The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

President Trump says his ‘beautiful wall’ is being built. Nope.

No, construction hasn't begun on President Trump's wall and there is not funding to begin construction. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

“We’ve started building the wall.”
— Donald Trump, remarks with Baltic leaders, April 3, 2018

When President Trump signed the $1.3 trillion omnibus appropriations bill in March, he was especially grumpy about the fact that it did not fund his $25 billion request for his long-promised wall along the southern border. (We’ll ignore the fact that during the 2016 campaign, he insisted that Mexico would be forced to pay for the wall.)

But since then, the president had been proclaiming that the wall is being built. On March 28, he even tweeted photographs:

On March 30, he told a rally in Ohio that “you saw those beautiful pictures. … We started building our wall.  I’m so proud of it. We started. We started. We have $1.6 billion, and we’ve already started.” Then, in front of the leaders of three Baltic nations April 3, he said it again.

So what’s going on here? Is the famous wall being built?

The Facts

The pictures that Trump tweeted were of construction in Calexico, Calif. But here’s the rub: On Feb. 28 — a month before Trump tweeted — the Desert Sun headlined an article about the construction titled: “In Calexico, Border Patrol starts constructing a border wall. No, not that border wall.”

The article said that the Border Patrol had identified the project as a priority in 2009, and that funding for bollard fencing — hollow steel beams spaced several inches apart — had been appropriated in 2017. (If you look closely at Trump’s photos, they show 30-foot-high fencing, not a wall.)

“We just wanted to get out in front of it and let everybody know that this is a local tactical infrastructure project that was planned for quite some time,” David Kim, assistant chief patrol agent for the Border Patrol’s El Centro sector, told reporters.

Indeed, when Trump ran for president, he described his vision of the wall: It would be 1,000 miles long, made of precast concrete slabs, rising 35 to 40 feet in the air. “It’s going to be a high wall, it’s going to be beautiful,” he insisted in 2016, saying it would be “so easy” to get Mexico to fund it.

In 2017, then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer gamely insisted that bollard fencing was actually a wall, to the bemusement of reporters.

Now, the president appears to be engaged in the same bait-and-switch.

With great fanfare in March, he toured prototypes of a concrete wall while in California. Yet the language in the appropriations bill is specific: None of the $1.57 billion appropriated for border protection may be used for those prototypes.

Only designs from before May 2017, such as “currently deployed steel bollard designs, that prioritize agent safety,” can be used. Moreover, the bill identified that the money for the barriers — about $1.3 billion — could be used only for items listed as “primary pedestrian levee fencing,” “primary pedestrian fencing” and “secondary fencing.” About $250 million is for secondary fencing, meaning it just backs up other fencing.

In a March 30 briefing for reporters, Customs and Border Protection Acting Deputy Commissioner Ronald D. Vitiello acknowledged that the agency faced “restrictions on this appropriation … it does not fully fund our needs in the most critical locations.” He said that the prototypes viewed by Trump would be used to “help us inform a new design standard.”

The closest thing to a wall would be the levee fencing, which is a concrete levee topped by bollard fencing. The bill allows for 25 miles in the Rio Grande Valley. But the bill also bars any spending for a border barrier in the 2,088-acre Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, one of the nation’s top birdwatching sites, with more than 400 species of birds. The administration had chosen the Santa Ana refuge as the first site for a border wall segment because it is owned by the federal government, avoiding legal entanglement with property owners, according to the Texas Observer.

Vitiello also said that 654 miles of fencing already exists along the border as a result of the Secure Fence Act of 2006, and Trump’s proposed wall would add about 350 miles to that, for a total of 1,000 miles.

As far as we can tell, from review of local news articles, only 33 miles of new barrier — fencing on top of an existing levee in Hidalgo County, Tex. and a fence in Starr County, Tex. —  would be funded under the 2018 bill. The rest of the money appears to be for replacing existing fencing or barriers — with fencing.

But Vitiello insisted that the roughly 100 miles of fencing that was funded through 2017 and 2018 appropriations was “all new,” because it will replace smaller, less-effective structures, such as barriers made of Vietnam War-era helicopter landing mats. That’s what is happening in Calexico, where there is about two miles of landing-mat fencing. Officials said one problem with the landing-mat fencing is that agents could not see through to the other side.

Not to get too technical here, but the definition of a wall is a continuous structure with a common base, while a fence is something that has posts and can be seen through.

Speaking to reporters at the White House on April 4, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said: “If there’s a wall before that needs to be replaced, it’s being replaced by a new wall. So this is the Trump border wall.” Replacing a “current wall” would count as a “new wall,” she said.

The problem is that it’s fencing replacing fencing.

The Pinocchio Test

Every administration tries to spin a congressional loss into some kind of victory. But this takes it to new heights of ridiculousness.

The White House failed miserably to achieve its objectives on funding for a border wall, receiving relative peanuts. It sought $25 billion but ended up with 5 percent of that. Moreover, the money came with strings attached so that it could be used only for fencing, not the “great” and “beautiful wall” promised by Trump.

In Orwellian fashion, fences have now become walls. Even then, the president has secured only enough money to pay for one-tenth of the new fence/wall he has sought. He earns Three Pinocchios.

Three Pinocchios

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Three Pinocchios
“We’ve started building the wall.”
remarks during a meeting with Baltic leaders, Washington DC
Tuesday, April 3, 2018