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Special Coverage: Trump Addresses Nation On Day 18 Of Shutdown, Democrats Respond

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This is live Special Coverage from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro. We are at almost exactly the halfway point of President Trump's four-year term. And tonight, he will deliver his first prime-time address to the nation from the Oval Office. The reason - we are 18 days into a government shutdown. And President Trump demands that Congress give him $5.7 billion to pay for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Tonight, we expect him to make the case that there is a humanitarian and national security crisis on the border. We'll fact-check that claim with analysis and context from NPR's in-house experts on immigration, politics and national security. We'll also hear responses from top congressional Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is here to start us off. And Mara, let me begin by apologizing to you in advance for cutting you off when the president starts to speak.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Oh, don't worry.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

LIASSON: Go right ahead.

SHAPIRO: Begin by telling us what you're listening for in the president's speech tonight.

LIASSON: Well, I'm listening for a clue as to whether the president truly wants to change public opinion with this speech - in other words, where he wants to make the argument that there's a humanitarian and national security crisis at the border to people beyond his base because if he truly is trying to put pressure on Democrats, he needs his strategy, which is shutting down the government to get wall funding, to reach beyond his hardcore base because the Democrats won't accommodate him unless they feel some pressure. I'm looking to see, is he trying to do that or is his goal just to have the fight?

SHAPIRO: The president is now speaking. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF OVAL OFFICE ADDRESS)

SHAPIRO: That was President Trump speaking live from the Oval Office, urging citizens to call Congress in support of his request for more than $5 billion to build hundreds of miles of wall along the border. It was a speech that hit themes we have often heard Trump speak to when he's talking about immigration. He discussed gangs and drugs and Americans killed by undocumented immigrants. We're going to have a lot of analysis and fact-checking of this speech. In just a couple of minutes, we're going to hear a rebuttal from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. First, I want to bring in NPR political correspondent Mara Liasson, who's on the line with us. And Mara, what stood out to you from that speech? Before we went into it, you were talking about whether he would appeal to his base or a broader cross-section of America. What did you hear?

LIASSON: I heard a lot of familiar arguments. I felt like I was in the Republican convention with the litany of all the people who've been killed or harmed by illegal aliens. He did start out with a slightly different argument, talking about a humanitarian crisis, the cycle of human suffering he's determined to stop. Right up at the top, he said that African-Americans and Hispanic Americans were the hardest hit. So it sounded like he was trying to broaden his argument to people who are not just part of his hardcore base. But then it returned to form pretty fast. There weren't any new policy initiatives. In other words, he didn't offer a grand compromise to Democrats to say, if you fund the wall, I'll legalize the DREAMers. That's a deal that he almost made with Democrats a couple years ago. He pretty much said, you have to fund this or else we're not going to open the government.

SHAPIRO: There...

LIASSON: He didn't mention anything about declaring a national emergency, which, of course, is the White House's kind of fallback, last-resort plan, where he could do this without Congress.

SHAPIRO: He, notably, didn't rule it out either.

LIASSON: No, he didn't rule it out. But he didn't talk about it at all. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: He said that at the request of Democrats, he would concede to making the barrier steel rather than concrete. Is that actually a concession to Democrats?

LIASSON: Well, what's really interesting about that is that in the last CR the president signed, there was $1.6 billion for border security and the...

SHAPIRO: CR - continuing resolution, the budget. Yeah.

LIASSON: Yes, to fund the government - and it very specifically - the language of that bill said that this money could be spent on steel fencing but not on a concrete wall. So the White House has said, oh. They don't like concrete. But they're OK with steel, so we're going to build a steel wall. And he says at the request of Democrats. What he means is they once agreed to steel fencing. So far, I think the Democrats have been unmoved by the shift in wall material.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) And we're going to hear from the Democrats in just a moment. NPR's Scott Detrow is here in the studio with us. And, Scott, what stood out to you about the speech?

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: I think what Mara said, really - the second half of the speech was where you could feel the energy come in from President Trump. There was one line that jumped up to me. How much more American blood must be shed before Congress does its job? That is the Trump campaign. That is key moments of the Trump presidency in one sentence. Over and over again, he has said...

SHAPIRO: We're going to listen to the Democratic rebuttal right now. This is Nancy Pelosi, House speaker.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SHAPIRO: That was Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, before him House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And you're listening to live Special Coverage from NPR News. A lot to parse in those two speeches - and to begin with, I want to bring in NPR's John Burnett, who's been listening to all three of those addresses. He's in Tijuana on the Mexican-U.S. border, just south of San Diego. John Burnett, we heard two very different descriptions of what's happening on the border. You are there on the border. What stood out to you as accurate and inaccurate?

