McALLEN, Texas — When a president comes to town there are two realities, the one the White House hopes to create and the one that actually exists.
President Donald Trump arrived in this city on the Mexican border on Thursday to dramatize his desire for a border wall, a hardened position that has caused the partial shutdown of the federal government.
He surrounded himself with border agents, victims of horrible crimes, a display of methamphetamine and heroin, an AK-47 and an AR-15 rifle, and a trash bag stuffed with $362,062 in cash that had been confiscated by law enforcement officials.
In his view, it all added up to a single word, “crisis,” with a lone solution, building a wall — a point he emphasized in a discussion with the crime victims, law enforcement officers and McAllen residents.
“That says it all,” Trump said of the contraband. “They didn’t have to go very far. This is all very recent.”
But there was another reality. The display of drugs, weapons and cash was mainly the product of law enforcement actions stopping criminals at international bridges, where most drugs are smuggled, and conventional ports of entry.
In a place where a wall is already in place, law enforcement officials boasted of apprehending criminals who had built a tunnel. The money was taken from a suspect who had overstayed a visa.
In a meeting Tuesday with network anchors before his prime-time address to the nation, Trump dismissed the trip to McAllen as a waste of time, a mere photo op. But he gamely went forward after arriving here early Thursday afternoon.
A few miles south of McAllen, he stood near a bluff above the Rio Grande, with Mexico in the near distance. There were more border agents, an array of military vehicles and a helicopter flyover for effect with agents saluting the commander in chief. Fox host Sean Hannity stood nearby, waiting for an exclusive interview.
Hundreds of people lined a nearby highway, many waving signs backing Trump. The border agents who assembled for the meeting also gave him hearty cheers. One supporter was Joe Cantu, a former police chief from a nearby town wearing a Make America Great Again baseball cap and T-shirt.
“They’re coming over in Banzai waves,” Cantu said of immigrants crossing into Texas.
Other signs told a different story. They said “No Wall, No Hate,” “We Are All Immigrants” and “Our Only Crisis Is Trump’s Failing Presidency.”
On the route from the meeting to the photo op along the Rio Grande, the president’s motorcade also passed numerous product distribution centers, large, low-slung buildings that employ hundreds of people. Those businesses are a product of NAFTA, the commercial agreement with Mexico and Canada that Trump has labeled the worst of all time but that has transformed South Texas over the last two decades.
The McAllen area is heavily Democratic, and the local congressman opposes the wall, as do many local officials. Still, the scene was a draw.
“I just wanted to get a picture,” said Veronica Whitacre, a local city commissioner and McAllen native. “It’s sad for South Texas that people believe we live in a dangerous place. When I go places, people ask where I am from and I say McAllen. And people say, ‘Are you OK?'”
The city is certainly OK when it comes to crime, which is near a 30-year low. The president did not talk about that. “You’ll have crime in Iowa, you’ll have crime in New Hampshire, you’ll have crime in New York without a wall,” Trump said.
Trump did not discuss the significant increase in cases of children being separated from their families as a result of his hard-line immigration policies. He spoke only a few blocks from a detention center but did not go in. When asked by a reporter if he would visit it, the president said he would like to, but it would be up to the Secret Service. He did not go.
He also criticized Democrats who have accused him of trying to manufacture a crisis to justify his $5.7 billion border barrier demand. “What’s manufactured is the word manufactured,” the president said.
Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary who accompanied Trump to Texas, reiterated the administration’s position that what is happening along the border is a crisis.
Those who claim it was manufactured, she said, “insulted” Americans. To that, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who joined the president and his entourage, added, “When we see politicians go on TV and say the border’s secure and there is no crisis, they are ignoring reality.”
Not to be outdone, Dan Patrick, the Texas lieutenant governor, added, “To those who say this is a manufactured crisis, it’s a manufactured cover-up by your opposition.”
Democrats have insisted the administration faces a large-scale humanitarian problem that is a direct result of Trump’s policy but argue that a border wall is not the right solution and that Trump has failed to make the case there is a true security crisis.
A local pastor sympathetic to the president emphasized during a round-table discussion that the crisis was “humanitarian” in nature.
Still, Trump said he had a “feel about things” and could sense Democrats moving toward his position.
“I know you don’t see it yet, but I have a feel about things, and I really believe the other side is starting to get it.”
Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas, whose district includes McAllen, was in Washington while the president visited his hometown. But he closely monitored Trump’s trip.
“It’s all theatrics,” Gonzalez said in an interview, before insisting that Trump was somehow trying to escape the government shutdown with a victory.
Gonzalez added: “He’s trying to land the plane, and I think he knows time is not on his side. So he came down to the border to try to make a final case.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.