President Trump urged his top border security official to finalize a new labor contract with the Border Patrol union just weeks before the deal was signed in September, an agreement that significantly increased the number of union officials allowed to collect a government salary without performing patrol duties, according to current and former administration officials.

The new collective bargaining agreement, which took effect Nov. 1, requires the government to finance the equivalent of 74 full-time union positions — more than comparable Department of Homeland Security unions and about three times the working hours that the National Border Patrol Council has used in recent years — even though the number of agents has declined.

The move pulls additional Border Patrol agents from their jobs to focus on labor relations matters at a time the administration considers the situation at the U.S. southern border to be a national security crisis. It also expands the number of border agents whose roles as union officers allow them to engage in partisan political activity, a potential benefit to the president’s 2020 campaign.

During a meeting with union chief Brandon Judd at the White House amid contract negotiations between the government and the union in late summer, acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner Mark Morgan joined the conversation by phone. Trump encouraged Morgan to reach a deal with the union, according to administration officials with knowledge of the call.

That the president would make such a recommendation to an agency head while meeting at the White House with the agency’s union is highly unusual, according to current and former officials. They said they considered it a reward to Judd, who endorsed Trump in 2016 and has since emerged as a fierce and dependable advocate of the president’s border policies.

Current and former border officials expressed frustration with the contract, saying it gives the union dramatically more power while providing Trump a large new corps of surrogates to amplify his immigration message.

White House spokesman Hogan Gidley declined to address the specifics of the president’s involvement in the union deal, saying only that Trump has long aimed to support border security efforts.

“The president has been consistent from Day One that America is a safer place if we work with and listen to insights and input from the rank-and-file members of law enforcement and national defense — whether that’s first responders, our local police, military service members or front-line border agents,” Gidley said.

In a written response, Judd defended the agreement and said it reflects Trump’s high esteem for Border Patrol agents.

“I believe the president values law enforcement and the role we play in ensuring the safety and security of U.S. citizens and those residing within our borders,” Judd said. “I believe his support is unconditional.”

The timing of the deal was crucial, coming just weeks before a series of Trump administration executive orders curbing the power of federal employee unions were set to take effect. One of the orders directs federal agencies to negotiate new collective bargaining agreements that slash the amount of official time hours — or “union time” — they are afforded, with a new guideline of one hour annually per employee.

That standard would have left the Border Patrol union with about 18,000 hours of official time per year, or the total hours agents are allowed to dedicate to union activities. Instead, the new contract provides more than eight times that amount — 153,920 hours.

Union representatives generally use official-time hours to work on employee grievances and other labor relations matters on behalf of union members, but unlike other federal employees, they can advocate specific border policies, make media appearances without employer approval and engage in a broad range of political activities.

A former Border Patrol official who has been involved in negotiations with the union said the contract’s increase in official-time hours was “off the charts.” The official and others spoke on the condition of anonymity to address private internal negotiations.

“It’s a total quid pro quo,” said a former senior administration official familiar with the contract. “You say nice things about me constantly, and you get what you want.”

Under the Hatch Act, federal employees are restricted from engaging in certain forms of partisan political activity, but union officers are afforded much more latitude. Judd frequently skewers Democrats as a Fox News guest and op-ed contributor; he and other union officials have appeared at White House events supporting Trump; and Judd joined Trump at a promotional event in Calexico, Calif., in April, when the president visited a newly constructed section of border barrier.

In interviews with 13 current and former administration officials about the union contract and the president’s role in helping secure a deal, many said they view the new contract as a reward to Judd for his support of the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

A line to Trump

Judd was already a formidable figure in U.S. immigration politics when he endorsed Trump’s candidacy for president and became a leading advocate of Trump’s plan to build a border wall.

Three officials said Judd has raised his voice with DHS officials who have challenged him, and some became fearful of him because he had “100 percent direct access” to the president. Judd did not dispute the intensity of his arguments at DHS, but he denied claims “that I’ve flaunted my relationship with the president,” calling it “a malicious attempt without foundation to somehow discredit my work and or position.”

At one point in 2017, Trump told then-DHS Secretary John F. Kelly to consider Judd for a senior position at CBP, and the two spoke about a potential role. Judd said he had previously submitted his résumé to be on Trump’s transition team.

When Kirstjen Nielsen was DHS secretary, she would sometimes be asked to come to the Oval Office to find the president was talking to Judd or had just talked to Judd, two officials said.

“He was the first guy who endorsed me,” Trump would say, when other administration officials would criticize Judd or say that he was not knowledgeable about a certain topic.

Judd has not always been in lockstep with the White House. He drew fire from irritated Trump officials when he endorsed Democrats in three 2018 Senate races.

But several current and former officials who view the new contract as favorable to the union said the White House has been determined to empower Judd, particularly after he remained faithful to Trump during the government shutdown early this year, when agents went without paychecks while coping with an unprecedented surge of Central American families at the border.

Judd and other union officials joined Trump for a White House news briefing in January to endorse the wall and back the president. Trump introduced Judd as “a man who’s really become a friend, in a sense — Brandon.”

Judd declined to discuss his more recent conversation with Trump at the White House but said the purpose of the meeting was to discuss border security, not the contract. Judd said several other union officials were present, along with two senior Trump aides. He said the contract probably would have been completed earlier, long before the president’s executive order on union time, if it had not been slowed by legal disputes.

“We went a little over a year with very little negotiations due to litigation over certain terms of the bargaining,” he said.

Union time

In May 2018, Trump issued an executive order — “Ensuring Transparency, Accountability, and Efficiency in Taxpayer Funded Union Time Use” — instructing federal agencies to renegotiate their collective bargaining agreements and cut official time, saying that “executive branch employees should spend their duty hours performing the work of the Federal Government and serving the public.”

The order and others seeking to curb federal unions were partially enjoined in federal court in August 2018, but the injunction was lifted on appeal in July. The new orders took effect Oct. 2.

Other unions within DHS said they get far fewer official-time hours. The union that represents 14,000 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services workers has about 45,000 hours of official time, but the Trump administration is trying to slash that to 14,000 hours, according to Kenneth Palinkas, the union’s lead negotiator.

“They want to cut us down to nothing,” said Palinkas, who says the Border Patrol union has received preferential treatment for backing Trump.

The Transportation Security Administration’s union, which represents 45,000 employees and is in contract negotiations with the administration, has just two full-time union officials at 100 percent official time, said Hydrick Thomas, TSA Council president, and the rest of its union hours are allocated on a part-time basis.

Judd defended the allocation of official-time hours and said his union’s new contract has been under negotiation since 2013. He characterized the amount of official time as comparable to what the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 27,000 U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and other personnel — though not the Border Patrol — received in its 2017 agreement.

The Border Patrol union used 47,000 hours of official time in 2012, according to a report in the Washington Examiner, a year when the Border Patrol had 21,394 agents. In 2018, it had 19,555 agents — a decline of more than 8 percent.

The increase in official-time hours has stunned some senior Border Patrol officials because the agency is struggling to meet its recruitment targets and has taken extensive measures to reduce attrition. Senior managers also say provisions in the contract will require Border Patrol officials to negotiate operational and staffing changes that are not explicitly stated in the agreement, which they fear could hinder the ability to respond to emergencies.

Judd said the new contract will help his union address the frustrations that drive agents to quit, noting that the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey regularly “ranks the Border Patrol at or near the bottom of all agencies in DHS in nearly all categories, including trust in senior leadership, how employees feel valued, and all other questions that pertain to morale.”

Hernández reported from Texas.