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Well, actually, I'm back in San Diego, so now we've got a party.

SHAPIRO: Oh, you've crossed the border over the last couple hours.

BURNETT: I have crossed the border back, yes.

SHAPIRO: You were in Tijuana earlier this evening.

BURNETT: I was, indeed. Gosh, there's so much to react to. You know, the first thing is this business about - that this was a concession to the Democrats to build steel barriers instead of concrete barriers. You know, as you know, I mean, I've covered the border for years. And I talked to sector chiefs. And I've talked to Border Patrol agents. And there was never a credible belief that the Border Patrol was going to build miles and miles of concrete border. They had a design that they always liked. It was these steel bollards filled with cement from, you know, 12 to 18 feet tall that go six feet into the ground. They're very hard to tunnel under, very hard to climb over. The Border Patrol is very satisfied with this. And this is what they wanted to put up all along. And in my opinion...

SHAPIRO: And they have already built hundreds of miles of this along certain spots of the border. So this is the question. How much more?

BURNETT: Exactly. This is what they're building. That's right. And they're replacing these old Vietnam-era landing mats between Tijuana and San Ysidro right now. And they're putting up, you know, these 12 to 18-foot iron fences. This is what they want to put up. And so...

SHAPIRO: John, we also heard President Trump say, in so many words, basically, I'm just asking for what the law enforcement professionals on the border tell me they want. Of course, the wall was a huge part of his campaign for the presidency. Is it true that he is requesting what law enforcement professionals on the border want or is this really his political push for what he believes is right on the border?

BURNETT: No. Actually, the Border Patrol has identified areas of the border that do not currently have barriers. They would like to put some in. Some of them are in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas - in the tip of Texas. They're very controversial. It's extremely expensive because you have to acquire all this private land. And then you have to go through, you know, the court fight to get it. And so there are dozens of miles that they would like to install fencing down there. And then going on the west desert, there's also a number of miles they'd like to put in fencing. But the main areas are the urban areas that they've already fenced. And that has had an effect. That's caused immigrants to go around the cities into remote areas, where they're easier to catch.

SHAPIRO: Let me also ask you about two different messages we heard - one from President Trump, that there's a humanitarian crisis on the border that a wall will solve, the other from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, that there's a humanitarian crisis on the border of the Trump administration's own making. What has your experience on the border been? What have you seen?

BURNETT: Well, I think, you know, Scott Horsley mentioned this earlier in the show. There is a humanitarian crisis here. It is true that there are enormous numbers of families and children traveling without their parents who are crossing in greater numbers than single males used to cross, which was the line share of who they would apprehend down there. Customs and Border Protection says that there are 50 children - excuse me - 50 immigrants a day they're referring for medical care, that in October, the numbers of families and children surpassed the numbers of single males. And as a senior official told me on the phone a couple of days ago, the Border Patrol is not set up for this. They have jail-like settings for single adults. They're not set up to handle kids. These - the children are arriving sick. And they're getting sicker once they get into these very Spartan facilities that are freezing and where there's not enough, you know, heating and food. And so yes, there really is a need for humanitarian needs and for more medical care and more transportation in those areas.

SHAPIRO: All right. John Burnett, stay with us there on the border. I want to bring in another voice. We have Republican Congressman Clay Higgins of Louisiana with us. Congressman, thank you for joining us.

CLAY HIGGINS: Good evening, sir. And thank you for allowing me to speak.

SHAPIRO: I know that you've been a supporter of President Trump's border proposals. Did you hear anything in his speech tonight that you think will persuade Democrats or other undecided people?

HIGGINS: Well, I think that President Trump was pretty solid in his presentation, obviously. You know, he has his - his position is born of his heart and his understanding of the serious crisis on the southern border. What's lacking from all Americans is sort of from sea to shining sea, man. Whether we're Democrats or Republicans, conservative or liberals, there's a - there's somewhat of a lack of understanding of what the mission on the border is and what enhanced physical barriers, collectively referred to as the wall, what that role is. That...

SHAPIRO: This is President Trump's opportunity to explain that to the nation. Do you think he succeeded?

HIGGINS: I think he succeeded in heightening the awareness for the American people regarding the seriousness of the southern border crisis. I do not think that, you know, there was a sufficient time to really clarify to the American people what the mission is and how the so-called wall fits. The fact is nobody's talking about building a Great Wall of China, sir. There's 1,954 miles of border. I've scouted it all. I've been with the boots on the ground from the - from southern California to southern Texas. And I know exactly what they need and what they're asking for.

