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Trump's prime-time sales pitch for a border wall didn't change anything in the shutdown fight

Key Points
  • President Trump announced no new policies and made no new substantive arguments, writes CNBC's John Harwood.
  • But neither did Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer when they followed his remarks with their own.
  • The shutdown approaches its fourth week as costs rise for businesses and individuals reliant on government services, for federal workers poised to miss paychecks on Friday, and for the broader economy.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during an address on border security in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019.
Carlos Barria | Bloomberg | Getty Images

President Donald Trump's lunchtime prediction to broadcasters on Tuesday was right. His televised speech didn't change a "damn thing" about the government shutdown. He's still losing the fight.

Addressing Americans from the Oval Office, Trump at times offered a somewhat softer justification for his border wall demands in a bid to spur Democratic defections. He decried the "cycle of human suffering" produced by illegal border crossings, hurting African-Americans, Latinos, women and children.

But the president announced no new policies and made no new substantive arguments. Neither did Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer when they followed his remarks with their own.

As a result, the shutdown approaches its fourth week. Costs are rising for businesses and individuals reliant on government services, for federal workers poised to miss paychecks on Friday, and for the broader economy.

During the budget impasse that produced it, Trump proclaimed his willingness to accept responsibility for the shutdown. A new Reuters-Ipsos poll shows he has gotten his wish, as a 51 percent majority assign him "most of the blame." That figure is 4 percentage points higher from a previous Reuters-Ipsos poll that was taken just as the shutdown started before Christmas.

It's not just the governmental mess that most Americans oppose. Polls have consistently shown that a majority opposes the demand, arising from Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, that provoked it: construction of a "great wall" across America's border with Mexico.

Thus Republicans, who had other priorities, didn't approve it when they controlled Congress in 2017-18. There's scant evidence a border wall would reduce the myriad dangers Trump associates with illegal immigration, from violent crime to terrorism to drug addiction to stagnant wages.

VIDEO0:3200:32
Trump: If a wall is immoral, why do wealthy politicians build walls, fences and gates around their homes?

The president himself no longer insists on a concrete barrier across the entire 2,000-mile border, which already has more than 650 miles of fencing and other structures. What Trump seeks now, by demanding $5.7 billion, is symbolic affirmation for hard-core supporters who represent his bulwark against political and legal danger.

Democrats don't want to give it to him. And Republican lawmakers, two months after their lopsided loss in midterm House elections, have grown increasingly restless with Trump's attempt to extract it.

Several GOP senators have publicly edged toward the Democratic position that Washington should reopen the government while continuing to debate border security. House Republican leaders fret about defections as Pelosi on Wednesday begins a series of floor votes on bills funding departments shuttered for the past 19 days.

Trump has publicly mused about one potential exit strategy: declaring a national emergency and asserting his power to build a border wall without congressional approval. Longtime GOP policy advisor Cesar Conda on Wednesday morning floated another: reopening the government while a nonpartisan commission produces recommendations on what border barriers make sense and other immigration issues.

Yet even restless Republicans on Capitol Hill remain wary of simply folding a losing hand. Their fear of a backlash from Trump stalwarts, and of emboldening Democrats, prods them to hold out a little longer.

"Pelosi and Schumer cannot obtain absolute victory unless we give it to them," explained veteran GOP Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma. "As much as I detest government shutdowns, I do not think we will. And I do not think we should."

VIDEO4:5104:51
The Democratic rebuttal to President Trump's speech on the wall