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Three things to watch in Trump’s border wall Oval Office address

Democrats expect more false, misleading statements as shutdown drags on

President Trump speaks in the Oval Office in February 2017 before Vice President Mike Pence swore in now-former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left). (John T. Bennett/CQ Roll Call)
President Trump speaks in the Oval Office in February 2017 before Vice President Mike Pence swore in now-former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left). (John T. Bennett/CQ Roll Call)

President Donald Trump’s first Oval Office prime-time address will put the border wall — his signature campaign promise — center stage as he considers declaring a national emergency at the southern border and aims to shift public opinion about the government shutdown.

Senior administration officials on Monday did not rule out the president making what would be a contentious announcement during his Tuesday address. Vice President Mike Pence was one of those officials, and he made clear in a television interview that aired Tuesday morning that Trump could make a move that Democrats already are panning.

“It’s something that he’s looking at and considering,” Pence told NBC, referring to the president.

Democratic congressional leaders and aides say serious negotiations about a border security spending package — and Trump’s proposed border barrier — cannot begin until the president signals a willingness to negotiate on his $5.7 billion demand for the structure. Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York on Monday night said any spending bill with that much wall funding “can’t pass either chamber of Congress.”

[Shutdown Day 17: White House, Dems disagree on definition of ‘negotiating’]

With the partial government shutdown in its 18th day, here are three things to watch when Trump goes live from the Oval Office.

National emergency

Will he or won’t he? That’s the questions members and immigration experts are asking ahead of the big speech, which the White House says should wrap up in under 10 minutes.

Trump administration officials who briefed a group of reporters Monday came with a new claim: that there is an escalating “humanitarian and national security crisis at the southern border,” as Pence put it.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Pence were asked why the administration is now asking for $5.7 billion for the wall and billions more in additional funds above and beyond what the House and Senate Appropriations committees passed in their fiscal 2019 DHS spending bills.

“The crisis is getting worse,” Nielsen replied. “So the issue is that the status quo funding, the status quo laws are not able to address the crisis that we’re seeing at the borders.”

Trump said Friday and over the weekend he would prefer trying to work out a deal with lawmakers in the coming weeks before invoking his executive powers. If the president decides to declare a national emergency on Tuesday night — or after talks collapse — Senate Judiciary member Chris Coons predicts “a significant and likely successful challenge in court.” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland signaled a similar sentiment on Tuesday

One GOP Judiciary member, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, on Monday said an emergency declaration would add “new elements to this — court hearings and litigation that may carry this on for weeks and months and years,” adding: “To me, injecting a new element in this just makes it more complicated.”

Margaret Taylor, a governance studies fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former Democratic chief counsel for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote recently that without an “appropriate statutory authority … such action would be unconstitutional.” But she speculated that what White House lawyers are searching for “is what existing statutory authorities the president could reasonably rely on to use already-appropriated funds to build the wall.”

Pressuring Democrats

Pence during the Monday session with reporters repeatedly uttered this line, aimed at trying to force Democratic leaders to the table: “There is a crisis at the southern border, and Democrats are refusing to negotiate.”

The vice president, a former House GOP leadership team member, claimed there is “a lot more support” among Republican and Democratic members “for a negotiated agreement that addresses the president’s determination to construct a steel barrier and also advances the other priorities for border security [from] Democrats.”

Pence did not name names on Monday, but his boss often is less shy. In recent days, he has selectively noted that top Democratic figures like former President Barack Obama and the his 2016 campaign foe, Hillary Clinton, both voted for border fence funding when they were senators during the George W. Bush administration.

Trump could opt to use his Oval Office talk to target Democratic senators who are gearing up for potentially tough re-election fights in 2020, such as Alabama’s Doug Jones, New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen and Minnesota’s Tina Smith.

False statements

Democratic members are predicting the fact-checkers will be busy after Trump signs off Tuesday night. That’s because of stats like those compiled by the Washington Post’s Fact Checker team: the president, through Dec. 31, Trump has uttered 7,645 false or misleading statements. Over 1,000 of those have been immigration-themed.

[Just what have Pence, Democratic aides been discussing as shutdown plods on?]

Mercedes Schlapp, White House strategic communications director, told reporters Tuesday that “the president is going to focus on delivering the facts.” Democrats have their doubts.

“If his past statements are any indication,” the Oval Office remarks “will be full of malice and misinformation,” Pelosi and Schumer, who will jointly deliver a response after the president’s remarks, said in a Monday statement.

Trump added another Friday, that he never promised his supporters a concrete-based border wall during his 2016 campaign. That’s false. His top aides have added another misleading statement in recent days, saying thousands of terrorist suspects have been detained at the southern border. DHS and State Department data show those have been made mostly at airports.

Nielsen tried to clean up those claims Monday — though Pence was back using the figure in a number of television interviews that aired Tuesday morning.

Democratic members doubt Trump can turn public opinion in his favor on the shutdown and the wall, as Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz showed in a tweet expressing his laughter at the notion.

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