US President Donald Trump speaks from the Oval Office of the White House as he gives a prime-time address about border security, in Washington, Jan 8, 2019. (CARLOS BARRIA / POOL PHOTO VIA AP)
WASHINGTON – US President Donald Trump claimed there was a "growing humanitarian crisis" on the US border with Mexico in a televised speech Tuesday night amid a partisan fight over his proposed border barrier.
In his first national address from the Oval Office since assuming presidency, Trump described the situation on the southern border as "a crisis of the heart, a crisis of the soul," making his case that a "steel barrier" is "absolutely critical for border security."
He argued that the wall was needed to resolve a security and humanitarian "crisis," blaming illegal immigration for what he said was a scourge of drugs and violence in the US and asking: "How much more American blood must we shed before Congress does its job?"
The president's remarks came amid his contentious fight with congressional Democratic lawmakers over the appropriation of more than US$5 billion he demanded for erecting the wall to keep out illegal migrants and drug traffickers.
Addressing the nation from the Oval Office for the first time, Trump argued for funding on security and humanitarian grounds as he sought to put pressure on Democrats amid an extended partial government shutdown
The dispute caused a lapse in congressional appropriations for nine cabinet-level departments and other federal agencies, triggering a partial government shutdown that has entered the 18th day.
Democrats in response accused Trump appealing to "fear, not facts" and manufacturing a border crisis for political gain.
Using the formal trappings of the White House, Trump hoped to gain the upper hand in the standoff over his demand for US$5.7 billion to build a wall along the US-Mexico border. He plans a visit to the border Thursday as he continues to pitch what was a signature promise of his 2016 presidential campaign.
He addressed the nation as the shutdown stretched through its third week, with hundreds of thousands of federal workers going without pay and some congressional Republicans growing increasingly jittery about the spreading impact of the impasse. Trump will visit the Capitol on Wednesday to meet with Senate Republicans, and has invited Democratic and Republican congressional leaders to return to the White House to meet with him later that day.
He claimed the standoff could be resolved in "45 minutes" if Democrats would just negotiate, but previous meetings have led to no agreement.
In their own televised remarks, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer accused Trump of misrepresenting the situation on the border as they urged him to reopen closed government departments and turn loose paychecks for hundreds of thousands of workers.
Negotiations on wall funding could proceed in the meantime, they said.
Schumer said Trump "just used the backdrop of the Oval Office to manufacture a crisis, stoke fear and divert attention from the turmoil in his administration."
In his dire address, Trump ticked off a string of statistics and claims to make his case that there is a crisis at the border, but a number of his statements were misleading, such as saying the new trade deal with Mexico would pay for the wall, or suggesting through gruesome examples that immigrants are more likely to commit crime.
Trump, who has long railed against illegal immigration at the border, has recently seized on humanitarian concerns to argue there is a broader crisis that can only be solved with a wall. But critics say the security risks are overblown and the administration is at least partly to blame for the humanitarian situation.
The president often highlights such incidents, though studies over several years have found immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States.
Trump has been discussing the idea of declaring a national emergency to allow him to move forward with the wall without getting congressional approval for the billions he's requested. But he did not mention that Tuesday night.
Trump was nearly halfway through his 9-minute address before he ever mentioned the border wall, describing it as a request from law enforcement rather than his own longstanding political pledge. He also suggested that his proposal to build the wall from steel, rather than concrete, was a concession to Democrats, although they don't see it that way.
Trump sought to put the blame on Democrats for the standoff, saying they "will not fund border security." In fact, House Democrats passed legislation the day they took control of the House that offered US$1.3 billion for border security. And Senate Democrats have approved similar funding year after year.
Seeking to keep up pressure on Trump and the Republicans, Pelosi said the House would begin passing individual bills this week to reopen some federal agencies, starting with the Treasury Department to ensure Americans receive their tax refunds. The administration says it will act on its own to ensure the refunds.
Ahead of the speech, the White House sought to shore up GOP support on Capitol Hill, where a growing number of Republicans have been expressing unease with the extended shutdown. But GOP lawmakers were still raising concerns Tuesday, talking about disruptions in payments to farmers and troubles for home buyers trying to get government-backed mortgage loans. Vice-President Mike Pence met privately with House Republicans, urging them to "stand strong" and insisting the White House wants to negotiate, according to people familiar with the conversation.
He also told the group that Trump won't retreat. "That pickup ain't got reverse in it," he said.
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