President Trump used his first-ever prime time address from the Oval Office on Tuesday night to make his case for funding a southern border wall -- as well as to emphasize the human cost of what he called the "growing humanitarian and security crisis" of surging illegal immigration.
The speech, which was followed moments later by a rebuttal from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, drew seemingly deep lines in the sand while also emphasizing the importance of compromise. Republicans and Democrats plan to meet Wednesday to continue negotiations to end the ongoing partial federal government shutdown over border wall funding, now in its third week. (Trump has said the shutdown could last for "years" if no deal is reached.)
Noting that "more Americans will die from drugs this year than were killed in the entire Vietnam War," the president, looking directly into the camera, called for closing the pipeline that permits "vast quantities of illegal drugs – including meth, heroin, cocaine and fentanyl" – to cross the border.
"Every week, 300 of our citizens are killed by heroin alone – 90 percent of which floods across from our southern border," Trump, who signed a bipartisan opioid bill into law late last year, remarked at the beginning of his address.
He continued: "This is a humanitarian crisis – a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul. Last month, 20,000 migrant children were illegally brought into the United States – a dramatic increase. These children are used as human pawns by vicious coyotes and ruthless gangs. One in three women are sexually assaulted on the dangerous trek up through Mexico. Women and children are the biggest victims by far of our broken system."
The president then paid tribute to several Americans killed by suspected illegal immigrants, including California police Cpl. Ronil Singh, who was murdered the day after Christmas -- allegedly by an illegal immigrant suspected of driving drunk. The suspect had multiple prior arrests, and Republicans have charged that California's sanctuary laws, which prevent local law enforcement from cooperating with federal immigration authorities, led to Singh's murder.
"America’s heart broke the day after Christmas when a young police officer in California was savagely murdered in cold-blood by an illegal alien who just came across the border," Trump said. "The life of an American hero was stolen by someone who had no right to be in our country."
Trump added: "In California, an Air Force Veteran was raped, murdered and beaten to death with a hammer by an illegal alien with a long criminal history. In Georgia, an illegal alien was recently charged with murder for killing, beheading, and dismembering his neighbor. In Maryland, MS-13 gang members who arrived in the United States as unaccompanied minors were arrested and charged last year after viciously stabbing and beating a 16-year-old girl.
"Wealthy politicians ... don’t build walls because they hate the people on the outside, but because they love the people on the inside."
"Over the last several years, I’ve met with dozens of families whose loved ones were stolen by illegal immigration," Trump continued. "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, or the sadness gripping their souls. How much more American blood must be shed before Congress does its job?"
Apparently responding to Pelosi's widely reported comment that a wall would be immoral, Trump remarked: "Some have suggested a barrier is immoral. Then why do wealthy politicians build walls, fences and gates 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."
In the end, reiterated his call for new border technology and $5.7 billion for a physical border barrier, and sought compromise: "To those who refuse to compromise in the name of border security, I would ask: imagine if it was your child, your husband, or your wife, whose life was so cruelly shattered and totally broken?” Trump asked.
In a joint, nationally televised response broadcast minutes later, Pelosi, D-Calif., and Schumer, D-N.Y., did not focus on any possible compromise, and instead condemned Trump's rhetoric and what they called his "obsession" with building a border wall. ("Trump won the night" by talking compromise, Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen wrote Tuesday.)
"Much of what we have heard from President Trump throughout this senseless shutdown has been full of misinformation and even malice," Pelosi, standing next to Schumer, charged. "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 re-open government and fund smart, effective border security solutions," Pelosi said, referring to bills that did not include funding for Trump's border wall.
"But, the president is rejecting these bipartisan bills which would re-open 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," Pelosi continued.
Schumer added afterward: "There is an obvious solution: separate the shutdown from the arguments over border security. There is bipartisan legislation – supported by Democrats and Republicans – to re-open government while allowing debate over border security to continue.
"The symbol of America should be the Statue of Liberty, not a thirty-foot wall," Schumer concluded. "So, our suggestion is a simple one, Mr. President: Re-open the government and we can work to resolve our differences over border security. But end this shutdown now."
On social media, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) called out Schumer and Pelosi's previously strong support for border wall funding, and appeared to join in with other Twitter users mocking the two senators' demeanor during their response address.
