EL PASO, Texas ― Thousands are expected to turn out Monday night to protest President Donald Trump’s demands for a border wall and his insistence that this overwhelmingly Democratic city is the best place to make the case for it.
The protests set up a clash between Trump and a potential opponent in 2020: Democrat Beto O’Rourke, a born-and-raised El Pasoan who is speaking at the protest set up as counter-programming to the president’s Monday evening rally in the city.
O’Rourke insisted Monday that his appearance at the protest wasn’t a personal challenge to Trump and instead was meant to be in support of the more than 50 community groups that organized the march.
“I think he’s here in an effort to use this community as a prop to make his case for the border wall,” O’Rourke told reporters on a call.
The competing protest clearly got the president’s attention.
“We have a line that is very long already,” Trump said before leaving Washington for El Paso. “I mean, you see what’s going on. And I understand our competitor has got a line too, but it’s a tiny, little line. Of course, they’ll make it sound like they had more people than we do. That’s not going to happen.”
It is rare for Trump to hold rallies in solidly Democratic territory. Some 74 percent of voters in El Paso County cast ballots for O’Rourke in a midterm election that saw a surge of turnout.
O’Rourke’s bid to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz ended in defeat but dramatically altered Texas politics by spurring a surge in turnout along the border and narrowing the Republican margin of victory in a key statewide race to less than 3 percentage points. His ability to get new voters to the polls and out-fundraise his opponent without accepting PAC money stoked enthusiasm for a presidential run even before the U.S. Senate race ended. He recently said he would make a decision on a presidential bid later this month.
But, save a few public appearances, he remained largely out of the spotlight until Trump cast his sights on El Paso.
Trump cited El Paso in his State of the Union speech last week as evidence of the need for border wall funding, inaccurately claiming that the city was among the country’s most violent until the federal government began fencing it off from its Mexican neighbor of Ciudad Juárez. (In fact, the city’s decrease in violent crime predated the wall.)
Trump is expected to make further exaggerations on Monday evening in hopes of winning support for $5.7 billion to begin building a border wall. His impasse with Congress over the funding led to the recent 35-day partial government shutdown.
O’Rourke, El Paso officials and community leaders will try to present the city as they know it.
“I’m going to follow the community’s lead…. Nothing less and nothing more,” O’Rourke said.
This article has been updated with additional remarks from President Trump.