WASHINGTON (AP) — Making his case on prime-time TV, President Donald Trump said there was a “growing humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border” on Tuesday night from the Oval Office.
The president argued for funding for his long-promised border wall, saying “the only solution is for Democrats to pass a spending bill that defends our borders and reopens the government.”
“They have refused to provide our brave border agents with the tools they desperately need to protect our families and our nation,” Trump said.
He said he had invited Congressional leaders to the White House for a meeting on Wednesday “to get this done.”
“Hopefully we can rise above partisan politics in order to support national security,” he said.
The government shutdown has left hundreds of thousands of federal workers facing missed paychecks.
In the Democratic response, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the president “must stop holding the American people hostage, stop manufacturing a crisis and must reopen the government.”
Chuck Schumer, the Senate Minority Leader, laid the blame for the shutdown at Trump’s feet for “having failed to get Mexico to pay for his ineffective, unnecessary border wall, unable to convince the Congress or the American people to foot the bill.”
“We don’t govern by temper tantrum,” Schumer said. “No president should pound the table and demand he gets his way or the government shuts down.”
After delivering his first Oval Office address, Trump will visit the southern border on Thursday, as he tries to put pressure on resistant Democrats.
His administration was also discussing the idea of declaring a national emergency to allow him to move forward with the wall without Congress approving the more than $5 billion he wants. He did not, however, raise that possibility in his address.
Trump framed the issue of a wall, or steel barrier, as a moral imperative, calling it a “choice between right and wrong, justice and injustice, about whether we fulfill our sacred duty to the American citizens that we serve.”
Addressing Congress, the president said, “Pass a bill that ends this crisis.”
While the Trump administration has stressed the idea that the situation at the border has reached a crisis point, critics say the security risks are overblown and the administration is at least partly to blame for the humanitarian situation.
“The fact is the women and children at the border are not a security threat. They are a humanitarian challenge that Trump’s own cruel and counterproductive policies have only deepened,” Pelosi said.
While the number of illegal border crossings is down from 1.6 million in 2000 to less than 400,000 last year, the number of families coming over the border has risen sharply. Many are seeking asylum, which is greatly straining the system.
The partial government closure, now in its third week, is the second-longest in history.
With no end in sight, Trump’s self-proclaimed deal-making skills are coming under scrutiny. Trying to increase the heat on opponents, the administration has emphasized the humanitarian issues in recent days.
“This is a humanitarian crisis. A crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul,” the president said.
Trump evoked a handful of instances in which people have been murdered or attacked by undocumented migrants, saying he had met over the last several years “with dozens of families whose loved ones were stolen by illegal immigration."
Studies have not found any link between illegal immigration and increased violence.
Democrats also spoke in moral terms, castigating the president on his decision to make an address to the nation over the issue.
“Most presidents have used Oval Office addresses for noble purposes. This president just used the backdrop of the Oval Office to manufacture a crisis, stoke fear and divert attention from the turmoil in his administration,” Schumer said.
Vice President Mike Pence said this week the idea of an emergency declaration to fund a wall remains a possibility. Such a move would certainly draw legal challenges, and Trump - who told lawmakers he would be willing to keep the government closed for months or even years - has said he would like to continue negotiations for now.
No. 2 House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said Tuesday that he believes Trump does not have legal authority to declare a national emergency and unilaterally build a wall. Doing so “certainly could” be an abuse of power, he said.
Leaders of the nonpartisan National Governors Association made public a letter Tuesday sent to Trump and congressional leaders a day earlier, calling on them to reopen the government, saying “shutdown should not be a negotiating tactic as disagreements are resolved.”
In their response, Democrats echoed that view.
“President Trump has appealed to fear, not facts. Division, not unity,” Schumer said. “There is no excuse for hurting millions of Americans over a policy difference."
Leaning on Senate Republicans, some of whom are growing anxious about the impact of the shutdown, prior to the address Pelosi said the House would begin passing individual bills this week to reopen federal agencies, starting with the Treasury Department to ensure Americans receive their tax refunds.
In a pre-emptive move, the White House said Monday that tax refunds would be paid despite the shutdown. That shutdown exemption would break from past practice and could be challenged.
There were other signs the administration is working to contain the fallout from the shutdown, which has furloughed 380,000 federal workers and forced an additional 420,000 to work without pay.
The National Park Service said it was dipping into entrance fees to pay for staffing at some highly visited parks to maintain restrooms, remove trash and patrol the grounds, after reports of human waste and garbage overflowing in some spots.
Over the weekend, the federal agency tasked with guaranteeing U.S. airport security acknowledged an increase in the number of employees missing work or calling in sick.
But Trump and the Transportation Security Administration pushed back on any suggestion that the call-outs represented a "sickout" that was having a significant effect on U.S. air travel. Over the weekend, travelers reported longer checkpoint lines at some airports, including LaGuardia in New York.
TSA said the effect was "minimal" and that it screened more than 2.2 million passengers Sunday, a historically busy day due to holiday travel. Ninety percent waited less than 15 minutes, the agency said.
Federal workers still on the job apparently will miss this week's paychecks. Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said over the weekend that if the shutdown continued into Tuesday "then payroll will not go out as originally planned on Friday night."
Talks over ending the shutdown have been at an impasse over Trump’s demand for a border wall.
He has offered to build it using steel rather than concrete, billing that as a concession to Democrats' objections, and did so again in his Oval Office address.
But Democrats have made clear that they object to the wall itself, not what it’s made of. They see it as immoral and ineffective and prefer other types of border security funded at already agreed-upon levels.
“The symbol of America should be the Statue of Liberty, not a 30-foot wall,” Schumer said Tuesday.
Trump responded to that argument in his address.
“Some have suggested a barrier is immoral. Then why do wealthy politicians build walls, fences and gates around their homes?” he said. “They don’t build walls because they hate the people on the outside, but because they love the people on the inside.”