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Scott Brinton

Trump’s border wall math doesn’t add up


At least the federal government’s Santa tracker remained after a partial government shutdown last week, forced by President Trump’s stubborn insistence that Congress allocate $5 billion in funding for his wall to separate the United States and Mexico.

Apparently, the service, run by the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado, was deemed essential, because it was not among those that were cut when the government, in part, closed. Or maybe Canada paid the bill, given that NORAD is a joint U.S.-Canada project to protect North American airspace from foreign invasion.

No matter. The shutdown, which as of this posting on Friday was entering Day 14, forced 800,000 — 800,000 — government workers in the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, State, Transportation and Treasury either to be furloughed or to work without pay.

And, at this writing, there was no end in sight. Congressional representatives warned that the shutdown could be a really long one. I certainly hope that it won't be, for the sake of all those workers. But Trump is Trump. He doesn’t understand what it means to go without a paycheck even for a short time — the anxiety, or worse, that such a predicament might cause.

And for what? His border wall? Please.

Five billion dollars would fund but a fraction of the wall. The best-case-scenario estimate to construct it is $13 billion. That comes from Trump himself, so at most $5 billion would pay for a little more than a third of it.

Paul Ryan, the outgoing speaker of the House, estimates that the wall would cost $15 billion. And it gets worse: Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security has said it would cost $21.5 billion, and The Washington Post has reported that, according to its sources, the wall would run $25 billion, meaning that $5 billion would get us precisely a fifth of it.

And then there are the Senate Democrats, who believe the cost could run as high as $70 billion, in which case $5 billion would be enough to build 7 percent of it. Yes, 7 percent.

What Trump has failed to mention in recent rallies and tweets is that he isn’t proposing to build the wall across the entirety of the 1,900-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border, as he suggested (or at least appeared to suggest) during his 2016 presidential campaign.

Once he got into office, his plan changed. Suddenly he proposed 700 to 900 miles of 30-foot-tall border wall — slatted fence, more likely — to add to the roughly 650 miles of fencing that already exists. So, what Trump is actually proposing is a wall — no, sorry, a see-through fence — that, when combined with what’s already there, would cover only 70 to 80 percent of the U.S.-Mexico border. That is, he would leave a series of holes ranging, in total, from 380 to 570 miles wide. For perspective, the distance across New York state is 330 miles.

What happened to the “big, beautiful wall with a big, beautiful door” that he went on and on about during the campaign?

“It’s a 2,000-mile border, but you don’t need 2,000 miles of wall because you have a lot of natural barriers,” Trump said aboard Air Force One on his way to Paris in July 2017, according PBS’s “NewsHour.” “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, why build a wall across the whole border? Trump’s new logic goes.

Yes, that’s right: Refugees from Mexico, Central America and South America, fleeing certain death at the hands of narco-gangs and cartels, would arrive at a tall mountain or a fast-moving river and think, “You know, President Trump was right. This mountain is too high and too steep. This river is too swift. Better turn back now, on the final leg of my thousand-mile, death-defying journey, for which I paid thousands of dollars saved over the course of years, and go back to where I came from. And, oh, I could try to cross over there, but that slatted fence just can’t be climbed because, you know, there are no ropes or ladders in all of Mexico.”

So, to summarize: Donald J. Trump shut down a sizable segment of the federal government — causing national anxiety to rise exponentially and the stock market to swing wildly — in an attempt to force Congress to fund a fraction of a wall that wouldn’t really be a wall, but a fence full of gaping holes.

And, by the way, wasn’t Mexico supposed to pay for the wall, I mean, fence?

Call all of this what you will: Trump’s folly, Trump’s big temper tantrum, the madness of King Donald. To me it’s just sad, very sad.

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.