President Trump Argues For A Border Wall In Oval Office Address President Trump made his case to the American people Tuesday night for why a massive wall along the Mexican border is necessary, using his first Oval Office address to outline his conditions for ending the 18-day-and-counting partial government shutdown. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer's responded to the president's address. This episode: Congressional correspondent Scott Detrow, White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe, political editor Domenico Montanaro, and White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Email the show at nprpolitics@npr.org. Find and support your local public radio station at npr.org/stations.
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President Trump Argues For A Border Wall In Oval Office Address

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President Trump Argues For A Border Wall In Oval Office Address

President Trump Argues For A Border Wall In Oval Office Address

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JOHN: Hey, y'all. I'm John (ph). Since I'm a furloughed government employee, I'm using this time to take a tour of the NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. I just ran into Sue Davis and Ron hard at work at their desk. This episode was recorded at...

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Wait. Did he, like, stand over our desks and record this when we weren't looking?

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: It's 10:25 Eastern on Tuesday, January 8.

JOHN: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. I hope I'm back at work. OK. Here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DETROW: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. In the midst of one of the longest-ever federal government shutdowns, President Trump addressed the nation from the Oval Office. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover Congress.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: I'm Scott Horsley. I cover the White House.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I also cover the White House.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, political editor.

DETROW: Starting off, I'm curious what everybody made of these speeches and if you think anything in this protracted shutdown is going to change because of them.

HORSLEY: I think this is the NPR podcast that - things are not going to change by the time you hear this.

DETROW: (Unintelligible).

MONTANARO: Oh.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

HORSLEY: I don't think we heard something that's going to - by and large, this was a sort of abbreviated, encapsulated, Cliff Notes version of the two sides' messages.

MONTANARO: Yeah. Oval Office addresses are supposed to be the kind of thing where news is made - right? - where there's something that moves the ball forward in a time of great tragedy. Think about a war or an announcement of some major thing that had happened. I mean, a lot of people - a lot of Republicans who I'd talked to before coming into the speech today noted back to Ronald Reagan's response to the, you know, Challenger explosion. This was not that. And, really, the big takeaway for me is that we're no closer to a shutdown being over.

RASCOE: The thing that stood out to me the most was that a lot of this - almost all of this was stuff that he has tweeted, that he's talked about in campaign rallies. There wasn't anything that was specific to this speech that you learned in this speech that you didn't know.

DETROW: So let's listen to some key moments from the speech and put them into context and do some fact-checking. Let's start off with - we've been talking about the framing of this, that President Trump is saying, we have a crisis here. That's what his message has boiled down to in recent days. Let's listen to that and then talk about that argument.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: My fellow Americans, tonight I am speaking to you because there is a growing humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border. Every day, Customs and Border Patrol agents encounter thousands of illegal immigrants trying to enter our country. We are out of space to hold them. And we have no way to promptly return them back home to their country.

HORSLEY: You know, Scott, one thing that's interesting to listen to there, this is the kind of the opposite of Twitter Trump. He is trying to put on kind of the mantle of Oval Office presidential speak here. There is sort of this subdued, serious tone that we don't typically hear from this president. And he's trying to use that tone to describe this humanitarian and security crisis.

DETROW: But what about the idea of whether or not there is a crisis? - just in terms of the raw numbers and the other ways that we can quantify how many people are trying to come into the country compared to before.

HORSLEY: Well, if you go back to, say, 2000, which is when we had the peak of illegal border crossings, the numbers today are way below that. They're, like, a third of what we were seeing a generation ago. But we have seen an uptick in the last couple of months. It's possible that 2019 is going to be one of the biggest years in recent memory. And one thing that we have seen in recent years is a growing number of families and children coming from Central America. And those present bigger problems than, say, single adults crossing the border from Mexico.

RASCOE: He did try to address that. He was trying to make it seem like this isn't only an issue that this is harmful to Americans. But this is harmful to the people coming, basically talking about the children, that they could be used as pawns, possibly, and that the women are being sexually assaulted. So it was a way of trying to, I think, put a human face on these immigrants but while also not kind of dealing with the idea that these are families. Like, he was putting it in the idea that these children are coming with coyotes and not that they're coming with their parents.

MONTANARO: But, guys, you know, we've been here before with all of this, right? I mean, if you think about the entire 2016 presidential campaign, the entire Republican primary, nothing animates the Republican base more than this issue of immigration. And if you watch and listen to conservative media, it's what they focus on - these specific, anecdotal arguments that aren't necessarily indicative of broader data and trends. But they're definitely used to, you know, drum up fear. And it's something that the president used in 2016, used in 2018, frankly, before the election, talking about the caravans for the midterm. And, you know, Democrats wound up taking back the House despite that message.

