Updated at 4 p.m. ET
President Trump says he wants to use military troops to help secure the U.S. border with Mexico. He made the suggestion Tuesday during a White House summit meeting with Baltic leaders.
Trump also renewed his call for a quick withdrawal of U.S. forces in Syria. And he expressed support for embattled EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
Since the weekend, Trump has been tweeting about a caravan of Central Americans, most of them from Honduras, who are making their way north through Mexico.
“Until we can have a wall and proper security, we’re going to be guarding our border with the military,” Trump said. “That’s a big step.”
While the U.S. has deployed National Guard troops to the border in the past, Trump’s suggestion seemed to catch Pentagon planners by surprise.
“We have a meeting on it in a little while with General Mattis and everybody,” Trump said. “I think it’s something we have to do.”
Border apprehensions, which are a proxy for illegal border crossings, declined sharply during Trump’s first months in office. Apprehensions bottomed out last April and have been slowly climbing in the months since. In the five months ending in February, apprehensions of unaccompanied minors were down 36 percent from the same period a year earlier, while apprehensions of families were down 46 percent.
Trump wants Mexico to play a more active role in discouraging illegal border crossings. He suggested that may be a factor in the ongoing trade talks with Mexico and Canada. Trump has long criticized the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he blames for encouraging U.S. companies to relocate factories south of the border.
Trump claimed the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico tops $100 billion. In fact the deficit in goods and services last year was $64.1 billion.
Trump was asked about his suggestion during a speech in Richfield, Ohio last week that U.S. troops would quickly be leaving Syria, now that ISIS has largely been driven out of its former territory there.
“I want to bring our troops back home,” Trump said Tuesday. “I want to start rebuilding our nation.”
Military experts warn a precipitous withdrawal could create an opening for ISIS or similar groups to regroup.
Trump also voiced support for his EPA administrator. Pruitt is under scrutiny for an apparent sweetheart housing arrangement he enjoyed last year in an apartment owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist. A White House official confirms that Trump telephoned Pruitt Monday night, but the official would not talk about what was said in the conversation.
“I hope he’s going to be great,” Trump said Tuesday.
Trump’s meeting with leaders of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia was designed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of independence for the Baltic nations, following World War I.
Throughout World War II and the Cold War, the Baltic countries were dominated by the Soviet Union. They regained their independence in the early 1990s and joined NATO in 2004.
Last year, Lithuania began buying liquid natural gas from the U.S. as part of an effort to secure alternative energy supplies and reduce its dependence on Russia. Trump has encouraged that move.
“Nobody’s been tougher on Russia than I have,” the president said.
Trump also praised the Baltic countries for their robust defense spending. Latvia and Lithuania come close to meeting the NATO benchmark of devoting 2 percent of their economies to defense while Estonia spends slightly more than 2 percent.
“When nations are committed to peace and to security, they have to pay their share and we will all enjoy a much more safe and prosperous future,” Trump said.