WASHINGTON – As the government shutdown passed its 18th day Tuesday, President Donald Trump told Americans that a border wall is needed to keep the country safe – but avoided talk of declaring a national emergency that would allow him to start building it without congressional authorization.
In his first formal address from the Oval Office, Trump sought to pressure Democrats to agree to his request for $5.7 billion as a condition of ending the government shutdown. He also tried to ramp up support among Republicans who are getting nervous about government workers and others who are feeling the pain of the shutdown.
Trump emphasized humanitarian issues in an apparent appeal to Democrats. But he also spent several minutes discussing what he said was a crime problem stemming from migrants entering the country illegally, although he did not note that migrants commit crimes at lower rates than U.S. citizens.
“To every citizen, call Congress and tell them to finally, after all of these decades, secure our border,” Trump said.
In their televised response, Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer said Trump is using fear to try and achieve his wall at the expense of people who rely on government services.
“President Trump must stop holding the American people hostage, must stop manufacturing a crisis, and must reopen the government,” said Pelosi, the new House speaker.
Schumer, the Senate minority leader, said, “We don’t govern by temper tantrum,” and “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.”
Despite the rhetoric, Trump and congressional leaders from both parties agreed to meet Wednesday for more negotiations.
Trump said illegal immigration “strains public resources” and drives down jobs and wages, emphasizing its impact on African-American and Hispanic communities. Although he frequently characterizes the situation at the border as a crisis, the number of migrants being caught entering illegally along the southern border remains at historic lows.
Trump said the wall would be paid for “indirectly by the great new trade deal we have made with Mexico.” But Congress hasn’t approved the trade deal, and economists say there aren’t enough new benefits to the U.S. in the new pact with pay for the wall.
Funding for a border wall has been the main sticking point in White House negotiations with congressional Democrats to reopen parts of the federal government that have been closed for 18 days.
A wall along the U.S.-Mexico border was one of Trump’s signature campaign promises. Trump wants $5.7 billion to build the wall, even though he said repeatedly during his campaign that he would make Mexico pay for the structure. Democrats are refusing to allocate the money, arguing that a wall would be costly, ineffective and – in the words of Pelosi – “an immorality.”
The budget standoff triggered a partial government shutdown Dec. 22, shuttering nine federal departments and several smaller agencies and forcing some 800,000 workers to go on unpaid leave or work without pay. The shutdown will enter its 19th day Wednesday, making it the second-longest in history.
Trump and Vice President Mike Pence Trump will attend the Senate GOP Policy lunch on Capitol Hill on Wednesday and later will host a bipartisan group of congressional leaders at the White House.
Trump also is scheduled to follow up his speech with a Thursday trip to the Texas border.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said a wall is not the solution to crime and the humanitarian problems that Trump described.
“As predicted, the president’s address tonight was nothing more than the fear-mongering and lies we have come to expect from him,” Thompson said. “A wall will not stop the flow of illegal drugs he talks about, which overwhelmingly come through legal ports of entry. A wall is ineffective and a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
More: National emergency? Pentagon accounts would be docked to pay for Trump’s border wall
Related: If they don’t want a wall, what are Democrats’ border security solutions?
Also: From concrete wall to steel fences: A timeline of Trump’s evolving border barrier concept
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook and Eliza Collins