‘I understand our competitor’s got a line too, but it’s a tiny little line….’
(Eli Stokols and Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times) EL PASO, Texas — President Donald Trump told a raucous rally in El Paso on Monday night that he is already building a wall on the adjacent border with Mexico, as a potential Democratic challenger assailed him at a nearby protest and, in Washington, congressional negotiators announced a tentative funding deal without the billions he demanded for a wall.
Beneath banners reading “Finish the Wall” hanging from the rally site’s rafters, Trump hailed what he called a “big, beautiful wall right on the Rio Grande.”
When supporters launched into a chant of “Build the wall!”, Trump corrected them: “You mean finish the wall.”
The president alluded to lawmakers’ announcement of a deal, which came moments before he took the stage, but did not give it his blessing even as one of his foremost confidants, Fox News host Sean Hannity, on air midway through the president’s rally, condemned the reported agreement as “this garbage compromise.”
Without the president and Congress agreeing to a border security funding bill by midnight Friday, the government could be partially shuttered again, three weeks after a shutdown that at 35 days was the longest ever. The “agreement in principle” called for $1.375 billion for 55 miles of new barrier on the 2,000-mile border — less than a quarter of the $5.7 billion Trump sought.
He told the crowd that he hadn’t bothered to find out the particulars of the agreement because he was eager to take the stage.
“I could have stayed in there and listened, or I could have come out to the people of El Paso, Texas,” he said. “I chose you.”
Outside the El Paso County Coliseum, where he appeared before thousands of supporters, a smaller crowd, bundled against the evening chill, marched along the Rio Grande to a nearby park. There, El Paso’s former congressman and a possible Democratic 2020 presidential candidate, Beto O’Rourke, joined other locals who spoke of El Paso and neighboring Juarez, Mexico, as one community and expressed indignation over Trump’s false characterization of their city as a violent one in last week’s State of the Union address.
“With the eyes of the entire country upon us, all of us together are going to make our stand. Here in one of the safest cities in the United States of America — safe, not because of walls but in spite of walls,” O’Rourke said.
“Let’s own this moment and the future and show this country there’s nothing to be afraid of when it comes to the U.S.-Mexico border,” O’Rourke said. “Let’s make sure our laws, our leaders and our language reflect our values.”
Late Monday, the House-Senate committee bargaining over border security funding and trying to avert another shutdown reached an “agreement in principle,” according to Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Talks had stalled on the weekend, Republicans said, over Democrats’ demands to limit the detention of undocumented immigrants.
With both his rally and the protest featuring O’Rourke receiving national coverage, the split-screen moment promised something of an audition of a hypothetical 2020 matchup, effectively creating a live debate between the president and a potential challenger on the issue that most animated Trump’s followers in 2016 and likely will again in his re-election bid.
Before leaving the White House, the president signaled that he too saw the dueling rallies as an early competition, with his familiar emphasis on crowd sizes.
“We have a line that’s very long already,” Trump told reporters, referring to people waiting to enter his venue. He added, “I understand our competitor’s got a line too, but it’s a tiny little line.”
Although the protest event brought together roughly 50 local groups, O’Rourke’s political star power generated significant media coverage.
“If you’re Beto, there couldn’t be a better, more visual contrast,” said Jen Psaki, a former communications director to President Barack Obama. “By leading a march, he gets back to his grass-roots origins and it allows him to stand toe to toe with the president of the United States and to echo a message that even local Republicans agree with. It gives him a platform and a megaphone at a beneficial time.”
©2019 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC. Liberty Headlines editor Paul Chesser contributed.