World·Analysis

Trump used the Oval Office to make his border wall pitch — but experts doubt it will sway voters

U.S. President Donald Trump made his first prime-time speech from the Oval Office last night, but some experts say his at-times misleading address to voters about border wall funding runs the risk of debasing a time-honoured tradition.

Constitutional law scholar says speech may be seen by some as a 'cry wolf scenario'

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers a televised address to the nation from his desk in the Oval Office about immigration and the southern U.S. border on the 18th day of a partial government shutdown. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

The magnitude of an address from the Oval Office once looked like John F. Kennedy's appeal for calm in 1962 amid the Cuban missile crisis. Or Harry Truman explaining the deployment of U.S. troops to fight in the Korean War in 1950. Or George W. Bush's entreaty to Americans in 2001 to strengthen their resolve in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

In 2019, on the second Tuesday of the new year, a prime-time TV address from behind president's Resolute desk presented the latest occasion for a U.S. president to implore Americans to trust his leadership. This time, Donald Trump sought to sell the nation on the need for more than $5 billion to build a wall meant to stem a highly disputable "crisis" at the U.S.-Mexico border.

"Tonight, I am speaking to you because there is a growing humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border," Trump said, in the opening lines of his speech from the West Wing. "Every day, customs and border patrol agents encounter thousands of illegal immigrants trying to enter our country."

Oval Office speeches aren't common, typically reserved for what presidents might view to be defining moments of their leadership. The venue provides a powerful backdrop from which U.S. presidents have, in trying times, addressed the nation concerning the gravest matters of national interest and sought to unite the country.

Trump's border security speech was the first time he used the Oval Office to make a direct-to-camera speech in his two years in office. And if the medium was the message, so was the iconic setting to sell his wall plan.

Office conveys 'authority' of presidency

As high profile as they are, Oval Office addresses aren't known to dramatically move the needle on public opinion.

But with a Politico/Morning Consult poll this week showing more Americans (47 per cent) blame the president for the ongoing federal government shutdown than they do congressional Democrats (33 per cent), Trump's choice of venue was likely the reach he needed to make.

WATCH: How will Trump's speech land with voters? Strategists weigh in:

U.S. President Donald Trump addressed the country for the first time from the White House Oval Office with an appeal for a border wall. Democrat strategist Craig Varoga says the president tried to "scare" the public with his speech while Republican strategist Ryan Williams says the President is "feeling pressure" to deliver on a campaign promise. 3:24

"The speech, the location, the language, this was clearly by design meant to convey the authority of the Oval Office and presidency," said Meena Bose, executive dean of public policy at Hofstra University. "But I don't think that will sway anyone who opposes the president or who has not been following it very closely."

Republican strategist Ryan Williams told CBC News Network that Trump said the same thing he always does, but tried to use the Oval Office speech to "drive the message" to the whole country. His base will likely be "fired up" by what they heard, Williams said, but any gains could be lost if the president fails to stay on message in the days ahead.

First the speech, then the fact-checks...

And then there's the issue of what the president actually said from behind the famous desk. Fact-checkers promptly noted Trump's statement that the border has become a "pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs" such as heroin but failed to mention that most of those narcotics come through legal ports of entry.

They also disputed his repeated claim the wall will be "paid for indirectly" by Mexico via a new trade deal — one that hasn't been ratified yet. It's unclear what funds would be used to finance a wall.

And despite his assertion of a "growing" crisis, overall border crossings have declined significantly in recent years, down to 400,000 apprehensions in fiscal year 2018 from a high of 1.6 million in 2000.

The end result may be that Trump has set himself to be seen as someone in a "cry wolf scenario" from the most revered office in the West Wing, said Jon Michaels, a constitutional law professor at UCLA. 

U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer followed Trump with a joint response. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Trump held off on Tuesday on declaring a national emergency over border security, though he previously mused he might do so in order to unlock powers allowing him to bypass legislators and get the funding he needs to construct a wall, or steel barrier.

"On the merits, I would be hard-pressed to say we're facing an emergency right now," Michaels said. "Under any type of reasonable perspective, thankfully, we are far from a national emergency."

"If you wanted to defuse the situation, to calm the nation, a thoughtful explanation of why we need to deal with immigration was the way to do it. And to do it without histrionic claims; without statements that are untrue," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the University of Pennsylvania expert on presidential rhetoric who also runs the website FactCheck.org.

Trump made no mention of a discredited 4,000-migrants-per-year figure touted by some of his officials on Tuesday. Even so, Hall Jamieson still felt the president "failed to make a persuasive case that a proposed wall would thwart cross-border drug trafficking."

The prototypes for Trump's border wall are seen behind the border fence between Mexico and the United States, in Tijuana, Mexico. (Jorge Duenes/Reuters)

The last half of the speech, she said, veered into campaign rhetoric by blaming Democrats for what is now a 19-day shutdown for refusing to "fund border security." (In fact, Democrats have supported fence-building and offered $1.3 billion for border security, just not the wall Trump wants.)

Some presidents used the Oval Office to speak frankly to the nation more often than others.

Ronald Reagan delivered 34 speeches from the Oval in eight years; George W. Bush gave six in his eight years. Barack Obama made three during his eight years — but faced his own controversy in 2014, when TV networks denied him airtime for a prime-time speech on immigration reform, reasoning that it was too "overtly political."

By taking such partisan swipes from the grandeur of the Oval Office during a prime-time address, Trump runs the risk of "overexposure," or of being accused of cheapening a time-honoured tradition, said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor with the University of Mary Washington who specializes in presidential communications.

It's not clear whether the president's speech will have any impact on the border security stalemate. But Trump's speech may even have implications for future Oval Office broadcasts, Farnsworth said.

If the speech is widely panned as a dud, the networks may simply opt not to interrupt lucrative prime-time broadcasts with the president's address — no matter who is in the office. 

Watch Trump's full speech and the response from top Democrats.

U.S. president made his case for a wall along the Mexico border during a prime-time address 9:33
Nancy Pelosi says U.S. president is rejecting bipartisan bills over 'expensive and ineffective' wall 4:52

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

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