Sean Spicer clashes with press over definition of a wall

David Smith in Washington

When is a wall not a wall? When it’s a fence.

That was the question on many minds on Wednesday when Sean Spicer, the accident-prone White House press secretary, gave a presentation on border security with the aid of TV screens.

“This is what exists right now throughout our country,” he declared, gesturing towards four images of ageing, flimsy defences. “You see a place where cars can literally create little things and drive over. You’ve got places that can get burrowed under. That one they’ve created. That one doesn’t seem to be effective at keeping people in it.”

These sorry images represented the country’s current border security, he said, adding that every time someone broke through, it cost just under $1,000 to fix. “Now to the next slide,” he said, teasing a reporter: “You had no idea you were getting this, did you?”

The spending bill agreed by Congress until the end of September would allocate an additional $497.4m for procurement, construction and improvements, of which $341.2m is to replace about 40 miles of “border fencing” along the southwest border.

Spicer said: “We have a porous border right now with broken fences, things that can be cut through, places that can just literally be driven over. And to replace this with a 20ft high bollard wall will protect our country, something that the DHS [Department of Homeland Security] has designated the most effective way to do this. So that’s what we got out of this bill.”

But, a journalist wondered, did the new set of photos on display show walls or fences? The construction of a wall on the Mexican border was a constant theme of Trump’s divisive election campaign. But the images in the White House briefing room displayed a steel barrier with vertical bars through which daylight was visible.

Turning defensive, Spicer pointed and said: “That is called a bollard wall. That is called a levee wall. There are various types of wall that can be built, under the legislation that was just passed.”

There was some more agitated back and forth with the press. Under the spending bill, Spicer promised, a chain link fence visible in the photos would be replaced with a bollard wall. Another journalist interjected: “It’s not the wall the president promised.”

Spicer insisted: “What I’m telling anybody is that the president said he was going to build the wall and he’s doing it, and he’s using the best technology.”

Trump’s eventual vision of the wall remains uncertain. The White House budget director, Mick Mulvaney, added to the confusion on Tuesday by pointing to images of the bollard wall and claiming: “This is the wall, by the way, that DHS said they wanted. I saw in the Oval Office with the president. We’ve talked about bricks and mortar. We’ve talked about concrete walls. This is what DHS wants. Why? Because it actually works better.”

Last week, addressing the National Rifle Association in Atlanta, the president acknowledged that the wall would not run continuously along the entire border, for example where there are rivers. He will be able to try again for funding for a different type of border wall in September, but there is a risk that opposition from Democrats could lead to a government shutdown.

The debate over definitions prompted mockery on Twitter. Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal TV show tweeted: “‘For my science project, I’ll explain the difference between a fence and a wall. What? Yes, I understood the assignment.’ #wallsplaining”.

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