SHAPIRO: Well, we should say that your fellow congressmen, Republican Will Hurd of Texas, represents the district that includes the largest stretch of border in the United States. And he does not believe that this is the best approach.

HIGGINS: Well, as a patriot and a friend of mine - and he and I disagree. And he has his own political realities reflective of the district that he serves and the nature of the constituencies that he serves.

SHAPIRO: Ultimately...

HIGGINS: I have a very constitutionalist viewpoint. And I can tell you that as a police officer or law enforcement professional for many, many years, I'm bringing you data from boots on the ground. And...

SHAPIRO: Ultimately, if the goal is to reopen the government that's now been partially shut down for close to three weeks, do you think tonight's speech by the president and the rebuttal by the Democrats got us any closer to that goal?

HIGGINS: I'm not certain because it - this town is rather saturated with posturing. And our hope - I'm prayerful, good sir - I hope you feel my spirit. I'm prayerful that we can reach a reasonable compromise very, very soon. I believe we could have done that immediately on day one. On day one of the shutdown, I believe we could have reached a reasonable compromise. In fact, one was discussed and rumored that would be presented, and we were receptive to that. But it was withdrawn. I was told by friends of mine that our friends across the aisle that spoke to me confidentially and told me that the Democrats wanted the shutdown, that they felt that they could message it better.

SHAPIRO: I'm sure Democrats would dispute that. But what do you say to federal employees in Louisiana who are not getting paid, who are missing their first paycheck this week?

HIGGINS: Well, of course, you know, I understand what struggle is. And all of us that are - have patriotic fervor and beliefs in our core values are willing to sacrifice for our nation. And my heart goes out to any family that suffers. I, myself, sir, am a man of humble means. I come from very humble backgrounds. And I know what hunger is. I know what it is to have my lights turned off. And I'm a regular American. But I would give my last life's blood in defense of my country and in support of my country. And we have a serious situation on our southern border.

SHAPIRO: All right.

HIGGINS: America must recognize that.

SHAPIRO: Republican Congressman Clay Higgins of Louisiana, thank you for joining us.

HIGGINS: Yes, sir. Thank you for allowing me to speak.

SHAPIRO: I want to bring in NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, who has been talking to military leaders about the role of American troops who are still on the U.S.-Mexico border after the deployment before the holidays. There was some speculation that the White House might declare a state of emergency and unilaterally build this wall without congressional approval. That, obviously, would have involved the military. That did not come up tonight. But what are you hearing from the military leaders you're talking to, Tom?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, what the military leaders say is that the Department of Homeland Security has requested assistance from the Pentagon to build 160 miles of fencing or shoring up fencing or creating new fencing in California, Arizona and maybe parts of Texas.

SHAPIRO: I have to ask you what fencing means because we're talking about walls and barriers and border security.

BOWMAN: Well, no, we're talking mostly razor wire fences or shoring up fences This is not a wall, but it's fencing.

SHAPIRO: And where does the money for that come from?

BOWMAN: It's going to come from the Pentagon. And here's the other thing, Ari. There were 2,300 active duty troops on the border now. Their deployment is scheduled to end at the end of January. So who's going to build that fence? I'm told it could be thousands more troops heading there. You could extend the deployment of the current troops there. But right now the Pentagon is going through that request from the Department of Homeland Security. We could hear something about that in the coming days.

SHAPIRO: And if there were to be a state of emergency declared, would the military go along and execute this without congressional participation? It would be a pretty extraordinary situation.

BOWMAN: It would be extraordinary. But as military leaders have said repeatedly, if the president orders us to do something, orders us to support homeland security, we will do that. It's not an illegal order. We'll salute and carry it out.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Tom Bowman. Thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

SHAPIRO: I want to bring in NPR's Scott Detrow, who has been here listening to these speeches. And President Trump says he's going to invite congressional leaders to meet with him. And he says this could be ended with one 45-minute meeting - reality check.

DETROW: Reality check is there have been several meetings that have lasted less than 45 minutes, more than 45 minutes. And they've all ended with the same two different stances that we heard in these speeches tonight - President Trump saying, I'm not going to sign anything that does not include the $5.7 billion I'm demanding, Democrats saying, we are happy to talk about other border security. But you're not going to get a wall. And we are not going to fund a wall. And it's hard to see how anything changes in tomorrow's meeting. President Trump is also going to go up to Capitol Hill tomorrow to talk to Senate Republicans as part of a renewed, more aggressive push that we've seen from the White House in recent days after really not doing too much the first few weeks of this shutdown.

