There was that last college football game – the two best teams in the country – the game for the national championship – and Alabama didn’t show up. That’s sports talk. Alabama showed up but they just couldn’t get it together. Nothing worked. They made boneheaded mistakes. Clemson ran all over them, doing everything right. Clemson showed up. Clemson won.
That was Monday night. Tuesday night Donald Trump didn’t show up. He gave his big speech but his heart wasn’t in it. Here in Hollywood there’s a term for a rote performance, done well enough, but just well enough and no more, where there’s no spark. Donald Trump mailed it in. He hit his marks. He delivered the lines. But he really didn’t show up.
The New York Times’ Peter Baker reports that:
President Trump doubled down on one of the biggest gambles of his presidency on Tuesday night with a televised appeal to pressure Congress into paying for his long-promised border wall, even at the cost of leaving the government partly closed until lawmakers give in.
Embarking on a strategy that he himself privately disparaged as unlikely to work, Mr. Trump devoted the first prime-time Oval Office address of his presidency to his proposed barrier in hopes of enlisting public support in an ideological and political conflict that has shut the doors of many federal agencies for 18 days.
In a nine-minute speech that made no new arguments but included multiple misleading assertions, the president sought to recast the situation at the Mexican border as a “humanitarian crisis” and opted against declaring a national emergency to bypass Congress, which he had threatened to do, at least for now. But he excoriated Democrats for blocking the wall, accusing them of hypocrisy and exposing the country to criminal immigrants.
In short, there was nothing new here. It was the usual. Be afraid. Be very afraid:
“How much more American blood must we shed before Congress does its job?” Mr. Trump asked, citing a litany of grisly crimes said to be committed by illegal immigrants. Asking Americans to call their lawmakers, he added: “This is a choice between right and wrong, justice and injustice. This is about whether we fulfill our sacred duty to the American citizens we serve.”
So, we’re all going to die, or not:
Democrats dismissed his talk of crisis as overstated cynicism and, with polls showing Mr. Trump bearing more of the blame since the partial shutdown began last month, betrayed no signs of giving in. The White House earlier in the day dispatched Vice President Mike Pence and others to Capitol Hill to try to shore up Senate Republicans, who are growing increasingly anxious as the standoff drags on.
In their own televised response on Tuesday night, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, accused the president of stoking fear and mocked him for asking taxpayers to foot the bill for a wall he had long said Mexico would pay for.
“President Trump must stop holding the American people hostage, must stop manufacturing a crisis and must reopen the government,” Ms. Pelosi said.
That was their proposal. Open the government again, and let’s work this out. There’s no need for chaos and pain from coast to coast. Why keep that going? You’re not going to change anyone’s mind at this late date.
Baker reports that Trump knows that:
Privately, Mr. Trump dismissed his own new strategy as pointless. In an off-the-record lunch with television anchors hours before the address, he made clear in blunt terms that he was not inclined to give the speech or go to Texas, but was talked into it by advisers, according to two people briefed on the discussion who asked not to be identified sharing details.
“It’s not going to change a damn thing, but I’m still doing it,” Mr. Trump said of the border visit, according to one of the people, who was in the room. The trip was merely a photo opportunity, he said. “But,” he added, gesturing at his communications aides Bill Shine, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway, “these people behind you say it’s worth it.”
That was the message. Blame THEM for this charade, not him. But his position was deteriorating anyway:
Two more Republicans, Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, spoke out on Tuesday in favor of reopening the government while negotiations over border security continue. “I think we can walk and chew gum,” Ms. Murkowski told reporters.
Ms. Capito expressed frustration with the shutdown and “how useless it is,” indicating that she might support reopening the government while wall talks continue.
That’s five so far, but there’s this:
Allies of the president warned fellow Republicans to stand with Mr. Trump. “If we undercut the president, that’s the end of his presidency and the end of our party,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said on Fox News after the speech.
Be afraid, be very afraid, but for a different reason:
Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the No. 5 House Democrat, who perhaps most succinctly summed up his party’s response: “We are not paying a $5 billion ransom note for your medieval border wall,” he wrote on Twitter, with a castle emoji. “And nothing you just said will change that cold, hard reality.”
That’s cold, and Zack Beauchamp is colder:
After watching President Trump’s primetime immigration speech, my overwhelming impression was this: Why, oh why, did anyone think it was a good idea to air this on national television?
The most memorable portion of the address came when the president listed off a series of gruesome crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. He went into graphic detail, discussing the use of a hammer on one victim and the dismemberment of another. This, he argued, is why America needs a border wall: Undocumented immigrants are dangerous, and their entry must be blocked at all costs.
Except this is false. The data shows that undocumented immigrants are actually considerably less likely to commit crimes; states with more undocumented immigrants actually tend to have lower crime rates.
So the most striking part of the whole presentation was a lie, a recitation of anecdotes designed to mislead Americans about immigration and gin up anti-immigrant sentiment to score political points.
