Trump: Some Republicans have noted the impact on federal employees and a handful of Senate Republicans – including Susan Collins of Maine, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – have said they would at least consider a plan to reopen some agencies.
Despite those statements, Trump downplayed GOP divisions. Speaking on the South Lawn before boarding Marine One, Trump said he’s never seen such unity among Republicans.
“We have tremendous unity in the Republican Party,” Trump said. “It’s really a beautiful thing to see.”
Contributing: Eliza Collins