SHAPIRO: So how does this shutdown end? If there's no real substantive talks right now between the two sides - each side is saying, you could end this shutdown tomorrow if you just agreed with me. We're already at one of the longest government shutdowns in American history. What's the endgame here?

DETROW: You have seen Democrats increase pressure on Capitol Hill, trying to make Republicans - particularly Republicans who might be more vulnerable in the next election - feel a little bit more nervous about this. In the House of Representatives last week, Democrats, in one of their first votes of their new majority, passed a bill that would reopen the federal government, that would fund all the departments. And it would include a short-term funding measure for the Department of Homeland Security without the wall funding. Their argument is, let's have a narrow focus on what to do about homeland security and reopen the rest of the federal government. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the Senate has not taken those bills up, but you saw tonight Democrats start to use their leverage in the Senate, voting against advancing a bill having nothing to do with the shutdown and saying we're not going to vote for any measures to go forward until you hold a vote on reopening the rest of the federal government.

SHAPIRO: So they're shutting down the Senate in addition to the other parts of the government that are shut down.

DETROW: Everything's shut down except the House.

SHAPIRO: All right. Well, we heard President Trump talk about both a humanitarian crisis and a national security crisis. We're going to drill down a bit into that claim of a national security crisis.

The administration has been making the argument that terrorists could use the southern border to enter the U.S. And that argument has not held up under scrutiny. After White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said on Sunday that thousands of known or suspected terrorists had been detained at the border, NBC reported that the actual number was 6 in the first half of the fiscal year. That's according to data that Customs and Border Protection gave Congress. Nick Rasmussen ran the government's National Counterterrorism Center for three years up to 2017. He briefed top government officials up to and including the president on the terrorism threat. And earlier today, I asked Rasmussen how much the southern border factored into those briefings.

NICK RASMUSSEN: There were often members of Congress or other senior officials who would ask - hey, how are terrorists thinking about the southern border? Are they trying to infiltrate operatives? Are people traveling across the southern border who are a terrorism concern? And what we would say in the intelligence community is, to the best of our knowledge, the answer is largely no, they're not. It is certainly a concern. It is certainly a potential vulnerability. But it was a vulnerability that was not translating into actual numbers of terrorists crossing into the country - and certainly not the kind of volume that you've been hearing administration officials refer to.

SHAPIRO: One detail I found interesting in that document that Customs and Border Protection provided to Congress is that last year, more suspected terrorists were apprehended on the northern border with Canada than the southern border with Mexico.

RASMUSSEN: And again, it just goes to the problem that we've seen in terms of marshaling facts and supportive arguments here because, again, the facts would suggest that we don't face a crisis at the southern border in terms of terrorists trying to cross into the United States. We have an effective watchlisting system that can always improve. But it's not as if we are somehow at the mercy of terrorist organizations and that there are large numbers of terrorists at the southern border crossing into the United States - or waiting to do so. It just simply isn't the case.

SHAPIRO: So when you look at where the threat actually is today, what is the weakest point? And where would you funnel money to address that?

RASMUSSEN: Well, as my colleagues in government and the intelligence community have said in public testimony, the most serious threat we face from a terrorism perspective here in the United States right now comes from homegrown violent extremists. And those homegrown violent extremists tend to be individuals who have been here for a long time in the United States. They may even have been born here. They have become radicalized or potentially attracted to terrorist ideologies over time. But it's not something that attaches to their particular immigration status or when they arrived or something like that. That homegrown piece of it is really the piece we should be funneling resources at.

SHAPIRO: It's an interesting conclusion that al-Qaida, ISIS and other similar groups have found it is easier to radicalize people who are already in the country than it is to get people into the country. It says something about the strength of the border and airports already in the present day.

RASMUSSEN: And again, you know, I'm not here to tell you that our border security is perfect from a terrorism or counterterrorism perspective. And there's always ways we can improve and get better. But the degree of progress that we've made since 9/11 in making our borders more secure is something that's not to be understated and certainly shouldn't be thrown around in political debate in a way that somehow undermines the American public's confidence in our border security. At least with respect to terrorism, it just simply isn't the case that we are vulnerable at the southern border in the way that some officials are describing.

SHAPIRO: That was Nick Rasmussen, former head of the National Counterterrorism Center. And NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is still on the line with us. And Mara, that conversation gets to the question of whether the Trump administration has undermined its own credibility on this issue. Beyond terrorism, there have been so many issues where the administration has said things that are exaggerated or just plain false. Does that make it harder for them to sell their case?

