Last week, the most recent updates: The administration was “up to over 200 miles of brand-new, beautiful border wall,” Trump said during a speech in Michigan on Thursday — amending it to being “up to almost 200 miles of wall” when speaking to reporters.
Over and over at rallies and press events, including briefings focused on the coronavirus pandemic, Trump kept Americans updated on how many miles of wall had been built. An increase of 100 miles in about five months seemed as if it might make it hard for Trump to hit his “substantially more than 500 miles completed” pledge by early 2021, but it was still an apparent demonstration of Trump’s frequent reelection mantra: promises made, promises kept.
The only problem is that the figure is a bit misleading. A report from Customs and Border Protection sent to reporters on Tuesday shows that 194 miles of wall have indeed been built — including primary walls and secondary walls that act as reinforcement systems. More to the point of Trump’s promise, only 16 miles of the 194 miles that have been constructed were built in places where fencing didn’t already exist. Of the 170 miles of primary wall that have been built, three miles are in places where no barrier existed before.
Trump has in the past admitted that his figures include replacement walls.
“We’ve built a lot of wall. A lot of wall,” he said in April 2019. “And it’s new wall. You know, when we rip down an old wall and then replace it, it’s called a ‘new wall.’ And that’s what we’ve done.”
It’s true that the wall that has been constructed is substantially more robust than what already existed in most places where the wall has been replaced. In some cases, the wall was made of large sections of corrugated steel repurposed from the Vietnam War. What’s been built is taller and more secure (though not impenetrable).
It’s also true, though, that replacing wall is much easier than building new wall. For one thing, the government generally already owns the land on which the replacement wall is being built, obviating the need to purchase or seize property. For another, the areas being replaced are also generally ready for building in a way that newly acquired territory wouldn’t be.
When Trump touts the extent of what his administration has done, he doesn’t generally make that distinction. His campaign promise was to build a wall with the implication that he would ensure that areas that needed a barrier but didn’t have one would get one. Replacing penetrable barriers gets him to that goal, but it’s not exactly what Trump is implying when he’s citing the numbers.
“We’re up to 161 miles exactly,” Trump said on April 1. “And any place where you have that wall, other than walking around it on the edges, it’s stopping everybody cold. I mean, we’re stopping — we’re — nobody has seen anything like it. That’s how good it works.”
That “other than walking around it” is, of course, an important caveat.