- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 20, 2021

Congress’ chief auditor sure knows how to rain on former President Donald Trump’s parade.

As Mr. Trump prepares to make his first post-presidency trip to the border next week, the Government Accountability Office has delivered a scorching report card on his border wall. It calculates that he completed only 69 miles of the wall system he promised Americans — not the more than 450 miles he claimed.

The GAO said the administration front-loaded construction of fence panels to meet Mr. Trump’s deadline, and that meant shortchanging the roads, lights and other technology for the highly touted “wall system.”

Although 458 miles of new fence panels were erected before Mr. Trump left office, just 69 miles had all of the components that the Border Patrol had planned.

“While the wall panels are typically the most costly part of border barrier construction, the full wall system remains incomplete,” the GAO said.

That appears to undercut Mr. Trump’s claims in recent months that the wall has been finished but for some “small remaining openings in areas of the almost 500-mile long wall.”

Mr. Trump’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article.

Ken Cuccinelli, who served as deputy secretary of homeland security in the Trump administration, said his department built what it could — and in a stunningly short amount of time. As of January 2020, the administration had just 100 miles. It erected nearly a mile a day over the rest of the year to reach the 450-mile mark.

“Roads and wall definitely came before lighting and technology; thus, you would expect wall building to be well ahead of tech and lighting, and it was,” Mr. Cuccinelli said.

Mr. Trump will visit the border on June 30 alongside Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who announced this month that his state would pony up at least $250 million toward wall construction after President Biden halted the project.

“We went from having border security that was the envy of the world to a lawless border that is now pitied around the world,” Mr. Trump said in announcing his visit.

The border wall was the signature promise of Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign, though the contours of his vision changed. His idea of a sea-to-sea concrete barrier became a 700- to 900-mile fence of steel bollards, which allow visibility but are relatively difficult to breach.

Mr. Trump’s vision of having Mexico pay for the wall also never materialized. Congress allocated about $5 billion to the Homeland Security Department for construction, and Mr. Trump tried to siphon about $10 billion more from Pentagon accounts.

Before he left office, Homeland Security and the Army Corps of Engineers planned to put up about 300 miles of barrier beyond the 458 already covered.

Unlike the fencing erected in the Clinton, Bush and Obama years, the Trump “wall system” included integrated technology, lighting, access roads and other accessories. Mark Morgan, a former head of Customs and Border Protection, called these components “the most important things the Border Patrol agents on the frontlines have asked for.”

“I say ‘wall system’ on purpose because the wall system is much more than a bunch of steel in the ground,” Mr. Morgan told reporters traveling with the president last year to visit a section of wall in Arizona.

That full system is where the Trump administration fell short, the GAO said.

The shortfall came in contracts using Defense Department funds that Mr. Trump grabbed by flexing emergency powers.

The GAO said that money was used to erect the fence panels along 346 miles of the border, but not a single mile is deemed “complete.”

The Army Corps of Engineers “met the goal of completing approximately 450 miles of border barriers, but most of these miles represented the installation of wall panels, rather than the completion of the entire wall systems,” the GAO audit concluded.

Auditors said the Army Corps changed its contracts to prioritize the panels, apparently to comply with Mr. Trump’s campaign pledge of 450 miles.

In one instance, the Army Corps set a January 2021 deadline for a contractor but then rewrote the schedule and added eight months. The change allowed the contractor to speed the erection of wall panels while delaying the electrical and technology work.

The GAO said the locations selected for wall construction were also driven by schedules rather than border security priorities.

The $5 billion in Homeland Security money, meanwhile, was used to construct 112 miles of panels, and 69 miles of those were deemed “complete” with the added roads and technology.

GAO auditors said most of the “wall system” work would have been finished by the end of September had Mr. Biden not stopped it on his first day in office.

Mr. Biden, who supported border fencing as a senator and who was part of the Obama administration, which built dozens of miles of fencing, vowed not to build another foot of wall on his watch.

The GAO, in a separate report this month, said a delay is legal but Mr. Biden must eventually spend the money Congress allocated for border wall construction.

The pause has created gaps in the wall. At a location in Texas, contractors had removed a gate from the old wall and were in the process of replacing it when they were ordered to drop their tools and walk away.

The gap has been filled with a chain-link fence similar to what many Americans have in their backyards, said former Rep. John Hostettler, an Indiana Republican who toured the region recently.

A sheriff pointed out that the temporary fence had been raised and a blanket laid underneath to make it easier for people to cross the border illegally.

Mr. Biden’s order halted the entire wall system, not just the barriers.

The administration told the GAO for a previous report that it does intend to spend the money on the wall, just at a more deliberate pace.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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