LIASSON: Well, that's what's so interesting. Up until now, fact-checking hasn't mattered for Donald Trump. But here, he's trying to do something that he's never done before, which is convince people who are not normally with him that there is a crisis. And what I was thinking during his speech was - is he effectively laying the groundwork to declare a national emergency if he feels he has to? In other words, if the talks, which are going to continue tomorrow, don't go anywhere and he decides that he wants to do an end run around Congress and have the military build the wall, has he laid out enough facts that he could convince a court that he's done this responsibly? Because it's going to be challenged in court. And I don't necessarily think he did. I mean, the Republican congressman that you interviewed gave a pretty tepid endorsement. He said he didn't really clarify the mission or explain how the wall fits into it.

SHAPIRO: It sounds like you're saying you think this Oval Office speech was an opportunity wasted.

LIASSON: Well, not wasted - I just don't know if it - I don't think it's going to move public opinion. The other thing to point out is that I don't think an Oval Office address has moved public opinion since Ronald Reagan. These usually don't. And you know, we had reports that Jared Kushner was telling members of Congress that public opinion was going to change after tonight. And I would be surprised if it did. I think both sides are very dug in. The Democrats who did vote for a steel fence in the past don't seem to want to give that to Donald Trump again.

The president is determined to keep the government shut down. And don't forget - you've pointed this out several times tonight - the first paycheck is about to be missed. You know, the one thing about this government shutdown that was different from shutdowns in the past is it occurred over Christmas, so it didn't have the kind of impact. And Donald Trump did not mention one word about those 800,000 federal workers who are about to miss a paycheck.

SHAPIRO: Mara, you mentioned public opinion. So I want to ask you what public opinion is on a border wall.

LIASSON: Public opinion has always been against a border wall with the exception of the president's core supporters. White evangelicals, the white working class - those are the groups that favor a border wall. But I think the highest percentage of support for a border wall was 43 percent of all Americans. So it really isn't popular. And it's the president's job to make it more popular if he's going to prevail in this fight with Democrats who now share power with him. That's the big thing that's different.

SHAPIRO: Stay with us. We have been listening to President Trump's address from the Oval Office and the rebuttal from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer with analysis and fact-checking from NPR's in-house experts on politics, immigration and national security. I'm Ari Shapiro, and you're listening to live Special Coverage from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: This is live Special Coverage from NPR News. This evening, we've heard President Trump deliver his first-ever prime-time Oval Office address, making the case for a $5.7 billion allocation from Congress to fund a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. We also heard a rebuttal from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. And here to fact-check with us is NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley.

Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: All right. We have been talking for days about the exaggerated, in some cases false claims that the White House has made in the debate over immigration. Many of the more egregious things that President Trump and his advisers have said were not part of this speech. But there were some things in here that raised eyebrows, to say the least.

HORSLEY: Absolutely. And we - the president started right off the bat by saying he was there in the Oval Office to address what he called the crisis on the border. Let's take a quick listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: My fellow Americans, tonight I am speaking to you because there is a growing humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border. Every day, Customs and Border Patrol agents encounter thousands of illegal immigrants trying to enter our country. We are out of space to hold them, and we have no way to promptly return them back home to their country.

SHAPIRO: Scott, what stood out to you about that?

HORSLEY: Ari, this is kind of a nuanced picture. A lot of people will talk about how the overall number of unauthorized border crossers is way down from, say, its peak around the year 2000. But what is different today is that we're seeing a lot more families and children coming from Central America and seeking asylum. And why that's important is unlike, say, single adults from Mexico who can be quickly deported, the families from Central America cannot be. And because they're seeking asylum, even though many of those asylum claims will ultimately be denied, it takes months, sometimes years to adjudicate them. And because this administration doesn't want to continue what it calls the catch-and-release policy of allowing those migrants to wait in the U.S. while their claims are processed, that's why you're seeing what the present talks about, running out of detention space or overcrowded detention facilities.

SHAPIRO: This seems to be a really important distinction between asylum-seekers and people who try to sneak across the border without detection. It is legal for a person to present themselves at the U.S. border and claim asylum. Would a wall have any impact on that?

HORSLEY: It would not. And I will say that the administration maintains that many of these asylum-seekers are, in effect, gaming the system. They know to say that they have a credible fear of persecution or violence in their home countries. And we have seen an increase in the share of border crossers who are seeking asylum. It went from about 13 percent in fiscal year 2017 to about 18 percent in fiscal year 2018.

SHAPIRO: President Trump also talked about the flow of illegal drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border. Let's listen to some of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Our southern border is a pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs, including meth, heroin, cocaine and fentanyl. Every week, 300 of our citizens are killed by heroin alone, 90 percent of which floods across from our southern border. More Americans will die from drugs this year than were killed in the entire Vietnam War.

