WASHINGTON — President Trump addressed the country across broadcast and cable channels on Tuesday, in a short Oval Office speech that drew extensive scrutiny of broadcast and cable networks and whether they were merely giving him free airtime to make unchallenged claims of a border security crisis.
“This is a humanitarian crisis — a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul,” Trump said in his speech, as he sought to convey an immediate need for a physical barrier along the southern border.
He addressed criticism that the construction of a wall would be “immoral,” noting that wealthy politicians have such barriers around their homes.
“They don’t build walls because they hate the people on the outside, but because they love the people on the inside,” he said.
He did not break any news in his speech, other than to say that he would be meeting again with congressional leaders on Wednesday to try to resolve the impasse over the border wall. His demand for funding has led to a partial government shutdown that has so far lasted for 17 days.
All of the broadcast networks pre-empted their primetime schedule to carry the speech, as did major cable news networks, despite criticism that they were giving Trump free rein to give a political speech that would be laced with misrepresentations and falsehoods. Once Trump finished his speech, a number of news outlets quickly went into fact-checking.
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ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos took issue with Trump’s use of the word “crisis,” noting that the “overall numbers of immigrants coming across the border is far down from its peak.” He also challenged Trump’s claim that the wall would be paid for via the revised North American Trade Agreement, now known as USMCA. It has yet to be approved by Congress, and contains no provision to “make Mexico pay for the wall,” Stephanopoulos said.
CBS News’ Ed O’Keefe said that Trump’s claim that 20,000 children were found crossing the border illegally last month didn’t square with figures from Customs and Border Protection officials, who put the number in November at 5,200.
NBC News’ Chuck Todd said that Trump made a “dubious” claim that Democrats requested that the wall not be made of concrete but steel. “I don’t know how many Democrats would line up and say, ‘Sure, have your wall as long as it’s steel and not concrete.'” The network also challenged Trump’s claim that vast amounts of drugs were flowing through the border, as the Drug Enforcement Agency reports that the vast majority of the smuggling comes through ports of entry. A wall “really wouldn’t help any of that,” said correspondent Gabe Gutierrez.
On Fox News, Shepard Smith also fact checked parts of Trump’s speech. He said that the number of illegal crossings of the border has been on the decline over the past decade, and noted that statistics show that the undocumented population committed fewer violent crimes than the general population. He pushed back on the president’s blame of Democrats, noting that Trump himself “said he would own the shutdown.”
CNN’s chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta, who has gotten in a number of tiffs with Trump and other White House officials, said that the speech “should have come with a Surgeon General’s warning — hazardous to the truth.”
In his speech, though, Trump did what he did at so many campaign rallies: Used anecdotal stories to make the case that there is a crisis on the border.
“Over the last several years, I’ve met with dozens of families whose loved ones were stolen by illegal immigration. I’ve held the hands of the weeping mothers and embraced the grief-stricken fathers. So sad. So terrible. I will never forget the pain in their eyes, the tremble in their voices, and the sadness gripping their souls,” he said.
“How much more American blood must we shed before Congress does its job?”
He also tried to make the case that the flow of thousands of illegal immigrants per day was a strain to the system and the economy.
“We are out of space to hold them, and we have no way to promptly return them back home to their country,” he said.
Trump made no mention of declaring a national emergency to build the wall, even though he has said that he is considering such an action as a way to bypass Congress and obtain funds via the Department of Defense. Such a tactic likely would face a court challenge.
Fox News’ Sean Hannity interviewed Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) for reaction, and they focused in part on whether a wall would work.
“Well, it works in Israel,” Graham said. “I can tell you, I have been dealing with border security issues for 10 years plus. Every time we build a physical barrier, the drug trafficking goes down, the illegal crossings go down.”
The networks also carried Democrats’ response, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer argued that Trump’s speech would be “full of malice and misinformation” and demanded equal time.
Instead, they saw his speech as a tactic to try to get out of a political predicament: the shutdown of the federal government.
“President Trump must stop holding the American people hostage, must stop manufacturing a crisis, and must re-open the government,” Pelosi said.
Schumer said that “Democrats and the President both want stronger border security. However, we sharply disagree with the President about the most effective way to do it.”
The unexpected length of the shutdown has raised the prospect that Trump would begin to lose support among Republicans anxious to reopen the government and doubtful of the White House strategy. Trump is scheduled to attend a Senate Republican policy lunch on Wednesday, along with Vice President Mike Pence, apparently to reassure lawmakers about the situation.
His use of the Oval Office to give an address was unusual for him, and it showed. He appeared less relaxed than he is at a rally, as he carefully read from a Teleprompter and kept the speech to about nine minutes. The venue has traditionally been used by his predecessors in moments of national tragedy and urgency, or as a way to call for unity — as when Ronald Reagan addressed the country after the Challenger disaster in 1986, and when George W. Bush spoke to the country on 9/11.
The venue has been used less frequently, though, as it has been seen as a more stilted way to grab the attention of ever-more splintered TV audiences.