WASHINGTON — President Trump told aides last year that he wanted US forces with bayonets to block people from crossing into the United States over the Mexico border, one of several proposals he floated at moments of peak frustration with his inability to contain a migration surge, according to current and former administration officials involved in those discussions.
Trump also suggested excavating a border trench, or moat, that could be stocked with dangerous reptiles, the officials said, adding that such ideas, along with the bayonets, were not taken especially seriously by White House aides.
The New York Times reported Tuesday on Trump’s proposal for a moat filled with snakes and alligators, along with his suggestion that US forces could open fire on migrants as they attempted to enter the country, potentially shooting at their legs to wound but not kill them.
The president denied those claims in a tweet Wednesday. ‘‘Now the press is trying to sell the fact that I wanted a Moat stuffed with alligators and snakes, with an electrified fence and sharp spikes on top, at our Southern Border,’’ he wrote. ‘‘I may be tough on Border Security, but not that tough. The press has gone Crazy. Fake News!’’
The Washington Post independently confirmed that the president did, in fact, say those things during border security meetings, including at moments when he demanded the wholesale closure of the Mexico border and appeared prepared to enforce the decree with violence.
Deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley declined to comment on the president’s suggestions, alleging that ‘‘there have been so many wild, inaccurate, and offensive fake news characterizations’’ surrounding his desires. Gidley said Trump has made clear that he wants to secure the border; Trump made immigration and border security a central issue of his first presidential campaign and of his tenure in the White House.
The idea for bayonets surfaced about the time the president began sending soldiers to the border last year, according one of the officials involved in the discussions. The official, like others in this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about internal discussions.
The defense secretary at the time, Jim Mattis, did not want US soldiers to interact with migrants, and he did not want them to be armed. The deployment fell short of providing Trump with the kind of intimidating show of force he was seeking.
Staffers advised the president it would be illegal to use bayonets against migrant families and warned that deploying such weapons would trigger a backlash. The officials said it was not clear whether Trump sought to have US soldiers wield the bayonets, or if border agents would carry them. The idea went nowhere.
‘‘Trump would be throwing extremes at the wall when he was frustrated,’’ said one former official, who, like others, characterized some of Trump’s suggestions as fanciful musings that aides did not interpret as serious directives.
The United States has a natural waterway along nearly two-thirds of the US-Mexico border — the Rio Grande — and its lower section is a habitat for alligators, as well as venomous snakes. The river, in places murky and with a deceptively strong current, has proven deadly to some migrants who have tried to wade, swim or boat across it to Texas.
Aides who participated in the meetings or who were later briefed said Homeland Security staffers and White House aides typically divided the president’s proposals into two categories. Those considered the most extreme — alligators and gunfire — were not acted upon, but other proposals were taken more seriously or implemented, including Trump’s request to paint the border barrier black and top it with sharpened spikes that could inflict injury. Trump has boasted that the black paint absorbs heat from the desert sun and makes the barrier hot to touch.
Soldiers were ordered to paint a one-mile span of border fencing in California’s Imperial Valley this summer, coating the steel with a specific shade of black the president favored, at a cost of $1 million. More recently, Trump has spoken favorably of the ‘‘anti-climb’’ steel panels that are fixed at the top of the barrier’s newest spans, which he said can be defeated only by ‘‘world-class mountain climbers.’’
After Trump took office, arrests along the border fell to their lowest levels in more than 50 years, but migration levels began rising again soon after. The arrival of several large caravan groups during 2018 deepened the president’s frustration, and an unprecedented number of Central American families crossed the border, many of them surrendering to authorities to seek humanitarian protection.
The president wanted US forces — soldiers or border agents — to form a human wall at bridges and official ports of entry. ‘‘The thing that was explained to him was that even if they set one pinkie toe on US soil, they will get all the rights and protections of a US citizen who has been here 100 years,’’ the official said.
Although Trump’s proposal to use live fire was dismissed, the idea appears to have stuck with him, and he has argued that police have the right to fire when criminals attempt to flee from arrest. During a May rally in Florida, he told supporters that US agents were not allowed to use their weapons against migrants, drawing a cry of ‘‘Shoot them!’’ from someone in the crowd.
‘‘That’s only in the Panhandle you can get away with that statement,’’ he said.