EL PASO — Donald Trump seized the chance to make the case for his border wall, during a rally in El Paso that addressed topics far beyond immigration.
A big US flag along with three “finish the wall” banners lined the El Paso County Coliseum, making it clear immigration and border security were at the center of Trump’s speech. Mere days before another government shutdown deadline, Trump tried to convince his supporters he would fulfill one of his signature campaign promises.
Trump told the crowd: “We are setting the stage … We are setting the table. We are doing whatever we have to do. The wall is being built.”
But Trump didn’t just stick to immigration. In a typically freewheeling speech, he returned to many familiar themes, including North Korea, the Democrats, and the Mueller investigation.
Trump touted his foreign policy strategy in Asia, confirming plans to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at a summit in Vietnam at the end of the month.
He made time to mock counter-demonstrators who had gathered at a nearby counter-protest led by former congressman and potential presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke. Trump ridiculed the size of the crowd at the O’Rourke event, even though both men drew thousands.
“That may be the end of his presidential bid,” Trump said. He also said O’Rourke was a “young man who’s got very little going for himself, except he’s got a good first name.”
According to local journalist Bob Moore, officials estimated the attendance at Trump’s rally at close to 7,000 with another 6,000 watching on screens outside. Approximately 7,000 people attended the counter-protests.
Trump also railed against the Green New Deal, recently introduced by Democrats in the House of Representatives seeking to tackle climate change. And he continued to call the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign a witch-hunt.
On immigration, Trump promised to build his border wall between Mexico and the US. “Walls work,” the president said. “Walls save lives.”
Trump again claimed the border fence built in El Paso in 2008 was an important factor in reducing crime in the area. FBI crime statistics show otherwise. El Paso hit a record low in crime level in 2006, two years before the construction of the fence that separates it from Ciudad Juárez.
The president’s inaccurate statements didn’t stop there. He told rally attendees that construction of the wall had begun in El Paso on Monday morning.
“On the banks of the legendary Rio Grande … today we started a big, beautiful wall,” Trump said.
That is not true. Last fall, construction began at the neighborhood of Chihuahuita in downtown El Paso – but the project will only replace old fencing with a new, taller fence.
Yet “the wall is being built, and at a very fast pace”, Trump claimed.
Trump’s rally began moments after negotiators on Capitol Hill announced lawmakers had reached an agreement in principle to fund the government before a midnight Friday deadline.
Republicans agreed to far less money for Trump’s border security plans than the White House’s $5.7bn request, settling for nearly $1.4bn, according to congressional aides. The funding measure is through the fiscal year, which ends 30 September.
Three people familiar with the tentative border security deal told the Associated Press the accord would provide $1.375bn to build 55 miles of new border barriers, well below the $5.7bn that Trump demanded to build more than 200 miles of wall along the Mexican border. The money will be for vertical steel slats called bollards, not a solid wall.
At the rally, Trump appeared oblivious to the deal, saying he had been informed by aides negotiators had made some progress but that he had declined to be fully briefed because he wanted to go onstage.
“We’re going to build the wall anyways,” he said.
Trump supporters had lined up for hours in hopes of hearing what the president had to say on immigration and the negotiations on the government shutdown.
“I’m hoping he gives a bit more details of what his plans are on immigration, whether it’s the wall or better and stronger immigration laws,” said Cody Perkins, a local supporter of the president.
‘Safe not because of walls but in spite of walls’
At O’Rourke’s rally nearby, dozens of civic, human rights and Hispanic groups in the former congressman’s home town attended a protest rally which brought thousands to a baseball field within shouting distance from the arena where Trump spoke.
“With the eyes of the country upon us, all of us together are going to make our stand here in one of the safest cities in America,” O’Rourke said. “Safe not because of walls but in spite of walls.”
Flanking the president on Monday were Texas senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, Texas governor Greg Abbott, his deputy, Dan Patrick, and the state attorney general, Ken Paxton. Cornyn, Cruz and Donald Trump Jr spoke before the president’s speech.
Cornyn praised Trump for nominating a record number of conservative judges to the federal bench and applauded the nomination and confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the supreme court.
He also expressed support for Trump’s immigration plans, criticizing both Democrats and the media. “We can have both a secure border and a strong economy,” Cornyn said.
- The Associated Press contributed to this report