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No need for a full border wall, Trump says

 (Christian Torres / Associated Press)
(Christian Torres / Associated Press)

President Trump, who made the building of a wall along the border with Mexico a central promise of his campaign, significantly scaled back the pledge Thursday.

"You don't need 2,000 miles of wall because you have a lot of natural barriers," Trump said to reporters on Air Force One during his flight to Paris.

"You have mountains. You have some rivers that are violent and vicious. You have some areas that are so far away that you don't really have people crossing. So you don't need that."

"You'll need anywhere from 700 to 900 miles," he said.

About 600 miles of the southern border already are protected by walls, fences or other barriers. It was not clear from Trump's remarks if the figure he cited referred to new border protections or included those already in existence, but he appeared to suggest that fixing current border fences would count against the total he had in mind.

"You know, we've already started the wall because we're fixing large portions of wall right now," he said. "We're taking wall that was good but it's in very bad shape, and we're making it new."

Conservative groups that had supported Trump’s tough stance on immigration during the campaign expressed concern that the president was changing course.

“It appears things are being walked back on and there are various narratives going around in the White House,” said Stephen Steinlight, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.

“We don’t have the rule of law when it comes to immigration,” he said. “It doesn’t exist. There’s immigration anarchy.”

Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington, said Trump’s backsliding on the wall casts doubt on whether he will keep his other campaign promises on immigration.

“We expect he will fulfill the promises he made and we are going to continue to hold him accountable,” he said. “He needs to push Congress to do these things he was elected for. Now it’s time he deliver.”

In particular, Mehlman’s group wants Trump to rescind the program known as DACA, which was created by President Obama and shields more than 750,000 people from deportation who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

Trump told reporters on his plane Thursday that he, and not subordinate officials, would make the decision about what to do with DACA.

"It’s a decision that I make, and it’s a decision that’s very very hard to make. I really understand the situation now," Trump said.

"I understand the situation very well. What I’d like to do is a comprehensive immigration plan. But our country and political forces are not ready yet," he added.

Trump's Homeland Security secretary, John F. Kelly, had suggested in remarks Wednesday that Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions might make the final decision about the program if it is challenged in court.

Trump appeared to suggest that he would not delegate the decision to Sessions.

With regard to the border wall, Trump also offered a very different description of the barrier than he portrayed in campaign rallies, where he would sometimes talk about a wall 30 feet high.

His new description closely resembles the border fencing built under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama.

"You need transparency. You have to be able to see through it," Trump said.

"In other words, if you can't see through that wall — so it could be a steel wall with openings, but you have to have openings because you have to see what's on the other side of the wall."

Both that physical description and his account of the extent of the wall he has in mind bring the president's version of the barrier much closer to what Kelly and his deputies have described.

Trump's comments to the reporters on the plane initially were off the record — a standard practice during previous administrations as well as the current one. But the president decided to put the conversation on the record, and White House officials released a transcript Thursday afternoon. 

1:10 p.m.: This post was updated to include Trump's remark about DACA.

3:42 p.m.: This post was updated to include reaction to Trump's remarks.

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