Trump ramps up threats over wall funding

CNN's John Berman discusses whether President Donald Trump's latest threat to secure funding for the border wall is a tactic or a tantrum.

Posted: Dec 31, 2018 4:11 AM
Updated: Dec 31, 2018 4:28 AM

Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the President of the United States, modeled on the President's Daily Briefing, or PDB, which the director of national intelligence prepares for the President almost daily.

Here's this week's briefing:

With the government shutdown and debates over border security funding rolling into the new year, the Trump administration's proposed solutions to end the impasse -- including cutting off foreign assistance to Central American countries and closing the southern border -- could pose a great risk to the United States. In fact, if these solutions are enacted, illegal immigration flows would likely increase, while the costs to American citizens would, too.

Working with security professionals to identify the most efficient ways to secure the southern border, we assess that following through on presidential policy promises -- even those made via tweets -- would do a disservice to the country.

Invest wisely

A wall won't stem illegal immigration -- even outgoing Chief of Staff John Kelly agrees with this -- but investing US dollars wisely can. Even without a government shutdown, national security resources are finite. But, as the national security team reassembles in 2019 and reviews how and where to use its assets, one of the best investments it can make is spending more, not less, on US foreign assistance to Central America.

Your tweets threatening to cut off aid to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala -- the origin countries of an increasing number of undocumented immigrants -- has likely been met with both skepticism and fear, including from members of your own cabinet. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence have touted ongoing foreign assistance to Central America, including to the Northern Triangle countries, as key to addressing illegal immigration.

After all, the State Department's foreign assistance programs in Central America are about protecting "American citizens by addressing the security, governance, and economic drivers of illegal immigration and illicit trafficking." In fact, according to this State Department's analysis, we assess that cutting off funding would make American citizens less safe.

Desperation forces many Central American migrants to flee their homes and make the dangerous journey toward our southern border. Nearly 30% of Hondurans live in poverty, half of all children under 5 in Guatemala are chronically malnourished and El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world.

These are endemic problems that need long-term solutions. Border wall Band Aids will not reduce these root drivers of illegal immigration, but US foreign assistance is trying to.

The American dollars that are currently spent on counter-narcotics programs in Guatemala, local governance in Honduras or crime and violence prevention in El Salvador aren't just about helping Guatemalans, Honduran or El Salvadorans in need. They ultimately help the US because they can help create conditions such that citizens of these countries don't feel the need to leave. US foreign assistance can directly decrease illegal immigration if it helps improve conditions in the Northern Triangle.

Concurrently, they also help decrease criminal activity that travels north to our border. American funding has supported efforts to counter gangs like MS-13 throughout the region and to stop illegal drugs from entering the US.

And, despite your statement that these countries do nothing to help us combat illegal immigration, members of your team disagree. Through foreign assistance and ongoing relationships, these countries have helped us counter illegal immigration and gang violence -- Pence, in fact, publicly thanked them for their efforts earlier this year.

By directing foreign assistance to Northern Triangle countries, we aren't throwing money away. We are making an investment that curbs the flow of illegal immigration and criminal activity from Central America.

Secure, don't close, the southern border

It is unclear what legal authority -- or resources -- the administration could use to close the southern border. If this fantasy became a reality, it would have seriously adverse consequences for Americans.

1.5 million American citizens live in Mexico, and many cross the southern border every day. Any border shutdown would restrict their ability to go to work, attend school, access medical care -- and more.

Moreover, areas near the border depend on legal laborers that cross the border every day. If it closes, and they lose key members of their workforce, American businesses may have to shut down or hire more expensive or less qualified personnel.

Plus, NAFTA, which is still in effect (Congress has not yet approved its successor, the US Mexico Canada Free Trade Agreement), restricts the President's ability to cut off trade with Mexico unless there's a national security reason for doing so. Trying to argue that mostly unarmed men, women and children fleeing the Northern Triangle pose such a dire national security threat would be a hard sell to Mexico City (and likely to many others).

And shutting down the border would be expensive for the US economy. It could cost us millions of dollars in commerce each day. US soybean exports to China suffered this year as part of the US-China trade war. But Mexico is the second-largest export market for US soybeans. Shutting down the border would directly hit soybean farmers again, when they've already suffered losses this year.

Plus, if the border shuts down, manufacturers who import key parts for their products from Mexico would be hit hard, including automobile manufacturers who have benefited from an integrated supply chain with Mexico. Car prices could increase in the US along with costs for other goods that depend on incorporating parts from Mexico.

Other products that we import from Mexico, including fruits and vegetables that American consumers depend on, could also get more expensive as stores are forced to buy them from more costly sources.

Any way you cut it, closing the border would cost Americans a lot. A secure border, however, would continue to provide Americans with myriad benefits in the new year.

Devoting time and attention to applying technology, intelligence, construction and law enforcement resources to identifying and mitigating exploitable entry points should be the President's leading New Year's resolution.

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