Conservative commentator Ben Shaprio compared Pelosi and Schumer's look to that of the nefarious fictional villains from the James Bond spy franchise, before reposting another Twitter user's image depicting Schumer as a used car salesman. Others likened Pelosi to the aristocratic character Lucille Bluth in the television comedy series "Arrested Development."
Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, widely considered a potential 2020 presidential contender, delivered his own rebuttal that asserted climate change and health care are more urgent crises than illegal immigration. Sanders listed a variety of people who will potentially suffer if the shutdown continues.
"Security at our nation’s airports could be threatened if TSA employees and air traffic controllers are not getting paid," Sanders said. "You want a national emergency? 30 million Americans have no health insurance and many more are under-insured."
Negotiations are slated to continue throughout the week to resolve the shutdown, which has furloughed 380,000 federal workers and forced an additional 420,000 to work without pay. On Wednesday, Fox News learned, Trump will head to Capitol Hill for a policy lunch with Senate Republicans. Congressional leaders from both parties have been invited to the White House for a 3 p.m. ET sit-down afterward.
The president, during his address Tuesday, vowed that the wall "would very quickly pay for itself" in part because the cost of "illegal drugs exceeds $500 billion dollars a year – vastly more than the $5.7 billion dollars we have requested from Congress." Trump added that "the wall will also be paid for, indirectly, by the great new trade deal we have made with Mexico" and suggested that his offer to make the wall out of steel, instead of concrete, was a concession to Democrats.
On Thursday, Trump plans a personal visit to the Mexican border, where his administration said an illegal immigration "crisis" has been worsening by the day.
Reacting to Trump's speech, Senate Republican leaders -- who have said they will not pass Democrats' spending bills without border wall funding -- reaffirmed that they've stood by the White House's position.
“Tonight, President Trump reaffirmed his commitment to addressing the humanitarian and security crisis at our nation’s southern border," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement. "His proposal to increase security through physical barriers suits the reality on the ground. It’s what career Border Patrol experts support and are asking for. And it simply builds on earlier legislation that Senate Democrats like then-Senator Obama, then-Senator Clinton, and Senator Schumer previously supported with enthusiasm."
McConnell continued: “The past eighteen days have shown that Democrats’ refusal to negotiate is not due to any principled objection, but simply due to partisan spite for the president. For the men and women of the Border Patrol, for the safety of American families, and for all Americans who deserve a fully operational federal government, I sincerely hope my Democratic colleagues will come to the table and help deliver a solution.”
Some legal and political analysts were less enthusiastic. “As expected, [Trump's address] was laden with emotional appeals, with the president presenting a parade of horribles," John Cerone, Professor of International Law at The Fletcher School, told Fox News. He added that a wall would have only "limited efficacy" compared to other options.
"Ultimately, the only way to stop irregular migration is to give people some hope of regular migration," Cerone said. "Expanding pathways for regular migration, in particular by creating new employment visas and raising the limits on existing categories, is a win-win situation."
The number of illegal border crossings is down from 1.6 million in 2000 to less than 400,000 last year. But, the number of families coming over the border has risen sharply, putting a strain on health care and immigration services that came into sharp focus with the deaths of two migrant children in December.
Administration figures have shown that 161,000 family units crossed the border in fiscal 2018, a 50 percent increase from the year before. Homeland Security officials also have said 60,000 unaccompanied children crossed the border last year, a 25 percent increase.
After a sit-down with Democrats over the weekend, the White House issued a series of budget demands, including a new request for $800,000 for humanitarian needs. But, mostly, Trump still wants his wall, which Democrats have described as immoral as well as no solution to illegal immigration.
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.
Emphasizing that he was not abandoning his security argument, Trump said in a fundraising email Tuesday: "I want to make one thing clear to Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi: Your safety is not a political game or a negotiation tactic!"
Pelosi, for her part, has also sparred openly with the White House. She reportedly engaged in a tense confrontation with Nielsen on Wednesday in the Situation Room, interrupting Nielsen’s presentation on border security and illegal immigration, telling her, “I reject your facts.”
In her brief response address on Tuesday night, Pelosi used the word "facts" six times, in an effort to contrast with what she called Trump's rhetoric of "fear."
"The fact is: the women and children at the border are not a security threat, they are a humanitarian challenge – a challenge that President Trump’s own cruel and counterproductive policies have only deepened," Pelosi said.