The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There’s new wall on 194 miles of the border. Sixteen miles didn’t have a barrier before.

Each time President Trump turned down money for his wall, he ended up with less money than he started with. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Since the beginning of the year, President Trump has boasted dozens of times about the extent of wall being built on the border with Mexico.

On Jan. 3, he told a group of religious leaders that his administration was building “a very big, very powerful, very strong, very high wall, and it’s going up — close to 100 miles have already been built.” Six days later, he told attendees at a rally in Ohio that the figure had topped 100 miles. By mid-February, it was up to 122 miles. By Feb. 28, up to 132 miles — before dropping back down to 128 the next day.

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.