President Trump stood without a teleprompter Friday morning in the White House Rose Garden — staring out at reporters, members of his administration and grieving women whose relatives were killed by undocumented immigrants — and declared a national emergency along the southern border.
But instead of making a forceful case to the public for his decision to circumvent Congress, the president casually acknowledged: “I could do the wall over a longer period of time. I didn’t need to do this. But I’d rather do it much faster.”
In that moment, Trump undercut his administration’s attempt to justify declaring a national emergency. But as he spoke his mind for roughly 50 minutes, that did not seem to be his mission. He jumped from one topic to another in short, seething sentences aimed at defending his presidency and demanding credit for what he has accomplished, even in the face of what some consider a failure to deliver on a key campaign promise — building a border wall.
For just under an hour, Americans were allowed to witness Trump’s intimate thought process as he reacted publicly to not getting his way and pondered the power of his presidency.
He did not open with the topic of the day. Instead, he started with China.
“We have a large team of very talented people in China,” said the president, dressed in an overcoat. “We’ve had a negotiation going on for about two days. It’s going extremely well. Who knows what that means, because it only matters if we get it done.”
He claimed that tariffs have resulted in “billions of dollars pouring into our treasury,” that he has strengthened the trading relationship with Britain, that the United States has successfully eradicated the Islamic State in Syria and that his meeting with North Korea’s leader last year has led to “no more rockets going up, no more missiles going up, no more testing of nuclear. Got back our remains . . . and we got back our hostages.”
Then he took a moment to sum up what he had just rattled off.
“A lot of positive things are going on,” Trump said.
Five minutes into his remarks, Trump got to the border and declared that he would increase security “one way or the other.” Trump bounced between claiming that there is a crisis at the border and taking credit for the “very successful” actions he has already taken.
“We have to do it — not because it was a campaign promise, which it is,” Trump said. “It was one of many, by the way, not my only one.”
He veered off to reflect on how the economies of other countries are “doing terribly, and we’re doing phenomenally,” then returned to the border to promise to stop the “tremendous amounts of drugs flowing into our country.” Trump continued to claim that drug and human trafficking most often happen at unguarded parts of the border, not at ports of entry, contradicting experts who have studied the issue.
“It’s wrong. It’s wrong. It’s just a lie. It’s all a lie,” he said. “They say walls don’t work. Walls work, 100 percent.”
Trump repeatedly insisted that his use of national-emergency powers are nothing new and that other presidents have done the same “many, many times,” including President Barack Obama.
“There’s rarely been a problem,” he said. “They sign it — nobody cares. I guess they weren’t very exciting. But nobody cares. They sign it for far less important things in some cases.”
He then edited himself: “In many cases.”
Trump introduced the women sitting before him, “angel moms” whose relatives were killed by immigrants in the country illegally — but then he returned to the topic of presidential power.
Trump explained how China gives drug dealers the death penalty, seeming to praise the idea even though just 10 days earlier he praised bipartisan attempts at criminal justice reform and declared that “America is a nation that believes in redemption.”
Trump recounted a conversation he said he had with Chinese President Xi Jinping, impersonating the Asian leader.
Trump: “Do you have a drug problem?”
Xi: “Noooo, noooo, noooo.”
Trump: “You have 1.4 billion people. What do you mean you have no drug problem?”
Xi: “No. We don’t have a drug problem.”
Xi: “Death penalty. We give death penalty to people that sell drugs. End of problem.”
“If we want to get smart, we can get smart,” Trump said. “You can end the drug problem — can end it a lot faster than you think.”
Trump again compared himself with previous presidents and insisted that “nobody’s done the job that we’ve ever done” and that if he weren’t elected, “this economy would be down the tubes.” He scoffed at those who say Obama should receive at least some of the credit for today’s booming economy. With the economy “through the roof,” Trump claimed that more immigrants want to come into the country illegally, hence the need for the wall.
“We’ve done an incredible job in stopping them,” Trump said, “but it’s a massive number of people.”
With a wall, Trump said, he would no longer have to deploy members of the military to the border, something that critics have said was a publicity stunt. A wall would save “tremendous” amounts of money, Trump said, and would stop the flow of drugs and trafficked humans into the United States — and even allow him to get rid of some members of his administration.
