VOA News/Ken Bredemeier & Michael Bowman
WASHINGTON — U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly walked out of a meeting with top Democratic lawmakers at the White House Wednesday after they again refused his demand for funding to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border to thwart illegal immigration.
Trump on Twitter called his brief discussions with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer «a total waste of time.»
The president said he asked them whether they would approve a wall or a steel barrier at the border if he agreed to end the 19-day partial government shutdown and while negotiations on border security are held over the next 30 days. But when «Nancy said, ‘NO.’ I said, ‘Bye-bye,’ nothing else works!»
«Again we saw a temper tantrum,» Schumer told reporters outside the White House before Trump had a chance to tweet about the aborted meeting. «He just walked out and said we have nothing to discuss.»
Pelosi said, «We have a better idea how to protect the border and it isn’t a wall.» Democrats are calling for more high-tech surveillance of the borders to prevent migrants, mostly from Central American countries, from crossing illegally into the United States.
Vice President Mike Pence, who also was in the abbreviated meeting — the third between Trump and congressional leaders in recent days — said, «Today, we have heard once again that Democrats are unwilling to negotiate. The president is going to stand firm … to stem the crisis on our southern border.»
The sharp exchanges between the top U.S. officials occurred during what already is the second longest government shutdown in U.S. history, three days short of the record. About a quarter of government operations have been shuttered since Dec. 22, with many government services curtailed, and 800,000 federal civil servants furloughed or forced to work without pay.
The dispute centers on Trump’s demand for more than $5 billion in new funds for building a barrier along at least part of the 3,200-kilometer southern U.S. border with Mexico, a favorite pledge of his during his successful 2016 run for the White House. Democrats have offered $1.3 billion in extra money for border security, but none for a wall.
The tense meeting at the White House came a day after Trump addressed the nation in a prime-time televised speech from the Oval Office, his first during his two-year presidency. He said the wall was necessary to block migrants and keep drugs out of the country, but Schumer and Pelosi offered their rebuttal minutes later.
Trump huddled with Senate Republicans about border security over lunch at the Capitol on Wednesday, before heading back to the White House for the meeting with Schumer and Pelosi that only lasted minutes.
Earlier in the day, Trump tweeted, «Thank you for soooo many nice comments regarding my Oval Office speech. A very interesting experience!»
In another tweet, he said, «Our Country is doing so well in so many ways. Great jobs numbers, with a record setting December. We are rebuilding our military. Vets finally have Choice & Accountability. Economy & GDP are strong. Tax & Reg cuts historic. Trade deals great. But we MUST fix our Southern Border!»
He told reporters, «We have to do what’s right at our border.»
Trump said he still may declare a national emergency to build the wall without congressional approval, adding, «My threshold will be if I can’t make a deal with unreasonable people.»
In their rebuttal Tuesday, Pelosi and Schumer derided Trump’s oft-repeated claim that Mexico would pay for the wall, instead of U.S. taxpayers.
«The president of the United States — having failed to get Mexico to pay for his ineffective, unnecessary border wall, and unable to convince the Congress or the American people to foot the bill — has shut down the government,» Schumer said. «American democracy doesn’t work that way. We don’t govern by temper tantrum.»
Other Democratic senators also said they were unmoved by Trump’s demand for a barrier.
Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire told VOA, «I didn’t hear the president say anything that would change my mind. We should be re-opening the government.»
Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama said, «We need to dial back the rhetoric and not use fear. Let’s talk strictly about border security in the long run, not just a short-term fix. We need to figure out how to get this government open, No. 1, and fix our borders, No. 2.»
Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana called Trump’s comments in his speech about border security «very appropriate.» He said Schumer and Pelosi’s support for border security but not a wall was «juvenile … very disingenuous. I think most Americans understand that it’s purely political.»
Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas told VOA that he thinks a compromise might eventually be reached.
«I think the president will wind up with not all that he wants,» Boozman said, «and Democrats are going to have to give some. I think that’s really the solution.»
Trump said in his address that it’s up to Democrats to «pass a spending bill that defends our borders and reopens the government.» He suggested the issue could be resolved in a quick meeting, but past discussions at the White House have not ended the stalemate, again the case Wednesday.
In their joint response to Trump’s speech, Pelosi and Schumer pointed to a number of spending bills lawmakers already have passed that would reopen the government and provide money for border security. They said the shutdown continues only because Trump refuses to drop his demand for $5.7 billion in wall funding.
In his speech, Trump sought to make a case that not having a wall is putting Americans at risk of being victims of violence at the hands of people who enter the country illegally, and endangering them by allowing large amounts of illegal drugs to cross the border.
«This is a humanitarian crisis. A crisis of the heart, and a crisis of the soul,» said Trump.
He said hundreds more people are killed each year by drugs, particularly heroin, most of which, he said, comes into the United States through the southwestern border.
An October 2018 report by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency detailed the prevalence and source of a number of drugs, including those Trump mentioned Tuesday — heroin, fentanyl, methamphetamine and cocaine. In each case, the report said the vast majority of the drugs comes in through existing points of entry, most commonly in cars, which would not be stopped by a border wall.