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Trump threatens to delay border work in California, baffling many

Trump threatens to delay border work in California, baffling many
Border wall prototypes were constructed in San Diego. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

President Trump on Wednesday threatened to delay building border barriers in California until his long-promised wall goes up elsewhere, seemingly slinging another arrow in his running battle with the nation's most populous state.

"Sections of the Wall that California wants built NOW will not be built until the whole Wall is approved," Trump declared in a morning message on Twitter.

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His threat confused just about everyone involved in the fight over border protection. If the goal was to gain leverage in his fight for the wall, the warning shot seemed oddly aimed: California officials have fought vigorously against Trump's project, his top priority as a presidential candidate, even going to court to try to block it — an effort that lost a round Tuesday. They haven't been clamoring for construction of new border fences.

Administration officials could not point to any change in policy — either proposals or executive actions — to accompany Trump's tweet. Nor were officials sure what "sections of the wall" Trump was referring to as elements that "California wants."

There are several current projects to upgrade existing border fences in Southern California, but neither the White House nor the Department of Homeland Security responded to questions about whether Trump meant to delay any of those, and there was no sign that construction would stop. Border officials in San Diego and El Centro also declined to comment on Trump's tweet.

Instead of any sudden policy shift, officials said privately, the tweet seemed to reflect the president's continued anger at California officials over their resistance to his immigration policies.

As such, it appears to be another example of a growing list of statements that show a disconnect between Trump's Twitter messaging and his role as chief executive.

Trump for years has commented provocatively on public affairs, and as president he frequently has caught his advisors off guard with his impulsive tweeting. He has often seemed unwilling or unable to adjust to the power a president's words can have to set national policy.

Instead, government officials have adjusted, ignoring his remarks in some cases, contradicting them in others.

Last year, for example, Trump surprised advisors with public statements demanding a ban on transgender people serving in the military, an order the Pentagon sidestepped and is now recommending the president drop.

He also publicly said several times that he had ordered that oil and gas pipelines be constructed from American-made steel, an order that never actually existed and has since been dropped from his speeches.

In some cases, such as Trump's insistence that the 2016 election was riddled with fraud, his words prompted administration officials to undertake elaborate measures with committees, executive memos or contorted statements of their own. In others, his staff has simply waited for the president's attention to move on.

The missive about the border wall came, as many Trump tweets do, after a discussion of a related topic on "Fox & Friends," the president's favorite morning television show. Based on his other Wednesday morning tweets, he appeared to be watching the show on a roughly 20-minute delay.

The show's hosts began a segment with a discussion of Tuesday's order from a federal judge in San Diego who ruled that the administration did not abuse its authority in waiving some environmental laws and other regulations when it began building new barriers and demonstration projects in Southern California.

U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who ruled in the case, is the same judge Trump disparagingly called "a Mexican" during his 2016 campaign, even though Curiel was born in the United States. At the time, Trump said Curiel could not rule fairly in a case against Trump University because of the judge's heritage given Trump's call for a wall along the Mexican border.

The Fox News hosts then went on to lash California officials for supporting "sanctuary" policies that discourage local cooperation with federal immigration authorities. The hosts showed a quote from Mark Farrell, San Francisco's interim mayor, who pledged to "always remain a sanctuary city." They also lambasted Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf for warning residents ahead of immigration raids conducted this week.

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The hosts also spoke of Trump's desire to secure $25 billion to build a wall "the way the president is used to doing things, in a comprehensive way."

Trump appeared to be reacting to the combination of those stories.

"I think what he's trying to do is bully his way to get some Democratic congresspeople and some Republican congresspeople to vote for wall funding, which is going nowhere," said Daniel Benavidez, who worked until October as a communications consultant for the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing border agents.

But Trump's threat seems unlikely to create much leverage for him; there is little excitement in California for spending a lot more for new barriers, even from border agents.

"In my three years, I don't think anybody brought up, 'We need more border walls, more interior infrastructure'" in Southern California, said Gil Kerlikowske, who was commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the Obama administration. He said he heard more interest in a solid wall from Border Patrol chiefs in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where 68,000 unaccompanied children crossed in 2014.

Benavidez said agents he has spoken with believe double fencing — rather than a wall — is sufficient in most areas because it helps protect agents from getting hit by rocks. He agreed that solid walls make sense in some locations, including the Rio Grande Valley.

Elected officials also didn't offer much of a hint that Trump's words had moved them.

Even the current border upgrades are "not a priority in our view," said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).

Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego) said a full wall on the border isn't needed.

"If he wants to waste that money in some other part of the country, that's fine with me," he added.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) issued a statement calling a border wall a necessity but not endorsing Trump's threat.

"While I certainly understand the President's frustration with irresponsible California policies and politicians, national security requires that we remain diligent in all aspects," the statement said.

As has been the case for months, Trump appeared to be counting any sort of upgrade in border fencing as part of his proposed "wall."

Along the nearly 2,000 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, each Border Patrol sector has identified what stretches of new or improved barriers should be priorities.

Several sections of the border in California are already getting upgraded barriers and other improvements.

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There's a fence upgrade project in Calexico, for example, that the Border Patrol just last week touted as part of the "border wall." The government also has spent hundreds of millions of dollars as part of a years-long project to upgrade the San Ysidro border crossing.

Local officials said they did not know of any changes to current border construction projects.

One agent, who declined to be named, said that workers are still going forward with replacement fencing on the west side of downtown Calexico.

The project, which officials began planning in 2009, will swap just over two miles of barrier made from Vietnam War-era landing mats for 30-foot bollards — posts placed close together that keep people from passing through but allow agents to see what's happening on the other side.

A similar project is due to begin in the San Diego area later this year. It does not have an official start date.

Those two projects, along with border wall prototypes recently built in San Diego, were the subject of Curiel's ruling against state officials and environmental groups that tried to halt construction.

Times reporters Bierman and Wire reported from Washington; Morrissey, of the San Diego Union-Tribune, reported from San Diego.

Twitter: @noahbierman

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