Trump Touts Border "Crisis," Takes on Mueller

Brennan Center experts react to the president's second State of the Union address.

February 5, 2019

President Donald Trump delivered the second State of the Union address of his presidency Tuesday night, making his case for a "crisis" at the border and against the Mueller investigation.

As he’s done in the past, Trump contorted facts about crime and immigration, potentially part of building a case for an eventual national emergency. And he touted the bipartisan FIRST STEP Act, the first major criminal justice reform bill in decades. Immediately after, Georgia's Stacey Abrams delivered a response that urged a national pushback against voter suppression, a call echoed by House Democrats' democracy reform H.R. 1 bill.

Here were some of the main takeaways of Tuesday’s televised address from our Brennan Center experts:

Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center, served as director of speechwriting in the Clinton White House and wrote four State of the Union addresses:

"Trump gave a sustained, misleading, and hateful speech on immigration, surrounded by a jumbled patchwork of State of the Union clichés (Buzz Aldrin! D-Day!). There were a few highlights, such as the jubilant power of so many women in the House chamber. However, we can now expect to hear the president’s enablers denouncing 'investigations' as a threat to peace and prosperity. We should all be clear — especially to the media, which will be easily played here — that oversight is not partisanship, it’s the Constitution at work. It was great to see strong and unifying support for sentencing reform and reducing the disparities in the criminal justice system. On that issue, Trump did well, although there's more to be done. And Stacey Abrams gave a really, really powerful speech under difficult circumstances. Her focus on the right to vote — and situating the issue in core patriotic values — was truly inspiring. She spoke for America."

Spencer Boyer, Washington Office Director for the Brennan Center, served in senior intelligence and policy roles in the Obama administration:

"On a positive note, President Trump left open room for compromise on the border wall issue by staying clear of his $5.7 billion number as the only acceptable answer. He also deserves credit for putting a spotlight on criminal justice reform and the real people it’s helping. It was deeply disappointing, however, to see the president continue to demonize undocumented immigrants and refugees through fear-mongering and cherry-picked and misleading anecdotes. It was also stunning to see the president conveniently ignore the human rights brutality and ruthlessness of North Korea’s regime, while saying that the United States would support freedom for people who suffer under regimes that he dislikes. Overall, this was mainly a speech for his base, especially on issues such as abortion, immigration, and 'partisan investigations.'"

Ames Grawert, senior counsel in the Justice Program, an expert on the sentencing reform bill just passed by Congress:

“In an otherwise divisive speech, President Trump’s remarks highlighting the stories of formerly incarcerated people — and ‘the disparities and unfairness that can exist in criminal sentencing’ — drew applause from the entire House, a moving testament to the continuing need for bipartisan criminal justice reform. But the speech was light on specifics, with no clear commitment to a ‘second step,’ and a quick pivot to fearmongering rhetoric about immigration and crime. A lot of progress, but a lot of work still to do.” 

Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security program, who leads one of the court fights against the president’s Muslim ban:

"As expected, President Trump continued to distort facts to support his claim that there is a crisis on our Southern border. His claim that there is an ‘urgent national crisis’ on the border, for example, is patently untrue. Apprehensions at the border are down 76 percent from their peak in 2000. His oft-repeated claim that people crossing the border illegally bring drugs and crime to the U.S. has been repeatedly debunked by studies like these two from the Cato Institute. Perhaps the biggest lie is the president’s claim that he welcomes legal immigrants. In fact, his administration’s policies — from the Muslim Ban to extreme vetting to various administrative changes that make it harder to get visas — have done just the opposite. Visa numbers are dropping, especially from Muslim countries. Trump wants to wall off the United States, both literally and figuratively, from the outside world."

Andrew Boyle, counsel in the Liberty and National Security Program and an expert on national emergencies:

"While President Trump did not use the the SOTU address to declare a national emergency, he did use rhetoric to possibly attempt to falsely frame immigration as worthy of a future emergency declaration. His references to sending military troops to the border, the need to protect the safety of Americans, and his repeated description of the border as 'dangerous' all could be seen as in that vein. As the budget negotiations continue, only time will tell whether Trump chooses to go down the misguided path of declaring a national emergency to secure funding for his wall."

(Image: Pete Marovich/Getty)