But these things happen, as the team at the Daily Beast notes here:
In the days before his Oval Office address on Tuesday night, Donald Trump leaned on a number of advisers for how to navigate the government shutdown he’d waged over funding for his border wall. The list included immigration hardliners Fox News host Sean Hannity and Fox Business star Lou Dobbs, both of whom, according to two sources familiar with the conversations, had a clear message for the president: push forward for the wall funding and break the Democrats’ will.
The president took the counsel of the hardliners. But in a notable way, Trump blinked. Hours before the televised speech, he had been contemplating declaring a national emergency in order to be able to unilaterally divert military funds for the construction of the border wall but that declaration notably didn’t make it into the final address.
Trump didn’t even try to link border crossings with terrorism, despite days’ worth of his senior officials attempting to make that dubious connection.
Trump didn’t show up to declare a nation emergency or anything else, as the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin notes here:
Trump did not declare he was reopening the government. He did not issue an “emergency” declaration. He did not even offer any new arguments for a border wall that voters say they don’t want for a crisis that doesn’t exist. Instead, he delivered a weak, unconvincing promise to sit down with Democrats. Never has he looked so helpless and small.
In short, the president snookered the networks into giving him free time to commune with his base. They should not make that mistake again.
And the speech wasn’t that interesting anyway:
The speech, again not surprisingly, was delivered in a wooden cadence. Without a cheering campaign-style rally filled with his cult followers, his words fell flat, and he seemed to lack energy. Another rally might have worked better.
He needed that vast crowed of old white men – with guns – wearing those red baseball caps – standing in a giant airplane hangar in Butte or wherever. But there was no crowd to read. He was lost, so he read the script instead, and it was nonsense:
As anticipated, the speech was littered with falsehoods. He claimed there was a growing crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border, though illegal crossings are a fraction of what they were in 2000. He bemoaned the influx of heroin, but didn’t mention that the vast majority of heroin doesn’t come over the border but through airports and other ports of entry. He claimed the wall would be paid for by NAFTA 2.0, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, but that’s bunk, and no official has adequately explained how it would work. He falsely claimed that Democrats would not fund border security. In fact, they have offered $1.3 billion. Perhaps his weirdest statement was to claim that African Americans and Hispanics are the groups hurt most by illegal immigration.
Nice try, but Donald Trump lost those voters long ago, so this seems to be ending:
It’s difficult to imagine Trump would change the mind of any voter not already devoted to his cause and immunized against reality. To the contrary, one wonders whether Republican members of the House, voting this week on separate bills to reopen departments of the government that have been shut down, will think, “That’s all he’s got?” If so, be prepared for a substantial number of them to abandon Trump and vote with Democrats when individual spending bills come to the House floor.
That is what he hadn’t anticipated but this is what it is:
Democratic leaders were able to get off a fair number of zingers. “Sadly, much of what we have heard from President Trump throughout this senseless shutdown has been full of misinformation and even malice,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) began. “The President has chosen fear. We want to start with the facts.” She reminded the audience that Trump had created the shutdown: “President Trump has chosen to hold hostage critical services for the health, safety and well-being of the American people and withhold the paychecks of 800,000 innocent workers across the nation — many of them veterans. He promised to keep government shutdown for ‘months or years’ no matter whom it hurts. That’s just plain wrong.” They also debunked the claim that Democrats did not want border security. “We all agree that we need to secure our borders, while honoring our values: we can build the infrastructure and roads at our ports of entry; we can install new technology to scan cars and trucks for drugs coming into our nation; we can hire the personnel we need to facilitate trade and immigration at the border; and we can fund more innovation to detect unauthorized crossings,” Pelosi said. She correctly stated that this was a humanitarian challenge, but that Trump had made it worse.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) picked up from there. “We don’t govern by temper tantrum. No president should pound the table and demand he gets his way or else the government shuts down, hurting millions of Americans who are treated as leverage.”
And that’s that, and Alyssa Rosenberg sees this:
The strangest part of his prime-time address on Tuesday night didn’t turn out to be a declaration of national emergency or a breathtakingly vulgar denunciation of undocumented immigrants. It was the sight of Trump straining to play a normal president. The performance didn’t last long. And it suggested that if Trump suddenly acquired the self-discipline to behave the way we expect a president to act, the resulting whiplash might be even more jarring than the past two years have already been.
Going into the evening, it seemed possible that Trump would careen across a political and moral red line, declaring that he would use emergency powers to deliver on his signature campaign promise, to build a wall on the border between the United States and Mexico. Given the hype, it was disconcerting to hear a speech that, at least for the opening minutes, could have been delivered by any normal politician.
He expressed concern for African American and Hispanic workers. He ruminated about “a crisis of the soul.” He lamented the sexual assaults against women on the perilous trip north. And he said of politicians and wealthy people who surround their homes with gates and other security measures, “They don’t build walls because they hate the people on the outside, but because they love the people on the inside.”
That may not be so:
He doesn’t “hate the people on the outside” – except for all the Mexican immigrants he falsely tarred as drug mules and rapists. The same man feigning deep concern for vulnerable women once bragged that when he meets beautiful women, he likes to grab their genitals.
Watching Trump’s flat delivery of sentiments that he can’t possibly believe was the inverse of comforting. Instead, the address had the queasy effect of a serial killer’s mask in a horror movie: It was a failed attempt to look normal that concealed something even more terrifying underneath.
