The only thing surprising about President Donald Trump’s address from the Oval Office on Tuesday night was how totally unnecessary and un-newsworthy it was. Trump did not declare he was reopening the government. He did not issue an “emergency” declaration. He did not even offer any new arguments for a border wall that voters say they don’t want for a crisis that doesn’t exist. Instead, he delivered a weak, unconvincing promise to sit down with Democrats. Never has he looked so helpless and small.
In short, the president snookered the networks into giving him free time to commune with his base. They should not make that mistake again.
The speech, again not surprisingly, was delivered in a wooden cadence. Without a cheering campaign-style rally filled with his cult followers, his words fell flat, and he seemed to lack energy. Another rally might have worked better.
Again, as anticipated, the speech was littered with falsehoods. He claimed there was a growing crisis along the U.S-Mexico border, though illegal crossings are a fraction of what they were in 2000. He bemoaned the influx of heroin, but didn’t mention that the vast majority of heroin doesn’t come over the border but through airports and other ports of entry. He claimed the wall would be paid for by NAFTA 2.0, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, but that’s bunk, and no official has adequately explained how it would work. He falsely claimed that Democrats would not fund border security. In fact, they have offered $1.3 billion. Perhaps his weirdest statement was to claim that African-Americans and Latinos are the groups hurt most by illegal immigration.
Calling it a “humanitarian crisis — a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul,” the president did shy away from phony claims about terrorists. But a humanitarian crisis, of course, won’t be solved by a wall. Refugees will still come to have their status adjudicated.
It’s difficult to imagine Trump would change the mind of any voter not already devoted to his cause and immunized against reality. To the contrary, one wonders whether Republican members of the House, voting this week on separate bills to reopen departments of the government that have been shut down, will think, “That’s all he’s got?” If so, be prepared for a substantial number of them to abandon Trump and vote with Democrats when individual spending bills come to the House floor.
Had Democrats anticipated such a nothingburger speech, they might have delivered a simple message in a few seconds: “The president said nothing new. He can’t hold the country hostage. Open the government. Mr. President. Real people are being hurt.” Instead, they made a number of now-familiar points: Democrats do favor border security; the wall is an expensive, counterproductive solution in search of a problem; and the only crisis is one of governance, which Trump created all by himself.
However, the Democratic leaders were able to get off a fair number of zingers. “Sadly, much of what we have heard from President Trump throughout this senseless shutdown has been full of misinformation and even malice,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., began. “The president has chosen fear. We want to start with the facts.”
She reminded the audience that Trump had created the shutdown: “President Trump has chosen to hold hostage critical services for the health, safety and well-being of the American people and withhold the paychecks of 800,000 innocent workers across the nation — many of them veterans. He promised to keep government shutdown for ‘months or years’ — no matter whom it hurts. That’s just plain wrong.”
They also debunked the claim that Democrats did not want border security. “We all agree that we need to secure our borders, while honoring our values: We can build the infrastructure and roads at our ports of entry; we can install new technology to scan cars and trucks for drugs coming into our nation; we can hire the personnel we need to facilitate trade and immigration at the border; and we can fund more innovation to detect unauthorized crossings,” Pelosi said.
She correctly stated that this was a humanitarian challenge, but that Trump had made it worse.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., picked up from there. “We don’t govern by temper tantrum. 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.” He continued: “There is bipartisan legislation — supported by Democrats and Republicans — to reopen government while allowing debate over border security to continue. There is no excuse for hurting millions of Americans over a policy difference.” He closed with a plea to reopen the government.
This may have been the only modern presidential address where the response was better than the president’s. Taking a step back, it’s difficult to figure out why Trump did this. When Republicans bolt, it will seem even more like a personal rebuke than it would be had he not given the speech. His weak performance is unlikely to reduce Democrats’ resolve; in fact, they may see him on the ropes and believe him more vulnerable for a knockout.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is going to have a hard time continuing to shirk responsibility for the shutdown. His members were antsy before, and the lack of clear direction from the president is likely to raise their anxiety level still further. McConnell says he is waiting for Trump to make his position clear. By now, he should know it’s a fruitless endeavor. Maybe it is time for McConnell to get serious, put a bill on the Senate floor and dare Trump to veto it. Otherwise, the government will remain closed for a good deal longer.
Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.