Trump returns to campaign form with El Paso rally promoting border wall

David Knowles

President Trump returned to the campaign trail Monday with a boisterous rally in El Paso, Texas, a city he claimed had benefited from the construction of a border barrier similar to the one he has long promoted.

Standing beneath a giant American flag and flanked by two banners that read “Finish the wall,” Trump proclaimed, “If we didn’t have walls” like the section built in El Paso in 2008, “you would have people pouring in.”

“You know where it made a big difference. Right here in El Paso,” Trump told a capacity crowd of 6,500 supporters at El Paso County Coliseum. (Thousands more listened to the speech outside the coliseum, Trump claimed.)

In a speech that was repeatedly interrupted by protesters, Trump argued that “walls save lives. Walls save tremendous numbers of lives,” and assured his crowd that the one he promised during the 2016 presidential campaign was underway.

President Trump at a rally in El Paso, Texas, on Feb. 11, 2019. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP)
President Trump at a rally in El Paso, Texas, on Monday. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP)

“Today we started a big beautiful wall right smack on the Rio Grande,” Trump said, without providing details.

In a speech ostensibly meant to promote the border barrier, Trump took his time getting around to that topic. First, he spent approximately an hour attacking Democrats on a number of issues, including taxes, the “Green New Deal” and late-term abortion.

Trump’s central argument for the border wall, which he repeated during last week’s State of the Union address, was that the addition of a wall in 2008 transformed El Paso from a place with “extremely high rates of violent crime” to “one of the safest cities in our country.”

In fact, El Paso, which has a population of 683,577, had one of the lowest violent-crime rates for a city of its size before the border barrier was built. That rate edged up slightly after construction of the barrier was complete. Before Trump’s rally, several local officials, including the town’s Republican mayor, sought to correct the president’s assertions.

“It almost seems like the president had to say that we were once dangerous in order to further his narrative that immigrant communities are inherently bad, or that immigrant communities are inherently unsafe,” Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, said at a Monday press conference in El Paso, her hometown.

A mile away from where Trump spoke Monday, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who lives in El Paso, delivered his own speech at a rally that organizers dubbed the “March for Truth.”

O’Rourke, who represented Texas’s 16th Congressional District for three terms but lost his bid to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2018 midterm elections, has been one of Trump’s most strident critics on the subject of a border wall.

O’Rourke also celebrated the diversity of El Paso, noting that it was “the largest binational community in the Western Hemisphere,” and called his hometown “a city that’s been one of the safest” in the U.S. over the last 20 years,“long before a wall was built here in 2008.”

“Walls do not save lives,” O’Rourke said. “Walls end lives.”

 A rally for former Rep. Beto O'Rourke outside the El Paso County Coliseum, where President Donald Trump was holding a rally in El Paso, Texas, Feb. 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Rudy Gutierrez)
A rally Monday night for former Rep. Beto O'Rourke outside the El Paso County Coliseum, where President Trump was holding a rally. (Photo: Rudy Gutierrez/AP)

“We stand for America and we stand against walls,” O’Rourke continued. “We know that there is no bargain in which we can sacrifice some of our humanity to gain a little more security. We know that we deserve and will lose both of them if we do. We stand for the best traditions and values of this country, for our fellow humanity and who we are when we are at our best. And that is El Paso, Texas.”

Trump took note of O’Rourke’s participation in the nearby rally.

“We were all challenged by a young man who lost an election to Ted Cruz,” Trump said of O’Rourke, adding, “A young man who’s got very little going for himself.”

By the president’s tally, his own rally dwarfed the one O’Rourke led, a fact that he said could “be the end” to O’Rourke’s presidential ambitions. Trump said attendance at the “March for Truth” rally was 200 or 300. El Paso police estimated there were “10,000 to 15,000” there.

Since he kicked off his 2016 presidential campaign in Manhattan on June 16, 2015, Trump has been fixated on the idea that immigrants crossing the U.S. border with Mexico represent a criminal threat.

“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” Trump said at the time of immigrants he claimed were sent by Mexico. “And some, I assume, are good people.”

While his stance on a border wall resonated nationally, it proved somewhat less effective along the actual border. Trump won the state by 9 percentage points in the 2016 election but ended up losing El Paso County by 40 points.

Two years into his first term as president, Trump hasn’t backed off the assertion that immigrants crossing the southern border bring crime with them, even though studies have found that undocumented immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born U.S. citizens.

In the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, the president pushed hard on what he saw as the need for a border wall, but ended up losing the House of Representatives to Democrats. While the GOP picked up three seats in the Senate, O’Rourke lost to Sen. Ted Cruz by just 220,000 votes, the smallest margin of victory for a Republican Senate candidate in 40 years.

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke speaks to a crowd of several thousand inside a ball park across the street from where President Donald Trump was holding a Make America Great Again rally inside the El Paso County Coliseum Monday night, Feb. 11, 2019 in El Paso, TX.. (Photo: Rudy Gutierrez/AP)
Former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke speaks to a crowd inside a ballpark across the street from the president's rally. (Photo: Rudy Gutierrez/AP)

Trump’s insistence on congressional funding for the construction of a border wall led to the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. As yet, however, no new miles of wall have been built, which could ensure that the issue will once again be a focus of the upcoming presidential race.

Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, called Monday’s event the “first rally of the campaign cycle.”

—Holly Bailey contributed to this article.


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