“I would be able to have fewer people. We wouldn’t need all of this incredible talent — some of whom are sitting in the first row — you wouldn’t need all of this incredible talent,” Trump said, gesturing to individuals sitting before him.
He turned again to the “angel moms.”
“The real country — our real country, the people that really love our country — they love you,” Trump said, dividing the country into two tribes in just one sentence. “So I just want you to know that.”
Trump said he expects his emergency order to be challenged in court, just as he was challenged when he tried early in his presidency to ban travelers from several majority-Muslim countries. He insists he won that battle, even though he said others claim he lost.
“We will then be sued, and they will sue us in the 9th Circuit, even though it shouldn’t be there, and we will possibly get a bad ruling, and then we’ll get another bad ruling, and then we’ll end up in the Supreme Court, and hopefully we’ll get a fair shake and we’ll win in the Supreme Court,” Trump said, his voice dramatically rising and falling to emphasize his view of the ridiculousness of the U.S. court system.
Twenty-four minutes into his remarks, Trump began to take questions from reporters.
He defended diverting money from the defense budget, saying that it is “a very, very small amount” and that the original funding priorities “didn’t sound too important to me.”
He pondered how the wall will play in the 2020 presidential election, saying that he has “already done a lot of wall for the election 2020.”
He complained that even if he makes the greatest deals ever, Democratic leaders will say he should have done even better — and that he just doesn’t enjoy being “second-guessed.”
He lashed out at members of his own party for not pushing “harder” and “faster” for funding for the wall — and then claimed that he already has “a lot of money” for the wall and has already “built a lot of wall.”
When asked how “outside conservative voices” helped shape this national emergency, Trump listed only television and radio hosts that support him as influential: Sean Hannity of Fox News (“terrific, terrific supporter”); radio host Rush Limbaugh (“great guy”); Fox News’s Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson; “a couple of people on CNN”; and “someone” at MSNBC. Trump claimed to “hardly know” Ann Coulter, a conservative commentator who has been critical of him, but praised her for predicting that he would win the 2016 election.
When pressed to explain the source of the data he uses to make policy decisions, Trump grew prickly.
When a reporter noted that government data shows border crossings at a near-record low, Trump replied, “It’s still massive numbers of crossings.”
When the reporter countered that data shows that undocumented immigrants commit crimes at lower levels than native-born Americans, Trump deemed the question “fake.”
When another reporter pressed the president to explain “where you get your numbers,” the president told that reporter to “sit down.”
“I get my numbers from a lot of sources, like Homeland Security, primarily, and the numbers that I have from Homeland Security are a disaster,” Trump said.
The reporter followed up: “So your own government’s stats are wrong?”
“No, no,” Trump said. “I use many stats. I use many stats.”
The final question of the morning came from a reporter who asked the president what has been accomplished since he last met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June. In answering, Trump reflected not just on North Korea but his entire presidency.
“A lot’s been accomplished,” he began.
Trump recounted meeting with Obama in the Oval Office soon after the 2016 election — “I sat in those beautiful chairs” — and discussing North Korea. Trump claimed that Obama was “so close to starting a big war with North Korea,” an assertion that former Obama aides deny.
“Now, where are we now?” Trump angrily said. “No missiles, no rockets, no nuclear testing.”
Trump recounted receiving “the most beautiful copy of a letter” that he said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent to “a thing called the Nobel Prize” — even though Abe has not publicly mentioned anything about this subject, while South Korean President Moon Jae-in has said that Trump should receive the peace prize.
“I’ll probably never get it, but that’s okay,” Trump said. “They gave it to Obama. He didn’t even know what he got it for. He was there for about 15 seconds and he got the Nobel Prize.”
Trump said that he has done things the Obama administration “couldn’t have done . . . probably wouldn’t have done . . . didn’t have the capability to do.” He added, without providing any evidence or explanation, that he “stopped the slaughter of perhaps 3 million people” in Syria.
“We do a lot of good work,” Trump said. “This administration does a tremendous job, and we don’t get credit for it.”
Trump then thanked his audience. He pointed out his new attorney general, William P. Barr, offering these words of encouragement: “Great luck and speed and enjoy your life.”
He thanked everyone again and walked away.