WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump made his case to the American people Tuesday for increased border security in the face of what he called a humanitarian and national security crisis at the southwest border.
Addressing the nation from the Oval Office for the first time, Trump described the border as unmanageable. Speaking in solemn tones from behind the Resolute Desk, he painted a dire picture of killings and drug deaths he argues come from unchecked illegal immigration.
“Every day Customs and Border Patrol agents encounter thousands of illegal immigrants trying to enter our country. We are out of space to hold them,” he said.
Trump, who will visit the Mexican border in person on Thursday, also argued for a border wall — his signature 2016 campaign issue — that would keep out drug traffickers and criminal migrants.
The president delivered his prime-time remarks on the 18th day of a partial government shutdown that began after he rejected spending bills that did not include $5.7 billion to construct a wall.
He called on Democrats to return to the White House to meet with him, saying it was “immoral” for “politicians to do nothing.” Previous meetings have led to no agreement.
Predicting that Trump’s remarks would be filled with “malice and misinformation,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., won air-time to respond.
Standing next to each other, the two Democratic leaders accused Trump of misrepresenting the situation on the border as they urged him to reopen closed government departments.
“The president has chosen fear. We want to start with the facts,” said Pelosi.
Schumer admonished Trump for governing “by temper tantrum” as he proposed that Trump end the shutdown immediately, then negotiate with Congress on border security.
Earlier Trump had challenged Democrats to pass a bill with funding for a barrier, arguing it could be done in a 45-minute meeting. Trump has invited congressional leaders to the White House for a meeting Wednesday “to get this done.”
Political insiders were watching to see if Trump would declare a national emergency, since he confirmed last week that he was considering doing so. Trump never uttered those words Tuesday, however.
A 1976 federal law would allow Trump to tap defense funds to bankroll wall construction. Such a maneuver would enable him to sign legislation to end the partial government shutdown, but would surely be the subject of litigation.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., told CNN that the president does have the authority to use this power, but “it would be wrong. It would be horrible policy.”
Ahead of Trump’s remarks, Trump 2020 Advisory Board member Marc Lotter told the Review-Journal that “I think the biggest thing he’s going to do tonight is to humanize the humanitarian crisis we have at the border.”
Indeed, Trump spoke warmly about his dealings with the families of victims of violence at the hands of criminal immigrants – including the family of Officer Ronil Singh, a California police officer who was allegedly killed by an undocumented immigrant last month.
“I’ve met with dozens of families whose loved ones were stolen by illegal immigration. I’ve held the hands of the weeping mothers and embraced the grief-stricken fathers. So sad. So terrible,” Trump said.
Otherwise, he ran through his talking points of drug trafficking, gang members, and the child victims of human trafficking.
Schumer, Democrats chided
Trump also chided Schumer for supporting “a physical barrier in the past, along with many other Democrats. They changed their mind only after I was elected president.”
“Having failed to get Mexico to pay for his ineffective, unnecessary border wall and unable to convince the Congress or the American people to foot the bill,” Trump “has shut down the government,” Schumer responded.
Trump too has changed his mind. On Dec. 11, the president crowed to Pelosi and Schumer that he would be “proud to shut down the government over border security.” Trump also said he would not blame Democrats if a shutdown occurred.
After the address, Democratic strategist Maria Cardona said that Trump showed himself to be “a president without empathy, without remorse,” who doesn’t care about the livelihoods of 800,000 federal workers. Ironically, she said, that group includes Border Patrol offices who are “hostage to a Trump campaign rally bumper sticker.”
Mark Krikorian of the pro-enforcement Center for Immigration Studies called it “a pretty good speech” that smartly listed the wall as a final item.
“It’s unclear how a trade deal will pay for the wall,” Krikorian added in a reference to Trump’s claim that the wall would be funded indirectly by a new trade proposal with Mexico and Canada. “He should instead have pushed Congress to levy a remittance tax.”
Contact Debra J. Saunders at email@example.com or at 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter. The Associated Press contributed to this report.