This article is co-published with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.
President Donald Trump complained via Twitter on Sunday that a privately constructed border wall in Texas was a bad idea and poorly done — not mentioning that his administration has awarded the builder a $1.7 billion contract to build more walls.
With the backing of Trump supporters, Tommy Fisher built a 3-mile border fence along the Rio Grande, calling it the “Lamborghini” of fences. But just months after completion of his showcase piece directly on the banks of the river, there are signs of erosion along and under the fence that threatens its stability and could cause it to topple into the river if not fixed, experts told ProPublica and The Texas Tribune.
“I disagreed with doing this very small (tiny) section of wall, in a tricky area, by a private group which raised money by ads. It was only done to make me look bad, and perhsps it now doesn’t even work. Should have been built like rest of Wall, 500 plus miles,” Trump tweeted with a typo in reaction to the news organizations’ report about the wall.
Trump’s tweet, however, is belied by actions his administration has taken to support the wall’s builder.
The administration gave Fisher the billion-dollar contract in May to build additional stretches of the wall in Arizona, despite a lawsuit around the South Texas project and an ongoing audit by the Pentagon’s inspector general of a previous border wall contract that is looking into possible “inappropriate influence.”
On Sunday, the congressman who called for the audit responded to the president’s tweet.
“The President isn’t telling the truth again. The Administration has awarded huge contracts to the same company, which is under Federal investigation, that built this fence,” Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., wrote in an email. “His Administration has also entertained outsourcing to private firms to get more mileage done before the election at the expense of proper oversight. There is no reason for construction to continue during a pandemic.”
The Army Corps of Engineers has said Fisher won the federal contract to build a segment of the border fence in Arizona because it was the lowest bid.
U.S. Attorney Ryan Patrick of the Southern District of Texas called the private wall a “vanity project’ and a “scam.”
His office sued Fisher Sand and Gravel, its subsidiaries, and We Build the Wall on behalf of the International Boundary and Water Commission, to stop it from building the fence until it submitted a detailed engineering study to determine its impact on the flow of the Rio Grande and nearby properties. The commission is a binational body that regulates development in the floodplain between the U.S. and Mexico to ensure boundary treaties aren’t violated.
“We already owned the land a few hundred yards from the river and it cut the peninsula instead of following the river,” Patrick tweeted Sunday. “We said it was too close to the water, erosion would be an issue, the location made no sense, etc. Now we risk the thing falling down in a big storm/flood.”
Six engineering and hydrology experts consulted by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune said that it was concerning to see the level of erosion around the fence so soon after construction and that it shouldn’t have been built so close to the river.
Just months after the wall went up, the experts said photos reveal a series of gashes and gullies at various points along the structure where rainwater runoff has scoured the sandy loam beneath the foundation.
Fisher disagreed with the experts, saying that it’s surface erosion where grass that was planted took longer to grow, but that it doesn’t compromise either the fence or the adjacent road. He said he hoped Trump could personally see what they’ve built.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Randy Crane instructed attorneys to work out details of the inspection and to come to an agreement about the remediation and fixes for a part of the fence that violates a treaty with Mexico by deflecting too much water during floods.
In total, Fisher has secured $1.7 billion in federal contracts since December. Soon after the 2016 election, Fisher became a frequent guest on Fox News and other conservative media, where he caught the attention of Trump. Last year, The Washington Post reported that the president “latch(ed) on” to Fisher’s claims of speed and quality and “aggressively pushed” for the firm in conversations with top Homeland Security officials.
Fisher was also aided by a close relationship with freshman U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., who advocated for the company with Trump and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Fisher and family members donated at least $24,000 during Cramer’s victorious 2018 election bid, according to campaign finance records.
Cramer declined to comment on the private wall project, but wrote, “Like President Trump, I want to see the wall built. It needs to be done quickly and done right.”
Fisher’s rise to border wall building came with the help of the conservative nonprofit We Build the Wall, which counts former Trump political strategist Steve Bannon as a board member.
On Sunday, Brian Kolfage, its founder and a decorated Iraq War veteran, countered Trump’s tweet.
“The private wall that @WeBuildtheWall built and funded is @DHSgov @CBP ENDORSED and APPROVED. Never forget it,” he tweeted, along with a video of Border Patrol leadership supporting its initiatives.
In a December video no longer online, Kolfage told Alicia Powe of Gateway Pundit, a far-right news and opinion website, that his group had a back channel to the administration via board member Bannon and general counsel and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who let Trump know what We Build the Wall is doing.
“We’ve gotten the support of the president first hand, we’ve had people to meet with the president who have informed him directly of what’s going on, and President Trump loves what we are doing,” he said.
“But he doesn’t come out and support much because we believe that the leftists will try to use it against him by saying ‘this private industry is doing more than he’s doing’ and things like that, they’ll try to spin it, so we believe that’s why he’s quiet about it up on the forefront but supports us in the back,” he added.
We Build the Wall has raised $25 million to help Trump achieve his campaign promise of 500 miles of border barriers before the end of the year; so far he’s built more than 200 miles, with much of the work replacing dilapidated and shorter fences. Initially, the idea was to give the funds to the federal government, but when that wasn’t legally possible, the group shifted its mission to helping the administration build the fence using private companies.
So far, it has worked on two fence projects, a half-mile stretch in New Mexico outside El Paso, completely funded by We Build the Wall and constructed by Fisher’s company, and in the Rio Grande Valley city of Mission. In Texas, We Build the Wall donated only $1.5 million, with Fisher putting in the rest of the $42 million project.
In this part of Texas, the government normally builds miles inland, on top of a levee system, in part because of flooding concerns. That has left swaths of farmland, cemeteries and even homes in a kind of no man’s land south of the fence.
Both Fisher and Kolfage have said they have hundreds of miles of riverfront property where they could build more fences like the one in South Texas.
The Department of Homeland Security recently signaled it was open to outsourcing border wall construction to private industry, a change Kolfage said was a direct result of the private wall projects, “proving the power of private enterprise.”
Out of 30 possible locations the government identified for potential private fence projects, 23 are in Texas.
Fisher said now that they see where the erosion is happening they will work to remediate it, either by adding what he called “more aggressive soil” to get the grass to grow or by adding drainage ditches. They budgeted between 1 and 2% of the project’s cost for maintenance, he said.
“This is our project until DHS says that ‘we want it.’ If not, we’ll maintain it for as long as I live because I think it’s the right way to build,” Fisher said Sunday. “To protect the Southern border you got to build the border fence on the border.”
Lexi Churchill contributed to this story.