Trump considering using disaster relief funds to pay for border wall

Heather Saul

Donald Trump has doubled down on his threat to declare a national emergency to help build a wall on the US-Mexico border if Congress does not meet his request for billions of dollars in funding as part of any deal to end the partial government shutdown.

The White House is also said to have directed the Army Corps of Engineers to comb through its budget, including $13.9bn (£10.8bn) in disaster funds that Congress earmarked last year, to see what money could be diverted as part of any emergency declaration. That money has been set aside to help projects all over the US, including hurricane-damaged areas of Puerto Rico.

Mr Trump has claimed – contrary to the evidence – there is an immigration and security crisis at the border, with reports that the president is considering using money earmarked for disaster relief to pay for the wall.

Two days after delivering a televised address to the nation to make his case for a wall, and a day after he abruptly left a meeting with Democrats after they refused to pay for one, Mr Trump travelled to McAllen, Texas, where he signed autographs for supporters and met border agency officials.

As he left the White House for the trip, Mr Trump, said he would look to declare an emergency if Congress cannot reach a deal. “If this doesn’t work out, probably I will do it. I would almost say definitely,” the president said.

At a roundtable meeting with community leaders and officials in McAllen, among them Texas senator Ted Cruz, the president repeated his insistence that a wall would be be built.

“We’re going to build a powerful steel barrier. They said we don’t want a concrete wall. I said that’s okay, we’ll call it a steel barrier,” he said.

“They say this is a manufactured crisis. That’s their new sound bite ... Every network has ‘manufactured crisis’. But it’s not. What’s manufactured is the word ‘manufactured’.”

The president - who has cancelled an upcoming trip to Davos, Switzerland, because of the shutdown - also sought to address those critics who have pointed out he used to repeatedly promise Mexico would pay for any barrier. He claimed without evidence that the terms of a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada will provide the money for the wall.

“When I say Mexico’s going to pay for the wall ... I didn’t say they’re going to write me a check for $10bn or $20bn,” he said. “If Congress approves this trade bill, they’ll pay for the wall many times over. When I say Mexico’s going to lpay for the wall, that’s what I mean”.

The president’s visit to Texas came as the partial government shutdown entered its 20th day, with more stories of hardships as as result of the closure emerging, and growing concern among some Republicans that Mr Trump’s tactics are not working. When he met Republicans on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, several senators expressed concern about the pain being felt by ordinary Americans.

“When government is shut down, there are consequences and people are starting to feel those consequences,” Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, told reporters of her exchange with the president.

Susan Collins, of Maine, one of the most moderate Republicans in congress, said she had asked the president to consider a bipartisan compromise that would give certain immigrants, known as Dreamers, a path to citizenship in exchange for border security money.

The shutdown, poised to become the longest in US history, has been caused by Mr Trump’s refusal to compromise on a spending measure if it does not contain $5.7bn for a wall. Democrats have offered $1.3bn for border security but have refused to fund a wall.

Earlier on Thursday, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell moved to block an attempt by Democrats to force a vote on legislation to reopen the federal government.

Democrats went to the Senate floor and asked for consent to vote on a series of bills that would end the shutdown.

On Wednesday, a meeting involving Mr Trump and leaders from both parties in the White House situation room bunker, broke up in acrimony after no more than 30 minutes.

“The president stomped out of the meeting,” speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, told reporters. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said the president had a “temper tantrum”, after the Democrats refused to budge on his demand for a wall. Mr Trump denied claims he had slammed the table but said the meting had been “a waste of his time”.

“Cryin Chuck told his favourite lie when he used his standard sound bite that I ‘slammed the table & walked out of the room. He had a temper tantrum’,” he wrote on Twitter. “Because I knew he would say that, and after Nancy said no to proper border security, I politely said bye-bye and left, no slamming.”

Experts point out that while the number of asylum-seekers from Central American nations such as Honduras in recent months, there is no crisis of illegal immigration. Indeed, in 2017 the number of illegal immigrants hit a low of 310,000 from a high of 1.6m 2000.

This week, his administration was forced to backtrack after White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Fox News that “nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists” had crossed into the US from Mexico last year. When NBC News pointed that border officials caught a total of six people on a security watchlist over a six-month period, Kellyanne Conway told reporters Ms Sanders had made “an unfortunate misstatement”.

Mr Trump told reporters he had been consulting with lawyers who assured him he “100 per cent” had the right to declare an an emergency to get funding, a claim constitutional and lawyers scholars have questioned.

Before leaving Texas, he repeated his claim the wall would reduce crime, even though studies show crime rates among immigrant communities is typically lower.

“You’ll have crime in Iowa’s you’ll have crime in New Hampshire, you’ll have crime in New York. If we had the barrier it wouldn’t happen,” he said.