President Donald Trump and his administration have spent days bringing up misleading or incorrect information to make their case for a southern border wall. Now, Trump will try to sell that case to save his top campaign promise from the Oval Office in a primetime address.
The president has been front and center in talking about the urgent need for a border wall since last Wednesday, focusing on building public support for the wall by bringing up the flow of drugs from the southern border and human trafficking, rather than spending time working to negotiate a deal with congressional Democrats to fully fund the government, which remains partially shut down and affects 800,000 federal workers.
But Trump and top officials have also been exaggerating claims as they frame the issue as a humanitarian and national security crisis — one that could even warrant the president declaring a national emergency in order to build the wall without congressional funding approval. The White House counsel’s office, according to officials, has been looking into the legality of the president making such a declaration, which will undoubtedly face court challenges.
Vice President Mike Pence, who has been serving as the administration's lead negotiator with Democrats, defended the president’s push for border wall funding as the partial government shutdown drags on during a briefing with reporters and a round of TV interviews Tuesday morning. Pence insisted that this is about more than a campaign promise.
"One of my least favorite terms is the one that shows up in the media a lot — it’s the word 'base,'" he told reporters Monday, arguing the reasoning for the wall was unrelated to pleasing the president's core supporters. "I don’t like the word 'base.' It’s your base, our base. This isn’t about base; this about the American people. This is about human trafficking. This is about a humanitarian crisis. This is about the flow of illegal drugs, illegal immigration, and the president’s determination to address that issue with action and with resources."
Like other top officials, Pence was grilled about the White House's claims on the subject and Trump's lack of credibility in talking about immigration-related issues. Several officials have pointed to a claim that nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists tried to get into the country last year while talking about the need for a wall along the southern border. That number, however, is the overall number, which includes attempts made by those individuals at all ports of entry.
When he was pressed on that number and NBC's reporting that only six suspected terrorists were flagged at the southern border in the last six months of the year, Pence brought up a different category of individuals — not suspected terrorists — that he said could pose national security risks.
"On the southern border, last year alone 3,000 special interest aliens were apprehended trying to come into our country," he said. "Those are individuals whose travel patterns or backgrounds represent the need for additional screening, and represent a potential security threat to the United States of America."
The same claim was fact-checked earlier in the week on Fox News Sunday by Chris Wallace when White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders used it in her argument for the wall.
“But special interest aliens are just people who have come from countries that have ever produced a terrorist, they’re not terrorists themselves,” said Wallace, who went on to point out that the majority of the 4,000 suspected terrorists who are apprehended try to enter the United States through airports.
“I’m not disagreeing with you that they’re coming through airports,” Sanders responded, continuing to defend the administration's misleading claim. “I’m saying that they come by air, by land, and by sea, and the more and more that our border becomes vulnerable and the less and less that we spend time and money protecting it, the more that we’re going to have an influx, not just of terrorists, but of human traffickers, drug inflow, and people who are coming here to do American citizens harm.”
A tweet thread on the issue Monday night from Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen just further muddied the administration's message.
Ahead of Trump's Tuesday address, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway eventually admitted Monday night when questioned by Fox News' Laura Ingraham about these claims hurting the president's credibility that Sanders had made "an unfortunate mistake." Ingraham, a top Trump ally, requested on the same show that Trump humanize the issue in his address rather than repeat the same numbers, which she said won’t necessarily move the general public and lead to the media “cherry-picking” facts.
The overall number of people who are stopped crossing the border illegally has also been declining significantly since the early 2000s, although there has been an increase in women and children trying to cross the border, according to data from the US Customs and Border Protection, which goes against the image of thousands of dangerous migrants rushing the border that the president points to.
It's also not just numbers that the administration has had to defend — the president and other officials have also been grilled this past week about why Mexico is not paying for the border wall, as Trump had promised during his White House bid, along with the mechanics of their claim that a new, yet-to-be-approved trade agreement with Mexico and Canada will pay for it.
Pence was also questioned Tuesday about the president’s claim last week that he spoke with former presidents who all indicated they should have built a wall during their time in office. Representatives of all four living US presidents have said that conversation never happened.
The vice president tried to defend Trump before moving on to his talking points about the humanitarian and national security crisis.
“Well, you— you— you— I— I know the president has said that that was his impression from previous administrations, previous presidents,” he said on MSNBC. “I know— I know I’ve seen clips of previous presidents talking about the importance of border security, the importance of addressing the issue of illegal immigration.”