By Philip Rucker and Felicia Sonmez / The Washington Post
President Donald Trump delivered a forceful and fact-challenged televised plea to the nation Tuesday night for his long-promised border wall, declaring “a growing humanitarian and security crisis” at the southern border and blaming congressional Democrats for the partial government shutdown that he helped instigate three weeks ago.
Trump painted a harrowing picture of danger and death along the U.S.-Mexico border, describing undocumented immigrants as murderers, rapists and drug smugglers and arguing that a steel barrier — for which he is demanding that Congress appropriate $5.7 billion — is the only solution.
“This is a humanitarian crisis — a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul,” Trump said in his nine-minute speech from the Oval Office. “Democrats in Congress have refused to acknowledge the crisis, and they have refused to provide our brave border agents with the tools they desperately need to protect our families and our nation.”
Democratic leaders, who have steadfastly resisted Trump’s demand for wall funding in part because they consider such a barrier to be immoral and unnecessary, accused Trump of fearmongering in his Tuesday night address. They called on him to immediately end the government shutdown, which they said was disrupting the pay of 800,000 federal workers and depriving millions of American citizens of critical services.
“Sadly, much of what we have heard from President Trump throughout this senseless shutdown has been full of misinformation and even malice,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. She added, “The fact is, President Trump must stop holding the American people hostage, must stop manufacturing a crisis and must reopen the government.”
Trump used his first prime-time televised address to the nation from the Oval Office to convey urgency about the situation at the border, which he plans to visit on Thursday. He has been weighing whether to declare a national emergency at the border, which would activate executive authorities and empower him to reprogram some Defense Department funds to build part of his wall without congressional approval.
But Trump’s scripted remarks contained little that was new. And although he promised to continue negotiating with Democrats to end the budget impasse, he did not detail any fresh offers in his speech. He suggested that constructing the wall out of steel rather than concrete was a concession to Democrats.
Reading from a teleprompter, Trump was relatively sedate as he repeated past talking points and told familiar anecdotes, leaving out the rhetorical flourish he displays on the campaign trail or in extemporaneous remarks before reporters.
Immigration has been the animating issue of Trump’s political life — and in many respects, his Oval Office address was a buttoned-up version of the golden escalator speech he gave at Trump Tower 3 1/2 years ago to launch his campaign. Then-candidate Trump said of Mexican immigrants here illegally: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
In his Tuesday night speech, Trump spoke passionately about the victims of crimes allegedly committed by undocumented immigrants — someone raped and beaten to death with a hammer in California, someone else beheaded and dismembered in Georgia, and another stabbed and beaten in Maryland.
“I’ve met with dozens of families whose loved ones were stolen by illegal immigration,” Trump said. “I’ve held the hands of the weeping mothers and embraced the grief-stricken fathers. So sad. So terrible. I will never forget the pain in their eyes, the tremble in their voices, and the sadness gripping their souls.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who with Pelosi jointly delivered his party’s official televised response, said Trump was governing by “temper tantrum.”
“Most presidents have used Oval Office addresses for noble purposes,” he said. “This president just used the backdrop of the Oval Office to manufacture a crisis, stoke fear and divert attention from the turmoil in his administration.”
Trump’s credibility has come under assault in recent days. The 45th president has a well-established record of thousands of exaggerations, falsehoods and outright lies, and in pressing for a border wall in recent days, he and his administration officials have used misleading and, in some instances, outright false data.
Notably, Trump made no mention in his Oval Office address of terrorists flooding across the border, which has been a key — and largely bogus — argument advanced by his administration in support of a wall.
Trump made a number of other claims that are demonstrably false. He said the border wall will “be paid for indirectly by the great new trade deal we have made with Mexico.” But that deal, a reworking of the North American Free Trade Agreement, has yet to be ratified by Congress — and even if it were, it would not “save” the United States any money because smaller trade deficits do not necessarily translate into greater revenue for the federal government. There is also no provision earmarking money for a wall.
Trump also argued that a wall would help stem the flow of illegal drugs into the country, noting that 90 percent of the heroin sold in the United States comes across the southern border. Yet nearly all of that figure is trafficked across legal border crossings; a wall would have little impact.
