Past presidents have used the Oval Office in prime time to announce military action, to lay out major initiatives or to calm the nation’s nerves in times of stress. President Trump chose the gravity of that venue for a far different reason Tuesday night — to try to create a sense of crisis in pursuit of an elusive campaign promise.
With the government in partial shutdown and talks with Democratic congressional leaders stalemated over funding for a border wall, the president used his address as a dramatic escalation in what has been an unsuccessful effort to sway opinion nationally and in Congress. As skillful as he is at dominating the national conversation, he has been singularly ineffective in this battle to change public minds or weaken the will of his Democratic opponents.
Trump has tried many things to gain the upper hand. Before the shutdown, it was a televised meeting in the Oval Office with the soon-to-be House speaker, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) during which he bluffed that he would proudly take the blame for a shutdown to get his wall. He has since cast blame on the Democrats. He has tried Twitter and short videos from the South Lawn of the White House to pressure the Democrats. He has used soft words in public and expletives in private. Nothing has been working.
His speech was a compendium of arguments, some of dubious nature, that he has made before: The border is being overrun by dangerous criminals who have committed violent crimes in this country; migrant women and children are being victimized; the opioid crisis stems directly from a flood tide of illegal drugs crossing the southern border; his plan to secure that border includes advanced technology, more law enforcement personnel and, yes, a barrier costing $5.7 billion that would be made of steel slats, in deference, he said, to Democrats who oppose a concrete wall — a change Democrats say they never asked for.
“The federal government remains shut down for one reason and one reason only,” he said. “Because Democrats will not fund border security.”
Trump has struggled to change public opinion in part because this is not a new fight. Immigration worked for him in the 2016 campaign, and there are still elements of the issue that put Democrats on the defensive. But in the most recent test, it did not work. In the run-up to the midterm elections, the president used campaign rallies to warn of the threat of an “invasion” by a caravan of migrants moving north through Mexico toward the U.S. border. He ordered U.S. troops to take up stations on the border. He accused the Democrats of being defenders of open borders.
The dire rhetoric and the other actions resonated primarily in the red states of America, where Trump already enjoys strong support. More broadly, however, his arguments were either ignored or rejected. The Republicans lost 40 House seats in the midterms, which is why Trump’s principal adversary in the fight over border funding is a newly empowered Democratic House speaker, who appears as unwilling to budge from her position as Trump is from his.
The president will follow his Tuesday night address with a trip to the border on Thursday, a visit that could be the prelude to a declaration of a national emergency. Such an announcement could give Trump the power to use the military to begin work on the wall without congressional approval (although it would face immediate legal challenges). The threat of declaring a national emergency could be real or just another bluff. It also could be Trump’s exit strategy, an affirmation to his core supporters that he was prepared to take the fight to the extreme before he and Democrats agree to reopen the government.
The case the president made Tuesday evening raised obvious questions. How and when did the conditions at the border reach the point of becoming a humanitarian and national security crisis such that they demanded a nationally televised address and maybe a national emergency? How would the $5.7 billion in new funding he is seeking, which represents only a down payment on something that could take years and many billions more to complete, be able to resolve the immediacy of the crisis he described?
Above all, if the nation truly faces a humanitarian and security crisis, why should the government remain in partial shutdown — particularly employees at the Department of Homeland Security? As former defense secretary Leon Panetta, long a critic of this president, put it on MSNBC ahead of the speech, “it just defies logic” to keep the government in partial shutdown under such conditions.
Meanwhile, stories of hardship among furloughed government workers mount, with more likely to come when the first major missed paychecks occur later this week. Trump has seemed indifferent to the situation faced by many of those workers, especially those living paycheck to paycheck. The pressure to end the shutdown will intensify in the coming days. Some Republican lawmakers are already feeling the heat.
In pursuit of his goal, Trump and his advisers have turned to statistics to make their case.
Vice President Pence noted in a round of television interviews on Tuesday that more than 60,000 people were apprehended along the border in both October and November, up from about 50,500 in September.
But this is not the first time that numbers have spiked to that level. They reached that mark in October and November of 2016, then dropped dramatically after the president took office. Trump and his team claimed that tougher policies were the cause of the decline in the first year of his presidency. Since then, apparently, those policies have been less successful, and the directive that led to the separation of migrant children from their parents produced a big political backlash that still resonates.
Administration officials also have manipulated statistics to try to persuade Americans that a genuine crisis exists. The most glaring was the claim that 4,000 terrorists have been caught coming across the southern border. When White House press secretary Sarah Sanders tried that with Chris Wallace, the moderator of “Fox News Sunday,” he set her straight. Almost all of those caught were at airports, not the border. NBC News reported Monday that in the first half of last year, just six on those terrorist lists were apprehended on the southern border.
On Tuesday morning, Pence tried to use artful language to repeat that figure of 4,000. When called on it by NBC’s Hallie Jackson, he shifted ground, noting that 3,000 “special interest aliens” had been identified as trying to come across the southern border. That designation is not at all the same as the designation of those on a terrorist watch list. To make its case, the administration has been forced to lower the bar on the very kind of threats they say add up to a humanitarian and security crisis.
Oval Office addresses are usually designed to speak to the widest audience possible — to rally the nation rather than divide it, to build as broad a coalition as possible for the task ahead. In this case, the president appeared to have three related audiences in mind: Republicans on Capitol Hill, especially those in the Senate, whose support he must have to keep this fight going and whose patience may be wearing thin; his most loyal supporters, who believed his promise to build a wall that Mexico would pay for; and, finally, the small percentage of Americans whose views about the wall aren’t already set.
Ultimately, there will have to be an agreement to reopen the government, though exactly on whose terms remains the sticking point. Trump may hope he can get his wall by means other than compromise; Democrats may think they can crush Trump right at the start of a new Congress. That is the nature of the standoff and the reason the president felt the need to use the ultimate bully pulpit to make his case Tuesday night.