Trump's Oval Office address shows he's losing on the border wall

Image: Donald Trump
As seen from a window outside the Oval Office, President Donald Trump gives a prime-time address about border security on Jan. 8, 2019. Copyright Carolyn Kaster AP
By Jonathan Allen with NBC News Politics
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Analysis: Now wrapped in the rhetoric of a 'humanitarian crisis,' his product still isn't selling. And he knows it.


WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has hit a wall.

That is, his border wall isn't selling — and he appears to know it.

He didn't get Mexico to pay for it. Congress won't cough up the cash, either. The partial government shutdown he said he'd be "proud" to own in the name of forcing Democrats to capitulate on the barrier is well into its third week. And with a handful of Republicans starting to break ranks publicly, Democratic leaders have shown no signs of backing down.

Except for a cosmetic change — Trump said he'll accept a steel barrier instead of a concrete wall — the president hasn't tinkered with the product he's marketing. But on Tuesday, in his first address from the Oval Office, he wrapped it in a rhetorical shroud that he's been using recently in lower-profile settings: now, in his estimation, the wall is needed because of the "humanitarian" crisis at the border.

"Women and children are the biggest victims by far of our broken system," Trump said. "This is the tragic reality of illegal immigration on our southern border. This is the cycle of human suffering that I am determined to end."

But for years — and even at moments in his Tuesday night address — Trump has portrayed immigrants as a scourge on American society. Usually, he makes the distinction that he is talking about undocumented immigrants, and some — who he's dubbed murderers, rapists and animals — but not all of them.

That argument was the centerpiece of his 2016 presidential campaign, his barnstorming tour of the nation on behalf of Republican candidates before last November's midterm elections and his remarks from the Oval Office Tuesday night.

"Over the years, thousands of Americans have been brutally killed by those who illegally entered our country and thousands more lives will be lost if we don't act right now," he said. "This is a humanitarian crisis, a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul."

His remarks seemed highly unlikely to move Congress in his direction. He has asked for a $7 billion appropriation, including $5.7 billion for the promised border wall. But the Republican-led Congress denied him the money he sought in the last Congress, and Democrats, who now control the House and retain the numbers to sustain a filibuster in the Senate, haven't so much as blinked.

"I don't think he advanced his case one bit," Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said on MSNBC's "The Last Word" following the Oval Office address.

Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor, said Trump may have done little to persuade his critics.

"The president's speech will make his base happy — shows he's working on keeping his promises," Eberhart said. "It's unlikely to convince Democrats or independents. The Democrats have an opportunity here to rise above partisan politics and make a counteroffer to the president and get the government open. Instead — so far — they have been more interested in denying Trump a win."

Democratic leaders accused Trump of holding hostage hundreds of thousands of federal workers and millions of Americans who rely on government services by shutting down the government in the name of trying to gain leverage for the wall.

"We don't govern by temper tantrum," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a Democratic response delivered alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., following Trump's speech. "Mr. President, reopen the government and we can work to resolve our differences over border security. But end this shutdown now."

In his remarks, Trump threw a final Hail Mary, imploring Americans to put pressure on lawmakers to fund his wall.

"To every citizen, call Congress and tell them to finally after all of these decades secure our border," he said. "This is a choice between right and wrong, justice and injustice."

But Trump chose not to pull out his final stop — at least, not yet.

He has been talking about declaring a national emergency as part of a larger plan to shift already appropriated dollars so that he can direct the military to build the border wall without getting new funds from Congress. It's not clear whether he can legally use the Pentagon money, and Democrats would be sure to raise hackles — and potentially a court challenge — if he tried.


He'll get another chance to change the political dynamics of what has so far been a futile fight for him when he visits the southern border on Thursday.

But it seems that he knows he's losing the fight to force Congress to bend to his will.

In an off-the-record session with television anchors earlier Tuesday, the New York Times reported Tuesday night, Trump said he didn't expect to get much bang out of either the Oval Office speech or the border visit.

"It's not going to change a damn thing," he said of the border trip, according to the Times. "But I'm still doing it."

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