WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Tuesday that parts of the federal government will stay closed until Democrats agree to put up more walls along the U.S.-Mexico border to deter criminal elements. He said he’s open to calling the wall something else as long as he ends up with an actual wall.
In a Christmas Day appearance in the Oval Office, Trump issued a lengthy defense of his desire for a wall, saying it’s the only way to stop drugs and human traffickers from entering the country. In a nod to the political stakes he’s facing, Trump said he wants the wall by “election time” in 2020.
The promise of a border wall was a central component of Trump’s presidential campaign.
“I can’t tell you when the government’s going to be open. I can tell you it’s not going to be open until we have a wall or fence, whatever they’d like to call it,” Trump said, referring to Democrats who staunchly oppose walling off the border.
“I’ll call it whatever they want, but it’s all the same thing,” he told reporters after participating in a holiday video conference with representatives from all five branches of the military stationed in Alaska, Bahrain, Guam and Qatar.
Trump argued that drug flows and human trafficking can only be stopped by a wall.
“We can’t do it without a barrier. We can’t do it without a wall,” he said. “The only way you’re going to do it is to have a physical barrier, meaning a wall. And if you don’t have that then we’re just not opening” the government.
Democrats oppose spending money on a wall, preferring instead to pump the dollars into fencing, technology and other means of controlling access to the border. Trump argued that Democrats oppose a wall only because he is for one.
The stalemate over how much to spend and how to spend it caused the partial government shutdown that began Saturday following a lapse in funding for departments and agencies that make up about 25 percent of the government.
Some 800,000 government workers are affected. Many are on the job but must wait until after the shutdown to be paid again.
Trump claimed that many of these workers “have said to me and communicated, ‘stay out until you get the funding for the wall.’ These federal workers want the wall. The only one that doesn’t want the wall are the Democrats.”
Trump didn’t say how he’s hearing from federal workers, excluding those he appointed to their jobs or who work with him in the White House. But many rank-and-file workers have gone to social media with stories of the financial hardship they expect to face because of the shutdown, now in its fourth day.
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leaders of Congress, said Trump “wanted the shutdown, but he seems not to know how to get himself out it.” Trump had said he’d be “proud” to shut down the government in a fight over the wall.
He also had said Mexico would pay for the wall. Mexico has refused.
Trump followed up on a Monday tweet in which he said he “just gave out a 115 mile long contract for another large section of the Wall in Texas.” Neither the White House nor the Department of Homeland Security responded to follow-up questions, despite repeated requests.
The reference to 115 miles was unclear. Trump may have been referring to 33 miles of construction in the Rio Grande Valley that is set to begin in February, part of a total of 84 miles that Congress funded in March, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Asked who received the contract, Trump replied: “Different people, different people.”
He did say he envisions a wall so tall, “like a three-story building,” that only an Olympic champion would be able to scale it. He also compared Democrats’ treatment of him over the wall to their defense of James Comey after Trump fired him as FBI director.
“It’s a disgrace what’s happening in our country but, other than that, I wish everybody a very merry Christmas,” he said.
Associated Press writer Nomaan Merchant in Houston contributed to this report.
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