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Ann McFeatters

A little agency Donald Trump probably never has heard of is taking him on.

You know that wall he wants to build? The one Trump is demanding Congress give him the money for or he will shut down the government?

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has just published a report saying the Trump administration has no idea how to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and even if it did, the cost would be monumentally more than estimates.

The GAO provides facts on a nonpartisan basis to Congress about federal spending. Obviously, nothing there to interest Trump.

The 49-page report issued this month was done because, in January 2017, Trump signed an executive order calling for the construction of a wall. Since then the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has built eight prototype panels that stick up in the desert in an Orwellian kind of way.

One major problem, says the GAO, is that the agency's "strategy did not include analysis of the costs associated with deploying barriers in each location or segment, which can vary depending on topography, land ownership, and other factors. Without assessing costs, consistent with leading practices for capital decision making, CBP does not have complete information for prioritizing locations to use its resources in the most cost-effective manner."

In other words, Trump is wasting billions – and wants to waste billions more – on a border wall because nobody involved considered the cost of building each segment or who owns the land. Possibly worse, the border protection people selected locations for barriers without assessing where they were needed to prevent illegal border crossings.

In other words, this is no Hoover Dam that will awe people for generations.

Trump's wall a) will cost more than projected; b) will take longer than expected; c) won't work as intended.

Trump's lack of a good grasp of math is proving a serious problem. The national debt is now $21 trillion and rising quickly. Trump's tax cut alone is adding $1.5 trillion, and his defense increases will raise it by $138 billion. His wall would cost far more than $20 billion. Some estimates have been as high as $70 billion.

During the campaign, Trump vowed to pay off the national debt. Recently he tweeted he will pay it down by raising tariffs – taxes he is raising that mean Americans pay more for imported goods. In other words, Americans hoping to spend less on new cars because Trump wants to reduce air pollution rules will pay higher sticker prices because of Trump's tariffs on steel and aluminum.

Raising tariffs to reduce the nation's debt is not remotely possible. Not only would the annual budget have to be balanced, there would also have to be a yearly surplus. The White House expects the budget deficit for 2019 to top $1 trillion. Tariffs total about $40 billion for 2017 and 2018.

Trump's business career showed he is very good at buying things with other people's money and never quite paying for them. He has brought that interesting philosophy to government spending.

Trump's rhetoric makes it seem as though the border is undefended. There have been fences and checkpoints for years; since 2008 Congress required at least 700 miles of reinforced fencing "where it would be most practical and effective" and installation of additional physical barriers, roads, lighting, cameras and sensors.

An earlier GAO report on inadequate planning for Trump's wall was deemed by the Department of Homeland Security to be too sensitive for public consumption. The DHS made the GAO omit much of the information in the public report.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., highest ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said the report shows that the administration "has no clue to what it is doing."

Alas, as we have found out all too frequently, that will not stop it from spending our money and lots of it.

That costly, inhumane "zero tolerance" effort to split up migrant families at the border? It's had no deterrent effect; border agents are arresting about as many immigrants now as they were before children were taken from their parents.

Ironically, if Trump goes through with his promise to slash the budgets of small agencies such as the GAO, GAO has the legal power to sue the president to force him to give the agencies their money back. By the way, GAO generates $128 for every dollar it spends, returning $74 billion to the Treasury this fiscal year.

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Ann McFeatters writes for Tribune News Service.

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