LAREDO — The union bosses, terrified by his plainspoken truthfulness about the scourge of illegal immigration, didn't want it to happen.
But even after border patrol union leaders in Washington, D.C., pulled the plug on his rendezvous with local agents, he was undeterred, and his eponymous jet plunged him boldly into the very heart of great danger.
That, at least, is the story according to Donald Trump, whose presidential campaign — and knack for hyperbole — swept through this sweltering border city Thursday afternoon at a dizzying, sometimes incomprehensible clip. Over the just two and a half hours Trump spent on the ground, the real estate mogul simultaneously talked and said little at all, mostly serving as the grand marshal of an amorphous parade of angry detractors, rowdy supporters and a massive press corps packed into a pair of coach buses.
All the while, Trump offered himself up as the truth-telling savior of a country refusing to confront the realities of illegal immigration.
“Well, they say it’s a great danger, but I have to do it," Trump, sporting a baseball cap emblazoned with his campaign slogan "Make America Great Again," told reporters after landing at Laredo International Airport. "I love the country."
He later added: "People are saying, ‘Oh, it’s so dangerous what you’re doing, Mr. Trump. It’s so dangerous.' I have to do it. I have to do it."
The trip represented Trump's most provocative effort yet to show he was not backing down from his inflammatory comments last month on illegal immigration, which characterized people entering the United States unlawfully as rapists and other kinds of criminals. He was predictably unapologetic throughout the trip, blaming the media for bending his words and swearing Latinos, who make up 96 percent of Laredo's population, can't get enough of him.
"I’ll take jobs back from China, I’ll take jobs back from Japan," Trump said at one point during the trip. "The Hispanics are going to get those jobs, and they’re going to love Trump."
The spectacle reached its apex when he held court with a crush of media at the border following a roughly half-hour closed-door meeting with law enforcement officials. Against the backdrop of a line of trucks waiting to enter the country, Trump regaled reporters with a string of boisterous predictions — that he would not only win the GOP nomination, but would also take the Hispanic vote — and vague prescriptions for the issue that brought him here: illegal immigration.
He confirmed his support for building a wall along some parts of the border, but did not respond to a question about how he would handle the millions of undocumented people already. Asked more broadly about fixing the immigration system, Trump offered a head-scratching proposal: "You have to make people who come in — they have to be legal."
He was also asked if he had seen any evidence Mexico is purposely sending its criminals across the border, an argument he has made on the stump. Trump said yes, promised to show reporters the proof, provided no further details and moved on to the next question.
Asked whether he had received any threats from Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzmán, known as "El Chapo," Trump professed ignorance. "I know nothing about it," replied Trump, who issued a guns-blazing statement on Guzman's escape from prison 11 days ago.
After visiting the bridge, Trump showed up at a reception hall where he spoke for just under four minutes. Most of his appearance was consumed by an argument with a Spanish-language TV reporter who informed Trump many young Latinos were offended by his remarks on illegal immigration, drawing roars of disapproval from a friendly crowd. Trump ended the back-and-forth by bragging about his $500 million lawsuit against Univision, the Spanish-language TV network that has cut ties with him.
In a more recent disassociation, the Laredo Border Patrol union pulled out of Trump's trip hours before he was scheduled to arrive, apparently over concerns about the visit from its national organization. But that only gave Trump more fodder for his crusade.
"They wanted to give me an award, and they’re petrified of saying what’s happening because they have a real problem here," Trump told reporters after landing at the airport. "They invited me and then all of a sudden they were told, 'Silencio.' They want silence.”
The National Border Patrol Council was not the only enemy Trump conjured. He criticized Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton as the "worst secretary of state in the history of our country" and took his umpteenth shot at former Gov. Rick Perry, whose super PAC is currently airing TV ads on his border security record.
"Oh, he’s following my lead, absolutely," Trump told reporters at the airport. "We’re the ones who brought up illegal immigration.”
While there was no shortage of Trump supporters in the mix with his foes Thursday — including one who had a sign reading "Mr. Trump, FUCK U" in his windshield — the billionaire's trip seemed to evoke an ambivalent reaction from local Republican leaders. Randy Blair, chairman of the Webb County GOP, said local Republicans were seeing both sides of the coin with Trump's take on illegal immigration.
“There is an issue with the people that are coming across, however, the true facts and the way he stated them are night and day," Blair said. On the other hand, he added, Trump is "talking about stuff that the other people won’t talk about, and he’s talking about it very frankly."
Other Texans were less diplomatic. As Trump protester Roland Gonzalez — his sign read, "Trump's hair is illegal" — waited for the candidate at the airport, he recalled the billionaire's comment to an interviewer Wednesday that he "may never see you again" after the Texas trip.
"Well, he better not be kidding because we have American snipers here," Gonzalez said. "If he goes to the river banks — I understand they're going to take him there — we have Mexican snipers over there. So you get my flow?"
Mission Mayor Beto Salinas was more concise in an interview Thursday morning: "Leave us alone. Go back to New York."
Trump's trip was not entirely met with hostility, and there seemed to be an especially vocal contingent of supporters at the banquet hall. They shouted down the Spanish-language TV reporter and broke into cheers when he brought up the Univision lawsuit.
"I support him being an honest person, up front, and hopefully he won't lose focus on the issues," said Veronica Ollervides, a Laredo government worker whose daughter received an autograph from Trump through the window of his SUV as it rolled away from the banquet hall. "I really haven't heard anybody else saying anything different, bringing up the issues like he has."
Asked if that group included the two White House hopefuls from Texas — Perry and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, the lone GOP candidate to defend Trump — Ollervides said yes. "I think even Ted Cruz is kind of endorsing him in a way, right?" she asked.
Ollvervides' daughter was not the only person to mob Trump's SUV, looking for an autograph, selfie or simply a high-five. The same thing happened as Trump's car left from the World Trade Bridge, and it was in that moment he showed an unusual flash of restraint.
Who would be a worse president, a reported asked, bringing up two candidates he rarely resists the chance to criticize: Clinton or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush?
"Trump will be the best president," he responded, his car window finally rolling up. "Have a good time, guys."