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How fitting is it that President Trump’s first Oval Office address, which he requested be televised live in prime time by every major network, was aimed at stirring up the American public about a crisis largely of his own making?
Not that the border crisis is one of Mr. Trump’s self-serving political fictions — like the deep state or widespread voter fraud. It may have started out that way, but the situation has, with the president’s nurturing, become something far more tragic.
Pursuing poorly thought-out and even more poorly executed policies on the pretext of battling a nonexistent national security crisis, Mr. Trump has helped create a pressing humanitarian one. Desperate migrant families being detained en masse at the border are overwhelming a system pushed beyond its limits by an administration that chose to ignore the implications of its actions — overcrowding, children falling gravely ill and, paradoxically, the haphazard release of throngs of detainees into border communities stretching from California to Texas.
Mr. Trump is now invoking the urgency of the situation as a justification for pursuing more wasteful, hard-line measures that most Americans do not support, chiefly the ludicrous border wall over which he has shut down critical pieces of the government. The president and his enablers have been busily knitting together inaccurate data, misleading anecdotes, exaggerations and other “alternative facts” about the flow of criminals, drugs and terrorists across the southern border. He seems to hope he can paint a dystopian landscape of security threats and human suffering so dire that the American people will rally to his side and pressure congressional Democrats to succumb to his demands for a towering wall — preferably concrete, but at this point, it seems, steel will suffice.
Failing that, Mr. Trump has also been floating the possibility of stiff-arming Congress altogether. With his advisers increasingly anxious that Republican lawmakers are poised to abandon them on the shutdown, the president has raised the threat of declaring a national emergency, which he thinks would allow him to command the Pentagon to build his wall.
Such a move would prompt a swift and furious legal challenge, if not a full-blown constitutional crisis, that could drag on indefinitely. It would, however, also give Mr. Trump a way to reach a wall-free funding deal with Congress without losing face, thus weaseling out of the shutdown box into which he has nailed himself.
The border wall began life as an applause line at Mr. Trump’s rallies, and it has endured as the rare — perhaps even sole — policy objective that actually matters to him. The substance of true border security may not interest him much, but this symbol sure does.
While Mr. Trump proved a wily campaigner and political street fighter, as president he has been painfully out of his element. Two years in, he remains ill suited to the complicated, thankless, often grinding work of leading the nation. Governance clearly bores him, as do policy details both foreign and domestic. He has proved a poor judge of talent. He prefers grandstanding to negotiating, and he continues to have trouble with the whole concept of checks and balances. While the Republican base remains enamored of him, most of the electorate has grown weary of his outrages and antics.
Which is why, with his wall on the line, Mr. Trump so desperately needs to convince the American people that they are facing an acute crisis — maybe even a bona fide emergency.
In times of trouble, an anxious public looks to its leaders, and the ability to telegraph strength, decisiveness and certitude assumes greater value than in periods of calm and prosperity. Circle-the-wagons patriotism, maybe even a little jingoism, becomes more appealing. People long to feel protected.
With his demagogy, Mr. Trump managed to fuel a sense of insecurity and unease throughout his campaign, along with the idea that he alone could Make America Great Again. In office, he has attempted to perpetuate that angst by proclaiming existential threats to the Republic, be they migrant caravans storming the border, Muslim terrorists flooding the airports or violent immigrants roaming the countryside. Shutting down the government is only the most recent effort at getting what he wants by traumatizing the nation he has sworn to serve.
Were Mr. Trump truly interested in securing the border, and easing the suffering his policies are making worse, there are immediate steps he could take. For starters, he could end this wretched shutdown so that the people responsible for protecting the border can get paid, immigration judges can return to processing asylum claims and, yes, the physical and virtual barriers already in place can be maintained and perhaps even improved.
Beyond that, he would need to ease up on the my-way-or-the-highway swagger and sit down for a real discussion with lawmakers about how to address the deep dysfunction of this nation’s immigration system.
None of which would be as sensational as grabbing some prime-time airtime.
It would, however, be a sign that the president is at last getting serious about immigration concerns he has thus far done nothing but exacerbate.
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A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A22 of the New York edition with the headline: The Crisis Is in the Oval Office
The New York Times · by The Editorial Board · January 8, 2019