WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump, in his first Oval Office address to the nation, called on Congress Tuesday to end the three-week government shutdown by supporting his $5.7 billion demand for a southern border wall, arguing the barrier is needed to address what he described as a “growing humanitarian and security crisis.”
“This is a humanitarian crisis. A crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul,” Trump said in a nationally televised address that came on the 18th day of a partial government shutdown that has shuttered national parks, local Internal Revenue Service offices and left 800,000 federal workers furloughed or working without pay.
Trump, whose central 2016 campaign promise was building a wall along the U.S. and Mexico border that would be paid for by the Mexican government, used the nine-minute speech to lay out his case for the barrier, which Democrats have described as an “ineffective” and “medieval” means to address illegal border crossings.
The president said his $5.7 billion budget request was developed by law enforcement professionals and border security agents and was aimed at not only curbing illegal border crossings, but what he described as a “vast pipeline” of drugs entering the country from Mexico.
Trump also made an emotional appeal for the wall, saying he has met with "dozens" of relatives of those slain by immigrants who entered the country illegally, saying, "I’ve held the hands of the weeping mothers and embraced the grief-stricken fathers."
Trump’s description of a crisis on the southwest border comes as there has been an increase in families seeking asylum at the border, but illegal border crossings overall have decreased over the past decade, from 1.6 million apprehensions at the border in 2001 to 396,579 in 2018, according to Customs and Border Patrol data.
The president added that “the border wall would very quickly pay for itself” and it “will also be paid for indirectly” by a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada. But that deal has yet to be approved by Congress. Trade experts have said there are no provisions in the deal for Mexico to pay for the wall and even if there were additional tax revenues generated by the new agreement, Congress would still have to authorize allocating that money for the wall.
Trump, who in the past week has said he was considering declaring a national emergency to expedite funding for the wall, did not make the declaration during his speech. Instead he continued to press congressional Democrats, who now hold control over the House, to approve his funding request.
“The only solution is for Democrats to pass a spending bill that defends our borders and reopens the government,” Trump said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, in a joint address after Trump’s speech, reiterated that Democrats would not sign off on funding the construction of the wall, and accused Trump of manufacturing a crisis. They have offered $1.3 billion in funding for drones, fencing and other surveillance technology as a compromise and urged Trump to separate the spending legislation from the border wall debate.
Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the president was using “the backdrop of the Oval Office to manufacture a crisis” and to “stoke fear,” adding that Trump was attempting to “govern by temper tantrum.”
“The symbol of America should be the Statue of Liberty, not a 30-foot wall,” Schumer said.
Pelosi has said House Democrats will schedule a series of votes Wednesday to reopen the shuttered federal agencies immediately, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in a floor speech Tuesday said he will "not waste time” on scheduling a vote for any measures not first endorsed by Trump, who has threatened to veto any spending deal that does not include funding for the wall.
Trump, after a weekend of failed negotiations, has ramped up efforts this week to persuade lawmakers to support his $5.7 billion demand. Tuesday’s speech kicked off a public relations blitz that includes a trip to a Texas border town on Thursday, and meetings with lawmakers on Wednesday.
Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are slated to meet with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, followed by a 3 p.m. meeting with both Democratic and Republican congressional leaders at the White House.
On Tuesday, Trump administration officials fanned out, trying to rally lawmakers behind the president’s funding request. White House adviser Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, reached out to congressional Republicans urging them to stand by Trump amid the ongoing standoff over border wall funding, while Pence and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen met with Republicans behind closed doors hours before Trump’s speech.
Pence reportedly told those on hand to “stand strong” in support, according to The Associated Press.
Their efforts came as a growing number of moderate Republicans — including Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon — have started to grow weary of keeping the shutdown going over wall funding, and have publicly called on Republicans to back legislation to reopen the government immediately while taking up the wall issue later.
Pressure has also been mounting outside of Capitol Hill for an immediate end to the shutdown.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in a letter sent to Trump and lawmakers on Tuesday, urged both sides to reopen the government immediately, arguing that the “shutdown is harming the American people, the business community, and the economy.”
“As we are hearing every day from businesses across the country, the adverse consequences of the shutdown are wide and growing,” the chamber said in its letter. “Small businesses are unable to receive assistance from the Small Business Administration. Companies are delayed in their ability raise additional capital or complete the process of going public. . . . Safety inspectors are sidelined, mortgage approvals are delayed, and research is halted.”
The National Governors Association issued a bipartisan letter to Trump and congressional leaders on Monday calling for a “swift resolution” to end the shutdown.
“A federal government shutdown should not be a negotiating tactic as disagreements are resolved,” said the letter, signed by the group’s chair and vice chair, Govs. Steve Bullock (D-Mont.) and Larry Hogan (R-Md.). “It is imperative that you reopen the government now and, then, reach across the aisle to find a solution that will end the current impasse.”