President Trump told aides last year he wanted U.S. forces with bayonets to block people from crossing into the United States across the Mexico border, one of several proposals he floated at moments of peak frustration with his inability to contain a migration surge, according to current and former administration officials involved in those discussions.

Trump also suggested the excavation of a border trench, or moat, that could be stocked with dangerous reptiles, the officials said, adding that such ideas, along with the bayonets, were not taken especially seriously by aides in the White House. 

The New York Times reported Tuesday on Trump’s proposal for a moat filled with snakes and alligators, along with his suggestion that U.S. forces could open fire on migrants as they attempted to enter the country, potentially shooting at their legs to wound but not kill them.

The president denied those claims in a tweet Wednesday. “Now the press is trying to sell the fact that I wanted a Moat stuffed with alligators and snakes, with an electrified fence and sharp spikes on top, at our Southern Border,” he wrote. “I may be tough on Border Security, but not that tough. The press has gone Crazy. Fake News!”

The Washington Post independently confirmed that the president did, in fact, say those things during border security meetings, including at moments when he demanded the wholesale closure of the Mexico border and appeared prepared to enforce the decree with violence.

Deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley declined to comment on the president’s suggestions, alleging that “there have been so many wild, inaccurate and offensive fake news characterizations” surrounding his desires. Gidley said Trump has made clear that he wants to secure the border; Trump made immigration and border security a central issue of his first presidential campaign and of his tenure in the White House.

The idea for the bayonets surfaced about the time the president began sending U.S. soldiers to the border last year, according one of the officials involved in the discussions. The official, like others in this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about internal discussions.

At the time, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis did not want U.S. soldiers to interact directly with migrants, and he did not want them to be armed while taking on the mission. The deployment fell short of providing Trump with the kind of intimidating show of force he was seeking.

On Sept. 18, President Trump visited the U.S.-Mexico border wall in Otay Mesa, Calif. to examine the construction. (The Washington Post)

“Trump would be throwing extremes at the wall when he was frustrated,” said one former official, who, like others, characterized some of Trump’s suggestions as fanciful musings aides did not interpret as serious directives.

The United States already has a natural waterway along nearly two-thirds of the U.S.-Mexico border — the Rio Grande — and its lower section is a habitat for alligators, as well as venomous snakes.

That river, in places murky and with a deceptively strong current, has proven deadly to some migrants who have tried to wade, swim or boat across it in the hope of reaching the Texas shoreline.

Aides who participated in the meetings or who were later briefed said Homeland Security staffers and White House aides typically divided the president’s proposals into two categories. Those considered the most extreme — alligators and gunfire — were not acted upon, but other proposals were taken more seriously or implemented, including Trump’s request to paint the border barrier black and top it with sharpened spikes that could inflict injury. Trump has boasted that the black paint absorbs heat from the desert sun and makes the barrier hot to touch.

U.S. soldiers were ordered to paint a one-mile span of border fencing in California’s Imperial Valley this summer, coating the steel with a specific shade of black the president favored, at a cost of $1 million. More recently, Trump has spoken favorably of the “anti-climb” steel panels that are fixed at the top of the barrier’s newest spans, which he said can only be defeated by “world-class mountain climbers.” 

After Trump took office, arrests along the border fell to their lowest levels in more than 50 years, but migration levels began rising again soon after. The arrival of several large caravan groups during 2018 deepened the president’s frustration, and an unprecedented number of Central American families crossed the border, many of them surrendering to authorities to seek humanitarian protection.

Trump’s exasperation at the soaring migration numbers was compounded by his inability to quickly build his promised border wall and design it to his likening, particularly as Democrats blocked funding and sparred with him during last winter’s partial government shutdown.

President Trump gave an update Sept. 12 on the construction of a wall alongside the U.S.-Mexico border. (The Washington Post)

When then-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and other senior officials explained that U.S. agents were required by law to process the asylum claims of migrants seeking protection once they reached U.S. territory, the president was determined to keep them out at all costs, one senior administration official said. 

“The goal was to prevent them from ever setting foot on U.S. soil,” the official said. “There was definitely a belief that you could put a line of people across the entry line and say ‘you could not enter.’ ”

The president wanted U.S. forces — soldiers or border agents — to form a human wall at bridges and official ports of entry. “The thing that was explained to him was that even if they set one pinkie toe on U.S. soil, they will get all the rights and protections of a U.S. citizen who has been here 100 years,” the official said.

Although Trump’s proposal to use live fire was dismissed, the idea appears to have stuck with him, and he has argued that police have the right to fire when criminals attempt to flee from arrest. During a May rally in Florida, he told supporters that U.S. agents were not allowed to use their weapons against migrants, drawing a cry of “shoot them!” from someone in the crowd.

“That’s only in the Panhandle you can get away with that statement,” he said.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that the act of fleeing alone did not justify the use of deadly force by police. In doing so, the court struck down a Tennessee law allowing a police officer to “use all the necessary means to effect the arrest” of a suspect who was fleeing or forcibly resisting arrest.

Police officers can use deadly force, however, if they have a reasonable belief that the fleeing person poses an immediate risk to the safety of officers or other people. For example, if a fleeing suspect were carrying a gun, that would generally represent such a threat and the use of lethal force would probably be justified. 

In a subsequent case, the court ruled that determining whether an officer has used excessive force depends on the facts of each case, “including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest.”

Devlin Barrett and Robert Barnes contributed to this report.