WASHINGTON — With another government shutdown threat looming, President Donald Trump headed to the Texas border on Monday to argue his case that walls work as Democrats spurn his demands for billions to build such a barrier.
Trump was bound for El Paso, aiming to reshape the debate around the wall following a damaging shutdown fight and with his signature 2016 campaign promise hanging in limbo. In a case of pointed political counterprogramming, Beto O'Rourke, the former Democratic congressman from Texas now mulling a presidential run, planned an evening El Paso march and rally against the wall with dozens of local civic, human rights and Hispanic groups.
The first dueling rallies of the 2020 election season were set to serve as a preview of a heated yearslong fight over the direction of the country. And they made clear that Trump's long-promised border wall is sure to play an outsized role in the presidential race, as both sides use it to try to rally their supporters and highlight their contrasting approaches.
The rallies launch a crucial week for Trump as Democrats and Republicans remain locked in negotiationsover border wall funding ahead of a midnight Friday deadline that could force another government shutdown. While lawmakers and the White House had appeared optimistic at the end of last week that negotiators were closing in on a deal, talks faltered over the weekend over Democrats' demands to limit the number of migrants whom authorities can detain.
Trump tried to put the blame on Democrats as he left Washington, saying they didn’t want to provide the bed space needed to detain dangerous people wanting to come into the U.S.
"Now it turns out not only don't they want to give us money for the wall, they don't want to give us the space to detain murderers, criminals, drug dealers, human smugglers," he said. "How bad it that?"
Democrats reject that characterization, countering that they are trying to curb what they see as unnecessarily harsh enforcement by immigration officials.
Trump has repeatedly pointed to El Paso to make his case that a border wall is necessary, claiming that barriers turned the city from one of the nation's most dangerous to one of its safest. But that's not true.
El Paso had a murder rate of less than half the national average in 2005, a year before the most recent expansion of its border fence. That's despite being just across the border from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, a city plagued by drug violence. The FBI's Uniform Crime Report shows that El Paso's annual number of reported violent crimes dropped from nearly 5,000 in 1995 to around 2,700 in 2016. But that corresponded with similar declines in violent crime nationwide and included periods when the city's crime rates increased year over year, despite new fencing and walls.
The Trump campaign released a video showing El Paso residents saying the wall helped reduce crime. But many in the city have bristledat the prospect of becoming a border wall poster child.
That includes O'Rourke, a potential 2020 candidate, who came close to unseating Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 and maintains an army of small-dollar donors and a large social media following. While few Democratic candidates have focused on immigration in their launches, O'Rourke has described Trump's calls for the wall as the "cynical rhetoric of war, of invasions, of fear."
"While some try to stoke fear and paranoia, to spread lies and a false narrative about the U.S.-Mexico border and to demand a 2,000-mile wall along it at a time of record safety and security, El Paso will come together for a march and celebration that highlights the truth," he said in a statement ahead of the event.
Moments before leaving the White House, Trump made it clear that O'Rourke was on his mind.
"We have a line that's very long already," Trump said of his El Paso rally. "I understand our competitor has got a line, too, but a tiny little line."
At the time, short lines had formed for both events.
The El Paso rally is Trump's first since the November midterm elections and comes at a precarious moment for his presidency. Weakened by the longest government shutdown in American history, Trump is also contending with the ongoing investigation into Russian election meddling and a flurry of investigations by newly empowered majority Democrats in the House.