President Trump reviews border-wall prototypes in San Diego in March. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Columnist

There’s a lot of red surrounding President Trump’s call for a southern border wall.

Instead of well-considered immigration policy, the wall is red meat to his red base.

But for independent government examiners, the wall could fall on the red side of Uncle Sam’s accounting ledger.

A new report by the Government Accountability Office raises serious issues about poor Trump administration planning that could lead to increased costs. This comes in the wake of repeated Trump threats to shut down the government if Congress does not provide the wall funding he wants.

The recent volley of threats, by the way, made no mention of Trump’s hollow promise that Mexico would pay for the wall. Cost estimates have been all over the place, including $18 billion for 722 miles of barriers in 17 priority areas identified by Customs and Border Protection and $70 billion by Senate Democrats.

The GAO found that the strategy of the Department of Homeland Security, home to CBP, did not fully analyze projected costs or properly follow the acquisition process.

“DHS plans to spend billions of dollars developing and deploying new barriers along the southwest border,” the GAO said in a report released Monday. “However, by proceeding without key information on cost, acquisition baselines, and the contributions of previous barrier and technology deployments, DHS faces an increased risk that the Border Wall System Program will cost more than projected, take longer than planned, or not fully perform as expected.

“Without assessing costs when prioritizing locations for future barriers, CBP does not have complete information to determine whether it is using its limited resources in the most cost-effective manner and does not have important cost information that would help it develop future budget requests. Without documenting plans to require CBP to follow the DHS acquisition process for the San Diego barrier segment, DHS may not establish cost, schedule, and performance goals by which it can measure the program’s progress.”

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement that the administration “is rushing the construction of the President’s completely unnecessary border ‘wall’.  In moving too fast, they have ignored necessary and established acquisitions protocols.”

“To be blunt,” added Thompson, who, along with others, requested the GAO study, “this Administration has no clue what it is doing and must be held accountable. Since DHS picked locations for the President’s wall before taking into account effectiveness or cost, any more spending on Trump’s wall would be a giant waste of taxpayer money and may not provide any measurable security benefit. … We now know for certain that effectiveness and considering the full range of costs were not part of the decision-making process.”

The White House and the House Homeland Security Committee’s chairman, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), declined to comment.

DHS agreed with GAO recommendations to better analyze costs associated with the wall and to follow acquisition requirements. A letter to GAO from DHS said Customs and Border Protection “is following best practices in evaluating costs, budget, and financial impact” for the wall.

Not so, according to GAO’s findings. Though his administration has not fully done its job in preparing for the wall, Trump is willing to shut down the government if his Republican-controlled Congress doesn’t fund it, while blaming Democrats. We’ll know at the end of September, with the close of the fiscal year. The notion that the president of the United States would advocate closing the government, denying millions of Americans services, seems like parallel-universe craziness.

But these comments are business as usual for Trump.

On the Aug. 1 Rush Limbaugh program, he said: “I say, ‘Hey, if you have a shutdown, you have a shutdown.’ Now, the shutdown could also take place after the election. I happen to think it’s a great political thing, because people want border security.”

Here he is at a July 30 news conference: “As far as the border is concerned — and personally, if we don’t get border security, after many, many years of talk within the United States, I would have no problem doing a shutdown.”

On July 29, he tweeted, “I would be willing to ‘shut down’ government if the Democrats do not give us the votes for Border Security, which includes the Wall!”

While shutting down the government is the opposite of public service and anathema to practically all federal employees, Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, fears no evil. The council represents Border Patrol agents. It and the National ICE Council, representing Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, are the only federal unions that endorsed Trump’s candidacy. Both are part of the American Federation of Government Employees, which strongly opposed him.

Judd said he agrees “100 percent” that DHS has not done proper studies but added, “I believe they will be able to make the case, if they try.” Like Trump, but surprisingly for a federal employee not named Trump, Judd thinks a government closure would be worth it to get border-wall funding.

“If a government shutdown would give us the border security that is necessary, I’m absolutely for it,” he said by phone.

Law enforcement personnel continue working during a partial shutdown, so his members would not be affected to the same extent as other feds. Employees furloughed if funding lapsed over a border-wall dispute probably would be paid retroactively, leading Judd to compare furloughs to vacation days — workers being paid for days not worked.

“Would I be in favor of shutting down government parks for a week in order to get border security,” he said. “Yes, I would.”

Thompson strongly disagrees. “Shutting down the government would be irresponsible,” he said by email, urging “congressional Republicans not to give in to their President’s demands for his boondoggle border wall.”

Read more:

The immigration-officer shortage and a caution against hiring too quickly

Federal employees and contractors trapped by Trump’s family separation policy

Trump aggravates immigration judges’ problems with tweet opposing Constitution