No barrier too high in Trump's pursuit of border wall
WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump is so eager to complete hundreds of miles of border fence ahead of the 2020 presidential election that he has directed aides to fast-track billions of dollars' worth of construction contracts, aggressively seize private land and disregard environmental rules, according to current and former officials involved with the project.
He also has told worried subordinates that he will pardon them of any potential wrongdoing should they have to break laws to get the barriers built quickly, those officials said.
Trump has repeatedly promised to complete 500 miles of fencing by the time voters go to the polls in November 2020, stirring chants of "Finish the Wall!" at his political rallies as he pushes for tighter border controls.
But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has completed just about 60 miles of "replacement" barrier during the first 2½ years of Trump's presidency, all of it in areas that previously had border infrastructure.
The president has told senior aides that a failure to deliver on the signature promise of his 2016 campaign would be a letdown to his supporters and an embarrassing defeat.
With the election 14 months away and hundreds of miles of fencing plans still in blueprint form, Trump has held regular White House meetings for progress updates and to hasten the pace, according to several people involved in the discussions.
When aides have suggested that some orders are illegal or unworkable, Trump has suggested he would pardon the officials if they would just go ahead, aides said. He has waved off worries about contracting procedures and the use of eminent domain, saying "take the land," according to officials who attended the meetings.
"Don't worry, I'll pardon you," he has told officials in meetings about the wall.
"He said people expected him to build a wall, and it had to be done by the election," one former official said.
Asked for comment, a White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Trump is joking when he makes such statements about pardons.
Deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley said Tuesday that the president is protecting the country with the addition of new border barriers.
"Donald Trump promised to secure our border with sane, rational immigration policies to make American communities safer, and that's happening everywhere the wall is being built," Gidley said. He said internal criticisms of Trump "are just more fabrications by people who hate the fact the status quo, that has crippled this country for decades, is finally changing as President Donald Trump is moving quicker than anyone in history to build the wall, secure the border and enact the very immigration policies the American people voted for."
"President Donald Trump is fighting aggressively for the American people where other leaders in the past have rolled over, sold out, and done absolutely nothing," he said.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper is expected to approve a White House request to divert $3.6 billion in Pentagon funds to the barrier project in coming weeks, money that Trump sought after lawmakers refused to allocate $5 billion. The funds will be pulled from Defense Department projects in 26 states, according to administration officials who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the matter.
Trump's determination to build the barriers as quickly as possible has not diminished his interest in the aesthetic aspects of the project, particularly the requirement that the looming steel barriers be painted black and topped with sharpened tips.
In a meeting at the White House on May 23, Trump ordered the Army Corps and the Department of Homeland Security to paint the structure black, according to internal communications reviewed by The Washington Post.
Administration officials have stopped trying to talk him out of the demands, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is preparing to instruct contractors to apply black paint or coating to all new barrier fencing, the communications show.
Trump conceded last year in an immigration meeting with lawmakers that a wall or barrier is not the most effective mechanism to curb illegal immigration, recognizing it would accomplish less than a major expansion of U.S. enforcement powers and deportation authority. But he told lawmakers that his supporters want a wall and that he has to deliver it.
Trump talked about the loud cheers the wall brought at rallies, according to one person with direct knowledge of the meeting.
Former White House chief of staff John Kelly would often tell administration officials to disregard the president's demands if Kelly did not think they were feasible or legally sound, according to current and former aides.
During a conference call last week, officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection told Army Corps engineers that the hundreds of miles of fencing must be completed before the next presidential election, according to administration officials with knowledge of the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal communications.
"Border Patrol insists on compressed acquisition timelines, and we consent. Their goal is to get contracts awarded, not for us to get a quality contract with a thoroughly vetted contractor," said one senior official who is concerned the agency has been hurried to hand out contracts as quickly as possible.
Military officials expect more contract protests because the arrangements have been rushed, the official added. The Army Corps already has had to take corrective actions for two procurement contracts, after companies protested.
The companies building the fencing and access roads have been taking heavy earth-moving equipment into environmentally sensitive border areas adjacent to U.S. national parks and wildlife preserves, but the administration has waived procedural safeguards and impact studies, citing national security concerns.
"They don't care how much money is spent, whether landowners' rights are violated, whether the environment is damaged, the law, the regs or even prudent business practices," the senior official said.
CBP has suggested no longer writing risk-assessment memos "related to the fact that we don't have real estate rights and how this will impact construction," the official said.
While Trump has insisted that the barriers be painted, the cost of painting them will reduce the length of the fence the government will be able to build. According to the internal analysis, painting or coating 175 miles of barriers "will add between $70 million and $133 million in cost," trimming the amount of fencing the Army Corps will be able to install by four to seven miles.
