EL PASO — President Trump’s push to get Congress to fund his proposed border wall was to officially converge with his 2020 reelection campaign here on Monday night, as the president and potential Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke planned dueling rallies in this vibrant border city.
The two events along the U.S.-Mexico border encapsulate the fierce debate over illegal immigration and border security that has been roiling Washington and is emerging as a flash point in the presidential campaign.
At the start of a consequential week at the U.S. Capitol, where congressional negotiators sought to avoid another government shutdown, the president tried to use the backdrop of O’Rourke’s hometown to argue that a wall would help protect border communities.
With four days to go before a partial government shutdown, Trump took Air Force One to the border in an attempt to gain political advantage in an immigration debate that polls show he has been losing.
“We’re going to El Paso,” Trump said Monday during a meeting with sheriffs at the White House. “We’re going there to keep our country safe, and we don’t want murderers and drug dealers and gang members, MS-13, and some of the worst people in the world coming into our country.”
At the meeting, Trump referred to O’Rourke as “our competition” and predicted the “Make America Great Again” rally would draw a bigger crowd than the former congressman’s event.
Hours before the president arrived, thousands of his supporters — many of them wearing red campaign hats — lined up outside the El Paso County Coliseum, where they were entertained by live music. The early crowd was heavily Hispanic — perhaps the most diverse group the president has ever attracted to a rally.
The crowd included many local Republicans who said they were excited to see so many like-minded people gather in such a liberal area to support the president and the wall. There were also Trump supporters who drove for hours to get to the rally from elsewhere in Texas and from New Mexico.
Occasionally the crowd burst into chants of “USA! USA!” and, at least on one occasion, “Build that wall!”
About a mile down the road, several thousand demonstrators gathered at a high school carrying American flags, rainbow banners, “Beto for President” flags and flags for Mexico and Texas. There were also signs decrying Trump and his border wall — such as “Trump made America hate again” — and chants from the crowd that included “Make tacos, not walls!”
O’Rourke — who has disagreed vehemently with Trump’s depiction of El Paso as crime-ridden before construction of a border fence — has pointed to statistics showing that the city was one of America’s safest long before the fencing was installed a decade ago. Local officials also have said that the physical barrier has had no impact on the city’s relatively low rate of violent crime.
The clash in El Paso comes as Trump and some of his Democratic opponents are engaging each other directly in the run-up to a general election that is more than 600 days away.
Trump traded words with Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) over the weekend as they announced their presidential campaigns.
O’Rourke is among a growing group of contenders directly challenging Trump over immigration and other issues, and a second government shutdown could further harden battle lines.
Key lawmakers said they had reached an agreement late Monday with enough time to secure House and Senate approval this week and avoid another shutdown. Government funding for several agencies is set to expire on Friday. And it’s not clear whether Trump, who is considering declaring a national emergency over border security, would ultimately support any deal reached by Congress.
Trump has often played the role of spoiler after lawmakers reach bipartisan agreements, and he has been dismissive of the negotiations.
The president’s past attempts at compromise have been met with fierce backlash from conservative radio and television hosts, whose opinions Trump follows closely. Trump was scheduled to do an interview with Fox News’s Laura Ingraham while in El Paso.
The president’s demands for money to build a border wall, which prompted the last government shutdown, are not the central sticking point now. Instead, Democrats’ push for new restrictions on immigrant detentions has led to the stalemate.
Trump’s campaign released a video before the president’s visit featuring El Paso residents who claimed that fencing has improved safety in their community.
“El Paso’s example shows that only with a physical barrier can we stop the flow of illegal immigration, drugs, and crime and secure our southern border,” Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, said in a statement.
O’Rourke planned to offer a direct contrast to Trump’s rhetoric during his opposing rally less than a mile away from the president’s event. On Friday, O’Rourke published a Medium post laying out his argument for why Trump’s characterization of El Paso is wrong and why a wall is not needed, along with 10 proposals for immigration policy.
“The President, using the same racist, inflammatory rhetoric of years past, seeks to build a wall, to take kids from their parents, to deploy the U.S. Army on American soil, to continue mass deportations and to end the protection for Dreamers,” wrote O’Rourke, who lost a bid for the Senate last year and has said he will decide by the end of this month whether to run for president.
Trump has been needling his potential Democratic challengers over their support for policies including Medicare-for-all, higher taxes on the wealthy and a Green New Deal to combat climate change.
“Amy Klobuchar announced that she is running for President, talking proudly of fighting global warming while standing in a virtual blizzard of snow, ice and freezing temperatures,” Trump said Sunday on Twitter. “Bad timing. By the end of her speech she looked like a Snowman (woman)!”
Klobuchar, whose presidential announcement came during snowfall in Minnesota, shot back by asking how Trump’s “hair would fare in a blizzard.”
Ever since Trump won the White House, Democratic strategists have been searching for a better way of dealing with Trump’s name-calling and attacks. During the 2018 midterm elections, pollsters advised that it was more important to reintroduce the party’s views on key economic issues than to attack the president.
But the challenge for candidates in the 2020 presidential primary is different, as both Trump and the Republican Party have embarked on systematic efforts to tease them individually and brand the Democratic Party as socialist, extreme and threatening to the American way.
Klobuchar’s hair-focused response showed one approach, which has also been employed by Warren, who has called Trump a “loser,” a “thin-skinned fraud” and a “large orange elephant in the room.”
Such tit-for-tat, usually on Twitter, can drive a news cycle and lead to fundraising spikes, but it can also diminish the person punching back at Trump, as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) found out when he talked about small hands in the 2016 campaign.
Former Vice President Joe Biden (D) expressed regret last year after he said he would have taken Trump behind the high school gym and “beat the hell out of him,” if he had heard Trump make crude comments about women. “I don’t want to get down in the mosh pit with this guy,” Biden later said. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has also repeatedly warned her party, in public and private, that it is unwise to “get into a tinkle contest with a skunk.”
More recently, Warren has pulled back from direct insults to a more dismissive strategy, calling the president a bully and suggesting that he might not make it through his first term. “By the time we get to 2020, Donald Trump may not be president,” Warren told an Iowa audience on Saturday. “In fact, he may not even be a free person.”
Jill Normington, a Democratic pollster who is not working for a presidential campaign, said polling shows clearly that the top priority for Democratic primary voters is finding a candidate who will defeat Trump, though there is not yet any agreement on what qualities will make that happen.
“What you are seeing in the candidates’ response to how to deal with Trump is how undefined ‘electability’ is,” Normington said. “Some of them are choosing to engage the president directly. Some of them are choosing to engage from a geographic standpoint, some from a temperament standpoint, some from an adversarial standpoint.”
Olorunnipa reported from Washington. Michael Scherer in Washington contributed to this report.