Political consultant Sam Nunberg, who as adviser to Donald Trump came up with the idea of a border wall with Mexico, still wants to see it built.
And while he thinks the incumbent president has an uphill struggle to be reelected, border security is an area where he thinks Trump will “kill” presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in upcoming debates.
The idea of building a wall along the US border with Mexico as a means to curb undocumented immigration became a lodestone of Trump’s 2016 election campaign.
Along with the slogan “Make America Great Again,” the promise to “Build That Wall” was chanted at rallies by Trump’s supporters as well as the then-candidate himself.
“I think that helped him get elected,” Nunberg told Business Insider in a phone interview last week.
Former Donald Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg leaves the U.S. District Courthouse after a day before a grand jury as ordered by special counsel Robert Mueller who is investigating the campaign’s ties to Russian officials, in Washington, Friday, March 9, 2018.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
The wall’s humble origins
Nunberg worked on and off with Trump for much of the time between 2011 and 2015. (He was eventually fired from his role as a Trump campaign staffer after Business Insider revealed a series of racist social media posts.)
As Trump warmed to a presidential run in 2014, Nunberg worked closely with political consultant Roger Stone, and the pair devised ways to get Trump to stay on message on the issue of immigration, he said.
“The reality is we were always going to talk about border security,” Nunberg said, explaining that Trump intended to be “the hardest on the right” on immigration in the 2016 Republican primaries.
Though Stone and Nunberg discussed Trump’s speeches with him and gave him outlines, “he was never going to talk about prepared remarks,” Nunberg said.
But a wall — for a man who had made his name building things — stuck.
“He’s talks about building, he was a builder,” said Nunberg, adding later: “A wall fits the brand.”
The wall was originally a fence
Nunberg pointed to the earliest mention of the wall, at the 2014 Freedom Summit, a conservative event organized by Citizens United and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation in New Hampshire.
But in fact, that first mention was actually of a “fence.”
Trump spoke for around 30 minutes on themes that would return many times throughout his 2016 campaign: How China “is laughing at us,” how Putin is “outsmarting our country at every step” — and how Mexico is “just draining us.”
“We either have to have borders, and I mean strong borders … and I mean strong. And you know I’m a builder, I build great buildings,” Trump said at the time.
“Building a border, you know they talk about ‘oh I don’t know, how could we possibly build a fence that nobody can climb over?’ I would build a border like nobody’s seen before. Nobody’s climbing over.”
The effect was electric, gaining Trump some of the strongest applause of the speech, and set the tone for the tumultuous 2016 campaign.
Members of the audience stand to applaud Donald Trump in 2014 at the suggestion of building a border fence.
‘Build a wall’ was a phrase as simple as ‘Get Brexit done’
What made Trump’s message about the wall stand out, in Nunberg’s mind, was its simplicity.
“I think one issue is people did understand the walls,” he said. “The wall in 2016 was symbolic of Donald Trump: common sense, practical solutions, simplified answers — as opposed to long nuanced, detailed policy speak.”
“What’s the closest thing I’ve seen since then? ‘Get Brexit Done,'” he said, in reference to the UK Conservative Party slogan that saw Boris Johnson win the 2019 election with an 80-seat majority.
The wall was the perfect platform in a campaign that pitted Trump, a brash outsider, against Clinton’s impeccable Washington credentials.
But like getting Brexit done, actually building the wall isn’t as simple as saying it.
And its benefits are not entirely clear to those who actually work at the border. In 2017, border security agents and leaders were surveyed on what they needed to do their job, and less than 1% of their responses mentioned a barrier, according to a 2018 New York Times report.
When asked about those border agents’ responses, Nunberg was dismissive. “I don’t think that they do an effective job,” he said.
Trump with prototypes of the border wall.
Trump will ‘kill’ Biden on border security
Nunberg was also keen to point out that then-Sens. Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama had all voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which among other things authorized around 700 miles of fencing as well as other border security measures at the US-Mexico border.
(PolitiFact notes that this act was seen as the lesser of two evils among other legislation at the time.)
But it’s histories like these that will see Trump come out on top when televised presidential debates roll round, Nunberg said.
“Here’s the important point. Let’s go to a 2020 debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. I guarantee you Biden will not say that he opposes border security. He just opposes the wall,” he said.
“I guarantee you, he will say that. And I guarantee you, Trump will kill him on that point. So Biden doesn’t have a leg to stand on audit, fighting positions. You voted for something that was never built.”
The position is so clear-cut in Nunberg’s mind that he believes Trump needs to temper his fighting instincts.
“On the debate stage, he needs to knock Biden out,” he said, using a boxing metaphor. “He just can’t murder Biden. It’s different, right? He can’t be seen as pounding Biden into the ground.”