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politics

Trump and O'Rourke Duel Over Wall as Lawmakers Reach Agreement

Updated on

Trump and O'Rourke Duel Over Wall as Lawmakers Reach Agreement

  • President makes pitch in El Paso, O’Rourke holds counter-rally
  • Trump says event ‘may be the end’ of O’Rourke White House bid
Beto O'Rourke

Beto O'Rourke

Photographer: Sergio Flores/Bloomberg
Beto O'Rourke
Photographer: Sergio Flores/Bloomberg

Donald Trump and prospective Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke took part in dueling rallies in Texas on Monday, with each using the president’s proposed border wall as an early proxy for the 2020 election.

For Trump, the rally began less than an hour after negotiators in Washington said they had struck a tentative deal on border security that would avert a second government shutdown. It’s unclear whether Trump will accept the deal, which offers far less funding for a barrier than he’s demanded.

Donald Trump

Trump speaks in El Paso, Texas, on Feb. 11.

Photographer: Adria Malcolm/Bloomberg

“I don’t know what they mean progress is being made,” Trump said. “Just so you know, we’re building the wall anyway.”

For O’Rourke, who lost a close Senate contest in November to Republican incumbent Ted Cruz, the wall stood for all the reasons he’s weighing a 2020 bid.

“We stand for America and we stand against walls,” O’Rourke said at the rally. “We know there is no bargain in which we can sacrifice some of our humanity to gain a little more security.”

The rallies held just a few hundred yards from each other offered a dry run for O’Rourke ahead of what promises to be a bitter contest among Democrats to see who will get the chance to face Trump in November 2020. Trump boasted about the size of his crowd and tried to downplay O’Rourke’s popularity.

“A young man who’s got very little going for himself -- except he’s got a great first name -- he challenged us,” Trump said at the rally. “That may be the end of his presidential bid.”

An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 thousand people gathered at the event for O’Rourke, including iconic photographer Annie Leibovitz, who took pictures of O’Rourke before the gathering marched more than a mile to a venue within earshot of Trump’s rally.

A crowd of thousands, with many people chanting “Beto! Beto!” and wearing shirts and hats encouraging O’Rourke to run against Trump, marched more than a mile to the counter-rally. As the masses swelled around O’Rourke, his wife and young children, several volunteers surrounded them by forming a human chain.

O’Rourke has said he will decide whether to seek the Democratic presidential nomination by the end of the month.

Trump came to El Paso -- O’Rourke’s hometown -- to make his case for building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He has repeatedly claimed that crime rates dropped in El Paso after a barrier along the the border with Juarez was built a decade ago. But many locals — including El Paso’s Republican mayor — challenge that assertion, pointing to crime rates that dropped before construction even began.

FBI crime data shows the city’s violent crime rates fell to a low in 2006, two years before construction began on the fence. Incidents of violent crime ticked up slightly during and after the installation.

U.S. President Trump Holds Rally Amid Bid To Break Impasse On Border Security

A Trump supporter, center, is restrained after he storms the media area, during a Trump rally in El Paso on Feb. 11.

Photographer: Adria Malcolm/Bloomberg

In a sign of how inflamed passions on the matter have become, a Trump supporter allegedly accosted members of the media covering the event. BBC reporters tweeted footage and descriptions of a cameraman being pushed by a man who got onto the reporters’ platform during the rally -- which, like many other Trump events contained disparaging comments about the media. The president briefly paused his speech after the incident.

Trump now faces a difficult choice on a border security deal: accept a spending agreement that rolls back elements of his immigration crackdown and provides only $1.375 billion of the $5.7 billion in wall funding he’s demanded; or risk plunging the federal government into another shutdown, likely to prove as politically harmful as the first.

Trump’s refusal in December to back a bipartisan spending deal that didn’t fund construction of his wall led to a record 35-day shutdown that ended last month. The White House had given signals that he would go along with the lower spending levels. But the president has in the past reversed course without warning. Without a funding deal, nine federal departments and related agencies would shut down again on Feb. 15.

“We probably have some good news but who knows,” Trump said, flanked by giant banners reading “Finish The Wall.”

Beto O'Rourke Joins Protest March Against President Trump In El Paso

Beto O’Rourke in El Paso, Texas, on Feb. 11.

Photographer: Christ Chavez/Getty Images

The Monday rally was Trump’s first since the midterm elections. The president and his team have always felt the president is most effective in his rollicking, barely-scripted rallies, and Texas offers a reliably sympathetic audience. It also provides the stage to highlight real-world examples of the human trafficking, drug smuggling, and violence that informs the president’s push for a wall.

Trump also has repeatedly suggested he could declare a national emergency to draw on other government funds to begin construction of the wall. That approach has little public support, and has drawn criticism from both Democrats and Republicans.

Talks broke off over the weekend after Democrats insisted on capping Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention beds to force the agency to focus on apprehending undocumented immigrants with criminal records. Immigration advocates have complained that Trump administration-directed ICE sweeps of workplaces and communities have resulted in many undocumented immigrants who have obeyed the law since entering the country being placed in deportation proceedings.

Republicans have resisted a bed limit on grounds that criminals shouldn’t count toward the cap.

“Let me state very clearly to those pushing this ridiculous and radical agenda,” Trump said Monday at the rally. “I will never sign a bill that forces the mass release of violent criminals.”

— With assistance by Erik Wasson, and Alyza Sebenius

(Updates with attack on journalists in 13th paragraph.)