(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump demanded Congress provide billions more to combat illegal migration in a prime-time address, stopping short of declaring a national emergency and offering no new path to end a paralyzing political dispute over his proposed wall on the Mexican border.
“The only solution is for Democrats to pass a spending bill that defends our borders and reopens our government,” Trump said Tuesday during a roughly 10-minute televised speech from the Oval Office, employing for the first time in his presidency a format traditionally used to explain major military actions or to calm the nation during times of crisis.
The address, aired on all major U.S. television networks, was the latest step in Trump’s campaign to tackle what he called a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. He is pushing to show supporters he’s fighting for a key promise of his 2016 campaign, and by appealing directly to Americans, he hoped to raise public pressure on Democrats to agree to some additional funding for border security.
“This is a humanitarian crisis,” Trump said. “A crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer rejected Trump’s description of a crisis on the Mexican border in their televised response to the president’s address.
“President Trump must stop holding the American people hostage, must stop manufacturing a crisis, and must reopen the government,” Pelosi said.
Standing next to Pelosi, Schumer said only Trump should be blamed for the shutdown.
“American democracy doesn’t work that way,” Schumer said. “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.”
In his remarks, Trump criticized opponents who have called the proposed border wall “immoral,” saying that “the only thing that is immoral is the politicians to do nothing and continue to allow more innocent people to be so horribly victimized.” He rattled off a series of statistics about migration across the border, and cited examples of brutal crimes he said had been committed by immigrants who had illegally entered the U.S.
The statistics Trump cited included Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s arrests of hundreds of thousands of “aliens with criminal records” over the past two years. ICE enforces immigration law within the U.S., not on the borders. Its numbers include people convicted of violent offenses, but also those convicted of nonviolent crimes including illegal entry or re-entry to the country.
He also called the southern border “a pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs,” suggesting a wall would stem the flow. In fact, most illegal drugs are smuggled into the country through ports of entry, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency and Department of Homeland Security.
The president and Vice President Mike Pence are expected to have lunch with Senate Republicans on Wednesday at the Capitol, and Trump will meet with congressional leaders of both parties at the White House. The president is scheduled to travel to the southern border on Thursday to further amplify his case for building a wall.
Trump did not offer any new ideas for resolving an impasse that’s led to a partial government shutdown, now in its 18th day. He’s demanded $5.7 billion to build about 234 miles of new physical barrier on the border, as well as billions more over currently appropriated spending levels for border security and to detain migrants caught crossing illegally into the U.S.
Some of Trump’s conservative allies had pushed him to declare a national emergency related to the border in the speech, a possibility he didn’t even mention. The move, his allies believe, may be Trump’s only path to meet his campaign promise to build the wall while Democrats have control of the House. Even if it were blocked by courts, Trump might declare a face-saving victory with such an order and reopen the government.
“He’s fighting against almost every way that people can actually legally enter this country, forcing them to become undocumented and then he’s trying to attack their undocumented status,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the self-described Bronx socialist, said on MSNBC. “This is systematic, it is wrong and it is anti-American.”
The Trump administration has done little else to make the case for a border crisis. Apprehensions of migrants at the U.S. southern border have generally fallen for the past two decades, from 1.6 million in fiscal 2000 to 396,579 in fiscal 2018. Last year’s apprehensions were up compared to 2017 -- which at 303,916 were the fewest in nearly half a century -- but down or about the same level as every full year during the Obama administration.
Public opinion is not on Trump’s side and has slipped further as the shutdown wears on. Fifty-one percent of adults surveyed Jan. 1-7 said Trump “deserves most of the blame” for the shutdown, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released Tuesday. That’s up four points from a similar poll conducted Dec. 21-25.
Congressional Democrats are most to blame in the view of 32 percent of those surveyed, while congressional Republicans are seen as most to blame by 7 percent, according to the poll.
Polling is more favorable for Trump on the border situation more generally. A Morning Consult/Politico poll conducted Jan. 4-6 found that 42 percent of the nearly 2,000 registered voters surveyed said they believe there is a “crisis” on the southern border caused by illegal immigration. Thirty-seven percent said it’s just a “problem,” and 12 percent said they don’t think conditions rise even to the level of a problem.
Trump’s re-election campaign anticipated that the speech would be a winner with the president’s base, sending an email Tuesday signed by the president setting the goal of raising $500,000 in a single day. The amount would be “so HUGE,” the message said, that “even Democrats and the Fake News won’t be able to ignore” Trump’s argument.
(Updates with Ocasio-Cortez comment in 14th paragraph.)
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