WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, defended President Trump’s threat to end assistance to three Central American countries and to close parts of the United States border with Mexico next week, saying on Sunday that it would take “something dramatic” to prevent Mr. Trump from carrying out that plan.
“Why are we talking about closing the border?” Mr. Mulvaney said in an interview on ABC’s “This Week.” “Not to try and undo what’s happening, but simply to say, ‘look we need the people from the ports of entry to go out and patrol in the desert where we don’t have a wall.’”
Mr. Trump’s attempt to seal off the border by building a wall, and mulling the closure of ports to tamp down on immigration and drug smuggling, is at odds with a nagging reality: Smuggling activity largely comes through ports of entry, according to government data. And the president’s move to cut off aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador ignores a longstanding strategy touted by aid groups and military experts — including the president’s former chief of staff — that supporting those countries actually makes the border safer.
Still, Mr. Trump spent the week emboldened by the results of his attorney general’s summary of a report by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, that said that he and his campaign had not cooperated with the Russian government. The president immediately turned back to immigration as a red-meat issue for supporters ahead of the 2020 election.
“I’m not playing games,” he told reporters during a weekend in Florida, which followed a week spent berating the Democratic Party for what he called lax immigration laws, assailing countries he has accused of doing little to stop the flow of migrant traveling north, and disparaging individual travelers seeking asylum as part of a “big fat con job.”
In the interview, Mr. Mulvaney criticized Jeh Johnson, who led the Department of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama, for saying in an interview last week that the situation at the border was “truly in a crisis.” Last month, 76,000 migrants were apprehended crossing the border — an 11-year high — and the crossings are expected to increase again this month.
“We hate to say we told you so,” Mr. Mulvaney said. “We need border security, and we’re going to do the best we can with what we have.”
In recent weeks, Border Patrol facilities along the southwestern border have been strained to a breaking point by the largest influx of migrants in years. The numbers are growing, in part, because travelers are hoping to make the journey north before summertime. Officials in El Paso resorted to creating a makeshift encampment under a bridge last week when the main border processing facility in the area was strained to 400 percent of its capacity.
A full or partial sealing of the border would effectively close off the United States from one of its largest trading partners, and it could leave American citizens who cross back and forth with a sluggish or potentially nonexistent system of returning to the United States. Mr. Trump will travel to Calexico, Calif., to tour the border on Friday.
Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary, said in a statement on Friday that she had asked volunteers to add more support at the border, and suggested that American citizens may encounter difficulty getting through as a result.
And by directing the State Department to revoke aid from the three Northern Triangle countries, Mr. Trump is seeking to punish those countries for what he says is a failure to stop migrant caravans from making their way north.
Leaders of those countries have said they are committed to solving the problem, despite what Mr. Trump has said. In 2017, the United States gave $420 million to Central American countries struggling with violence. According to the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, a nonprofit organization that supports diplomatic efforts of the United States, the Northern Triangle countries committed about ten times that amount, or $5.4 billion, to improve conditions.
“American aid to Central America is not charity, but an investment in our national security,” Liz Schrayer, the president of the coalition, said in a statement. “The idea of suspending the relatively small, but essential foreign assistance to the region will only exacerbate the root causes driving people to flee their homes — brutal violence, hunger and instability.”
In an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union,” who pointed out to him that experts within the president’s own administration have said aid money has helped curb violence in and migration from El Salvador, Mr. Mulvaney shrugged off the data from “career staffers” and said the money had not done enough.
“If we’re going to give these countries hundreds of millions of dollars, we would like them to do more,” he said. “If it’s working so well why are the people still coming?”
Mr. Mulvaney’s comments represent a rightward shift for an administration that has already taken a publicly hard-line stance on immigration. In May 2017, John F. Kelly, the president’s former chief of staff and former top officer of the military’s Southern Command, said during an Atlantic Council meeting that his experience showed him that partnering with Northern Triangle countries was key to securing the border.
“If we can improve the conditions — the lot of life of Hondurans, Guatemalans, Central Americans,” Mr. Kelly, then speaking in his capacity as homeland security secretary, “we can do an awful lot to protect the southwest border.”