Trump tours border after repeating threat to call national emergency

President visits Texas on shutdown’s 20th day as rift with Democrats expands

Donald Trump has reiterated his threat to declare a national emergency if Congress does not meet his demand for billions of dollars to construct a wall along the US-Mexico border as part of a deal to end the partial government shutdown.

The president visited the Texas border on Thursday – the 20th day of a partial government shutdown – in a publicity ploy to help make the case for funding his long-promised wall after negotiations with Democrats broke down.

As he left the White House for McAllen, Texas, Trump told reporters he would prefer to work with Congress on a deal to end the shutdown, which was triggered by his insistence on funds for the wall, but he warned that he would use his emergency powers to circumvent Congress if they could not come to an agreement.

“I have the absolute right to declare a national emergency,” Trump said, contradicting legal scholars who have questioned the president’s right to take such action in this case.

“I haven’t done it yet, I may do it. If this doesn’t work out, probably I will do it. I would almost say definitely,” he said.

If the shutdown continues into the weekend, it will become the longest government closure in US history.

As part of a series of events at the border, Trump held a roundtable discussion between his officials, border enforcement figures and local citizens, including ranchers, to discuss security. At the meeting Trump claimed, without providing evidence, that a border wall would bring crime down and listened as a sympathetic panel praised his leadership.

Later, near Mission, Texas, Trump accompanied law enforcement to a rural stretch of the border where he shook hands with soldiers and border patrol agents.

The visit falls at a highly awkward and politically perilous moment for Trump. His dogged refusal to reopen the government unless Democrats in control of the House sign off on $5.7bn for his border wall means that 800,000 federal employees have been sent home or are working without pay.

On Thursday, the association that represents thousands of FBI agents warned that the shutdown could cause laboratory delays, reduce money for investigations and make it harder to recruit and retain agents.

The FBI Agents Association sent a petition to the White House and congressional leaders encouraging them to fund the FBI immediately. Friday will be the first day that the nearly 13,000 special agents will miss their paychecks.

“This is not about politics for special agents. For special agents, financial security is national security,” Tom O’Connor, the association’s president, told reporters in a conference call. Nearly 5,000 special agents, intelligence analysts and other staff are currently furloughed.

Trump’s border tour came as the rift between Trump and the newly powerful Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives appeared to be expanding. On Wednesday, Trump walked out of a meeting with the speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, after Pelosi repeated her refusal to fund the wall.

With Trump digging himself into a hole in which he has vowed to keep the shutdown going for months or even years unless he gets his wall, an end to the impasse looks distant. His strategic priority appears to be sustaining the support of his political base of hardline supporters by fueling fears of a “humanitarian crisis” at the border.

He did just that earlier this week in his first primetime address to the nation from the Oval Office. The speech warned of “vast quantities of illegal drugs” and criminals pouring into the US in terms that the Democrats denounced as “misinformation and even malice”.

On Thursday, Trump blamed the Democrats as he canceled a planned visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, later this month amid the shutdown, signaling he was prepared for the political showdown to stretch into late January.

“Because of the Democrats intransigence on Border Security and the great importance of Safety for our Nation, I am respectfully cancelling my very important trip to Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

Among those traveling in Texas with the president is the top White House lawyer, Pat Cipollone, prompting speculation that Trump might be preparing to declare the “national emergency” in the hope of bypassing Congress to fund the wall.

The 1976 National Emergencies Act grants a president powers to move unilaterally in times of crisis. But any such move in this case would almost certainly face instant challenges in the courts.

The White House has nonetheless begun preparing the groundwork for Trump to issue a declaration, the Washington Post reported on Thursday.

The Trump administration was reportedly looking into the possibility of reallocating unused money in the budget for the Army Corps of Engineers, a federal agency under the defense department, toward the construction of the wall.

At least one prominent Republican endorsed the idea on Thursday.

“It is time for President Trump to use emergency powers to fund the construction of a border wall/barrier,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally, in a statement.

“I hope it works.”

The last time Trump travelled to the Mexican border was in March when he made a much-vaunted inspection of eight 30ft-high prototypes of a border wall outside San Diego.

Four months later, the US Government Accountability Office, which monitors federal services on behalf of Congress, issued its report on the prototypes. The GAO found that they failed to meet several basic standards, with faulty construction and inappropriate design for difficult terrain.


Ed Pilkington in New York and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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