WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump made a televised appeal to Americans on Tuesday for his long-promised border wall, offering familiar warnings but scant detail on how he will negotiate an end to a partial government shutdown that will cost some federal workers their paychecks this week.
In an address to the nation meant to convince Americans of a swelling border crisis that was at times belied by facts, the President gave little indication he is nearing a compromise that might reopen the federal government.
In their response minutes after Trump concluded on Tuesday, the top Democrats in Congress demonstrated an equally entrenched stance.
With neither side appearing to budge after a high-stakes battle of messaging, the situation appeared unchanged as some federal workers prepare for their first missed paycheck and many agencies remain dark.
As expected, the President used the first Oval Office address of his presidency to warn of “a growing humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border.”
But he did not declare the situation a “national emergency,” stopping short of a move he’s openly weighed in the past days that could secure funding but would likely face a legal challenge.
The immigration matter, Trump intoned, is “a crisis of the heart, and a crisis of the soul.”
Altogether, the President used the word “crisis” six times in his remarks, seeking to imbue a deadlocked debate over funding with a new sense of urgency.
Speaking from behind the Resolute Desk, Trump said the US could no longer accommodate immigrants who enter the country illegally and implored those who support him to contact their elected representatives.
“How much American blood must we shed before Congress does its job?” he asked. “This is a choice between right and wrong, justice and injustice. This is about whether we fulfill our sacred duty to the American citizens we serve.”
He castigated politicians who have deemed his proposed wall “immoral,” painting them as hypocrites.
“The only thing that is immoral is the politicians to do nothing and to continue to allow more innocent people to be so horribly victimized,” he said.
After weeks of a partial government shutdown, Trump and his negotiators have made little headway in convincing Democrats a barrier is needed before agencies can reopen and federal workers can begin receiving paychecks again.
The administration has steadfastly refused to take steps that would restore funding to some agencies, believing the shutdown is its best leverage to secure the wall funds. Fearing he could lose a messaging battle as more Americans feel the pain of a shuttered government, Trump escalated his warnings that the country is unsafe without the border wall he promised as a candidate.
In making his case, Trump turned for the first time to one of the most recognizable symbols of the American presidency — an eight-minute direct-to-camera evening address from the Oval Office.
The idea for the shift in strategy was raised over the past week by top aides, who believed the administration’s messaging was not resonating with Americans. The idea had been championed by, among others, the acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, and was a topic of discussion at a weekend senior staff retreat at Camp David.
Inside the White House, some viewed the quiet week between Christmas and New Year’s Day as a lost opportunity that could have been used to drive home an urgent message about the necessity of a border wall while Congress was out of town.
Trump was initially resistant, but was convinced by aides to adopt a new approach as it became clear his entreaties about securing funding for a wall were not gaining traction.
Trump will continue the push in the following days, paying a visit to the Texas border town of McAllen on Thursday to highlight the situation.
On Wednesday, he’ll join Republican senators during their weekly lunch. Later he’ll return to the White House to resume talks with Democratic and Republican congressional leaders, though it wasn’t yet clear whether either side would come offering new elements of a compromise.
“This situation could be resolved in a 45-minute meeting,” Trump said in his remarks.
Whether the authoritative setting of Tuesday’s remarks will convince more Americans there truly is a security crisis at the southern border remains an open question. Trump spoke to Americans while he suffers from a credibility lapse after he and his aides have repeated multiple false claims about immigration.
Facts undercut the administration’s portrait of a nation under siege by terrorists and criminals crossing the southern border; in July 2017, the State Department said there was “no credible information that any member of a terrorist group has traveled through Mexico to gain access to the United States.”
The administration’s own figures show vastly more known or suspected terrorists were apprehended at airports.
Trump and top White House officials have in recent days begun speaking more about the humanitarian crisis at the border, which Democrats say is real but of the administration’s own making. A surge of families seeking asylum has strained health and child care facilities, and two children have died in US custody.
In the lead-up to the address, the President and his advisers made a public show of considering a national emergency declaration to secure funding for the border wall, a drastic step that would surely be challenged in court. Vice President Mike Pence refused in a string of morning television appearances to say whether a declaration would come during the evening speech.
The White House counsel’s office continues to deliberate on the legality of the step. Trump has been under pressure from informal advisers and allies to take the step, which officials was still possible in the coming days.
A source close to Trump told CNN’s Jim Acosta on Tuesday that the President has been working the phones seeking advice from friends and aides in recent days about whether he should declare an emergency at the border in order to secure funding for the wall. The source said Trump has been told by several of his allies and advisers that a declaration “probably won’t work” from a legal standpoint, though hasn’t ruled one out entirely.
Another adviser to Trump said the President has been receiving advice telling him he should declare the state of emergency so he has something to sell to his base — and that if the step is held up in the courts, Trump can still say he tried.
Work in progress
Midday on Tuesday, Trump was working closely with top aides, including policy adviser Stephen Miller, on drafts of the speech.
Democrats had a chance to rebut the President in a subsequent address on Tuesday; all the television networks that agreed to air Trump’s remarks also agreed to air Democrats’ response, delivered jointly by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer. The pair stood somewhat awkwardly side-by-side in a Capitol hallway for their five-minute long rebuttal.
“President Trump must stop holding the American people hostage, must stop manufacturing a crisis and must reopen the government,” Pelosi said.
Trump chose to deliver the address after weekend talks between administration officials and Democrats failed to generate a deal that could reopen the parts of government closed by the shutdown.
The closures have become more apparent this week, as more Americans return from holiday vacations to find some federal services unavailable. Most federal workers affected by the shutdown were due to receive paychecks on Friday; without an agreement, they won’t be paid.
Trump has insisted in public that unpaid workers are understanding in their plight, and that he feels their pain.
But in private, the President has worried an extended shutdown could erode his political support as more Americans feel the effects. Yet he’s also fretted that failing to deliver on the border wall — his chief campaign vow — would hurt him with his conservative base.