The President’s mission was simple but daunting. He had nine minutes of prime time television, broadcast by all the major networks, to persuade Americans that his obsession with the border wall is not a gimmick, but a genuine response to a national crisis.
He chose to deliver his address from behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. That gave it a rare significance.
But it fell flat. There was no declaration of a national emergency; no new strategy for funding the wall; no effort to forge a bipartisan way forward.
Instead the President tried to portray the construction of a 2,000-mile steel barrier as an act of morality. “This is a choice between right and wrong, justice and injustice," he said. "This is about whether we fulfill our sacred duty to the American citizens we serve.”
- Watch Trump's address in full:
But as so often, the President’s claims were widely ridiculed within minutes of the speech ending. His claim that the wall is effective in stopping the flow of drugs has been discredited. Most drugs enter the US through legal ports of entry.
His suggestion that a barrier would stop illegal immigration is also suspect. Many undocumented workers have arrived in America legally, and then simply overstayed their visas. No wall would halt that flow of people.
Democrats responded by saying that the President was trying to create a drama out of nothing in order to distract from the chaos in the White House and the government shutdown. As Nancy Pelosi put it: “President Trump must stop holding the American people hostage, must stop manufacturing a crisis and must reopen the government.”
Both sides are refusing to budge on funding the wall. Trump says it’s essential and a core part of why he won the presidency; Democrats argue that it is an appalling waste of resources. Caught in the middle are the 800,000 Federal workers who are waiting for a compromise that will permit the passage of a budget in Congress and allow them to go back to work.
America has entered 2019 in a state of near-total political paralysis, with the government shutdown now entering its 19th day. By Saturday it will be the longest closure in American history.
The President tried to change the narrative last night by appealing to people’s fears of migrants. But by any measure he failed. And that has left him politically weakened and the debate about building the Great Wall as toxic and divisive as it has been since the very start of Trump’s presidency.