DAVID GREENE, HOST:
President Trump is threatening a partial shutdown of the federal government a week from today. This is all about the wall he wants to build along the border with Mexico and the $5 billion he wants from Congress next year to do that. Now, the president also tweeted earlier this week that if that money does not come through, the military, as he put it, will build the remaining sections of the wall. And let's talk more about that with NPR national security correspondent David Welna.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So the U.S. military building a wall along the border at the direction of the president of the United States - could that be a legitimate idea, or is this just talk?
WELNA: You know, I think at this point, it's just talk. Trump tweeted about doing this on Tuesday. And that same day, a Pentagon spokesman put out a statement saying, quote, "there is no plan to build sections of the wall." I ran into Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the Capitol yesterday, and I asked him about the military building the wall. And Mattis told me the role of the military at the border has been doing things like stringing concertina wire or doing crowd control or putting up Jersey barriers.
JIM MATTIS: This is something that we do, in the last four administrations, variations on this. But I don't see this...
WELNA: But what about building...
MATTIS: ...Right now. That's a separate issue. And I noticed that this is - president's in consultation with the Congress and all. So we'll have to see all the discussions come out.
GREENE: Discussions - are discussions actually happening, David, between the president and members of Congress?
WELNA: Well, there's not much sign of that. In fact, Jim Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, told me he thought there were a lot of other things the military should be doing. Here's Inhofe.
JIM INHOFE: As strapped as we are right now, I would certainly be hesitant to be using any of the military that's going to diminish our ability for their designed purpose.
WELNA: What about the money that would be required?
INHOFE: But we don't have that yet (laughter). What money? (Laughter).
GREENE: OK. So no money and also a concern that the military should be focusing on other more important things. So David, is there any support in Congress for having the military involved in this way?
WELNA: Well, you know, I think it's a bit like the prospect of a shutdown. Nobody on either side of the aisle wants to own it. When I asked Jim Risch, the Idaho Republican who's the next chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, about the military building the wall, he declined to comment. And here is Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz.
TED CRUZ: We need to build a wall. I've been fighting for building a wall since the day I was elected here. And I think the Democratic obstruction on that front is unacceptable.
WELNA: Should the military be used to build the wall?
CRUZ: I think we need to get the job done.
GREENE: Totally answers your question there.
GREENE: So David, aren't there already something like 6,000 active-duty troops near that border who were sent there six weeks ago? I mean, are they - I don't know - could they be involved in this somehow? And how much longer are they going to be there?
WELNA: Well, you know, some of them, perhaps as many as 4,000, will be staying there until the end of January - not clear if they'd be involved in anything like this. According to administration officials, they're there to protect Border Patrol agents. But Maine independent Senator Angus King says 40 percent of those illegally in the country overstayed their visas. And many of those now showing up at the border are seeking asylum.
ANGUS KING: What we really need is, A, more infrastructure to deal with asylum-seekers. And B, we need to see what we can do for the countries where they're coming from, which isn't Mexico. They're Central American countries. Are there ways that we can stabilize those countries, make them safer so people don't feel that they have to run for their lives for our border? So there are lots of ways to approach this problem. The wall is not one of them.
GREENE: And really briefly, David, have Democrats weighed in on this at all?
WELNA: Well, you know, they think that there should be something like a virtual wall along the border and that there should be much more money spent on devices that electronically screen vehicles and containers going into the U.S. Right now fewer than 1 out of 5 get screened. And the DEA says the bulk of drugs smuggled into the country is coming across legal border crossing points. But the Trump administration is asking for only $44 million for this. Three hundred million is needed.
GREENE: NPR's David Welna.
WELNA: Sure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.