Trump Seeks to Reset Border-Wall Debate
President stops short of emergency declaration in his renewed call for a wall on the southern U.S. border
WASHINGTON—President Trump in his State of the Union on Tuesday renewed his call for a wall on the southern U.S. border, but without repeating his threats in recent weeks to declare an emergency, striking a less-rigid tone in his first address to a divided Congress.
Mr. Trump, who spoke with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence seated behind him, called for both parties to “work together, compromise and reach a deal” to pass a spending bill including funding for the project, but he suggested some flexibility on how long and what it would look like.
“This is a smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier—not just a simple concrete wall,” Mr. Trump said. “It will be deployed in the areas identified by border agents as having the greatest need.” If Congress fails to act, “I’ll get it built,” the president said.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Trump agreed to a temporary deal without wall funds to reopen the government for three weeks, after a 35-day impasse that marked the longest shutdown in U.S. history.
The 82-minute address carried less of a dark tone than the president typically adopts in rally speeches. Mr. Trump hailed the strength of the economy and called for both parties to work together on infrastructure and trade. One exception: his description of illegal immigration, which he said was causing “lethal drugs” and “savage” gangs to pour into the country.
He used the address to announce the time and place for his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un: Feb. 27-28 in Vietnam. And he highlighted his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria—a move met with criticism from both parties that contributed to the departure of his defense secretary, Jim Mattis—declaring: “Great nations do not fight endless wars.”
The president’s first address to Congress since Democrats won control of the House came as he enters what will be a more challenging second half of his term, as his agenda will encounter partisan roadblocks while his administration faces a broad set of investigations by U.S. prosecutors and lawmakers. At one point, the president declared: “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.”
In the Democratic response to Mr. Trump’s speech, Stacey Abrams, who lost Georgia’s gubernatorial race in November, decried the government shutdown as a “disgrace” and blamed Mr. Trump. It was “a stunt engineered by the President of the United States, one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people—but our values,” she said.
Mr. Trump earned some of his most vigorous applause when he mentioned that women had taken most of the new jobs in America in the past year and gained many seats in Congress. Female lawmakers, dressed in white to show unity, stood and applauded, many pointing at themselves. “You weren’t supposed to do that,” said Mr. Trump, apparently referring to the fact that so many Democrats were applauding.
Beyond eradicating AIDS and curing childhood cancer, the address offered few new policy proposals. The president used much of the address on immigration, one of his core issues, particularly making the case, again, for Congress to approve funds for a border wall.Mr. Trump described border security as a “moral issue” and declared: “Tolerance for illegal immigration is not compassionate—it is cruel.”
Democrats have agreed to increase funding for border security but have dismissed a wall as an unnecessary use of funds. With Mrs. Pelosi widely considered to have won the earlier faceoff over the shutdown, the onus was on Mr. Trump on Tuesday to try to shore up support among Republican lawmakers—many of whom had begun to waver as the partial shutdown dragged on.
The president “not only spent a lot of his own political capital, but spent a lot of theirs,” said longtime Republican strategist Kevin Madden, referring to Republican lawmakers. “They’re not going to sit on the curb and allow him to force a bad hand the way he did for those 35 days and have them pay a price. They’re going to be much more active going forward.”
To emphasize his argument that the southern border is a security risk, Mr. Trump invited as his guests a Homeland Security human-trafficking investigator and the family of a Nevada couple who authorities said was slain by an immigrant who the White House said is in the U.S. illegally.
Democratic lawmakers, who argue that migrants aren’t disproportionally dangerous, invited refugees and immigrants, including two who were working illegally at Mr. Trump’s Bedminster, N.J., golf club.
Congress and the White House face a Feb. 15 deadline to reach an agreement on spending issues, including the border barrier. If they fail, that could force about 800,000 federal workers to once again go without pay. Mr. Trump, when he announced the temporary deal to reopen the government, said that if no deal is reached that included wall funds, he would either shut down part of the government a second time or declare a national emergency.
White House advisers counseled against making such a declaration during the State of the Union because Democrats—and maybe some Republicans—in the audience would boo, according to people who were briefed on the address Monday evening.
Senate Republicans have been unusually vocal in their criticism of issuing an emergency declaration, with Sen. Susan Collins of Maine calling the move “constitutionally dubious.” If Mr. Trump moves in that direction, House Democrats are expected to bring to the floor a resolution of disapproval, a leadership aide said this week. It would likely pass the Democratic-controlled House and come up for a vote in the Senate, where its consideration would be expedited. It also would likely draw an immediate challenge in the federal courts.
Polling has shown that Mr. Trump bore the brunt of the blame for the shutdown, while his overall job-performance rating remained at 43% approval, versus 54% disapproval, in a January Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. A CNN poll released Monday found Mrs. Pelosi’s approval rating jumped 8 points during the recent shutdown, to 42%.
Mr. Trump viewed Tuesday’s speech in part as a kickoff to a re-election bid, his allies said. “This will be his first campaign speech of the 2020 reelection,” said Jason Miller, a former Trump campaign aide. State of the Union addresses in the past, while always carrying political overtones, have more often been framed as nonpartisan events.
Mr. Trump’s reference to “ridiculous” investigations came a day after the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan issued a wide-ranging subpoena to the Trump inaugural committee as part of an investigation into how the fund raised and spent more than $100 million. The federal probe into possible collusion between Trump associates and Russia in the 2016 U.S. election is continuing, and the president himself in recent months was implicated in federal crimes by his former lawyer, Michael Cohen. Mr. Trump has denied wrongdoing.