Trump campaigns on the border wall. Not much of that

President Trump, whose plans to campaign in a booming economy was ruined by the coronavirus, traveled to the southern tip of Arizona on Tuesday to highlight the completion of “more than 200 miles of powerful border wall” with Mexico.

He did not mention the fine print.

Almost all of the 216 miles built since Trump took office replaced obsolete or dilapidated fences. Only about “three miles from new border wall system [have been] built in places where there were no barriers before, “according to Homeland Security’s June 19 status report on the wall.

Trump repeatedly promised during and after his 2016 campaign that he would make Mexico pay for “a great beautiful wall” across the 1,954-mile border. So far, the Trump administration has spent $ 15 billion on the project. Mexico has not contributed anything.

Aware of the discrepancy, Mark A. Morgan, the acting commissioner of the United States Office of Customs and Border Protection, said the haircut on how much of the wall is new amounted to “a false political narrative.”

“From an operational law enforcement perspective, those are new miles of wall system that are sinking,” Morgan told reporters.

Trump promised to complete “about 500 miles” of the wall by the end of 2020 during a roundtable discussion at a United States Border Patrol station in Yuma, Arizona, before touring a nearby section of the wall.

He touted the new and renovated walls as “practically impossible to scale” and said that illegal border crossings have fallen 84% over the past year, although the fall is due in part to the economy that was hit this year during the outbreak. COVID-19 and aggressive efforts. expelling migrants, including asylum seekers and unaccompanied minors.

The sheer volume of sales from the president, who made his second trip to Arizona in six weeks, suggested he is still looking for a winning campaign message less than five months before Election Day, especially in a state that easily won in 2016 but which now appears in Play for Democrats.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the alleged Democratic candidate, leads Trump by four percentage points in Arizona, according to the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls.

The visit to Yuma, and later to Phoenix, marked Trump’s first public appearance since his busy rally Saturday night in Tulsa, Oklahoma, prompting speculation by some Republicans that the Trump campaign needed a great remodel.

The campaign had forecast a massive crowd for its first public rally in more than three months, but the inner arena in Tulsa was two-thirds empty, and Trump was humiliated, according to attendees.

He was also angry that his aides had confirmed to the press before the event that six Trump campaign employees involved in organizing the rally tested positive for COVID-19. (The total is now eight).

For an hour and 40 minutes, Trump delivered a labyrinthine and sometimes overtly racist speech that overshadowed his prepared remarks, which began with an overview of selected accomplishments, confirming conservative federal judges, increasing the Pentagon budget and improving the Department of Home Affairs. Veterans.

Trump’s attempts to paint a negative portrait of Biden were lost in a torrent of grievances and inventiveness towards the media, China, and the coronavirus, not to mention a strange recreation of his attempt to go down a ramp after an opening speech days earlier.

“The most important thing in a campaign is the message. And the most powerful message you need to develop is what happens to Joe Biden, ”said Ari Fleischer, who was the White House press secretary during the George W. Bush presidency. “If this election is about the headline, Donald Trump is likely to lose.”

Jen Psaki, a veteran of President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, said the Tulsa event showed that Trump or his campaign have not settled for “his best argument for why he is running.”

“There are many advantages to running for reelection as president-in-office,” he said. “But the challenge is that you are not judged by your aspirations but [by] what it has really accomplished and where the country really is. “

Trump’s visit to Arizona and his continued focus on the border wall largely ignored the health crisis that has overshadowed the 2020 race, even as the state is devastated by a surge in coronavirus infections. The number of confirmed cases, now around 55,000, has doubled in the past two weeks.

On Tuesday, Arizona counted the most every day COVID-19 cases, 3,591, and its hospitalization rate set a record for the eighth consecutive day, casting a strong shadow over the President’s visit, especially his second event, a speech sponsored by a conservative advocacy group at a Phoenix church.

Trump has sidelined the White House coronavirus task force in recent weeks and has spoken of the pandemic as if it’s over, even claiming in Tulsa that he has asked attendees to “slow down” tests to prevent it from escalating. the general number of reported cases. The death toll in the US USA COVID-19 exceeds 121,000.

Before leaving the White House on Tuesday, Trump scoffed at his press secretary’s claim that the president’s call to delay testing was a joke.

“I’m not kidding,” Trump told reporters in South Lawn. “By having more evidence, we find more cases.”

In recent weeks, doctors have tracked the growing infections in Florida, Texas, South Carolina, and Oklahoma, all states that Trump won in 2016 and aggressively lifted blockade restrictions. Cases have also increased in California, which reported more than 5,000 new infections on Monday, beating its previous record of 4,515 the day before.

Trump is aware, attendees say, that he may not convince even his supporters to risk their health to attend crowded rallies or immediately return to pre-pandemic routines to help the economy recover. But some analysts say it has little choice.

“It is valid for him to continue talking about the strong economy before the pandemic,” Fleischer said. “Most voters criticize him for the pandemic, and memories of the strong economy remain fresh. But you better be doing your best to handle this crisis well so that in the fall people will give you credit for being competent. “

Democrats are less charitable and insist that Trump’s hyperbole and “me alone” approach are not adequate at the moment.

“The country needs a ‘We the People’ president,” said Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart. “All we know is [Trump] He has no empathy, and that’s a fatal flaw this year, not having the ability to look at the world through other people’s eyes. “

Trump boasts that his border wall is not without merit, even if much of the wall is not technically new, according to Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington and advocate of stricter enforcement of immigration laws. .

“Replacing the 8-foot tall rusty 1970s barriers with a 30-foot bollard wall, that’s ‘new wall,'” he said. “The president has a case to show that he has really achieved results.”

But turning the wall into a symbol of Trump’s tough approach to immigration enforcement has drawn scrutiny on the project itself, especially since construction occurred on just 10% of the border.

Trump tweeted a complaint Monday night after seeing a Fox News report on slow progress, stating that the wall is “well under construction, fully funded and already more than 200 miles long.”

It may not matter. Polls suggest that immigration, which helped fuel his unexpected election four years ago, is not the main concern even for Trump voters now.

“The whole debate on the wall is less prominent now because there is hardly anyone crossing the border anyway, which is partly due to the COVID outbreak,” said Krikorian. “And partly because the changes are working.”

Times editor Molly O’Toole contributed to this report.