On the one hand, President Trump’s Oval Office address last night, calling for a wall on the border lest he keep the government shuttered, lasted just a mercifully brief eight minutes.
On the other hand, it was impressive how many lies and how much fear mongering he was able to pack into those few short moments. Shorn of the normal Trumpian digressions, the density of dissimulation may have reached an all-time high.
From Trump’s talk, you’d never know that crime rates for immigrants lag those for the U.S.-born. You’d never know that the women and children who’ve trekked from Central America to our frontiers have come to escape the murderous violence of their homelands (the same reason, essentially, that once prompted Jews to flee Russia and Poland). You’d never know that the drugs that come into the U.S. from abroad come preponderantly through legal ports of entry, and certainly not carried by illegal immigrants. For that matter, you’d never know that most of our spike in drug deaths is due to legally and domestically manufactured opioids.
But for its brevity, there was nothing even remotely new in Trump’s talk, and, not surprisingly, nothing new in Speaker Pelosi’s and Senator Schumer’s response. Behind the Democrats’ resistance to Trump’s wall is not only their conviction, as Pelosi has put it, that the wall is a moral affront, but also their confidence that closing the government so that Trump can come through on his signature campaign promise is also a political catastrophe—for Trump. The most recent poll—from Quinnipiac in mid-December, before both the shutdown and Trump’s claim of responsibility for it—showed that by a margin of 62 percent to 34 percent, Americans opposed shuttering the government because of differences over funding the wall, and that a clear majority would blame Trump should that happen—as, of course, it has. More broadly, the midterm elections stiffened the occasionally invertebrate Democrats’ spine. They are no longer the party that caves—at least, for now.
How, then, will the shutdown end? Legally preposterous as a presidential declaration of national emergency may be, it may also be the only way Trump can dig himself out of this self-dug hole politically. It would permit the re-opening of those government agencies currently slammed shut, and should the courts strike down his declaration, as they most likely will (this Los Angeles Times op-ed by Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Berkeley’s law school, convincingly lays out the precedents and constitutional basis for a court rejection of such a declaration), Trump can at least tell his base, “Well, I tried.”
And with Robert Mueller closing in, the one thing Trump can’t afford to do is offend his base. It’s all he’s got.