DETROW: And I think, again, even though he started the speech trying to be a little bit empathetic, he ended it saying, people who come into the country illegally, they're spilling American blood, trying to paint the whole thing as a real menace. So let's move on to another point, where he started to shift gears and talk about that, trying to tie this argument to drugs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Our southern border is a pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs, including meth, heroin, cocaine and fentanyl. Every week, 300 of our citizens are killed by heroin alone, 90 percent of which floods across from our southern border. More Americans will die from drugs this year than were killed in the entire Vietnam War.

DETROW: Scott, he talked a lot about this, but one thing that you pointed out was that, in recent weeks, the president and the White House have talked a lot about terrorism threats and really had the stats they were using called out as misstated and untrue, and that was totally missing tonight.

HORSLEY: Yeah. I think they've been burned on that. They realize they just don't have the numbers to back up their exaggerated claims of a terrorist threat from the southern border. And so the president, knowing he was going to be in the spotlight, focused more on crime and drugs.

And it is certainly true that the majority of the heroin that's smuggled into the U.S. does come over the southern border from Mexico. But what we know from the Drug Enforcement Administration is that it primarily comes through the legal ports of entry. It's hidden in cars. It's hidden on legitimate border crossers. It's not, by and large, coming across the parts of the border that a wall would be designed to protect.

MONTANARO: You've got these cars and vehicles that come through, as Scott said, the legal points of entry. They're not coming through the deserts. You know, they're not coming over mountainous terrain, where, really, there's been a lot of back and forth over whether or not there even needs to be even a fence, steel slats, some kind of structure across because that's not where the traffic is coming through.

RASCOE: And that is what Democrats have been arguing, that there should be more focus on that part of border security and maybe doing more checks on cars and things like that. And that's where there isn't a lot of disagreement. The disagreement is on the wall or the steel slats or whatever you call them, the barrier.

DETROW: Right because it seems like, in the end, this comes down to the fact that the wall was this highly symbolic campaign issue that the president doesn't want to back away from. He's kind of retrofitting the wall to various problems that shift in and out of the argument, as opposed to this is a solution for X, which, you know, you hear about all the time. It's - the wall is the constant. Everything else here shifts around.

HORSLEY: And the stakes have been raised by both parties. I mean, the president very much wants something that he can say, look, I built the wall. I delivered on the promise. And the Democrats very much want to deny him that.

DETROW: Let's take a listen to the president describing the actual wall here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Law enforcement professionals have requested $5.7 billion for a physical barrier. At the request of Democrats, it will be a steel barrier, rather than a concrete wall. This barrier is absolutely critical to border security.

DETROW: I would say that there aren't that many Democrats who are really hung up with the construction materials here.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: This is something that the president has talked about...

RASCOE: Is there any Democrat that said, I want steel, cannot be concrete?

DETROW: Not that I'm aware of, no. It's the idea of a wall itself. It's not like, oh, wait a second, it's steel? I'm in.

RASCOE: And it seems like that what President Trump was trying to say is that they have a problem with the wall, so maybe if we make it more like a fence - but he doesn't want to call it a fence because he had said he didn't want it to be a fence. So now, we're going to say it's going to be steel slats and that will kind of thread that needle. But that's more of an issue for him. That wasn't the issue for Democrats.

DETROW: Right. And I don't think that any sort of movement one way or another is going to change the overall big picture here, which is going on approaching three weeks of this, President Trump says he won't sign anything - not something that funds part of the government, an individual department, anything that doesn't include the wall. And Democrats are saying, we're just not going to vote for that.

MONTANARO: In this kind of speech, what a president is trying to do or is supposed to try to do is effect some kind of outcome, effect some kind of change. And instead, what do we get from the president? There was no threat, and there was no offer. So you didn't hear him make any kind of DACA deal. And you didn't hear him say, oh, you know, if Democrats keep going down this path, I'm going to, you know, declare a national emergency. You're left wondering, what's next?

DETROW: Yeah. We're going to take a quick break, and when we come back, we're going to hear what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in response and talk about what happens next.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: And we are back. Now, when the president gives a prime-time address, usually the minority party does not get a chance to respond like they do at the State of the Union. But tonight, Democrats demanded a response, and every news network chose to air it. And a few minutes after President Trump wrapped up in the Oval Office, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer came and spoke outside the speaker's office at the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NANCY PELOSI: The president has chosen fear. We want to start with the facts. The fact is, on the very first day of this Congress, House Democrats passed Senate Republican legislation to reopen government and fund smart, effective border security solutions. But 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.

