You would think that if the nation were facing a national emergency, the president might get to it a little sooner in his nationally televised address. But Donald Trump was seven paragraphs into his speech announcing a national emergency — past trade negotiations with China, beyond Brexit and the U.K., the Syrian caliphate and relations with China, Japan, South Korea and Russia — before he reached the "national-security crisis on our southern border."
And then he said he didn't have to do it, and offered a curious disclaimer for why he did. "Not because it was a campaign promise, which it is," Trump said.
But that appears to be precisely why the president is doing it: to keep a restive base happy. While campaigning, Trump fed his supporters' uncertainty over the changing look and sound of America with talk of people unlike them coming in to change the culture and way of life and take away their jobs.
Here's how he framed the issue at a 2016 Arizona rally:
"We have to listen to the concerns that working people, our forgotten working people, have over the record pace of immigration and its impact on their jobs, wages, housing, schools, tax bills and general living conditions. Not everyone who seeks to join our country will be able to successfully assimilate. Sometimes it's just not going to work out. It's our right, as a sovereign nation to choose immigrants that we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish and love us."
Mixing in rhetoric about Middle Eastern refugees posing terrorist threats, Trump referred to "countless innocent American lives being stolen because of the failure to secure borders."
He has asserted that since 2001, 63,000 Americans were killed by undocumented immigrants, a claim that, when posted on a Facebook newsfeed, was flagged by Facebook as false. No agency keeps track of murders committed by undocumented immigrants. In fact-checking the claim, the Washington Post attributed the number to Iowa's Steve King, who has defended white supremacy. The Post said it had no basis in fact.
King reportedly extrapolated it from a General Accounting Office study which showed 28 percent of inmates in all corrections facilities were criminal aliens. In fact, the study showed that 28 percent of all federal prisoners (who make up 12 to 17 percent of all incarcerated people) were immigrants. And it didn't distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants. Also, half of those immigrants were only charged with being in the country illegally, a misdemeanor.
King's related comments on the House floor in 2006 imply he was factoring in other kinds of deaths besides homicides, such as those linked to drug dealers. He said without unauthorized immigrants, "the lives of 12 U.S. citizens would be saved who otherwise die a violent death at the hands of murderous illegal aliens each day. Another 13 Americans would survive who are otherwise killed each day by uninsured drunk driving illegals. Our hospital emergency rooms would not be flooded with everything from gunshot wounds, to anchor babies, to imported diseases... "
Trump used this to his advantage while campaigning.
When you manufacture a crisis, you have to give it emotional resonance. Trump pledged he would ask Congress to name a law after Kate Steinle, a civilian victim of an unauthorized immigrant's bullet (he was acquitted of intentionally shooting her), on his first day in office if elected. Trump said he'd name another law for two officers killed by an illegal immigrant who returned after deportation. And he took the term "Angel Moms," which was used to depict parents who are bonded by the loss of a child for any reason, and redefined it to refer to parents of children killed by undocumented immigrants.
It's hard to imagine anything more devastating than losing a child, for whatever reason. But the president is exploiting some surviving families and ignoring others to bolster his claim of a national crisis by creating a distinct class of victims. When a reporter asked him last week what he would tell critics who said he was making up a national emergency, the president replied, "Ask the Angel Moms. Do you think I'm creating something? Ask these incredible women who lost their daughters and their sons."
So in lobbying for one kind of wall, Trump built another kind: one that separates parents who lost a child one way from all the other ways.
And if he's building a case against child deaths, shouldn't he at least acknowledge the nearly 1,700 children and teens lost to gun homicides every year? Nearly 40,000 people died from guns in America in 2017. In a country with a gun homicide rate 25 times that of other high-income countries, should the killer's visa status really be the line of demarcation?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control no longer studies gun violence, under pressure from the NRA on members of Congress. But for children under 13, gun homicides are usually linked to family violence. And firearms deaths are second only to motor vehicle deaths for American youth, according to Everytown for Gun Safety.
No, there is no national emergency at the border. But there is one in the making in the White House, when a president manipulates emotions because he doesn't have reason or righteousness on his side — even if that means spending billions for which there are pressing priorities, and changing the facts and the language to get his way.