WASHINGTON — Major broadcast and cable networks will carry President Donald Trump’s primetime speech on border security, as the White House tries to use the power of the bully pulpit to break an impasse with Democrats that has led to the partial government shutdown.
The White House requested primetime at 9 p.m. ET for the speech, but the broadcast networks engaged in some deliberation as to whether to carry it amid concerns that it would be merely a political event or that Trump would have to be extensively fact-checked for falsehoods in his remarks. The broadcast networks in 2014 declined to air President Barack Obama’s primetime address on immigration, reportedly because it was seen as “overtly political.”
Trump said his address will be on “the humanitarian and national security crisis on our southern border,” not mentioning the wall. The White House told CBS that the speech would be no longer than eight minutes.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called for the networks to give Democrats rebuttal time.
“Now that the television networks have decided to air the President’s address, which if his past statements are any indication will be full of malice and misinformation, Democrats must immediately be given equal airtime,” they said in a joint statement.
The networks did not immediately say whether they would carry a response.
The major cable news networks will carry the speech live, as was expected, but the broadcast networks deliberated for much of the afternoon. On social media, pundits and media critics questioned just how the networks would cover the speech or whether they would air it live at all.
“So this should be a relatively easy decision,” wrote Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for Obama, noting the 2014 decision to not air Obama’s immigration speech.
“Trump will attack the networks no matter what they do. So why be complicit in lies by caving in? Demand to see the speech in advance and say no if he is lying. Is this treating him differently from other presidents? Yes. Because no other president has lied on the scale he does,” wrote columnist E.J. Dionne.
Unless there’s a way to fact check in real time, if the media gives Trump airtime tomorrow night, they will be aiding and abetting the propaganda of a would be authoritarian. Time to hold the pathological liar accountable.
— Rob Reiner (@robreiner) January 7, 2019
Except they didn’t give Obama time in 2014 because they believed his speech about immigration would be “overtly partisan.” So this should be a relatively easy decision. https://t.co/yveysBWoKg
— Jon Favreau (@jonfavs) January 7, 2019
yet news execs all seem poised to hand over their networks https://t.co/OvcrihFbmo
— Eric Schultz (@EricSchultz) January 7, 2019
As Trump has amped up his public campaign for border wall funding, news organizations have grappled with how to put his statements in context or to fact check in real time. For instance, during a news conference on Friday, Trump claimed that predecessors in the White House had told him they would have supported a border wall, but that was contradicted by spokespersons for the living ex-commanders in chief.
Still, to deny the airtime would come with the inevitable pushback from many on the right. Trump routinely calls the “fake news media” the “enemy of the people,” and did so earlier on Monday, and has reveled in characterizing journalists as the “opposition.”
“Many have become crazed lunatics who have given up on the TRUTH!…” Trump wrote on Monday.
Moreover, Trump has said one of his options is to declare a “national emergency” to gain funds for the wall from the military budget, rather than by congressional resolution. If Trump declares such an emergency during the speech, the broadcast networks would want to be there for a major news event.
“I don’t know how you walk past this one if you are a news organization, when the president is speaking at a moment like this,” Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University, told CNN. He is the former chief White House correspondent for the network.
Democrats have refused Trump’s request for $5.6 billion to fund the initial construction of a concrete or steel structure, denying the president the fulfillment of a central campaign promise. He did say throughout the campaign that Mexico would pay the cost to build the wall, but did not specify how that would be done.
Trump’s demand for wall funding led to the partial shutdown of the federal government that has so far lasted 16 days and sidelined about 800,000 federal workers. Negotiations between Vice President Mike Pence and congressional leadership aides over the weekend yielded little progress.
Democrats say that if Trump declares a national emergency, it will be of questionable legality. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told CNN on Monday that while Trump could declare such an emergency, it would almost certainly be challenged in court.
Oval Office addresses used to be a standard venue for presidential addresses to the nation, as the commander in chief sat at his desk and looked earnestly in the camera to express some major concern or warn of a crisis.
But that type of speech has fallen out of favor in recent administrations, as perhaps too stilted for the modern era and difficult to make an impact with such a fractious viewership.
Trump has chosen other venues, like the Diplomatic Room or the East Room, for major announcements, or other locales to give policy addresses. In August, 2017, he outlined his strategy for Afghanistan at Fort Myer in Arlington, Va. Obama also preferred other spots than the Oval Office, and gave his farewell address to a rally in Chicago.
David Axelrod, Obama’s former senior adviser, wondered why Trump had chosen the Oval Office for this speech, given that Trump has been more comfortable where he can be before an audience.
Axelrod wrote on Twitter, “I can’t think of a less effective format for @realdonaldtrump than an Oval Office address. He’s terrible at reading off a prompter. Stiff. Wooden. And unlike his stand up act, there’s no crowd to rev up. No reporters to dog. No room for ad libs. And a requirement to be brief!”