While Trump claimed the situation at the border was a “crisis,” the number of people apprehended by Border Patrol officers at the U.S.-Mexico line actually peaked in 2000 and has been in decline since then. There were 396,579 apprehensions in fiscal 2018, less than half the total in 2007, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Trump for the first time used one of the rare platforms of the presidency: a scripted prime-time speech to the nation from the Oval Office. But whereas his predecessors mostly have used such occasions for unifying purposes, including to declare war and announce peace, Trump used it to try to gain a political advantage in his showdown with Congress over border wall funding.
Trump wanted to convince the public that the situation at the border was a bona fide crisis and that constructing a physical barrier is the only sensible way to resolve the problems caused by illegal immigration, aides said.
The effort comes at perhaps the most perilous moment of his presidency. Trump is expending his political capital to fulfill his signature campaign promise of a wall, but cracks in his Republican coalition are emerging against a unified and emboldened Democratic opposition that refuses to back down from their argument that a wall would be ineffective, wasteful and morally wrong.
The political environment has driven Trump to pull out all the stops. The president intends to take a rare trip to Capitol Hill on Wednesday, joining Vice President Mike Pence at the Senate Republicans’ weekly policy luncheon.
Negotiations will then resume at the White House, where the eight congressional leaders are expected to gather later in the afternoon to meet with the president and resume talks on ending the shutdown, according to several people familiar with the invitation.
Trump summoned all Americans to call their members of Congress and urge them to support his border security agenda.
“This is a choice between right and wrong, justice and injustice,” Trump said in his speech. “This is about whether we fulfill our sacred duty to the American citizens we serve.”
On Thursday, Trump plans to fly to Texas to personally visit the southern border and highlight what he calls a crisis there.
The various moves could lay a foundation for Trump to declare a national emergency as a way of attempting to build a wall without congressional approval.
“The president has made very clear that he is considering that,” said Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president. “He has the right to do it. He has said his legal counsel are looking at it. But it would also let Congress off the hook. And they’ve been off the hook too long.”
This would be a risky bet, not only sparking a backlash among congressional Democrats and perhaps some Republicans, but also inviting immediate challenges in federal courts.
Trump has been consulting in recent days with outside friends and advisers, including such conservative allies as Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., and Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity.
The president has become convinced that because of the wall’s symbolic power for his core supporters, he must be seen as taking a strong stand and using every tool in his arsenal to ensure its construction.
One possibility under consideration is for Trump to negotiate with Democrats for the next few days, then declare a national emergency to end the shutdown, according to a person with direct knowledge of the president’s thinking.
Meanwhile, federal agencies continue to grapple with the effects of the shutdown, and pressure to reopen the government continued to build on the administration and Congress.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to lawmakers Tuesday urging Congress and the Trump administration to reopen the government, throwing its support behind a deal that would combine border security measures with protections for “dreamers” brought here illegally as children and those in the temporary protected status program.
“The shutdown is harming the American people, the business community, and the economy,” Neil Bradley, the group’s executive vice president and chief policy officer, said in the letter.
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, which represents most of the 800,000 affected federal workers as well as thousands of furloughed contractors, said Tuesday that his members want the shutdown to end but do not want to see Democrats yield to Trump’s demands on the wall.
“They want the government opened, and they want to get back to work, but they think that the president is responsible because he backed out of a deal that was there that everybody had agreed to, and it didn’t have to happen,” Trumka said in an interview.
In the run-up to Trump’s speech, senior officials in his administration sought to create an atmosphere of seriousness and common purpose. Pence rejected the suggestion that Trump was playing up the situation at the border for partisan gain, going so far as to say that “base” is one of his least favorite words.
“This isn’t about ‘base,’ ” Pence told reporters Monday. “This is about the American people. This is about human trafficking. This is about a humanitarian crisis. This is about the flow of illegal drugs, illegal immigration and the president’s determination to address that issue with action and with resources.”
But other messages emanating from the president himself were unmistakably political. The Trump campaign on Tuesday afternoon emailed an urgent fundraising appeal to supporters in the president’s name saying it hoped to raise $500,000 in a single day to coincide with the evening’s speech.
“I want to do something so HUGE, even Democrats and the Fake News won’t be able to ignore,” Trump wrote in the email solicitation.
The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey, Mike DeBonis, John Wagner, Seung Min Kim, Erica Werner, Glenn Kessler, Meg Kelly and Salvador Rizzo contributed to this report.