Written by Michael Tackett and Nicholas Fandos
President Donald Trump unleashed an offensive Monday to persuade Americans that a “humanitarian and security crisis” on the southern border must be addressed before a government shutdown can end, announcing a prime-time address for Tuesday and a trip to the border later in the week.
Vice President Mike Pence briefed reporters in a hastily arranged session, part of an orchestrated effort to sway balking Democrats who say the government must reopen before they negotiate on Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to begin his border wall.
The shutdown, heading into Day 18, has become a critical test for Trump, who campaigned as a master negotiator and deal-maker but so far has achieved virtually no agreements with Democrats. Already, it is the second-longest breakdown in government funding in the nation’s history, affecting about 800,000 federal workers, many of whom will not get paid for the first time this week. For a deal-maker, the president has offered little to his Democratic adversaries to lure them to the table.
Now, he will try to use a broad-based public appeal to raise the pressure.
Democrats, for their part, were having none of it. Senate Democrats were moving to ground legislation in that chamber to a halt to try to pressure Republicans to bring up a bill to reopen the government, starting Tuesday when they plan to block consideration of a Middle East policy measure. And late Monday, the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate released a joint statement demanding equal television time abutting the president’s address.
“Now that the television networks have decided to air the president’s address, which if his past statements are any indication will be full of malice and misinformation, Democrats must immediately be given equal airtime,” wrote the leaders, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York.
The vice president, while conceding that no progress was made in weekend negotiations with senior Democratic staff members, said Democrats “did not dispute our facts” about what he called a “humanitarian and security crisis.” Democrats and immigration advocates have argued that the administration has vastly overstated the scope of the border situation.
Democrats said Pence appeared to be misrepresenting their position. While they agreed there was a crisis at the border, one senior Senate Democratic official said, they see it as a humanitarian rather than national security issue. As such, Democrats view Trump’s proposed wall as an expensive and pointless response that does nothing to address the needs on the ground.
Several aides briefed on the weekend negotiations said the White House appeared eager to promote an agreement on almost anything in lieu of any real progress between the two sides.
But Pence said the White House was bargaining in good faith. The administration has now provided Democrats details they were seeking about how any border security money would be spent, and officials have incorporated at least one Democratic idea, to allow migrant children seeking asylum to apply in their home countries rather than make a treacherous journey to the U.S. border.
“The question I have is: When are the Democrats going to start negotiating?” Pence said.
The administration’s credibility continues to suffer, as Democrats call out Trump for falsehoods about the crisis, such as his assertion that former presidents had told him privately that they should have built the wall. On Monday, former President Jimmy Carter joined the list of presidents who said they had never discussed a border wall with Trump.
With talks to end the shutdown at a standstill, Pence said the president had directed the Office of Management and Budget to take steps to “mitigate” its effects, including an order to the Internal Revenue Service to issue tax refunds. Under previous shutdown plans — and interpretations of federal law — the IRS was prohibited from dispensing tax refunds when Congress had not approved money to fund the Treasury Department, as is the case now.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats tried to use leverage of their own to force Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate majority leader, to come to the table and pressure Trump. On Monday, Democrats said they would vote against advancing a package of bipartisan Middle East policy bills slated for consideration this week unless Republicans allowed a vote on bills to reopen shuttered federal departments already passed by the House — a decision that could scuttle its prospects if Democrats stick together.
Senate Democrats did not indicate whether they are ready to block other bills, but their position raised the prospect that a significant portion of the chamber’s work could halt until the Senate gets to vote to reopen the parts of the government now closed.
The House, under Pelosi, passed a package of bills Thursday, the day Democrats took control of the chamber, to reopen the one-quarter of the government without funding Trump’s wall. But McConnell has refused to consider them, insisting that he will not bring up any legislation that does not have Trump’s explicit support.
“Unfortunately, President Trump keeps rejecting the bipartisan House-passed bills, which have already received strong bipartisan support in the Senate, to reopen the government,” Pelosi and Schumer wrote. “Instead, he is still demanding that American taxpayers pay at least $5.7 billion for his wall, which can’t pass either chamber of Congress and of course Mexico is not paying for.”
It is unclear what effect the Democratic screw tightening will have on McConnell, a political tactician who sees little benefit in entering the shutdown fray.
Republicans in the chamber turned the blame around on Democrats. “If it’s all about defeating President Trump and embarrassing him politically, which seems to be the focus of Ms. Pelosi and Sen. Schumer, then obviously we’re not going to get a deal anytime soon,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Democrats in the House were preparing their own steps. The Rules Committee will start the process of passing individual appropriations bills to reopen the government Tuesday, beginning with legislation that would fund the Treasury Department, including the IRS.
Trump has decided to make a public appeal to try to break the impasse. By Monday evening, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox had agreed to broadcast the president’s address live at 9 p.m. Eastern. Cable news channels, including CNN and Fox News, will also carry the speech.
But what in past administrations would be a fairly standard request set off a day of tense deliberations inside the major broadcast networks.
Handing Trump a chunk of network prime time could allow the president to assert falsehoods to tens of millions of viewers. But several network producers said privately Monday that they were uncomfortable turning down the president amid a national event affecting millions like the government shutdown. Declining Trump’s request could also open the networks to accusations of partisan bias.
Ted Koppel, the veteran ABC anchor, said in an interview that given that Trump had not previously requested time for an Oval Office speech, the networks ought to give him “the benefit of the doubt.”
“When the president of the United States asks for airtime, you’ve got to do it,” Koppel said. “If what he has to say is clearly just in his self-interest and does not address the greater national interest, then the next time the White House comes around, I might not be inclined to offer it.”
In the recent past, White House requests to interrupt prime-time programming on the nation’s broadcast networks were rare and usually reserved for moments of national import, like the death of Osama bin Laden, and networks usually granted the requests. There have been instances, however, where such requests were rejected by producers as insufficiently newsworthy. In 2014, the networks declined a request from the Obama administration to air his speech about using executive action to change immigration policy.
The acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, has for days told other White House officials that a presidential address would be a way for Trump to try to recast the narrative around the shutdown fight.
On Monday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, announced Trump’s plans to travel Thursday to the border, which would be the 20th day of the partial government shutdown if an agreement between Congress and the White House is not reached.