That would be a madman, and Stephen Stromberg adds this:
Trump’s messages are simple: There is a trade deficit, so force other countries to buy more American goods. Other countries take advantage of the United States, so start an easy-to-win trade war. Climate change doesn’t exist, so there is no need to do anything about it. It is difficult to argue against him on television because rebuttals must often begin with, “actually reality is more complex than that,” followed by multi-sentence explanations that encourage people to tune out. This is one reason he won the presidency.
But the question now gripping Washington is simple: Is spending five and a half billion dollars to build a wall on the southern border a good idea? And the answers from each side have been simple, too.
Here’s the idea:
The president says yes to the wall, because there is supposedly an immigration crisis. On Tuesday, he blamed illegal migrants crossing the southern border for drug addiction, economic malaise, murder, rape and practically every other problem with American society. “How much more American blood must we shed?” he asked. “It’s just common sense,” he said at the place where there should have been an evidence-based case for why a wall would help with any of the problems he claims that illegal immigration brings.
The Democrats say no to the wall because the wall is a waste of money and is a negative symbol abroad. “We can secure our border without an ineffective, expensive wall,” Schumer said. “The symbol of America should be the Statue of Liberty, not a 30-foot wall.”
Americans, by and large, also say no, according to poll after poll showing support for the wall in the 30s to low 40s and opposition to it consistently above 50 percent. Support for shutting down the government to force through funding for the wall is even lower.
So, Trump has a solution:
He long ago made his message simple and clear: Illegal immigrants are scary, and a wall – not something else – will stop them. And he made the government shutdown about the wall. Democrats have offered to deal on other types of border security, a fact the Democratic leaders highlighted on Tuesday. Throughout the shutdown impasse, there have been plenty of obvious ways for the president to change the story from “Trump is closing the government for the wall.” Perhaps Congress could allocate money to other types of border security, with less going to physical barriers and more going to more effective measures? Maybe if the president offered Democrats something they care deeply about, they might deal on wall funding? But Trump has continually refused to shift the debate from a binary choice on the wall.
And that leaves this:
Trump’s intolerance of complexity, his compulsion to always win, his instinct to bludgeon any given issue with simplistic proclamations and broad generalizations, usually supported by nothing more than ego and misunderstandings, has led him into an ever-smaller corner. He did not map a path out on Tuesday. Americans got the message. And they do not like it.
Richard Wolffe sees that too:
At every campaign stop in 2016, Trump promised to build a wall that Mexico would pay for. Soon it became clear that Mexico was laughing too loud to pay for anything. Somewhere along the way, the wall became a series of steel slats.
At this point, it’s hard to know which one of his many delusions is winning the day. When Trump’s lapdog Republicans controlled all of Washington, he couldn’t get Congress to pay for his wall. Now the Democrats control half of Congress, he thinks he can force Congress to pay for his wall. His forcing mechanism is to shut down his own government, claim credit for the shutdown, and then blame everyone else.
Now, he looks like a fool both before and after he loses this macho game of staring himself down in the mirror.
Wolffe saw this:
Sitting behind the Resolute Desk where he sometimes poses to sign blank pieces of paper, Trump reframed his indiscriminate crackdown on immigrants as “a growing humanitarian and security crisis.” Summoning the shallow reserves of human empathy that lie buried deep within, he lamented how families were suffering at the border.
“The children are used as human pawns,” he declared, noting that “women and children are the biggest victims, by far, of our broken system.”
How true. They have been used as human pawns – by a president with an immoral and illegal policy to separate infants from parents, locking up children in detention camps, and caring so little for their wellbeing that several have died in the custody of the richest country on the planet. Not since Hannibal Lecter tried to charm Clarice have we witnessed such a chilling love of humanity.
So this was the same old same old:
Far from reassuring a troubled nation, Trump did what he does best: he tried to scare the living daylights out of them. Especially the poor old scared folk who already watch Fox News. He said there are “vast quantities” of drugs coming over the Mexican border that would literally run into a brick wall if there was one – or possibly a steel slat.
He didn’t mention all the drugs smuggled in containers by land, sea and air, which get waved through customs.
But he did mention the murders and rapes, the hammer beatings and knife stabbings, and of course the beheadings and dismemberments. And no, he wasn’t talking about his Saudi friends. He was talking about undocumented immigrants, who are in fact responsible for a lower crime rate than the general population.
There was nothing new. He mailed it in, and Josh Marshall saw this:
David Axelrod said a couple days ago that the Oval Office format is the worst format for President Trump. Boy is that right. It’s scripted. It plays to his woodenness reading a script. He doesn’t get the energy from a crowd. This was the same script he’s been reading from for months. If anything, it was more muddled because his speechwriters dropped a number of the more jarring lies. I think this meant basically nothing politically.
That made this like the big football game the night before. Alabama didn’t really show up and got clobbered. And the disruptive and amazing and startling Donald Trump didn’t show up the next night either, so this meant nothing at all in the end – just like college football. This was the big game of the year, the last game, but some things just don’t matter – and Trump is getting there.