By Rebecca Ballhaus, Kristina Peterson and Michael C. Bender
WASHINGTON—President Trump in a prime-time address Tuesday said a wall along the southern border is key to national security, as he called for lawmakers to fund it and end a partial government shutdown that is days away from becoming the longest in U.S. history.
In the televised address from the Oval Office, Mr. Trump’s first in his nearly two years as president, he emphasized what he said was support for wall funding from law-enforcement officials, who he said requested the more than $5 billion for the barrier that Mr. Trump is seeking.
A wall “is absolutely critical to border security,” Mr. Trump said, in a nine-minute speech. “It’s also what professionals at the border want and need. This is just common sense.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the Democratic congressional leaders, issued an immediate televised response to the president, rejecting the idea of a wall as unnecessary and accusing Mr. Trump of stoking fear to rally support for his cause.
“President Trump must stop holding the American people hostage, must stop manufacturing a crisis, and must reopen the government,” Mrs. Pelosi said. Mr. Schumer said Democrats are united with the president on the need for stronger border security, but said: “We sharply disagree with the president about the most effective way to do it.”
Mr. Trump and congressional leadership from both parties are scheduled to meet and discuss the issue Wednesday at the White House, after the president attends a lunch with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill. The president said Tuesday evening that he had invited congressional leadership to the White House to “get this done.”
Mr. Trump’s address was part of a ramped-up effort by the White House this week to sway public opinion in favor of a border wall, a core issue for Mr. Trump’s political base but one that is broadly unpopular. On Thursday, the Republican president is set to travel to the border to highlight the issue in person.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in September, ahead of midterm elections, showed 29% of respondents said they would be more likely to vote for a congressional candidate calling for a wall, while 55% said they would be less likely to do so.
President Trump has suggested he might resort to declaring a national emergency to fund a wall at the border with Mexico. But what constitutes a national emergency and how might funding work? Jason Bellini reports. Photo: Getty
The White House sought to use the address to change the focus of the debate to border security rather than the shutdown, which in recent days has centered on the hardship facing furloughed workers or those working without pay. Because of the partial shutdown, about 420,000 employees deemed essential are working without pay, while 380,000 federal employees have been placed on unpaid leave.
As a candidate in 2016, Mr. Trump pledged that he would build a border wall that Mexico would underwrite. Last year, he rejected a deal that would have given him $25 billion for a border wall and other security measures because it didn’t give him other immigration restrictions he wanted.
In December, he told Democratic congressional leaders at a televised Oval Office meeting that he would bear responsibility for any shutdown if Congress didn’t fund the project. Then, to keep the government from shutting down, he signaled he would sign a short-term spending bill that unanimously passed the Senate, before reversing himself and saying he wanted any bill to include $5.7 billion in border-wall funding that was part of a measure signed by the then-GOP-controlled House.
In his address, the president offered a variety of justifications for the wall.
He reiterated some of the darker themes from his campaign rallies, rattling off statistics of illegal drugs crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, sharing stories of human trafficking and of crimes allegedly committed by illegal immigrants.
The president shied away from some statistics his aides were criticized for mischaracterizing this week but exaggerated other numbers. He said Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials had arrested 266,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records in the past two years—a number that includes those arrested for nonviolent offenses such as illegal entry or re-entry. ICE doesn’t categorize its arrests by type of crime.
Mr. Trump also said a new trade deal with Mexico, which hasn’t yet been ratified by Congress, would pay for the barrier—an assertion that is widely disputed.
The president also made an emotional pitch: “This is a humanitarian crisis—a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul,” he said, sitting at the Resolute Desk. “This is the cycle of human suffering that I am determined to end.” Democrats have said that Mr. Trump’s policies, including one earlier this year that separated migrant children from their families, have worsened the humanitarian situation at the border.
Earlier Tuesday, Senate Democrats blocked the chamber from considering bipartisan foreign-policy legislation in a bid to pressure Republicans to end the government shutdown, which was in its 18th day.
In his address, Mr. Trump didn’t declare a national emergency over border security—a move he publicly contemplated in recent days—in which he would seek to divert funds from elsewhere in the government to fund the wall. Such a declaration would bring swift legal challenges, and it is unclear in that scenario where the funds would come from.
Mr. Trump has said he wouldn’t sign any bill ending the shutdown that doesn’t allocate money for hundreds of miles of a border wall.
Earlier Tuesday evening, Senate Democrats prevented the chamber from moving to consider a package of bills aimed at boosting security assistance for Israel and other Middle Eastern policy provisions. Republicans hold 53 seats in the Senate, where most bills need 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles.
Some Democrats have said they would block all legislation until the government is reopened, though Mr. Schumer hasn’t gone that far.
The president’s apparent backing off on declaring an emergency comes after lawmakers in both parties indicated they wouldn’t support such a move. Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday that he opposes using an emergency declaration to build a wall using military funds.
“In short, I’m opposed to using defense dollars for nondefense purposes,” he said.
The administration has sought in recent days to blunt the impact of the shutdown, buying time as negotiations with Congress continue. On Monday, the Trump administration said the Internal Revenue Service would pay tax refunds even though the agency is closed, reversing a longstanding policy.
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