Monday,25 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1425, (10 - 16 January 2019)
Monday,25 March, 2019
Issue 1425, (10 - 16 January 2019)

Ahram Weekly

Nation hostage to Trump

Donald Trump is unlikely to give in as US government shutdown negotiations have reached their third week at a virtual stalemate, reports Khaled Dawoud

Nation hostage to Trump
Nation hostage to Trump

A prime-time televised address by US President Donald Trump, which he was scheduled to deliver Tuesday night, was unlikely to change strong Democratic opposition to his demand to build a wall along the US border with Mexico, sparking a three-week government shutdown.

In visits to Congress, his top aides, including Vice President Mike Pence, spared no arguments to claim that the US was truly facing a “national emergency” that requires building the wall. Trump himself has repeatedly warned that he might resort to an emergency measure that would allow him to build the wall if Congress, whose House of Representatives is now controlled by Democrats, continued to reject his demand for $5.7 billion in financing. 

The only compromise Trump made so far was saying he was ready to accept using steel instead of concrete to build the wall. Like many of his supporters, Trump referred to the wall Israel has built along the border with the occupied Palestinian territories — using a variety of concrete, steel and barbed wire — as a success story. Indeed, lucrative deals will be awaiting Israeli companies if any money is approved to build the wall. 

Meanwhile, anger continued to build among more than 800,000 federal employees and workers who have not received their salaries since the holidays. 

While Trump insists that the steel barrier is needed to curb the flow of drugs and illegal immigration, Democrats insist the wall would be expensive, inefficient and immoral. They also demand equal time to respond to the president’s prime-time speech, mainly to refute any arguments made in support of the wall. 

Vice President Pence said Monday that administration officials and congressional staff discussed the border “crisis” in meetings over the weekend about how to break the impasse and reopen government facilities. “We made progress in establishing the fact that we do have a humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border. The president will address that as he speaks to the nation,” Pence told reporters. 

Asked to explain how thoroughly the White House counsel’s office has reviewed the possibility of an emergency declaration, Pence said it is something they have examined, but the administration would prefer to solve the problem of border security funding through Congress.

“What I’m aware of is they’re looking at it and the president is considering it,” Pence told reporters during an hour-long briefing alongside Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Office of Management and Budget acting director Russell Vought. “There’s no reason in the world why the Congress shouldn’t be able to roll its sleeves up and work together to find a principled compromise to address what is a real crisis at our southern border,” Pence added.

The trio repeatedly used the word “crisis” to describe the state of the US-Mexico border as they made the administration’s case for border security funding.

Trump initially raised the possibility of declaring a national emergency during Rose Garden remarks Friday. “I haven’t done it. I may do it,” Trump said. “We can call a national emergency and build [the wall] very quickly.”

The idea has met pushback from some, including California Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, who said Sunday that he did not think Trump would be able to use emergency powers to build a wall at the southern border. 

“Look, if Harry Truman couldn’t nationalise the steel industry during wartime, this president doesn’t have the power to declare an emergency and build a multibillion-dollar wall on the border,” Schiff said. “So that’s a nonstarter,” he added.

Schiff said the burden remained on Trump to move and reopen the government, saying Trump had painted himself into a corner and needed to “figure out how he un-paints himself from that corner”.

“I expect the president to lie to the American people,” said New York Representative Jerrold Nadler, the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Monday after the White House announced Trump’s plan to deliver his address Tuesday night. “Why do I expect this? Because he’s been lying to the American people and his spokespeople continue lying to the American people,” he added.

In the latest notorious case of the administration peddling untruths, White House Spokeswoman Sarah Sanders was caught on Fox News implying falsely that up to 4,000 terrorists have poured over the southern border.

In an annual terrorism report published in July 2017, the State Department said there was “no credible information that any member of a terrorist group has travelled through Mexico to gain access to the United States”.

Trump has claimed that a wall is needed to deter “drug dealers, human traffickers and criminals”. He also argued without evidence that a caravan of migrants from Central America that headed to the border last year included “unknown Middle Easterners” — another reference to terrorism.

Such a record will complicate Trump’s attempts and those of his key aides, such as Pence and Nielsen, who were involved in several rounds of talks with Democrats on Capitol Hill since the beginning of this week. Trump is also scheduled to head to the border Thursday, to “meet with those on the front lines of the national security and humanitarian crisis”, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders announced Monday on Twitter. 

Trump’s decision to deliver a prime-time address followed warnings from advisers that his arguments about immigration — delivered in tweets and impromptu media scrums in recent days — are not resonating amid the shutdown.

But if Tuesday’s speech is pockmarked with factual errors and easily discredited spin, any hope the president has of influencing anyone other than his supporters will likely be dashed.

The president’s set piece speeches have rarely succeeded in changing public opinion on a key issue or easing tensions in a political standoff; in fact, the opposite is more often the case.

Trump’s decision to trigger a shutdown, apparently fearing anger from conservative pundits if he folded over wall funding, left an impression that he is covering up his embarrassment over his thus-far failed campaign promise.

Given his hyper political approach in the past, it’s always possible that Trump has no expectation of changing the partisan brew over immigration, but just wants to show his supporters he’s ready to fight.

Trump has spent years exploiting immigration — one of the nation’s most divisive fault lines — during an insurgent campaign and a presidency sustained by the fervour of his committed political base.

But now, the downside of that strategy is becoming evident. In his attempt to convince the nation that a genuine crisis is unfolding at the US southern border, the president’s arguments face extreme scepticism from those not already in his camp. 

About 57 per cent of Americans oppose Trump’s wall compared with 38 per cent in favour, according to a December poll. Those numbers are similar to where they were just after Trump took office in 2017. 

The US president also faces an aggressive media that’s ready to counter any arguments he makes. For example, Trump said Friday that a former president had commended him for his commitment to securing funds to build a wall along the nation’s southern border. However, three of the four living former presidents have denied telling Trump they wished they had built the wall, and the other has strongly opposed the idea in public remarks. 

In a news conference Friday, Trump suggested that at least one prior commander-in-chief had agreed with his desire to build a wall. “This should have been done by all of the presidents that preceded me,” Trump said. “And they all know it. Some of them have told me that we should have done it.” But his predecessors have denied any such conversation. Jimmy Carter, the oldest living former president, said Monday that it wasn’t him. “I have not discussed the border wall with President Trump, and do not support him on the issue,” Carter said in a statement tweeted by The Carter Centre Monday afternoon. 

Freddy Ford, a spokesman for former President George W Bush, told CNN that “they haven’t discussed this”. Former President Bill Clinton’s spokesman Angel Urena said Clinton “never said that”, adding that “they’ve not talked since inauguration”. 

The only living former president yet to go on record denying that he praised Trump for trying to build the wall is Trump’s immediate predecessor, Barack Obama. However, it’s extremely unlikely that Obama privately praised Trump’s attempts to fund the border wall, given that Obama has fervently opposed the notion of a border wall in public remarks since Trump began promoting the idea on the campaign trail.

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