WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump took his disputed claim of a national security crisis at the nation’s southern border directly to the American people on Tuesday night, for the first time speaking from the Oval Office in prime time to try to enlist public support for $5.7 billion for his long-promised wall.
Yet while the president aimed to put pressure on his Democratic opponents, even before he spoke his Republican support seemed to be eroding further. Several more Republican senators called for an end to the shutdown regardless of funding for Trump’s signature wall.
“There is a growing humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border,” Trump said in a 10-minute address, sitting at his familiar desk. He added, “All Americans are hurt by uncontrolled illegal migration.”
The president said that constructing a steel barrier, as he called it, is “absolutely critical to border security. It’s also what our professionals at the border want and need.”
The president stopped short of declaring the national emergency he’s spoken of in recent days, which he’s said would allow him to bypass Congress and tap existing funds for a wall. He also steered clear, after days of criticism, of repeating some of the false claims that thousands of terrorists were crossing the border. But as he often does at political rallies, he vividly described a few violent crimes allegedly committed by people who are in the U.S. illegally.
His address punctuated a public relations offensive to break a standoff with lawmakers that has blocked funding for about a quarter of the government, keeping affected agencies closed since Dec. 22 for the longest such shutdown since 1996. By Saturday, if unresolved, it will surpass that record.
The impasse has left about 800,000 workers without paychecks this week, though about half must still report for work. It has closed popular national parks and left others opened but ill-attended and filling with trash. Real estate closings, farming plans and other businesses that depend on federal offices have been disrupted, reflecting the increasing number of disrupted services reliant on the government.
Trump has argued, despite polling to the contrary, that federal workers and other Americans accept any such sacrifices, given their support for his stand for a border wall to keep the country safe.
Apprehensions at the southern border have been declining for two decades, and no terrorists are known to have crossed it.
Democrats and advocates who favor less restrictive immigration policies dispute that a crisis has ensued. There is some agreement on the humanitarian imperatives, including the need to spend more money on immigration judges and other officials necessary to process refugee claims that have piled up, in part because of administration policies discouraging such claims. Democrats also have called for investigating detention centers at the border, after the recent deaths of two migrant Guatemalan children in U.S. custody.
Days after Democrats assumed control of the House last week amid the standoff, the White House on Monday arranged the Oval Office address as Trump has tried to dominate the debate this week. He also sent Vice President Mike Pence on a series of interviews with network news reporters on Tuesday morning. Trump and Pence are expected to meet with Republican senators at the Capitol on Wednesday, and Trump plans to go to the border in McAllen, Texas, on Thursday.