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‘He always brings them up’: Trump tries to steer border wall deal to North Dakota firm

Fisher Industries workers prepare land on private property in Sunland Park, New Mexico, near El Paso, on Wednesday, feet from where International Boundary Monument No. 1 sits in the foreground. (Jordyn Rozensky and Justin Hamel/for The Washington Post)

President Trump has personally and repeatedly urged the head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to award a border wall contract to a North Dakota construction firm whose top executive is a GOP donor and frequent guest on Fox News, according to four administration officials.

In phone calls, White House meetings and conversations aboard Air Force One during the past several months, Trump has aggressively pushed Dickinson, N.D.-based Fisher Industries to Department of Homeland Security leaders and Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the commanding general of the Army Corps, according to the administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal discussions. The push for a specific company has alarmed military commanders and DHS officials.

Semonite was summoned to the White House again Thursday, after the president’s aides told Pentagon officials — including Gen. Mark Milley, the Army’s chief of staff — that the president wanted to discuss the border barrier. According to an administration official with knowledge of the Oval Office meeting, Trump immediately brought up Fisher, a company that sued the U.S. government last month after the Army Corps did not accept its bid to install barriers along the southern border, a contract potentially worth billions of dollars.

Trump has latched on to the company’s public claims that a new weathered steel design and innovative construction method would vastly speed up the project — and deliver it at far less cost to taxpayers. White House officials said Trump wants to go with the best and most cost-effective option to build the wall quickly.

“The President is one of the country’s most successful builders and knows better than anyone how to negotiate the best deals,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in an email. “He wants to make sure we get the job done under budget and ahead of schedule.”

Fisher’s chief executive, Tommy Fisher, has gone on conservative television and radio, claiming that his company could build more than 200 miles of barrier in less than a year. And he has courted Washington directly, meeting in congressional offices and inviting officials to the Southwest desert to see barrier prototypes.

Even as Trump pushes for his firm, Fisher already has started building a section of fencing in Sunland Park, N.M. We Build the Wall, a nonprofit that includes prominent conservatives who support the president — its associates and advisory board include former White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon, Blackwater USA founder Erik Prince, ex-congressman Tom Tancredo and former Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach — has guided an effort to build portions of the border barrier on private land with private funds.

The first section is expected to be unveiled soon. Fisher-branded equipment and workers were visible this week preparing the site outside El Paso, within feet of the International Boundary Monument No. 1, placed in 1855 at the beginning of the effort to delineate the Mexican border. The stretch, part of which is on private land owned by a brick company, is the only area in the region without a barrier, in part because it crosses rugged terrain.

Scott Sleight, an attorney for Fisher, said in a statement Thursday that Fisher Industries is committed to working with the federal government to secure the border and has developed a patent-pending installation system that allows the company to build fencing “faster than any contractor using common construction methods.”

“Fisher has invited officials of many agencies and members of Congress to demonstrate what we believe are vastly superior construction methods and capabilities,” Sleight said. “Consistent with the goals President Trump has also outlined, Fisher’s goal is to, as expeditiously as possible, provide the best quality border protection at the best price for the American people at our Nation’s border.”

Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, has joined in the campaign for Fisher Industries, along with Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), an ardent promoter of the company and the recipient of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Fisher and his family members, according to campaign finance records. Cramer, in an interview Thursday, said the Trump administration has shown a great deal of interest in his constituent’s company.

“He always brings them up,” Cramer said, noting that he spoke with Trump about Fisher twice — once in February and again on Thursday. Each time, Trump said he wanted Fisher to build some of the barrier, Cramer said.

Cramer said Trump likes Fisher because he had seen him on television advocating for his version of the barrier: “He’s been very aggressive on TV,” Cramer said of the CEO.

“You know who else watches Fox News?” Cramer asked.

Tommy Fisher, president of Fisher Industries, has made repeated appearances in conservative media insisting he can build the wall faster and for less money. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump’s repeated attempts to influence the Army Corps’ contracting decisions show the degree to which the president is willing to insert himself into what is normally a staid legal and regulatory process designed to protect the U.S. government from accusations of favoritism. They also show how a private company can appeal to the president using well-placed publicity and personal connections to his allies — and the president’s willingness to dive into the minutiae of specific projects.

But Trump’s personal intervention risks the perception of improper influence on decades-old procurement rules that require government agencies to seek competitive bids, free of political interference.

A senior White House official explained Trump’s advocacy for Fisher Industries by saying the president was told the company was cheaper than others and could build the wall faster. The official said that Trump would prefer another company if he learned it could do the work cheaper and faster than Fisher has promised.

The official said Trump had not told Semonite he must award the contract to the company but had repeatedly brought up Fisher Industries as an option because he sees the process as too expensive and too slow. Trump wants to see hundreds of miles of border barrier completed within the next two years.

Trump has taken an intense interest in the border barrier project, expressing frustration with the pace of progress on a structure he views as key to his reelection campaign. Several administration officials have said the president requires frequent briefings from his staff and has given specific but shifting instructions to Semonite and DHS leaders on his preferred tastes and design specifications.

Most recently, the president has insisted the structure be painted black and topped with spikes, while grumbling to aides that the Army Corps contracting process is holding back his ambitions. At the White House meeting Thursday, he said he doesn’t like the current design for the wall’s gates, suggesting that instead of the hydraulic sliding gate design, the Army Corps should consider an alternative, according to an administration official: “Why not French doors?” the president asked.