DETROW: Now, Domenico, you were talking about, like, the history of Oval Office addresses and the power that they have. I don't think that power typically extends to the minority party response after the speech. Do you think Pelosi and Schumer made any key points here or were able to successfully counter what President Trump was talking about?

MONTANARO: Right. I mean, you know, look. This is not a State of the Union address. So normally, you don't get the minority coming out and doing that. But, you know, lo and behold, here we are in the middle of this government shutdown. And by the way, I think that's the key point here. Democrats made sure to say that they were focused on the shutdown - on ending the shutdown, while President Trump made it clear that he was focused on the border wall and this vision of this - what he calls a crisis at the border that others don't see.

DETROW: The thing that jumped out to me is something that Pelosi has increasingly ramped up over the last month or so. And normally, Nancy Pelosi is someone who's very respectful of the presidency. Even when she disagrees with the president, she's always very proper about it. She has the right etiquette in the Oval Office. She's not going to call him Donald like he calls her Nancy, you know?

So that's why I've really been struck by how much Pelosi has been really hammering on the fact that the president so often just misstates the facts, says things that aren't true. She's said that over and over again lately. And that was the entire frame of her speech. She started each sentence with, the fact is, trying to counter the statistics that Trump was distorting and other things.

HORSLEY: And one fact that Speaker Pelosi mentioned, and so did Senator Schumer, is that Democrats support border security. You know, during a lot of his campaign rallies, the president would sort of caricature of the Democratic position as being for open borders, as if their opposition to his proposed multibillion-dollar wall was sort of, let's just throw open the gates and let anyone in. Both Pelosi and Schumer were careful to stress tonight, we are for border security. We just don't think the president's wall is the right way to go about it.

RASCOE: And another thing that they hammered on was this idea that Mexico was supposed to pay for the wall. So now you're shutting down the government. And you're asking taxpayers to foot this bill. And you're asking federal workers and all the people affected by this beyond the federal workers to deal with the consequences of this when Mexico was supposed to pay for the wall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PELOSI: 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.

DETROW: So both sides made their points. The president said that he has invited congressional leaders back to the White House tomorrow for yet another meeting. I kind of get the feeling that it's not going to be a breakthrough meeting. It doesn't seem...

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: ...Like there's any path forward that suddenly appeared in these speeches tonight.

HORSLEY: The president's already scheduled a trip to the border for a photo op on Thursday.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

HORSLEY: So I don't think he's going to be there to say, you know what? We don't need a wall (laughter).

DETROW: Maybe it's a signing ceremony.

RASCOE: No, it doesn't seem like they're any closer at all. No one has shown any of the parameters that might make up a compromise.

MONTANARO: If we've seen any cracks under the political pressure, it's been only slightly from the Republican side, where you've seen a few Republicans start to say that they want the government to be kept open and not have to fight over the border wall funding as part of keeping - and while keeping the government shut down.

At the same time, with the 800,000 federal workers who are going to miss that paycheck, you know, Democrats care a lot about those workers. And the longer that goes on, you're going to see Democrats, too, also sort of scratching for trying to come up with a compromise.

DETROW: That's a good point, Domenico. And I think that's the one thing that I'm going to be looking for on the Hill over the next few days. You had a handful of House Republicans vote along with Democrats last week to reopen the federal government.

I'm curious if that number grows when Democrats call votes on department-by-department bills. And you've also seen a handful of senators from Democrat-leaning states or moderate states who are up for re-election clearly being nervous about this and saying, we need to reopen the federal government - and wanting to do it on those Democratic terms.

So that's why I think it's interesting that the outreach that the White House is doing is to the Republican side. Vice President Pence was on the Hill today, meeting with House Republicans. And President Trump is coming tomorrow to meet with Senate Republicans.

MONTANARO: And that may have been the key audience tonight for the president's speech, don't you think?

DETROW: So you can hear all of that news tomorrow and throughout the week on your local public radio station and on npr.org. And we will, of course, be back in your podcast feeds a couple more times this week, giving you the latest on this and anything else that happens politically.

I'm Scott Detrow. I cover Congress.

HORSLEY: I'm Scott Horsley. I cover the White House.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I also cover the White House.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, political editor.

DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)"

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