White House

Trump pre-empts border wall pitch in El Paso to take shots at Beto O’Rourke

President vastly overstates crowd size as O’Rourke blasts his migrant rhetoric

President Donald Trump, here at a rally in North Dakota last year, was back on the campaign trail Monday night in El Paso, Texas. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump interrupted a border wall rally in Texas to take a shot at former Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, saying the potential 2020 presidential candidate “has very little going for him.”

“We were all challenged by a young man who lost an election to Ted Cruz. And then they said, ‘You know what? You’re supposed to win before you run,’” Trump said of O’Rourke.

“He challenged us. So we have let’s say 35,000 people tonight and he has 200 people, 300 people, not too good,” Trump said, declaring O’Rourke’s crowd size perhaps the “end” of his presidential bid before he even announces if he is running.

The problem with what quickly appeared to be yet another false statement from Trump: The El Paso County Coliseum where Trump spoke has a maximum capacity of 5,250.

[Trump revives campaign rallies with trip into heart of ‘Beto Country’]

As the president spoke, a congressional panel charged with averting another government shutdown later this week with a border security spending pact announced they had reached an “agreement in principle.” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby of Alabama said the pact included border barrier funds; to Trump’s left at the El Paso arena was a large red sign with capital letters displayed this message: “FINISH THE WALL.”

The agreement includes $1.375 billion for physical barriers, but not a wall, according to a source familiar with the details. 

Trump hopped Air Force One late Monday afternoon for El Paso to make another pitch for his proposed southern border wall. He also was expected to take a few digs at former Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke in his hometown.

O’Rourke gave GOP Sen. Ted Cruz a serious challenge in November’s midterms, and says he will decide this month whether to launch a bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Before the president hit the stage, Donald Trump Jr., was his warm-up act — and he went right at O'Rourke, saying to applause: “I’d be more impressed if he had the guts to go do his rally on the Juarez side, on the other side of the wall!”

During last week’s State of the Union address, the president made a pitch for what he called “a smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier — not just a simple concrete wall,” shifting the kind of barrier vocabulary he talked about as a candidate and during the first two years of his presidency.

Watch: Remember When Donald Trump Wanted Mexico To Pay for the Wall?

“The border city of El Paso, Texas, used to have extremely high rates of violent crime — one of the highest in the country, and considered one of our nation’s most dangerous cities. Now, with a powerful barrier in place, El Paso is one of our safest cities,” Trump said.

That claim is not supported by facts, and led to a torrent of calls for the president to correct the record.

The border structure there was erected in 2008. FBI crime data suggest violent crimes began declining there in 2006. And data compiled by SAGE Publishing put the Texas city 254th in a national ranking of most violent U.S. cities.

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The murder rate in the city in 2005 was 2.5 for every 100,000 residents, compared with a national rate of 5.6. By 2010, the murder rate had dropped to 0.9 for every 100,000 residents, compared with a national average of 4.8, according to the Associated Press.

As Trump hit the stage at an arena in El Paso, O’Rourke and Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar, his successor in the House, were headlining a counter-rally across town.

An animated O’Rourke saluted migrants who walk “2,000 miles” to try to join the “idea that is America.” He rejected what he described as Trump’s call for “walls to keep them out,” saying they should be “welcomed.”

“Together, we are making a stand for the truth,” he said. “We are going to show the country who we are. ... We have the chance to tell [Trump] and the country that immigrants commit crimes and violent crimes at a rate less than [people] who are born in this country.

“We’re going to make a stand,” O'Rourke said. “Let’s ensure that no Dreamer again fears deportation from their home country.” He also endorsed a “path to citizenship” for the parents who brought those young migrants to the United States, something Trump at times also has said he supports.

“The words that we use have extraordinary power,” he said, blasting the president without naming him by saying Americans should not refer to migrants as “animals” or “invaders.”

The rowdy crowd chanted “build that wall” as a protester was escorted out. Trump implored them to chant “finish that wall,” contending “we’ve already built a lot of it.” That claim has been challenged by Democratic lawmakers and immigration experts, however.

The crowd erupted into a loud “lock her up” chant when the president discussed the Justice Department’s Russia probe and brought up his 2016 general election rival, Hillary Clinton. He told them the idea of Clinton being convicted of crimes — apparently related to her use of a private email server as secretary of state — as looking like a better and better idea.

The president blasted the “Green New Deal” offered last week by Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others. “It sounds like a high school term paper that got a low mark,” he said.

Fox News host Sean Hannity broke into his network’s coverage of the rally to call the spending negotiators’ deal “garbage.” Hannity was among the conservative opinion-shapers who drove Trump to force the recent government shutdown, and he said no Republican should support the handshake deal. 

Trump delivered his usual message about illegal immigration bring drugs and crime into the United States, saying a “strong wall” would stop those alleged ills on society.

The president told Fox News before his El Paso rally he was mostly unaware of a border spending deal on a Capitol Hill.

“We’ll see what happens,” he said when asked if he would support it, using a line he often turns to when he has not yet made a decision.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

 

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