President Trump addressed the nation tonight from the Oval Office about the political impasse that has kept the government partially closed for over two weeks. He insisted that a crisis forced his hand—a national security threat and a humanitarian disaster on America’s Southern border. But the speech conveyed none of that urgency.
Americans are dying, the president said. He itemized several horrific and graphic murders committed by illegal immigrants who entered America through some immense, unprotected terrain. He noted that lethal intoxicants stream over the border in vast quantities and take the lives of tens of thousands of Americans every year. He detailed how children are being used by human traffickers to subvert American laws. But despite all this carnage and tragedy, the president declined to declare a national emergency and take matters into his own hands.
Even for Americans who are not privy to the scribblings of the fact checkers who will parse the accuracy of Trump’s claims, and there is plenty to parse, Trump’s caution must seem to them like dissembling. If this is such a national emergency, why not declare one? Even those most sympathetic to the president’s position must conclude that Trump’s speech was a political positioning statement, not a call to action. His reluctance to treat a “crisis” like a crisis exposes the hollowness of what he has claimed for two years was a national priority, and it affirms why his own party failed to deliver the wall he so desired.
Trump did, however, manage to box in his Democratic opponents. The response delivered by Senator Chuck Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed that they, too, are consumed by petty politics.
Pelosi insisted that she, too, is concerned with border security. She insisted that Democrats support hardening ports of entry, building service roads along border posts, and increasing the number of personnel to double efforts to prevent unauthorized immigrants and contraband from making their way into America. Surely, the price tag on all that must exceed the $5 billion that Trump wants for his “barrier”—no longer a “wall,” per se—along select parcels of land not already fortified by a physical partition. Indeed, as Trump insisted, Democrats including Schumer once supported secure fencing along hundreds of miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Democratic leaders all but confessed that their recalcitrance over this sum is not a result of their objection to border security but to handing Trump a political victory. Schumer went so far as to admit that his caucus’s only ask was to see Trump “separate the shutdown from the arguments over border security,” but that is an admission against interest. The pain of the shutdown will, he believes, eventually become advantageous for Democrats. After all, Trump has said he would willingly accept the blame for furloughing public workers to fund his border wall. Americans without a dog in this hunt must be disquieted by the fact that, as Schumer conceded, this shutdown will at some point soon put thousands of Americans in an unnecessarily tenuous financial position. And all over a relatively measly $5 billion? Only a blinkered partisan could believe that invoking Trump’s callous and unrealistic promise to force Mexico to pay for the thing justifies prosecuting this unnecessary and costly conflict further.
For just about 30 minutes on Tuesday night, Americans were forced to sit through two of the most trifling displays of political brinkmanship in recent memory. These addresses confirmed that the stakes of the current “crisis” are so low that it barely deserves to be called a crisis. But as the shutdown continues, this conundrum will soon earn that title. And it will be hard for neutral observers to avoid concluding that it was all because someone had to save face when a political gambit went horribly wrong. How terribly small this government has become.