Donald Trump has used the first Oval Office address of his presidency to stoke fears of illegal immigration, repeat dubious claims about his border wall and offer no new solutions to the partial government shutdown.
In the type of made-for-TV-moment he relishes, the US president blamed criminal gangs and “vast quantities of illegal drugs” for “thousands of deaths” and faulted Democrats for failing to end the shutdown, now in its 18th day. Top congressional Democrats accused him of fear-mongering, and using rhetoric “full of misinformation and even malice.”
“This is a humanitarian crisis – a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul,” Trump told primetime viewers, describing at the situation at the border. He argued that the current immigration system allows “vicious coyotes and ruthless gangs” to prey on immigrants, especially women and children.
Trump wore a red, white and blue tie, with a US flag pin in his suit jacket. Photos of his mother and father sat on a table behind him. The Oval Office has typically been a projection of power used by presidents before him to address the nation at times of crisis or tragedy. In remarks lasting 10 minutes, the president sought to make the case for a border wall – arguably the central promise of his short political career – and tried to imply the proposal had broad public support.
Law enforcement professionals have requested $5.7bn for a physical barrier,” he said. “At the request of Democrats, it will be a steel barrier rather than a concrete wall. This barrier is absolutely critical to border security. It’s also what our professionals at the border want and need.
“This is just common sense. The border wall would very quickly pay for itself. The cost of illegal drugs exceeds $500bn a year, vastly more than the $5.7bn we have requested from Congress. The wall will also be paid for indirectly by the great new trade deal we have made with Mexico.”
Fact-checkers have poured scorn on Trump’s assertion that the trade deal, a successor to Nafta, means that Mexico is paying for the wall. The Mexican government has always refused to do so. And following the address, critics were quick to point out that Democrats are against money for a border wall – whether steel or concrete.
Nearly three weeks into the shutdown, Trump did not offer fresh ideas to break the current political impasse and did not declare a national emergency so that he could bypass Congress, as had been speculated. Instead he said: “The federal government remains shut down for one reason and one reason only: because Democrats will not fund border security.”
Calling on Democrats to pass a spending bill, he added: “This situation could be solved in a 45-minute meeting … Hopefully we can rise above partisan politics in order to support national security.”
On an extraordinary night for US politics, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, delivered a live rebuttal from the House speaker’s balcony hallway. Both adamantly oppose the construction of a wall and have urged Trump to reopen the government while talks continue.
“President Trump must stop holding the American people hostage, must stop manufacturing a crisis, and must reopen the government.”The Guardian
Schumer added: “We don’t govern by temper tantrum. No president should pound the table and demand he gets his way or else the government shuts down, hurting millions of Americans who are treated as leverage.
“Tonight – and throughout this debate and his presidency – President Trump has appealed to fear, not facts. Division, not unity.”
The senator said: “Most presidents have used Oval Office addresses for noble purposes. This president just used the backdrop of the Oval Office to manufacture a crisis, stoke fear, and divert attention from the turmoil in his administration.”
In the run-up to the address, the White House had been caught in a series of falsehoods. At the weekend, Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, claimed that 4,000 known or suspected terrorists had been apprehended at the southern border. On Monday, Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor, admitted that this was “an unfortunate misstatement” as most of the individuals had been stopped at airports.
Meanwhile, Pence was questioned by NBC News on Monday about Trump’s claim that some former presidents told him a wall should be built (all four living presidents have denied it). The vice-president replied: “I know the president has said that that was his impression from previous administrations, previous presidents.”
The president, who has threatened to keep the government closed for months or even years, will attend a Senate Republican lunch meeting on Wednesday, then visit the southern border on Thursday as he continues to wage a public relations offensive. The partial government shutdown is now the second-longest in history and there is no end in sight.
On Tuesday night, immigrants’ right groups again condemned Trump’s message. Lorella Praeli, deputy political director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said: “With tonight’s speech, President Trump chose to compound the chaos because he can’t convince the majority of Americans that their taxpayer dollars should fund his bogus campaign promise ... The president appears to be more focused on procuring his xenophobic symbol than running the government and upholding democratic norms.”