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Trump went to the border to attack Biden — but he mainly talked about himself

Former president Donald Trump speaks during a tour of the U.S.-Mexico border wall on Wednesday, June 30, 2021 in Pharr, Tex.
Former president Donald Trump speaks during a tour of the U.S.-Mexico border wall on Wednesday, June 30, 2021 in Pharr, Tex. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

PHARR, Tex. — Former president Donald Trump traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border here Wednesday for a trip billed as an opportunity to assail President Biden on immigration — an issue core to Trump's political identity and one Republicans view as a weakness for Democrats.

But Trump often got sidetracked from the day’s message, instead launching into grievance-filled rants.

He tried to re-litigate the results of the 2020 election. He questioned whether Biden would pass the mental acuity test that he has often used to boast about his own mental fitness.

And he introduced and provided commentary on most of the more than two dozen House Republicans who traveled to see him at the border, often touting the electoral significance of his endorsements of them. He complimented the physical appearance of Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), the medical acumen of Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Tex.) — his former White House doctor — and the auctioneering abilities of Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.), with Trump asking him to put them on display by jokingly selling the border wall.

As the former president ramps up his political activity ahead of the 2022 midterms, his trip to the border further crystallized the extent to which he is focused on settling scores against political opponents and positioning himself for a potential run for president in 2024.

Trump did not fully ignore the issue of immigration — he just mainly focused on himself. He took credit for solving the border problem and argued his administration’s policies were so successful that the issue of immigration did not factor into November’s election.

“We did a hell of a job,” Trump said during a border security briefing with state officials and law enforcement before visiting an unfinished area of the wall. “Now we have an open, really dangerous border.”

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As he went through his laundry list of grievances from the past several months, he concluded: “We have a sick country. It’s sick in elections, and it’s sick on the border.”

Trump traveled to the border with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who has sought to inherit the tough-on-immigration mantle from Trump and has become one of the leading proponents for Trump’s wall. Abbott has vowed to finish the construction of the border wall, telling Fox News the state will be “using every tool available to us under the law.”

“One of the things that he did better than anything else and definitely better than any other president is he stepped up and he secured our border, and kept Texans and Americans safe,” Abbott said, lavishing praise on Trump’s tenure as president.

Once he arrived at a section of wall, Trump entered full campaign mode — thanking allies for supporting his campaign, spreading falsehoods about the 2020 election and teasing a third presidential run. He criticized the Biden administration for not finishing the wall while lamenting the reality that the barrier was not painted black, one of Trump’s long-standing preferences because he believes it would make the structure too hot for people to climb.

“Everything could have been completed,” he said. “It would have been painted, not sitting there, rotting and rusting. It would have been perfect.”

Trump arrived in the Rio Grande Valley five days after Vice President Harris visited the border on the other side of the state. Republicans spent weeks criticizing Harris for not traveling to the border after she was tasked by Biden with working to address the root causes of migration, and Trump was eager to join the chorus.

“Kamala Harris, your vice president, only went to the border yesterday for the one simple reason: that I announced that I was going,” Trump said at his rally in Wellington, Ohio, on Saturday. “If I didn’t do that, I don’t know if she was ever going to go.”

Since the day he announced he was running for president, Trump has made immigration a signature part of his agenda, promising to build a wall that Mexico would pay for. He failed on that promise, as the government largely focused on replacing existing structures — efforts paid for by U.S. taxpayers — during his presidency. But as Republicans continue to tie themselves to Trump politically, they have echoed the former president in calling for restrictive immigration policies and enhanced border security.

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“It’s one of a number of issues that show a stark difference between the Trump policies and the failures on President Biden’s watch that are creating a recipe for a red wave, historic 2010-like election where Republicans are going to win back the majority in the midterm by a landslide because of the border crisis,” Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), the chair of the Republican Study Committee who led the House Republicans’ trip to the border, said in an interview.

House Republicans visited the border Tuesday night to witness crossings in La Joya, Tex., taking photos of unaccompanied children and slamming the Biden administration for what they said was a humanitarian crisis. Cawthorn, the North Carolina Republican, said the visit reaffirmed his belief that the border needed to be closed.

Biden has sought to reverse the Trump administration’s approach to immigration on many fronts. His administration canceled construction contracts for further walls at the border, has worked to rebuild the asylum system and has focused on addressing poverty and violence in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala as a way to stem migration.

But the Biden administration has also struggled to find its footing on the issue. In the early months of his presidency, Biden’s team stumbled with a surge of unaccompanied minors crossing the border, as shelters became overwhelmed and officials strained to process the influx of children. The situation at the border has improved, but the administration has not rescinded the Trump-era public health rule that allows the United States to expel migrants, including people seeking asylum, during the coronavirus pandemic.

During her trip Friday, Harris traveled to El Paso, where she toured the port of entry and border operations and met with immigration advocates.

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“This has been a trip that also is connected with the obvious point: If you want to deal with a problem, you can’t just deal with the symptom of the problem; you’ve got to figure out what caused it to happen,” Harris told reporters during the trip.

Aides to the vice president say Trump’s planned trip had no impact on Harris’s travel schedule, but they did not explain why last week was chosen.

“This administration does not take their cues from Republican criticism, nor from the former president of the United States of America,” Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to Harris, said on a call with reporters last week. “We have said, over a number of different occasions — and the vice president has said, over the course, over the last three months — that she would go to the border. She has been before. She would go again. She would go when it was appropriate, when it made sense.”