A president only gets one chance to make his first Oval Office address—making Donald Trump’s reiteration of familiar talking points in a short speech Tuesday night all the more puzzling.
Over the course of roughly 10 minutes, Trump brought his case for more spending on border security directly to the American people, saying there is “a growing humanitarian and security crisis at our Southern border.” Trump argued that crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants are a serious danger to the American people, and called on Democrats to give him $5.7 billion to fund a wall on the border. But the president didn’t offer any new arguments. Nor did he declare a national emergency, a step he has said he is considering.
The speech was bewildering. Was this stiff oration given by the same man who captured the nation’s attention—and elicited outrage—with his descent down a gold escalator in June 2015, his vow that “I alone can fix it” in summer 2016, or his invocation of “American carnage” in January 2017? It’s hard to believe that master showman was the same person who sat behind the Resolute Desk on Tuesday.
Though it may seem churlish or superficial to judge Trump’s remarks on style rather than content, he has shown how important and effective style can be as a political tool—and moreover, there was little in the way of new substance on offer.
Early on, Trump seemed to be striving for an almost Reaganesque note, speaking with restraint and an unusual display of softer emotions. Though he sometimes ad-libs awkwardly while speaking from a script, Trump remained rigid in both elocution and posture Tuesday.
“America proudly welcomes millions of lawful immigrants that enrich our society and contribute to our nation, but all Americans are hurt by uncontrolled illegal migration,” Trump said. “This is a humanitarian crisis: a crisis of the heart, and a crisis of the soul.”
He also eschewed any discussion of his wall or any attacks on Democrats until the latter half of the speech. He noted that the Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer had supported a border fence in the past. He also replied to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has called the proposed wall immoral, without mentioning her name.
“Then why do wealthy politicians build walls, fences, and gates around their homes?” Trump said. “They don’t build walls because they hate the people on the outside, but because they love the people on the inside. The only thing that is immoral is the politicians to do nothing and continue to allow more innocent people to be so horribly victimized.”
This was the tone for the final moments of the speech. “The president has chosen fear,” Pelosi said during the Democratic rebuttal, and it’s hard to imagine Trump disagreeing. Criticizing Democrats for not funding the wall, he listed a series of crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants, a tactic that dates back to his days on the campaign.
Notably, Trump seemed to implicitly rule out using an emergency declaration to build the wall with the military. “My administration is doing everything in our power to help those impacted by the situation, but the only solution is for Democrats to pass a spending bill that defends our borders and reopens the government,” Trump said.
In making the case that there is an acute crisis at the border, Trump faces three major obstacles.
The first is that there’s no obvious change at the border that makes the current moment more serious than six or 18 months ago. While illegal immigration to the United States is rising, it remains well below the recent peak, in 2000. Before the election, Trump drew attention to a “caravan” of migrants walking north through Mexico toward the United States, but that march largely dissipated as it neared the border, and the number of migrants involved—reportedly about 4,000—is small in comparison with the total number of unauthorized immigrants entering the country.
The second obstacle is a confusing explanation of the humanitarian problem. While the president noted the dangers facing migrants who try to enter the U.S., especially women and children, he didn’t explain how hardening the border or building a wall would solve that crisis. The measures he is proposing treat symptoms without dealing with the underlying causes, especially violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle.
The third is credibility. The Oval Office address seemed intended to give his standard talking points—which have purchase only with a small but passionate section of the electorate—more legitimacy by virtue of their proximity to the traditional trappings of the presidency. But Trump made several untrue statements. He said that “thousands of Americans have been brutally killed by those who illegally entered our country,” a statistic that’s meaningless without a time frame. He claimed both that the wall would be paid for by Mexico, under a new trade deal, and that it would pay for itself. He said he had asked for a steel barrier, rather than a concrete wall, at Democrats’ request; he has offered that to Democrats, but they did not request it.
Pelosi and Schumer’s brief rebuttal was somehow even more stilted than Trump’s. Their remarks, delivered in sequence, were more directly partisan than the president’s, criticizing him for keeping the government shut down even when Republican-backed bills would have reopened it.
“President Trump has chosen to hold hostage critical services for the health, safety, and well-being of the American people and withhold the paychecks of 800,000 innocent workers across the nation, many of them veterans,” Pelosi said. “He promised to keep government shut down for months or years, no matter whom it hurts. That’s just plain wrong.”
While Pelosi and Schumer’s remarks were presumably written before Trump spoke, they had nothing new to offer either, and the lack of any fresh information during Trump’s address made their comments seem especially empty. As with the shutdown itself, it’s hard to see what the point was of Tuesday night’s speeches.