Eager to shift public opinion in favor of taxpayers funding a southern border wall as part of any legislation to reopen a quarter of the federal government, the White House has deployed its top guns, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, on a public relations blitz.
Several polls show about half of Americans blame the president for the shutdown, while around 35 percent blame Democrats. What’s more, Trump’s approval rating has dipped during the 21-day funding lapse that has left 800,000 federal workers furloughed and without paychecks Friday for the first time. Even a survey by Rassmussen Reports — typically more friendly to conservatives like the president — found most Republicans who responded see a wall as effective but not an emergency.
FiveThirtyEight’s running average of several approval rating polls puts Trump’s approval rating at 41 percent on Friday, down from 42.2 percent on Dec. 10. The same average put his disapproval rating at 53.9 percent Friday, up from 52.5 on Dec. 10.
The president used a White House border security event Friday afternoon to say the United States is being “invaded by criminals and drugs,” a statement he often makes that immigration experts and independent fact-checkers call a false claim. He also again changed his preferred design of a border barrier, which once was to be a concrete barrier reinforced with steel until he lately tried giving Democrats an “out” by switching to an “artistically designed steel slat” structure.
But on Friday, he mused aloud about a barrier made of “steel that has concrete inside,” calling that kind of structure “not a bad combination.”
He also addressed the death of a group of migrants who suffocated and died in the trailer of a big rig, calling it a “hell of a death” and a “disgrace” before saying many illegal migrants are moved into the United States between official ports of entry — areas where he wants to erect his wall.
Part of the border-themed public relations push has featured Trump, Pence and other senior administration officials stressing their contention that border officers are facing a dramatic uptick in groups of migrants showing up at ports of entry with children, falsely claiming to be families. “They are just using the children,” he said Friday, “and then they tell them to ‘get out of here.’”
‘Ever the showman’
Expect the public blitz to continue.
“Stay tuned,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told Roll Call Friday afternoon. “You’ll see some more stuff.”
Mark Rom, a Georgetown University professor, said the week shows how Trump is “ever the showman,” particularly as he muses about declaring a national emergency so he can claim extraordinary authority to divert money to wall-building.
“The message is now, ‘If Congress won’t act, I will,’” Rom said. “‘So give me the money for my wall if you’re so opposed to me using this authority.’”
The border blitz came as one Trump ally, GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, went from trying to craft a deal to encouraging the president to bypass the legislative branch.
“Mr. President, declare a national emergency now. Build a wall now,” Graham said in a statement.
During the Trump-Pence offensive, which also included Trump’s first primetime address from the Oval Office and two Pence sessions with reporters on the border issue and shutdown, Democratic members have howled.
The week also has featured Trump first tip-toeing then striding closer and closer to declaring a national emergency at the southern border, a move that would allow him to access funds to meet his $5.7 billion border barrier demand — but also open him to what experts say would be a lengthy court fight.
On Friday, after House Minority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., criticized Democratic leaders for sending members home for the weekend rather than staying in session for shutdown-ending negotiations, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., responded: “The gentleman has a different concept of negotiating than I do. Somebody takes somebody that I care about hostage and says, ‘I want to negotiate.’ That’s not a negotiation. That’s a demand.”
As a sign of how entrenched the sides are, there are no formal talks scheduled Saturday or Sunday between the Pence-led White House negotiating team and senior congressional staffers like last weekend's Eisenhower Executive Office Building sessions that both sides said failed to yield much progress, according to two White House officials.
Democrats like Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth have warned the president against an emergency declaration. She issued a Friday statement calling that move “increasingly likely,” alleging the president wants to “steal billions of dollars that have already been allocated by Congress to fund critical national defense and disaster recovery projects.
“Not only is that an unlawful abuse of presidential power but it raises the question: Why is the president still holding the paychecks of hundreds of thousands of federal employees and contractors hostage?” she said.
Amid the White House-orchestrated theatrics this week, Quinta Jurecic, managing editor of the Lawfare blog, urged calm on both sides.
”I don’t think people should be panicking about the declaration of a national emergency for wall-building purposes,” Jurecic wrote. “A presidential declaration of emergency in order to construct a wall would be stupid. It would be wasteful. It would test the limits of the president’s authority under the law in question. ... But it would not, in itself, be a step toward authoritarianism.”
‘Focus on the mission’
Several hours before Trump headlined the White House event, Pence was down the street receiving a briefing from U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials. There, the VP expressed confidence that White House officials and congressional leaders will cut a deal eventually to end the partial government shutdown, and he pressed lawmakers to act. But he did not describe or even flick at any new proposals to end it, according to a pool report.
“Focus on the mission,” he told them. “I want to assure you that we’re going to figure this thing out,” Pence said after the briefing.
Some 60,000 federal border security personnel are not getting paychecks during the partial government shutdown.
The Friday events for POTUS and VPOTUS came after both were out stumping for the wall.
On Thursday, Trump flew to McAllen, Texas, where he was briefed by border security officials and toured several facilities. While there, he called the southern border a “weak spot” where illegal migrants from “all over the world, they come in.”
“What they need, more than anything, is the barrier: the wall. Call it whatever you want,” the president said. “Whether it’s steel or concrete, you don’t care. We need a barrier. ... It could be a lot easier for you.”
But equally dug-in Democratic leaders led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York call a border wall “immoral.” She says she won’t give the president $1 to build it as the shutdown on Saturday will become the longest in U.S. history.