President Trump has personally and repeatedly urged the head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to award a border wall contract to a North Dakota construction firm whose top executive is a GOP donor and frequent guest on Fox News, according to four administration officials.

In phone calls, White House meetings and conversations aboard Air Force One during the past several months, Trump has aggressively pushed Dickinson, N.D.-based Fisher Industries to Department of Homeland Security leaders and Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the commanding general of the Army Corps, according to the administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The push for a specific company has alarmed military commanders and DHS officials.

Semonite was summoned to the White House again today, after the president’s aides told Pentagon officials — including Gen. Mark Milley, the commander of the U.S. Army — that the president wanted to discuss the border barrier.

According to an administration official with knowledge of the Oval Office meeting, Trump immediately brought up Fisher, a company that sued the U.S. government last month after the Army Corps did not accept its bid to install barriers along the southern border, a contract potentially worth billions of dollars.

Trump has latched on to the company’s public claims that a new weathered steel design and innovative construction method would vastly speed up the project — and deliver it at far less cost to taxpayers.

“The President is one of the country’s most successful builders and knows better than anyone how to negotiate the best deals,” said Sarah Sanders, White House press secretary. “He wants to make sure we get the job done under budget and ahead of schedule.”

Fisher’s CEO, Tommy Fisher, has gone on conservative television and radio, claiming that his company could build more than 200 miles of barrier in less than a year.

And he has courted Washington directly, meeting in congressional offices and inviting officials to the southwest desert to see barrier prototypes.

Even as Trump pushes for his firm, Fisher already has started building a section of fencing in Sunland Park, N.M.

We Build the Wall, a nonprofit organization that includes prominent conservatives who support Trump — its associates and advisory board include former White House adviser Steve Bannon, Blackwater USA founder Erik Prince, ex-congressman Tom Tancredo and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach — has guided an effort to build portions of the border barrier on private land with private funds.

The group teased a big reveal back in January, but it has yet to happen.

Fisher-branded equipment and workers were visible this week preparing the site outside El Paso, within feet of the International Boundary Monument No. 1, placed in 1855 at the beginning of the effort to delineate the Mexico border.

The stretch is the only area in the region without a barrier, mainly because it crosses rugged terrain.

Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, has joined in the campaign for Fisher, along with Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), an ardent promoter of the company and the recipient of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Fisher and his family members, according to campaign finance records.

Cramer, in an interview today, said the Trump administration has shown a great deal of interest in his constituent’s company.

“He always brings them up,” Cramer said, noting that he spoke with Trump about Fisher twice — once in February, and again on Thursday.

Each time, Trump said he wanted Fisher to build some of the barrier, Cramer said.

Cramer said Trump likes Fisher because he had seen him on television advocating for his version of the barrier: “He’s been very aggressive on TV,” Cramer said, of the CEO.

“You know who else watches Fox News?” Cramer said.

Trump’s repeated attempts to influence the Army Corps’s contracting decisions show the degree to which the president is willing to insert himself into what is normally a staid legal and regulatory process designed to protect the U.S. government from accusations of favoritism.

It also shows how a private company can appeal to the president using well-placed publicity and personal connections to his allies — and the president’s willingness to dive into the minutiae of specific projects.

But Trump’s personal intervention risks the perception of improper influence on decades-old procurement rules that require government agencies to seek competitive bids, free of political interference.

The Army Corps, with a reputation for rectitude, discipline and impartiality, is the designated contracting authority for the border barrier project, developing specifications, awarding contracts and ensuring legal and regulatory compliance.

Fisher has alleged improprieties with the border wall procurement process and sued the government on April 25.

Tommy Fisher has made repeat appearances in conservative media including Fox News, touting his plan and denouncing “bureaucracy” for holding back construction progress.

Army Corps of Engineers officials evaluated Fisher’s proposal and said they didn’t meet the requirements of the project — and that their proposal was cheaper because it wasn’t as high quality, or as sophisticated, in their view.

 

Attribution:The Washington Post
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