In June, teams of U.S. soldiers painted a one-mile section of fence in Calexico, California, at a cost of $1 million. The coating, known as "matte black" or "flat black," absorbs heat, making the fence hot to the touch, more slippery and therefore tougher to climb, according to border agents.
At Trump's behest, the Army Corps also is preparing to instruct contractors to remove from the upper part of the fence the smooth metal plates that are used to thwart climbers. The president considered that design feature unsightly, according to officials familiar with his directives.
Instead, contractors have been asked to cut the tips of the steel bollards to a sharpened point. Trump had told aides this spring he thought the barrier should be spiked to instill a fear of injury.
The change in the bollard design is likely to reduce the overall length of the barrier by two to three miles, according to the administration's cost assessments.
CBP has used a pointed design in the past, according to agency officials, either by installing a pyramid-shaped cap or making what the agency refers to as a "miter cut" in the metal.
Trump remains keen to tout incremental progress toward his wall-building commitments, and in recent weeks, top Homeland Security officials have taken to Twitter to promote the advances.
In recent days, DHS leaders including acting CBP chief Mark Morgan and the top official at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ken Cuccinelli, have tweeted photos of border fence construction, echoing promises that 450 miles of new barrier will be completed by next year. Another senior administration official credited both men with injecting urgency, saying that "things are starting to crank away," even though Cuccinelli's agency is not involved in the project.
Dan Scavino Jr., the White House social media director, has asked for video footage and photos of equipment digging up the desert and planting the barriers so that administration officials can tweet about it, aides said.
Administration officials involved in the project also defended the president's use of eminent domain laws to speed the process.
"There is no more constitutionally permissible public purpose for eminent domain than national defense," said a current administration official who was not authorized to speak on the record about the contracting process.
"Our intention is to negotiate with every property owner, and every property owner will receive fair market value for the land," the official said. "But the land that is needed is not replaceable land. This is not like building a hospital or even a school. There is no alternative land to the border."
CBP and Pentagon officials insist they remain on track to complete about 450 miles of fencing by the election. Of that, about 110 miles will be added to areas where there is currently no barrier. The height of the structure will vary between 18 and 30 feet, high enough to inflict severe injury or death from a fall.
The Border Patrol's strategic planning and analysis office has not made a final decision on the black paint or other White House design requests.
"Ultimately, we'll do our assessment and determine what is the best for us operationally," said Brian Martin, the office's chief, adding that the agency is waiting to get border agents' feedback on whether the coating would be beneficial.
Martin also said CBP would continue to install anti-climb panels on portions of the barrier already under contract, calling the design "very vital to overall effectiveness." But he and other CBP officials said that some new portions of barriers will have the panels and that others will not, a determination that he said will be guided by necessity, not aesthetics.
Trump has recently urged the Army Corps to award a contract to a company he favors, North Dakota-based Fisher Industries, though the firm has not been selected. Fisher has been aggressively pushed by Trump ally Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., who briefly held up the confirmation of a Trump budget office nominee last month in an attempt to put pressure on the Army Corps.
Cramer demanded to see the contracts awarded to Fisher's competitors, lashing out at the "arrogance" of the Army Corps in emails to military officials after he was told the bidding process involved proprietary information that could not be shared. The CEO of Fisher Industries is a major backer of Cramer and has donated to his campaigns.
Cramer visited the El Paso area Tuesday to tour border facilities and view a span of privately funded border fencing Fisher built as a showcase for what it claims are superior construction techniques. Cramer posted videos of his tour to social media. He undertook the tour "to see the crisis at our border firsthand."
The senator had asked Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the commander of the Army Corps, to meet him at the site, but Semonite is traveling in Brazil, where the Trump administration has offered to help fight wildfires in the Amazon.
In an email to The Post, Cramer said he met with CEO Tommy Fisher on Tuesday at a span of fencing the company built on private land; he said Army Corps officials joined them at the site.
"The agents on the ground said the walls have been very helpful in slowing illegal crossings," Cramer wrote. "I'm not a wall-building expert, but at the pace of the last few years, it's hard to see how 450 miles gets built with the same process ... I wish DHS would engage a whole bunch of builders and innovators rather than rely on the same decades old bureaucracy."
Cramer said he shared the president's "frustration" with the pace of progress.
Several administration officials who confirmed the White House's urgency said they expect to be able to deliver on Trump's demands because the actual construction of the barriers is typically the last step in the process.
"There is a long lead time to acquiring land, getting permits and identifying funding," the official said. "I think you will see a dramatic increase in wall construction next year because all of the work over the past two years has primed the pump."