SHAPIRO: True that the drugs cross the southern border but most at ports of entry in vehicles that would cross the border with or without a wall. Right?

HORSLEY: That's right. Here, the president is trying to link this border situation to the opioid crisis that we're all very familiar with. And it's certainly true that much of the heroin that comes into the country is coming from Mexico. But as you say and as the Drug Enforcement Administration says, the majority of those illicit drugs are smuggled through official ports of entry. So again, the wall would not necessarily have any bearing on that.

SHAPIRO: When he talked about illegal drugs, he also said somehow that the cost of the illegal drugs would allow the wall to pay for itself, a change from his claim that Mexico would pay for the wall, something that Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer reminded us of in their rebuttal. Explain this to us.

HORSLEY: Well (laughter), the president's cost accounting here has been a little bit suspect. As the Democrats pointed out and as we've pointed out, he said repeatedly throughout the campaign - and his followers repeated in cheers in those arena rallies - that Mexico was supposed to pay for the wall. Mexico has made it abundantly clear the country has no intention of paying for Trump's border wall. So the president has been forced to fall back on a whole variety of other payment schemes, some of them pretty dubious. He's arguing here that the savings from illicit drug use in this country would perhaps offset the $5.7 billion price tag of the wall he's seeking. That might be true if, in fact, the wall would block those drugs. But as we just said, the drugs aren't coming over the wall. They're coming through the ports of entry. So that's a little dubious.

He also claimed that the new North American Free Trade Agreement, the new USMCA, as he calls it, would pay for the wall. We've noted many times that treaty has yet to be ratified by Congress. And again, that wouldn't necessarily be money coming into government coffers. There might be some economic gain.

SHAPIRO: President Trump also went into a lot of detail about Americans who he said were killed by people who were in the country illegally. He used very graphic language and said, how much longer must this - it was reminiscent of his American carnage speech. Let's listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I've held the hands of the weeping mothers and embraced the grief-stricken fathers - so sad, so terrible. I will never forget the pain in their eyes, the tremble in their voices and the sadness gripping their souls. How much more American blood must we shed before Congress does its job? To those who refuse to compromise in the name of border security, I would ask, imagine if it was your child, your husband or your wife whose life was so cruelly shattered and totally broken. To every member of Congress, pass a bill that ends this crisis.

SHAPIRO: Scott, how much does the violence that President Trump describes reflect reality? And how much would a wall do to address that violence?

HORSLEY: You know, this is obviously the president tugging at heart strings. It's a very emotional appeal. It has emotional resonance. He cited in particular, as he's done before, the very sad case of the police corporal from California who was murdered on the day after Christmas. The suspect in that case is someone who was living in the U.S. illegally. But as he's done in the past, the president left the misimpression that the suspect in that case, Gustavo Perez Arriaga, was someone who had just crossed the border. In fact, when he talked about this on Friday, he left the misimpression that perhaps Arriaga was being pursued across the border.

In fact, Arriaga crossed the border from Mexico years ago. He had been working in California's Central Valley. His presence in the U.S. had really nothing to do with this wall debate. It's a very emotional tug that the president is pulling on there. But as we've said many times on this program, studies have shown persuasively that immigrants who are living in this country illegally commit crime at a lower rate than native-born Americans. Now obviously, every one of those crimes is a tragedy. But is the wall the correct response? That's what the argument here comes down to.

SHAPIRO: And we should also point out that when you look at the entire population of people who are in the country without documentation, every year, more people overstay their visas than enter the United States illegally.

HORSLEY: Visa overstays is a bigger contributor to immigrants living in the country illegally. Another argument that the president and his advisers have been making in the run-up to this speech - they've talked a lot about terrorism, and they've talked pretty fast and loose about the facts about terrorism. They've been called on it. "Fox News Sunday" called Sarah Sanders on some of her exaggerated claims on Sunday. They were careful, I think. They knew how closely the speech was going to be scrutinized, and they didn't go there. They know that those exaggerated claims were not going to help their case, so they left the terrorism piece out of tonight.

SHAPIRO: All right. I'd like to bring John Burnett back into the conversation. He is down on the U.S.-Mexico border. He has been in Tijuana today, and he's now back in San Diego.

John, are people on the border watching this closely as though it will have an impact on the crisis as President Trump characterizes it?

