President Trump used his much-disputed television time to portray the border as a humanitarian and law-enforcement crisis of the "heart" and "soul," but not before some media organizations preemptively accused him of spreading lies about the issue.
The president, in sober tones, said nothing about declaring a national emergency, focusing instead on how migrant children are used as "human pawns" and how drugs and criminals are pouring across the border. He also made the economic case, saying illegal immigrants drive down wages, especially for blacks and Hispanics. And he declared that "the federal government remains shut down for one reason and one reason only" — that the Democrats refuse to provide $5.7 billion for "border security."
Nancy Pelosi, with Chuck Schumer, soon offered the rebuttal, saying the Democrats were all for border security, but not an ineffective wall. She said Trump was holding federal workers "hostage" and that his remarks were "full of misinformation and even malice" — a phrase the Democrats had used hours before the Oval Office address.
In similar fashion, some cable news anchors who had been predicting the president would lie in his speech came on the air soon afterward to make that charge, which was not leveled at the Democratic leaders.
MSNBC host Nicolle Wallace argued that Trump said "a half-dozen things that are wrong, falsehoods, lies," and that the address itself was a "scam" based on a non-existent crisis.
CNN's Gloria Borger said Trump "was trying to make the case that I'm not just about a wall, when in fact he is."
ABC's Cecilia Vega opined that "just because you say it's a crisis doesn't necessarily make it one."
On Fox News, Sean Hannity cited a man killed in a drunk-driving accident by an illegal immigrant and picked up on a Trump statistic from the speech: "If we lose 4,000 lives in a two-year period, is that a manufactured crisis?"
But there were also legitimate efforts at fact-checking. On Chris Cuomo’s CNN show, a panelist noted that Barack Obama doesn't have a wall around his home (the president made reference to wealthy politicians who he said erect such barricades.)
Despite the enormous buildup, nothing that either side said seemed likely to change many minds — or hasten an end to the 18-day partial shutdown.
In the run-up to the speech, some journalists offered the equivalent of a pre-buttal to the president.
On CNN, contributor Carl Bernstein said: "I think we need to identify the real national emergency in this country and that is the question of whether or not Donald Trump is fit to be the president of the United States."
Earlier, the hand-wringing by the broadcast networks over whether to air the speech was quite revealing. It suggested nothing less than a double standard for Donald Trump.
It's true that the networks, who sacrifice lucrative advertising when they air prime-time speeches, occasionally turned down requests by Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. But those episodes tended to be years into their tenure after they had already carried a number of evening speeches or press conferences. This, by contrast, was Trump’s first Oval Office address.
The self-righteous preening by some journalists and commentators was something to behold. There was no need to carry Trump, they said, because he'd just give a political speech. As if every speech by every president isn't on some level political. When Bush addressed the nation on Iraq, he was speaking of war and peace — and saying some things that turned out to be untrue — but he was also making the political case for an invasion.
Trump didn't deserve the airtime, some of the pundits argued, because he'd just lie. Or he shouldn't be on live; first reporters should pick apart his lies and then air the taped speech.
These preemptive accusations shed light on the media mindset. It's not that Trump doesn't sometimes utter untruths. He claimed, for instance, that the ex-presidents backed him on a border wall, but every living former president has said that isn't true.
But the way it should work is a president gets to make his case on television, and then the networks and the rest of the media can spend days or weeks analyzing, rebutting and truth-squadding his remarks.
My sense is that the broadcast networks reluctantly agreed to take the speech because they knew they'd get pilloried for saying no.
When the Democrats announced that Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer would be delivering the response, ABC, CBS and NBC wasted no time in agreeing to carry it. The decision makes sense, given the huge public interest in the shutdown drama.
There's a case to be made that this is an artificial crisis, with Trump using the border situation to pound away at his signature promise to build a wall and the Democrats determined to deny him that funding. But there's also a very real crisis, in which both parties play a role, as 800,000 federal workers continue to go without paychecks and the ripple effects of the partial shutdown are increasingly hitting the economy.
But there's no denying the political dimension of the shutdown. Half an hour after the Trump speech, his campaign sent out a fundraising pitch saying "he will NOT cave to the Democrats when it comes to YOUR SAFETY…The President is counting on you in this fight, we must hit our goal of $500,000 in ONE DAY."