Trump's prime-time bid to end border wall impasse falls flat

President Donald Trump in an address to Americans said a US-Mexico border wall is a "common sense" decision between "right and wrong", while Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer called it a "manufactured crisis".
A man watches US President Donald Trump addressing the nation on TV in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Jan 8, 2019.
A man watches US President Donald Trump addressing the nation on TV in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Jan 8, 2019.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - United States President Donald Trump summoned the nation's attention to the Oval Office on Tuesday (Jan 8) for a prime-time pronouncement on the border wall stand-off at the centre of the government shutdown. Then, he offered nothing new.

Instead, Mr Trump used the president's most symbolic and powerful perch - traditionally reserved for times of war or calls for national unity - to rattle off familiar statistics, renew complaints about Democratic criticism of his plan to build a wall on the Mexican border and reprise ominous anecdotes of brutal crimes committed by people he said were in the country illegally.

"Day after day, precious lives are cut short by those who have violated our borders," Mr Trump said. "How much more American blood must we shed before Congress does its job?"

The address offered little hope of a breakthrough in negotiations over the shutdown, leaving the argument about where it was before Mr Trump began talking. The impasse doesn't look likely to end soon.

Mr Trump's remarks made Democrats' evening easier. In a brief response to the President, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer also offered no new solution to the impasse - though it was Mr Trump, not his opponents, who asked for television time on Tuesday.

Ms Pelosi and Mr Schumer reiterated their position: Sign legislation to end the shutdown, then negotiate over border security.

"The President is rejecting these bipartisan Bills, which would reopen government, over his obsession with forcing American taxpayers to waste billions of dollars on an expensive and ineffective wall, a wall he always promised Mexico would pay for," Ms Pelosi said.

The President's address was the latest in a series of public appearances - including a Cabinet meeting, a statement in the White House briefing room at which he was flanked by border patrol officers, and a news conference last week - in which Mr Trump simply reiterated his demands without offering any concessions.

Wielding the bully pulpit, Mr Trump has done nothing since shutting down much of the government on Dec 22 to advance his argument or resolve the dispute.

He also has failed to persuade most Americans that he's right. Fifty-one per cent of adults surveyed between Jan 1 and Monday said Mr Trump "deserves most of the blame" for the shutdown, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday. That's up four points from a similar poll conducted on Dec 21 to 25.

The two sides are scheduled to return to the bargaining table on Wednesday. Mr Trump invited leading lawmakers from both parties to the White House for talks. The President and Vice-President Mike Pence will attend lunch with Republican senators as well.

Both sides see little political downside to standing firm. The White House feels no political pressure from Mr Trump's base supporters, who see immigration as a top issue and a wall as a permanent solution to the problem, White House aides say. Newly empowered Democrats, meanwhile, have been urged by their base to fight Mr Trump's signature campaign pledge.

 
 
 

With neither side feeling the political heat, there is little incentive to offer significant concessions or find middle ground.

Mr Trump's decision to use peak television airtime shows he is trying to reach beyond his base to garner support. But the move also gave his opponents a high-profile platform to make their counter-argument.

As the shutdown enters its 19th day, 800,000 federal workers are increasingly likely to miss their first pay cheques, due at the end of the week. There's little concern about that within the White House, where it's regarded as a problem mainly felt in Washington - despite the fact that thousands of federal workers live outside of the capital area.

To keep the broader public from feeling much pain from the shutdown, however, the administration has taken a series of unusual steps: national parks remained open, tax refunds will be issued, and the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget told House Republicans on Tuesday that low-income people will continue to receive food stamps.

Conservative radio and television pundits have encouraged Mr Trump to hold his ground. The President will travel to the border on Thursday to once again make his case for the wall.

Mr Trump's conservative allies have argued for him to declare a national emergency and use Defence Department funds to build a wall, seeing the move as his best chance of achieving the campaign promise while Democrats control the House. It could also provide an easy, face-saving path from the political quagmire, though Democrats have said they would challenge an emergency declaration in court.

Mr Trump's allies believe there is a good chance the Republican-appointed majority on the Supreme Court would line up behind the GOP President - and if not, political blame can simply directed towards the justices who rule against him.

Mr Trump has asserted that he has the authority to build a wall without congressional approval if he declares a national emergency, but the White House hasn't explained the legal justification.

Democrats have rejected the idea as an illegal overreach of presidential authority but Republican lawmakers - who repeatedly challenged former president Barack Obama's attempts to exert executive authority - have been relatively quiet.