Frustrated by slow action on a big campaign promise, President Donald Trump said Tuesday he wants to use the military to secure the U.S.-Mexico border until his promised border wall is built.
Trump told reporters he's been discussing the idea with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
"We're going to be doing things militarily. Until we can have a wall and proper security, we're going to be guarding our border with the military," Trump said, calling the move a "big step."
It was unclear exactly how the proposal would work or what kind of troops Trump wanted to deploy.
Trump touched on that issue and several other major policy points during a lunch with Baltic leaders at the White House and a subsequent news conference, including that he wants to bring U.S. troops home from Syria and that he thinks he can have a good relationship with Russia even though he's been tough on the country.
As for the border, federal law prohibits the use of active-duty service members for law enforcement inside the U.S., unless specifically authorized by Congress. But over the past 12 years, presidents have twice sent National Guard troops to the border to bolster security and assist with surveillance and other support. An official said the White House counsel's office has been working on the idea for several weeks.
Trump has been annoyed by the lack of progress on building what was the signature promise of his campaign: a "big, beautiful wall" along the Mexican border. He's previously suggested using the Pentagon's budget to pay for building the wall, arguing it is a national security priority, despite strict rules that prohibit spending that's not authorized by Congress.
The Department of Homeland Security and White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment. At the Pentagon, officials were struggling to answer questions about the plan, including rudimentary details on whether it would involve National Guard members.
But officials appeared to be considering a model similar to a 2006 operation in which President George W. Bush deployed National Guard troops to the southern border.
Under Operation Jump Start, 6,000 National Guard troops were sent to assist the border patrol with non-law enforcement duties while additional border agents were hired and trained. Over two years, about 29,000 National Guard forces participated, as forces rotated in and out. The Guard members were used for surveillance, communications, administrative support, intelligence, analysis and the installation of border security infrastructure.
In addition, President Barack Obama sent about 1,200 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in 2010 to beef up efforts to battle drug smuggling and illegal immigration.
Texas has also deployed military forces to its 800-mile (1,290-kilometer) border with Mexico. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, now serving as Trump's energy secretary, sent 1,000 Texas National Guardsmen to the Rio Grande Valley in 2014 in response to a sharp increase in Central American children crossing the border alone.
White House officials were scheduled to meet Tuesday with Homeland Security personnel and attorneys to discuss further details, according to a White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal plans. The person also revealed the White House counsel's role.
Trump's latest comments came a day after administration officials announced they were crafting a new legislative package aimed at closing what they say are immigration "loopholes" and amid a flurry of tweets by the president on the subject over the last several days.
Trump has been fixed on the issue since he grudgingly signed a spending bill last month that includes far less money for the wall than he'd hoped for.
The $1.3 trillion package included $1.6 billion for border wall spending — a fraction of the $25 billion Trump made a last-minute push to secure. And much of that money can be used only to repair existing segments, not to build new sections. Trump has also been under pressure from conservative backers, including commentator Ann Coulter, who has accused Trump of betraying his base and "taking his voters for a ride."
Trump spent the first months of his presidency bragging about a dramatic drop in illegal border crossings, and indeed the 2017 fiscal year marked a 45-year low for Border Patrol arrests. But the numbers have been slowly ticking up since last April and are now on par with many months of the Obama administration. Statistics show 36,695 arrests of people trying to cross the southwest border in February 2018, up from 23,555 in the same month of the previous year.
Trump appeared to take credit Tuesday for halting a caravan of about 1,100 migrants, many from Honduras, who had been marching along roadsides and train tracks in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.
"I said (to Mexican officials), 'I hope you're going to tell that caravan not to get up to the border.' And I think they're doing that because, as of 12 minutes ago, it was all being broken up," he said.
But the caravan of largely Central American migrants had never intended to reach the U.S. border, according to organizer Irineo Mujica. It was meant to end at a migrants' rights symposium in central Mexico later this week.
The caravan stopped to camp at a sports field in Oaxaca over the weekend. Mexican immigration officers have been signing them up for temporary transit visas, which would allow them to travel to the U.S. border, possibly to seek asylum, or to seek asylum status in Mexico.
Trump made the comment about the border as he spoke to reporters during his multilateral meeting with the presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, a day after the White House dangled the prospect of extending a similar welcome to Russia's Vladimir Putin. The Baltic states are seen as a bulwark against Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.
Britain recently blamed Russia for the nerve-agent poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil. Trump joined Britain in expelling scores of Russian diplomats in response.
The Baltic leaders and Trump were expected to discuss security, business, trade and energy issues during a visit that also highlights 100 years of Baltic independence.
"I have great respect for the Baltic states," Trump told reporters during the meeting.
But he also noted that it would be good to get along with Russia while claiming "probably nobody's been tougher to Russia than Donald Trump." He said that, because he's insisted that NATO member states pay their full dues, the organization has collected billions more than if Hillary Clinton was president
Trump was also asked about the U.S. presence in Syria, where an American service member was killed last week in an explosion as a U.S.-led coalition tries to eradicate ISIS.
"I want to get out, I want to bring our troops back home, I want to start rebuilding our nation," Trump said, noting that the U.S. has spent $7 trillion in the Middle East 17 years.
"We get nothing, nothing except death and destruction. It's a horrible thing," he added.
Still, he said the decision, coming in the near future, would be made in conjunction with allies. He said Saudi Arabia is "very interested" in the decision.
Additionally, Trump continued his attacks on Amazon, which he claims is fleecing the Post Office in shipping costs.
And he offered reserved support for his embattled Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, is under fire for leasing a Washington condo from the wife of a lobbyist at what appears to be a below-market rate.
Asked if he supports Pruitt, Trump said, "I hope he's going to be great."