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Trump tries to steer border wall deal to North Dakota firm

Trucks from Fisher Industries prepare the ground for a wall to be built on private property near El Paso, Texas. Jordyn Rozensky and Justin Hamel / The Washington Post1 / 2
Trucks from Fisher Industries prepare the ground for a wall to be built on private property near El Paso, Texas. Jordyn Rozensky and Justin Hamel / The Washington Post2 / 2

WASHINGTON — President Donald 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 three administration officials.

In phone calls, White House meetings and conversations aboard Air Force One during the past several months, Trump has aggressively pushed Dickinson, North Dakota-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 Thursday, May 23, after the president's aides told Pentagon officials — including Gen. Mark Milley, the commander of the 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 speed up the project — and deliver it at far less cost to taxpayers. White House officials said Trump wants to go with the best and most cost-effective option to build the wall quickly.

"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 appeared on conservative television and radio shows, saying 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, New Mexico. We Build the Wall, a nonprofit organization that includes prominent conservatives who support the president — its associates and advisory board include former White House adviser Stephen Bannon; Blackwater USA founder Erik Prince; ex-Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo.; 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 first section is expected to be unveiled soon. Fisher-branded equipment and workers this week were preparing the site near El Paso, Texas, 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, in part because it crosses rugged terrain.

Scott Sleight, an attorney for Fisher, said in a statement Thursday that Fisher Industries is committed to working with the federal government to secure the border and has developed a patent-pending installation system that allows the company to build fencing "faster than any contractor using common construction methods."

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 Thursday, 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 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.