By Ken Stone
One reporter asked: “Would you respond to those critics who say that the ad you had against [Democratic rival Ammar] Campa-Najjar was racist?”
Another: “Is this just a sideshow to deflect from the indictment?”
And also: “The rhetoric in this country is very charged right now. Is there anything you can do or say to kind of bring Americans back together? There’s people getting hurt out there.”Rep. Duncan Hunter, standing on a gravelly Otay Mesa bluff overlooking the U.S.-Mexico border, fielded and fended off tough questions Thursday.
The East County Republican, in a hastily called noon press conference five days ahead of the election, announced he was sending a letter to President Trump.
He said it called for the use of military units to build a “high-speed foundational road” along the border as a way of “jump-starting” the still-unfunded border wall.
But Hunter — who rarely meets the media outside conservative confines — was pressed on a variety of pent-up issues.
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Did he agree with Trump’s zero-tolerance policy that led to family separations at the border?
What about Trump’s plan to sign an executive order ending “birthright citizenship” — the 14th amendment guarantee that anyone born in the United States (save kids of foreign diplomats) is a U.S. citizen?
Hunter generally backed the president — whom he likes to say he endorsed first in Congress.
But he also sought to avoid questions about violating House rules against campaigning while using “official resources” of the government.
“I’m here for official purposes. This is an official letter from me as a congressman. It’s not a campaign ploy or stunt,” he said while standing next to two other GOP candidates running for Congress — Diane Harkey in the 49th and Juan Hidalgo Jr. in the 51st, where the event was held.
Only a few feet away, a young Hidalgo aide drooped an American flag for a backdrop, while another displayed a “Juan Hidalgo for Congress” sign.
In a tightening race for a sixth term, the 50th District rep argued that America could save “tens of billions of dollars on equipment and man-hours” if military engineers being dispatched to the border to intercept a Central American caravan could start building a road between the primary and secondary border fences.
Trump is already sending nine engineering units with the first 5,000 troops headed to the border, Hunter said.
“If that number goes up to 15,000 troops, we might have 15 or 20 engineering units,” he said. “With about 10 people and six vehicles, they can build about a quarter-mile of foundational border road, which you see behind me.”
He added: “Behind us you have Smuggler’s Gulch.”
(“Actually, it’s not,” Chris Harris, a Border Patrol agent and frequent Republican tour guide, later said. “I think the congressman misspoke.”)
The half-hour media event was held at Arnie’s Point, named for an agent shot in the buttocks.
Hunter ally Harris, who backed the road-building idea, also is a local union official married to a Mexican woman whose parents crossed the border illegally, according to a recent profile.
But Hunter plowed on.
He said troops already doing “make-work” projects as training for Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria roadwork could just as easily do it on the border.
Asked about the Central Americans slowly making their way north to seek U.S. asylum, Hunter called it “an army of migrants bearing down on the U.S. from multiple countries.”
Asked to expand on the army claim, Hunter said: “You now have multiple caravans of mostly military age males coming in. You don’t know who is there.”
Four years ago this month, Hunter told Fox News that “I know that at least 10 ISIS fighters have been caught coming across the Mexican border in Texas.” Politifact rated the claim “Pants on Fire” ridiculous.
This time, Hunter was more circumspect.
“Just because you can’t prove that there’s a terrorist organization infiltrated in these [caravan] units, doesn’t mean you can disprove that either,” he said.
Later asked if this was “continued fear-mongering by your campaign?” Hunter replied: “No, this is not a campaign deal.”
Besides the border road, Hunter urged the president to have active-duty, reserve and engineering units build detention facilities on the border for asylum-seekers “so we don’t release one person that we’ve caught.”
(Citing an oft-used figure, he said 80 percent of asylum-seekers released into the U.S. interior never show up for their court hearings. However, Politifact found that 60 percent to 75 percent of nondetained migrants have attended their immigration court proceedings in recent years.)
“What this Congress needs to do is pass money or the president needs to declare this a national emergency,” he said. “Have these detention centers built using DOD money if that’s what he has to do.”
Hunter left after a half-hour, driven away by his local chief of staff Mike Harrison (in a silver Toyota Highlander bearing a “Congressman Duncan Hunter: Working for Us” bumper sticker).
But for another 15 minutes, Nick Singer of the Campa-Najjar campaign commanded media attention, offering reactions to what he’d heard.
A group supporting Campa-Najjar and Mike Levin for Congress issued a statement hours later, slamming opponents Hunter and Harkey for “this cynical ploy, on the eve of an election, by two candidates desperate to draw attention away from their collapsing campaigns.”
Independent Indivisible further said: “By aping Trump’s lies about asylum-seekers, Hunter and Harkey remind voters that they are true Trump acolytes who will blithely distort the facts for cheap political points.”
In closing remarks, however, Hunter insisted that his call for military road-builders was important because the president “has already directed troops. That is a done deal. It’s going to happen.”
The road, he said, is “where the border wall is going to sit on. That is something they can do right now.”
A reporter asked: “You’ve had 10 years to do this. Why now?”
Hunter replied: “President Obama was an open-border kind of guy.”
Another reporter asked: “What would you do to address domestic terrorism by far-right-wing extremists?”
“That’s baloney,” Hunter said. “That’s a dumb question.”
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