Trump also dismissed concerns about cost increases and maintenance needs associated with applying paint to the structure, insisting the barrier be black, the administration official said. He also wants the flat steel panels removed from the upper part of the fence, which he considers unsightly, preferring sharpened tips at the end of the steel bollards.

The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment.

The Army Corps, with a reputation for rectitude, discipline and impartiality, is the designated contracting authority for the border barrier project, developing specifications, awarding contracts and ensuring legal and regulatory compliance.

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers goes to great lengths to ensure the integrity of our contracting process,” said Raini W. Brunson, a spokesperson for the Army Corps, who referred questions about Trump’s conversations with Semonite to the White House.

The president ordered the reassignment of defense funds to the barrier project after Democrats denied his request for $5 billion. Instead, the agreement to end the government shutdown included $1.4 billion for the barrier. Since then, with Trump promising to build 400 miles of fencing by next year, the Pentagon has pledged to provide at least $2.5 billion more.

Fisher Industries was one of the six companies that built border wall prototypes outside San Diego in 2017, but the company’s concrete design did not afford the see-through visibility that DHS officials wanted. While many of the companies declined to discuss their prototypes with reporters, Tommy Fisher was an eager booster for his plan, criticizing the steel bollard design and professing that a more expensive concrete version would be better.

When Fisher began promoting a steel version of the barrier that he said could be installed faster and cheaper, the Army Corps said the design did not meet its requirements and lacked regulatory approvals.

“The system he is proposing does not meet the operational requirements of U.S. Customs and Border Protection,” an official said. DHS officials also told the Army Corps in March that Fisher’s work on a barrier project in San Diego came in late and over budget.

Fisher Industries has alleged improprieties with the border wall procurement process and sued the government on April 25.

Fisher this week told radio listeners in North Dakota that he was using private donations to build a section of border wall to show off his superior construction methods, which involve using heavy equipment to hold steel panels in place as they are anchored into the ground. He said he knows Trump will be impressed.

“The Corps said it couldn’t be done, but now the Border Patrol has seen it,” Fisher said of his construction project in an interview Wednesday on “The Flag,” a show on North Dakota’s WZFG News. “They’ve been out each day, and the proof’s in the pudding, and after that, it’s going to open up a whole new narrative about how border security should be handled, who should construct it, and the border agents will finally get what they deserve. And we’ll prove it in a half-mile stretch where they said it couldn’t be done.”

Collecting private donations, We Build the Wall has raised $22 million for the cause. The group has announced a raffle for a “wall reveal ceremony” it said will be attended by its “MAGA All Star board of advisors.”

“Witness history made on completion of the first privately funded section of the border wall!” it says. Cramer said Fisher is working with We Build the Wall. The group did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump has repeatedly brought up Fisher Industries after hearing about the company in early 2019, administration officials said.

In an earlier meeting with military and DHS officials in the Oval Office, Trump said that the government was getting ripped off by current contractors — and that Fisher could do it for less than half the price and with concrete. “The president got very spun up about it,” said one person with direct knowledge of the meeting.

Officials from the Army Corps and DHS then met with Kushner several times to explain why Fisher wasn’t the best deal. Kushner was intimately interested in the cost of the wall and why other companies were being chosen over Fisher, administration officials said. Trump repeatedly told advisers that Fisher should be the company, administration officials said, and he has remained focused on the cost of the wall and how slow its progress has been.

Army Corps of Engineers officials evaluated Fisher’s proposal and said that it didn’t meet the requirements of the project — and that the proposal was cheaper because it wasn’t as high-quality, or as sophisticated, in their view.

Finally, officials, including then-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, went into the Oval Office this spring and explained that Fisher could bid but that the company’s proposal needed to change.

Nielsen and Semonite separately explained that the president could not just pick a company. Nielsen did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump remained frustrated, saying that Fisher said it could build the barrier cheaper and faster. “He said these other guys were full of s---,” an official said.

Fisher was added to a pool of competitors after the Army Corps came under pressure from the White House, administration officials said.

On Tuesday, after Semonite was called to a meeting with Cramer on Capitol Hill, the senator posted a photograph of the encounter to Twitter, saying he had “discussed border wall construction” with Army Corps leaders.

Cramer said he was glad the president is so involved in the process. Trump was elected to cut through Washington’s entrenched bureaucracy, he said.

“Good for him. It’s why he is the president of the United States. He knows a thing or two about building big projects,” Cramer said. “This is why he’s president.”

Cramer said that he has long known the Fisher family and that he is not advocating for the company because its ownership has donated money to his campaigns.

“I was doing it before they were a financial contributor,” he said. “For no other reason than the fact that he’s a constituent of mine.”

Cramer said he had gone down to the border to see Fisher’s “show and tell” demonstration. The senator said he has discussed the company with Semonite, acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan, White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and others.

Tommy Fisher and his wife gave more than $10,000 — the maximum allowable contribution — to Cramer in 2018 as he ran for Senate, campaign finance records show. Fisher was Cramer’s guest at Trump’s State of the Union speech in February that year, and the CEO said he shook the president’s hand afterward.

Trump backed Cramer last year in his campaign to unseat Democrat Heidi Heitkamp. During his Senate run, Cramer appeared in a social media video at Fisher headquarters in North Dakota, driving an excavator.

“Here at Fisher Industries in Dickinson ND, I tested just how easy it is install a panel of wall myself,” Cramer wrote on Twitter.