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Several takeaways from Trump’s border wall address

President Trump delivered the first Oval Office address of his White House tenure on Tuesday evening, amid an ongoing shutdown battle with Democrats over his proposed border wall.


What were the main takeaways?

Trump did not shift the debate

Some people close to the president had argued that a primetime televised address would be one way — perhaps the only way — to change the contours of the debate over the shutdown.

That view implicitly recognizes that the White House is on the back foot, with little leverage and with Democrats feeling no serious pressure to compromise.

Nothing Trump said changed that.

Instead, he mostly rehashed arguments that he has already made on Twitter or at recent news conferences. He argued that the situation on the southern border had reached crisis proportions and alleged that Democrats were unconcerned about border security.

Trump also made his share of contentious claims, such as saying that he was willing to accept a steel barrier rather than a concrete wall “at the request of Democrats.” No prominent Democrat has publicly supported a new physical barrier made of either steel or concrete.

“This situation could be solved in a 45-minute meeting,” Trump said at one point during his address, referring to the shutdown.

That may be true in abstract terms but it fails to recognize the political reality right now.

The landscape is difficult for the president. It remains so.

To that extent, this was a swing and a miss by the president.

No declaration of national emergency

Trump, the erstwhile reality TV star, knows how to build suspense.

The pre-speech cliffhanger was whether he would declare a national emergency during his speech. Doing so would have been deeply controversial but it would also have laid the groundwork for trying to circumvent Congress in order to get funds for the wall.

Trump did not do it.

The speculation had been stoked by people in Trump’s circle, including Vice President Pence, who told NBC’s Hallie Jackson in an interview that aired Tuesday morning that declaring a national emergency was something the president was “looking at and considering.”

Not only did Trump not make such a declaration; he did not even allude to the possibility.

That doesn’t mean that such a move is off the table for good, of course. It is likely to be something that the administration keeps in its pocket if it needs a game-changer.

The Democrats did what they needed to do

If Trump did not triumph, he did not meet with disaster either. His arguments may have been predictable, but they were competently delivered without obvious missteps.

The same was true of the Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who responded with their own televised address.

The duo sparked some adverse social media commentary for their grim-faced expressions and more stilted moments. But for the most part they avoided trapdoors and simply put forth their counter-arguments to Trump.

Each Democratic leader spoke for only about two minutes, and Schumer squeezed more soundbites into his time as he asserted “we don’t govern by temper tantrum” and accused Trump of appealing to “fear not facts; division not unity.”

Democrats are sure they have the upper hand in the fight. They are bolstered in that view by polls like the one released by Reuters/IPSOS earlier on Tuesday, which indicated that  51 percent of adults believe Trump deserves “most of the blame” for the shutdown, as opposed to only 32 percent who blame congressional Democrats.

To that extent, the leaders whom Trump sometimes refers to as “Chuck and Nancy” only needed to avoid any major errors.

They accomplished that much.

A speech for the base

Trump has always prized appealing to his base above almost all else.

He did it again on Tuesday.

In particular, Trump placed a great deal of emphasis on crimes committed by people who are in the United States illegally.

“How much more American blood must we shed before Congress does its job?” he asked at one point.

Those dark notes swallowed up some passing efforts at greater magnanimity. Trump acknowledged in passing that “America welcomes millions of lawful immigrants.”

He asserted that politicians built walls around their own homes, not because they hate people outside the walls but because they love the people inside.

Still, the bulk of the brief speech was much more hardline.

This is not necessarily a political mistake. Trump’s base-first strategy won him the presidency in the first place, against almost all predictions.

From early indications, he hit the mark with his most conservative supporters on Tuesday.

Conservative commentator and provocateur Ann Coulter, who had been critical of Trump last month when it appeared he might sign a spending bill without wall funding, called Tuesday night’s address a “beautiful speech” on Twitter.

A mixed bag for the TV networks

When Trump first announced his plans to deliver the address, there was some speculation that the major TV networks would decline to carry it.

Soon enough, however, they bowed to convention and agreed to do so, also consenting to give airtime to the Pelosi-Schumer response.

On one hand, network executives can breathe a sigh of relief: wild theories that Trump would speak for far longer than scheduled or deliver a succession of claims that were more incendiary than usual came to nothing.

That said, the fact that the president did not deliver any major news might cause those same executives to think twice about extending the same privilege to Trump next time he asks.

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