BASE CAMP DONNA, Tex. — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis continued to stand by President Trump’s order to send up to 15,000 American troops to the southwest border, telling soldiers on Wednesday that their mission is to put obstacles in the way of an approaching migrant caravan from Central America.
But Mr. Mattis seemed unable to fully explain to the troops the purpose or the long-term value of their deployment.
At one point during a 90-minute tour of the forward operating base in South Texas, a soldier asked Mr. Mattis the goals of the mission. “Short term, get the obstacles in,” Mr. Mattis replied, apparently referring to concertina wire that troops are stringing up along the border.
“Long term, it is somewhat to be determined,” he said.
At the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge next to the base, Mr. Mattis; Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary; and Kevin McAleenan, the Customs and Border Protection commissioner, fielded questions from soldiers and toured tents and shower houses.
In their remarks, the three officials largely stuck to Trump administration talking points.
“Border security is national security,” Ms. Nielsen said, according to a live stream of the tour.
Her tenure as secretary is seen as vulnerable. People close to Mr. Trump have said that he plans to fire Ms. Nielsen over his belief that she has not effectively carried out the administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy.
There are about 1,000 troops stationed at Base Camp Donna, and about 1,300 in the Rio Grande Valley region of South Texas, Maj. Derek Wamsley of the Army said. Their mission is to support the law enforcement already there.
Mr. Mattis said repeatedly how much he enjoys visiting soldiers in the field, though he noted that he does not get to do it very often. “It’s always better to come down and see it for real,” he said.
And he told reporters traveling with him that it’s “very clear that support to border police or Border Patrol is necessary right now.”
Mr. Trump has come under fire from critics who accused him of stoking fears about the migrant caravan to get Republicans to vote this month. The president has not posted about the caravan on Twitter since the midterm elections on Nov. 6.
Helene Cooper contributed from Washington.
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