In the days before his Oval Office address on Tuesday night, Donald Trump leaned on a number of advisers on how to navigate the government shutdown he’d waged over funding for his border wall. The list included immigration hardliners Fox News host Sean Hannity and Fox Business star Lou Dobbs, both of whom, according to two sources familiar with the conversations, had a clear message for the president: push forward for the wall funding and break the Democrats’ will.
The president took the counsel of the hardliners. On Tuesday night he claimed that there was a “growing humanitarian” crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border—”a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul”—that required the construction of a physical barrier.
“Women and children are the biggest victims, by far, of our broken system,” Trump said at one point, his voice far softer than those thunderous calls for a Mexican-paid-for wall that he’d offered during the dog days of the 2016 presidential campaign. “This is the tragic reality of illegal immigration on our southern border. This is the cycle of human suffering that I am determined to end.”
Much of it echoed usual Trump rhetoric: heavy on fearmongering, hyperpartisan at points, and dripping with nativism. But in a notable way, Trump blinked. Hours before the televised speech, he had been contemplating declaring a national emergency in order to be able to unilaterally divert military funds for the construction of the border wall but that declaration notably didn’t make it into the final address. Trump didn’t even try to link border crossings with terrorism, despite days’ worth of his senior officials attempting to make that dubious connection.
Still, the speech illustrated both the agency that immigration restrictionists and conservative media figures continue to have within the White House, as well as the insatiable appetite the president appears to have for hyping threats along the southern border—threats that are largely divorced from realities on the ground.
In a statement through a Fox News spokesperson, Hannity said he does not discuss potential private conversations with friends or sources, and would only consider questions if The Daily Beast revealed its sources.
The West Wing, though, eagerly touted the address as a momentous statement of policy and principle. In talking points sent as the speech began and obtained by The Daily Beast, White House communications aide Judd Deere advised surrogates to describe the speech with terms including “common sense,” “strong,” “confident,” “presidential,” “leadership,” and “empathetic.”
During his address, the president recited long-used rallying points, but stripped of his typical energy, volume, and improvisation. Trump contended that “African-Americans and Hispanic Americans” were the “hardest hit” by this supposed immigration emergency, and that the “sex crimes” and “violent killings” perpetrated by “those who illegally enter our country” risk a larger, darker mayhem in America’s streets and towns.
In fact, the available evidence indicates that Trump is doing little more than manufacturing a crisis. The vast majority of immigrants in the country illegally didn’t sneak across the border, but simply overstayed their visas. Department of Homeland Security statistics from last summer found 702,000 visa lapses, nearly twice that of the 362,000 attempts at illegal border crossings in 2017. Those crossings themselves are at a historic nadir. DHS enforcement data from September 2017 showed the apprehension of about 409,000 would-be immigrants in 2016, compared to about 1.2 million people in 2006. (In that same report, DHS called the 328,000 people captured in 2011 “a 40-year low.”)
Nor are terrorists represented in the border crossings, despite fervent insistence from the Trump administration that the southern border represents a terrorism risk. “It simply isn’t true,” wrote Nick Rasmussen, who until 2017 directed the government’s National Counterterrorism Center. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, asserted that “nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists come into our country illegally.” But to substantiate that, administration data reported by NBC News found only six watchlisted people between Oct. 1, 2017 and Mar. 31, 2018 attempted the crossing—and the presence on the government’s broad terror watchlists is far from an indication of involvement in terrorism.
“There has always been this belief that because of the conditions in central and South America, terrorists would want to come up through that region of the world,” said John Cohen, former deputy under secretary for intelligence and analysis at DHS. “Notwithstanding that speculation, we’ve never seen it, the State Department in their country report, to date, they have not seen any examples.”
"The fact that he didn't mention terrorism in the speech suggests that the picture painted by the administration over the last few days of a major terrorist threat at the southern border just wasn't credible,” Cohen added.
If Tuesday night’s speech was designed to persuade Democrats that they were vulnerable politically on the topic of wall funding, it almost certainly did not do the trick. Prior to the address, Reuters released a poll that had the president shouldering a majority of the blame for the shutdown. And associates of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi say she has become only emboldened in her position to not give more than the previously allocated $1.3 billion for border security since taking over the gavel.
“We just had an election where Democrats won 40 seats and he tried to make the wall a central component of the election,” said one close Pelosi ally. “So we aren’t really all that concerned about the politics of it.”
As the political standstill seems likely to continue, the impact of this shutdown has also came into sharper focus. The Trump administration has put off most of the harsher consequences by finding administrative and legal loopholes to, among other things, keep parks open, issue tax refunds, and cover the cost for food stamps for an additional month. But within a matter of days, federal workers will likely miss a paycheck and some of those government programs have begun to shutter, including those specifically designed to help ameliorate the dysfunction at the southern border.
For immigrant communities, the standoff has had damaging effects as well, if only for the horrifying portrayal they’ve received at the hands of the president. At the headquarters of the Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso’s Manhattan Heights neighborhood, director Fernando Garcia used a broom handle to turn on the projector to put Trump’s speech on a big screen for a gathering of Mexican-Americans, DACA recipients and migrants to watch the president’s remarks.
Afterward, Garcia addressed the crowd, saying Trump ”had nothing to offer but hate and fear.”
“This is not leadership,” Garcia said. “This is the petty politics of a small-minded racist. There’s no crisis. There never was. He’s lying about his hateful, destructive border wall.”
Jennifer Johnson, a policy adviser to the Southern Border Communities Coalition, a mega-grouping of 60 immigrants-rights and community organizations around the southwest, said Tuesday was a day of “intense discussion."
“It’s alarming. Folks know their communities. They don’t see a national emergency when they look out their back door,” Johnson told The Daily Beast minutes before Trump’s speech. “They do see a humanitarian crisis and people suffering, but the picture the president is painting is so far from the reality that people experience… We’d agree there is a humanitarian crisis at the border, and it’s one of Trump’s own making.”
In his speech on Tuesday, Trump continued to portray migrants in dark terms. And though he did not directly address the consequences of the government remaining shuttered, he did cast blame for any impasse at the feet of Democrats who he said were only refusing to fund the border wall because of political expediency. Out of the view of the Oval Office, the president’s political operation sought to turn the shutdown—and Republican enthusiasm for a border wall itself—into a money-maker.
“Just look at the facts,” declared a fundraising email sent on Tuesday evening by a joint fundraising committee for the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee. “Drugs are poisoning our loved ones. MS-13 gang members are threatening our safety. Illegal criminals are flooding our nation. I want to make one thing clear to Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi: Your safety is not a political game or a negotiation tactic!”
—With additional reporting by Justin Glawe from El Paso and Erin Banco and Sam Stein from Washington, D.C.