BURNETT: The answer is no. This is not a question of the wall. I mean, it's been said in our coverage so many times that the asylum-seekers who are coming across - the asylum-seekers that I spoke to all day long in Tijuana, Mexico, mainly from Honduras, are waiting in line for their number to come up so that they can cross the port of entry and they can ask for protection from what they say are...

SHAPIRO: And they're waiting in Mexico, not in the United States.

BURNETT: That's right. And as the law stands, once they're on U.S. territory, they have the right to ask for protection. And so you know, this is not a national security crisis. This is an administrative crisis. And when - and the White House has asked for 75 additional immigration judges. That is one of the things that's crucially needed to try to chip away at this nearly 800,000-case backlog that is facing U.S. immigration courts. And that's, you know, one of the reasons why all up and down the border, you have all of these asylum-seekers in Mexican border cities waiting their place in line to ask for protection. And then as Scott says, once they're inside the country, then it takes a very long time for them to finally get an answer for their claims.

SHAPIRO: John, I'd also like you to address the descriptions President Trump gave of illegal drugs, violent crime tied to immigrants, gangs, bloodshed. Contextualize that for us.

BURNETT: Oh, my Lord. Well, in the first place, you know, this question about, you know, the murderous aliens who are coming across and - you know, how much more U.S. blood can shed before Congress does its job? I mean, you know, I spoke to Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo. This is a city that has one of the largest populations of undocumented immigrants in the entire country. And his quote to me is, "there is no wave of crime being committed by undocumented immigrants." And there are four peer-reviewed academic studies that I reported on back in May that illegal immigration does not increase the prevalence of violent crime or drug and alcohol crimes, which doesn't take away from the tragedy of individual crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. But if the implication is that, you know, this is a murderous population that we have to stop, I don't think that the research tells us that.

SHAPIRO: John, I know you've spent a lot of time in immigration court - something else that president Trump spoke about tonight. How bad is the backlog right now?

BURNETT: Well, it is bad. And it's getting worse because you do have large numbers of asylum-seekers. The numbers have jumped. And there are not enough immigration judges. There are not enough asylum officers. And so there are very large releases of immigrants who are allowed into the country and given electronic ankle monitors to wait their day in immigration court. And that is something that, I think, both parties realize is a problem.

SHAPIRO: All right. Thanks. That's NPR's John Burnett down there on the border. He's in San Diego, just across the border from Tijuana. I want to bring back in Scott Detrow, who covers Congress for us. And, Scott, ultimately, the question here is, what kind of a vote in Congress will it take to reopen the government? How does the chessboard change after what we've heard tonight?

DETROW: I'm not sure the speeches tonight change things too much. You have seen a little more shakiness on the Republican side than the Democratic side in terms of lawmakers rethinking or reassessing the position they have found themselves dug into. When the House voted last week to reopen the government and not fund the border wall, you had five and then seven Democrat - Republicans rather - vote in favor of those measures.

SHAPIRO: So, Scott, are you saying that part of President Trump's mission tonight was to convince Republican...

DETROW: Oh, absolutely.

SHAPIRO: ...Members of the House who might be on the fence to stick with him...

DETROW: Absolutely.

SHAPIRO: ...Rather than to persuade Democrats who have opposed him all along and are unlikely to change their minds?

DETROW: Not just the House but the Senate as well - before the speech, Vice President Pence was on Capitol Hill, meeting with House Republicans. And tomorrow, President Trump is going to Capitol Hill to meet with Senate Republicans. You've seen three Senate Republicans now say that they want to see the rest of the government open, basically taking the side of the Democrats, notably two of them. Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado are Republicans who are up for re-election in 2020 in states that are increasingly leaning Democrat. They are feeling pressure.

SHAPIRO: All right. Tonight, we heard each side characterize the other as intransigent. I want to play part of what Nancy Pelosi, the new House speaker, said this evening, and put it into context for us.

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NANCY PELOSI: The fact is on the very first day of this Congress, House Democrats passed Senate Republican legislation to reopen government and fund smart, effective border security solutions. But the president is rejecting these bipartisan bills, which would reopen government, over his obsession with forcing American taxpayers to waste billions of dollars on an expensive and ineffective wall, a wall he always promised Mexico would pay for.

SHAPIRO: Scott, what is this legislation? And if it's so bipartisan, why didn't it reopen the government?

DETROW: Yes. It was passed by the Republican Senate last year. But the important caveat here is that the Senate unanimously passed this measure funding the government at a time when President Trump looked like he was going to stand down and not insist on the border wall. The Senate voted unanimously to send that to the House. And only then did President Trump change his mind and say, no. Actually, I am going to push for a border wall.

SHAPIRO: Take a big step back for us.

