By Peter Baker
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump sought to go over the heads of Congress to enlist public support for his long-promised border wall Tuesday night, raising the stakes of an ideological and political conflict that has left the doors of many federal agencies shuttered for 18 days.
With the first prime-time Oval Office address of his presidency, Trump contended that the illegal flow of immigrants and drugs from Mexico has become such a crisis that it justifies keeping much of the government closed until Democrats in Congress give him money to build the barrier.
“How much more American blood must we shed before Congress does its job?” the president asked in a nine-minute speech. Asking Americans to call their lawmakers, he added: “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.”
But Democrats dismissed his talk of a crisis as overstated cynicism and, with polls showing Trump bearing more of the blame since the partial shutdown began last month, showed no signs of giving in. The White House dispatched Vice President Mike Pence and others to Capitol Hill to try to shore up Senate Republicans, who are growing increasingly anxious as the standoff drags on.
In taking his argument to a national television audience to be followed by a trip to the Texas border Thursday, Trump hoped to reframe the debate. After spending much of the first two weeks of the shutdown cloistered in the White House, he has now opted to use the powers of the presidency to focus public attention on his ominous warnings about the border. At the same time, he tried to recast the situation as a “humanitarian crisis” as well as a security risk, an effort to take some of the edge off his sharp anti-immigrant language.
Yet privately, Trump dismissed his own new strategy as pointless. In an off-the-record lunch with television anchors hours before the address, he made clear in blunt terms that he was not inclined to give the speech or go to Texas but was talked into it by advisers, according to two people briefed on the discussion who asked not to be identified sharing details.
“It’s not going to change a damn thing, but I’m still doing it,” Trump said of the trip to the border, according to one of the people, who was in the room. The border trip was just a photo opportunity, he said. “But,” he added, gesturing at his communications aides, Bill Shine, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway, “these people behind you say it’s worth it.”
Congressional leaders from both parties are scheduled to return to the White House on Wednesday afternoon to resume negotiations that so far have made little progress. Trump has insisted on $5.7 billion for the wall while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would not give him a dollar for a wall she called “immoral.”
In their own televised response last night, Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic minority leader, chided the president for using the shutdown to stoke fear. “President Trump must stop holding the American people hostage, must stop manufacturing a crisis and must reopen the government,” Pelosi said.
Trump has made the wall the singular focus of his presidency as he enters his third year in office, and the shutdown has become an enormous political gamble. His vow to erect a “big, beautiful wall” along the border became perhaps the most memorable promise on the campaign trail this fall, eliciting chants from supporters of “build the wall,” and he has been frustrated by his inability to deliver on it.
But his alarming description of a “crisis” at the border has raised credibility questions. Migrant border crossings have been declining for nearly two decades. The majority of heroin enters the United States through legal ports of entry, not through open areas of the border. And the State Department said in a recent report that there is “no credible evidence” that terrorist groups had sent operatives to enter the United States through Mexico.
“There is no crisis, there is no invasion, there is no clear and present danger, as the president would try to convey to the American people to scare them and to justify actions otherwise not justified,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the Democratic majority leader.
Even so, Democrats, many of whom voted in 2006 for 700 miles of fencing along the border, did not want to conduct the debate on Trump’s terms. Instead, they focused attention on the damaging effects of the shutdown, already the second longest in U.S. history. About 800,000 government employees are either furloughed or working without pay, in addition to hundreds of thousands of contractors.
House Democrats planned to approve individual spending bills this week that were intended to reopen closed departments one at a time in hopes of putting Republicans on the defensive, but Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, has said he would not put any bill on the floor without Trump’s explicit support.
Senate Democrats took to the floor Tuesday to pressure McConnell, who has largely kept out of the conflict, and they vowed to block consideration of other legislation until the government is reopened.
McConnell fired back, noting the 2006 legislation. “Maybe the Democratic Party was for secure borders before they were against them,” he said. “Or maybe they’re just making it up as they go along. Or maybe they are that dead-set on opposing this particular president on any issue, for any reason, just for the sake of opposing him.”
But two more Senate Republicans spoke out Tuesday in favor of reopening the government while negotiations over border security continue. “I think we can walk and chew gum,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told reporters.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., chairwoman of the Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, expressed frustration with the shutdown and “how useless it is,” indicating that she might support reopening the government while wall talks continue. “I mean, I think I could live with that, but let’s see what he says tonight,” she said before the speech.
That makes five Republican senators who have expressed such a position, which if combined with a unanimous Democratic caucus would make a majority to reopen the government. But the Senate is tightly controlled by the majority leader, and he can prevent bills from coming to the floor for a vote.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, normally influential with business-oriented Republicans, called on both sides to reopen the government and agree to a compromise that would include both doing more to secure the border while permitting younger immigrants brought to the country illegally when they were children to stay.
Trump has threatened to declare a national emergency and proceed with construction of the wall if Democrats do not approve the money, a move that could provoke a constitutional clash with the legislative branch over the power of the federal purse. While some legal experts said the president has a plausible case given current law, it would almost surely generate a court challenge by critics arguing that he was overstepping his bounds.