By Brian Bennett and Noah Bierman
President Trump saw just what he wanted to see on his first visit to California as president on Tuesday -- physical evidence of the "big, beautiful wall" separating the United States and Mexico that was the central promise of his campaign -- yet steered clear of the resistance to his presidency that has come to define the state.
Standing amid cement-and-steel prototypes at the Mexican border, Trump had harsh words for the state's Democratic officeholders who oppose the wall as well as his other anti-immigration policies. Protesters, including deported veterans on the Tijuana side, were kept mostly out of sight.
The president accused Gov. Jerry Brown of "doing a terrible job running the state," said residents would begin fleeing California to avoid its high taxes, vowed to beat the state in court and in Congress over its so-called immigrant sanctuary laws and insisted that he would build a new, bigger wall.
"For the people that say, 'No wall,' if you didn't have walls over here, you wouldn't even have a country," Trump said, in a variation of one of his favorite lines.
"The border wall is truly our first line of defense."
The president's overnight trip to California, coming later in his term than for any White House occupant since Franklin D. Roosevelt, was brief in duration but long on symbolism as Trump personally confronted the blue state he has clashed with most.
The president did not mix with ordinary residents, let alone the many protesters at his San Diego and Los Angeles stops. He spoke to senior Border Patrol officials while inspecting the wall prototypes for about an hour, addressed service members at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and, finally, mingled with deep-pocketed donors at a $5-million campaign fundraiser in the Beverly Park home of Edward Glazer, co-chairman of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The attention Trump wanted to bring to his signature immigration issue was overshadowed, as often happens with administration initiatives, by the president's own actions -- in this case a new round of chaos within his leadership team after the abrupt firing Tuesday of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Trump called Tillerson as Air Force One was flying to California, hours after firing his secretary in a morning tweet.
Trump appeared to relish his visit to the border wall prototypes, pointing eagerly to charts and graphics shown to him. "I'm a builder; what I do best is build," he later told the troops at Miramar.
He spoke with border agents about his preference for "see-through" walls, talked about the ugly aesthetics of current barriers and insisted the new versions would block smugglers who have the skills of "professional mountain climbers."
"The ones that work the best aren't necessarily the most expensive," he said approvingly.
The president has yet to secure from Congress the $25 billion he seeks to build a wall, and it's not clear whether even that would be enough. One estimate put the cost as high as $100 billion. His campaign promise that Mexico would pay for the wall has been a nonstarter in that country.
On Tuesday, Trump introduced a new argument -- unsubstantiated and contrary to various studies -- asserting that his proposed wall would more than pay for itself.
"It will save thousands and thousands of lives, save taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars by reducing crime, drug flow, welfare fraud and burdens on schools and hospitals," he said. "The wall will save hundreds of billions of dollars -- many, many times what it's going to cost."
Yet several studies have shown that immigrants, both legal and illegal, provide benefits for the economy because many work and pay taxes. Many in the country illegally do not take advantage of government services for fear they will be discovered and deported. Fact checkers have agreed that illegal immigrants add some cost to taxpayers but have called Trump's claim that the cost exceeds $100 billion mostly false.
Trump also insisted again Tuesday that California political leaders actually want walls, despite what they say publicly in opposition. "The state of California is begging us to build walls in certain areas. They don't tell you that," he said.
That was hardly the only shot he took at state leaders and their policies, especially the "sanctuary" laws that are the subject of a new administration lawsuit.
He said the laws limiting local government cooperation with federal immigration enforcement officers are "the best friend of the criminal ... the smugglers, the traffickers, the gang members. They're all taking refuge."
Trump's comments came a day after the spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement's San Francisco office, James Schwab, announced he was resigning because of what he said were false claims by administration officials about the purported security threat from immigrants in the country illegally. Schwab said officials inflated the number of suspected criminals that they said eluded capture in recent California raids because of warnings from Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, whom Trump lambasted again in San Diego.
The president singled out Schaaf for criticism, as he has in recent days, but he reserved special criticism for Brown, even as he called him a "nice guy."
"Gov. Brown does a very poor job running California," Trump said. "They have the highest taxes in the United States. The place is totally out of control. You have sanctuary cities where you have criminals living."
Noting that he owns property in the state, Trump said, "The taxes are way, way out of whack, and people are going to start to move pretty soon."
Brown tweeted in response to Trump's Twitter account: "Thanks for the shout-out, @realDonaldTrump. But bridges are still better than walls. And California remains the 6th largest economy in the world and the most prosperous state in America. #Facts."
Trump's visit brought him to the home turf of the resistance movement against his presidency. Immigrant, labor and LGBTQ rights activists planned protests in multiple cities. A few dozen were near the wall site when he arrived, one holding a sign saying, "No Wall, No Hate, No Trump."
Protesters included some deported veterans of U.S. military service, who shouted from the Mexican side of the border, out of Trump's sight.
"We just want a few minutes with the president. He's our commander-in-chief," said Hector Lopez, a former resident of Madera who said he served six years in the U.S. Army Reserve. Lopez said the veterans want Trump to give them legal status to return to the United States.
Many Republican candidates kept their distance from Trump on Tuesday, given his low popularity in the state.
Rep. Darrell Issa, the Vista Republican who is not seeking reelection, was an exception. Greeting Trump at the Marine base, he gave the president a green baseball cap that said, "Make the Hornet Great Again," a reference to the F/A-18 aircraft of that name, one of which was parked nearby. Fellow GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter of Alpine joined Trump while he examined wall prototypes.
Democratic politicians in the state, meanwhile, issued denunciations of Trump. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a front-runner in the governor's race, released an online animated video caricaturing the president and his immigration policies. One image showed Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan reimagined as "Make America White Again."
"It's official: Donald Trump finally worked up the nerve to visit California, bringing his fear-of-everything agenda with him," Newsom said in a voiceover. "Let's get real. Donald Trump's border wall is a monument to idiocy. A 1,900-mile waste of taxpayer money that -- news flash -- is impossible to complete."
The political action committee for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is considering a run for president, ran ads coinciding with Trump's arrival. In a fundraising email, Garcetti wrote, "There's one thing you need to know: California Republicans and Donald Trump are like peas in a pod."
Trump will leave California on Wednesday for events in St. Louis before returning to Washington.
As a candidate, Trump boasted that he could become the first GOP presidential hopeful to win California in nearly three decades. He wound up losing to Hillary Clinton in the state by 4.3 million votes, leading to a loss in the nationwide popular vote that Trump often laments. In California, just 22% of voters approved of the job he was doing as president in a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll in November; 66% disapproved.
In a state so large, that still leaves millions of people eager to see the president clash with Democrats, who control all the levers of political power.
One Trump supporter held up a sign visible from the presidential motorcade: "Keep calm and build the wall."
Times staff writers Seema Mehta in Los Angeles and John Myers in Sacramento contributed to this report.
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