DETROW: Yes.

SHAPIRO: President Trump, for the last two years, has had a Republican-controlled House and a Republican-controlled Senate. Why didn't this get done then?

DETROW: Because every time that push came to shove, President Trump backed down. There were several points where government funding was set to expire where he tweeted or said, maybe we'll have a shutdown over this. You know, I'm willing to go all-out. I'm willing to insist. But every single time, the White House backed down and said that they were fine with another government-funding bill passing without funding for the border wall. And I think the press coverage, the cable news coverage, House Republicans getting in President Trump's ear got to him realizing that if you don't get this wall now, the window of total Republican control of Washington will close. And you'll never get the wall. Of course, the window now has closed because the government shutdown began with the Republican control of the House. Now Democrats control the House.

SHAPIRO: I want to bring Mara Liasson back in. And, Mara, in the past - the recent past, there were negotiations about funding for a border wall in exchange for provisions that would allow people brought to the U.S. as children to stay in the country legally. This is making DACA permanent.

LIASSON: Right.

SHAPIRO: That doesn't seem to be part of the conversation now.

LIASSON: No.

SHAPIRO: Will it be? Should it be?

LIASSON: Well, that's a good question because every so often, the president said he would be willing to revisit it. But he wants to wait till the Supreme Court rules on whether DACA was constitutional or not. I mean, what's so interesting about this, this isn't a debate about border security. It's a debate about a wall. There are a ton of things around border security that both sides agree on. But the wall has become this No. 1 issue for Donald Trump and for his base. It's become kind of the - his whole presidency has become about the wall. And we litigated this in 2018. The immigration and all of the scary things about it that he just mentioned in the speech was his argument during the midterms. And it didn't work.

SHAPIRO: Right. He talked incessantly about the caravan.

LIASSON: Right.

SHAPIRO: He sent troops to the border.

LIASSON: He sent troops to the border - kind of a mini dress rehearsal for a national emergency.

SHAPIRO: So if that didn't work...

LIASSON: So it didn't work then.

SHAPIRO: ...For him in the midterm elections, why is he doubling down on it after having lost the House of Representatives in those midterm elections...

LIASSON: Well, that's...

SHAPIRO: ...Where he tried to make this the key issue?

LIASSON: That is a really good question. When I talk to outside advisers of the president, they say unequivocally, if he cannot build the wall, he will not win re-election. And this has become kind of key...

SHAPIRO: It sounds like you're saying it's politics. It's a point of pride. It's...

LIASSON: Well, yes. And it's also the No. 1 issue for his base. Now, there is some reporting coming out of the off-the-record lunch that he had with television anchors today, where he is reported to have expressed a lack of confidence in this strategy, which is extraordinary.

SHAPIRO: Unusual for President Trump.

LIASSON: Yes - saying, basically, he doesn't think the speech or the visit to the border is going to change anything.

SHAPIRO: OK. Well, now that you mention the visit to the border, let's just take a moment to look ahead at what the rest of the week holds on this issue - Scott Detrow.

DETROW: Well, the Democrats are going to follow up with last week's bill by making their point even more in passing one bill at a time, trying to reopen one department of the federal government at a time and keep sending those to the Senate, stacking up the pile of bills for Mitch McConnell to feel pressure to call the vote on that would reopen at least parts of the federal government.

SHAPIRO: And President Trump is scheduled to visit McAllen, Texas.

DETROW: That's right. And tomorrow, he'll visit Capitol Hill before that. Then he'll go to Texas. And I think that's an indication that President Trump does not expect this meeting at the White House tomorrow with legislative leaders to lead to some sort of compromise. He clearly sees this as dragging on and wants to continue trying to make a public relations push for his point of view.

SHAPIRO: Is there a point...

LIASSON: And...

SHAPIRO: ...Where the shutdown just becomes too painful, Mara?

LIASSON: I think that's possible. This shutdown is going to start biting. People are not going to get checks. They're - it's going to have a real economic effect. And the president, so far, has acknowledged it only in passing. But to me, the thing that wasn't discussed tonight might be the real endgame here. You know, the declaring of a national emergency, even if he - if it's struck down in court, it's the way that the president can say, I did this alone. I didn't wait for Congress. I fought as hard as I could. And he can convince his base he, at least, tried everything.

SHAPIRO: All right.

LIASSON: And that might be where we end up.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Scott - NPR's Mara Liasson. We also have Scott Detrow. And we heard from John Burnett, Tom Bowman and Scott Horsley. I'm Ari Shapiro. And you have been listening to Special Coverage from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMEFE'S "STUTTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.