WASHINGTON - US President Donald Trump on Tuesday night (Jan 8) painted the picture of a growing humanitarian and security crisis at the US southern border in a direct appeal to the American public for support for a border wall, the proposed policy at the centre of a political disagreement that has kept the US government shut down for 18 days and counting.
But Democrat leaders immediately fired back, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejecting the crisis as manufactured and calling Mr Trump's comments full of misinformation as she accused him of holding the government hostage “over his obsession with forcing American taxpayers to waste billions of dollars on an expensive and ineffective wall”.
In his first Oval Office address to the nation, Mr Trump argued that the US-Mexico border was a pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs and thousands of illegal immigrants - both of which were harming and even killing Americans.
He said: “How much more American blood must we shed before Congress does its job?”
He repeated his request for US$5.7 billion (S$7.7 billion) from Congress for a physical barrier, saying that the only solution was for Democrats to pass a spending bill that would defend America’s borders and re-open the government.
“The federal government remains shut down for one reason and one reason only: because Democrats will not fund border security,” said Mr Trump in a nine-minute speech that heavily featured stories of innocent victims of illegal aliens and claims of women and children harmed by human traffickers.
He also argued that the US$5.7 billion border wall would “very quickly pay for itself” because the cost of illegal drugs exceeded US$500 billion a year, and also indirectly by the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) trade deal.
Fact-checkers from news outlets such as the Washington Post and New York Times later debunked, clarified or contextualised much of Mr Trump’s claims. The Post wrote that Mr Trump’s claim that the USMCA trade deal would pay for the border wall betrayed a misunderstanding of economics.
Ms Pelosi, responding from Capitol Hill alongside Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer moments after Mr Trump’s speech, said: “The president has chosen fear. We want to start with the facts.”
She said that Democrats agreed on the need to secure America’s borders and noted that the House Democrats had passed legislature on the first day of Congress on Jan 3 to reopen government and fund border security solutions, but that the President had rejected these bipartisan bills.
Ms Pelosi and Mr Schumer placed the blame for the political impasse squarely on Mr Trump in brief speeches that highlighted the 800,000 federal workers placed on leave or working without pay due to the shutdown.
Said Mr Schumer: “The president of the United States - having failed to get Mexico to pay for his ineffective, unnecessary border wall, and unable to convince the Congress or the American people to foot the bill - has shut down the government.
“American democracy doesn’t work that way. 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.”
Mr Schumer urged the President to separate the shutdown from the arguments over border security, saying: “There is bipartisan legislation - supported by Democrats and Republicans - to reopen government while allowing debate over border security to continue.”
Mr Trump said that he had invited Congressional leadership to the White House on Wednesday afternoon (Thursday morning Singapore time) for a meeting to resolve the situation before making a trip to the border the next day.