High expectations, bitter politics ahead of Trump's first Oval Office address

President Donald Trump answers questions from the media after speaking with members of the military by video conference on Christmas Day, Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2018, in the Oval Office of the White House. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

President Donald Trump will take his case directly to the American public Tuesday night and deliver a prime-time address on what the White House and others have identified as a "humanitarian and security crisis" at the southern border.

The White House formally requested that the major television networks interrupt their regularly scheduled programming to air his speech from the Oval Office. The big four, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, spent time deliberating and ultimately agreed to broadcast the address. The decision set off a bitter partisan battle over network coverage of the president and has fueled already high expectations forTrump's first formal address from the Oval Office.

"Historically, it's a big deal," said Stephen Hess, a presidential historian at the Brookings Institution and author of "Bit Player: My Life with Presidents and Ideas." Presidents have used the Oval Office to declare war, to assure a nation wracked with economic uncertainty, or soothe a people in mourning. In other words, the pressure is on President Donald Trump to use his eight minutes of airtime to make history.

"If you're about to go in the Oval Office and you're not going to say something that's different, that's special, that's important, there's a big letdown involved," he added.

Trump's challenge is to face a politically polarized nation and address the people on a problem that has existed for decades. And the American people may be getting tired of it or doubting its importance, particularly after weeks of coverage of the border wall and the government shutdown. If Trump's address is going to be successful, Hess noted, "He's got to restore this as a major issue."

The buildup to the Thursday night address has already captured some of the drama of prime-time television. Shortly after the networks granted the White House request, congressional Democrats demanded equal airtime to rebut Trump's message on the border crisis.

"Now that the television networks have decided to air the President’s address, which if his past statements are any indication will be full of malice and misinformation, Democrats must immediately be given equal airtime," wrote House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer. Each of the major networks agreed to air the Democrats rebuttal which will be delivered by Pelosi and Schumer.

Ahead of the 9 p.m. ET speech, critics challenged Trump's underlying claim of an actual crisis at the southern border, undermining the stated purpose of the address. Some argued the president will use his airtime to set the stage for, or actually declare, a national emergency and assert a host of emergency powers.

Trump has said in recent days that he was actively considering declaring a national emergency at the border and reappropriating funds from the military to construct the wall. Congressional Democrats have said they would challenge an emergency declaration that undermines Congress' authority to appropriate funds, as would the courts. According to administration officials, Trump has consulted the White House legal counsel on his options.

At a briefing Tuesday morning, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters, "There is no crisis. There is no invasion. There is no clear and present danger."

Hoyer warned that an emergency declaration by President Trump to build the wall would be "analogous to governments that we’ve seen all over the world declaring martial law and justifying them in doing whatever they wanted to do to whomever they wanted to do it whenever they wanted to do it."

California Senator and possible Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris denounced Trump's border wall as a "vanity project." She argued that his claims about a border crisis were inaccurate, telling ABC News, "It's an emergency of his own creation."

According to Vice President Mike Pence, the White House is making headway in "establishing the fact" of a crisis at the border. Pence said Monday that he hopes establishing common facts will bring both sides closer to reopening the government and funding the president's border security priorities.

Most Democrats and Republicans agree on the humanitarian aspect of the border crisis and the fact that the U.S. immigration system cannot handle the large numbers of Central American children and families seeking asylum. There is strong disagreement on the threats to immigrants and U.S. citizens, how to mitigate them and how to address the push and pull factors that drive illegal immigration.

Some lawmakers suggested the networks run a content warning to viewers. "That warning is: the comments you are about to hear are not based on fact and are likely to include misinformation, blatant lies and fearmongering," Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said Tuesday in an address from the Newark airport.

On social media, "#BoycottTrumpsAddress was trending late Monday asTrump critics chastised the networks who readjusted their schedules for the president. On Capitol Hill, Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., argued that by airing Trump's remarks the networks were "capitulating" to the president's "lies" about immigration and border security. "I would find fault with any news organization that decides to air it," she said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., argued the Democrats resistance to the president's border security agenda was "just political spite," noting Democrats voted "with enthusiasm" in 2006 to construct the existing 700 miles of border wall.

"Maybe the Democratic Party was for secure borders before they were against them," McConnell said on the Senate floor. "Or maybe they are dead set on opposing this particular president on any issue, for any reason just for the sake of opposing him."

Some of the president's other allies on Capitol Hill took a strong position supporting the president's decision to address the nation on the worsening conditions at the border. "The current situation at the border is indeed a national security crisis," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. tweeted. He added that the president's Oval Office speech is a "Great opportunity to explain to the American people why we need more border security funding."

If Trump is going to move the needle of public opinion in his favor, he will have to expand the debate beyond the confines of a "partisan food fight" and inform a larger conversation about border security, explained Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist and political commentator.

"This is a case where, despite what people think of Donald Trump, he does have the facts on his side," O'Connell said, noting a number of news reports acknowledging a crisis on the southern border. "But he is going to have to make the case to the people who are not necessarily as partisan as the hard Rs and hard Ds. I think that is going to be the key here."

Polls suggest the public holds President Trump responsible for the shutdown. Even among Republican voters, a new The Hill/Harris X poll found that 61 percent of Republicans wanted Trump to compromise on border security and end the shutdown. Only 39 percent of Republicans said Trump should stick to his demands.

There is also still only a minority of Americans who support the wall. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found public opinion divided 54 to 44 percent between those who oppose building the wall and those who support it. Another survey, showed a narrow 28 percent of respondents saying the wall was an immediate priority compared to 50 percent who said it was not a priority at all.

While Trump is under pressure to deliver a game-changing address, the big four networks were dealing with their own pressure from Trump critics and particularly from advertisers. In the past, the networks have not always deferred to the president when he decides to address the nation, nor do they have to.

In 2014, ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox declined to air President Barack Obama's prime-time address outlining his plan for immigration reform. Some network executives reportedly told news outlets they believed the address would be too political, others were more concerned about lost revenue. For some context, Obama's address was scheduled to air at 8 p.m. on a Thursday, smack in the middle of November sweeps.

In 2009, Fox refused to air one of Obama's prime-time news conferences from the East Room after estimating it would lose more than $6 million in advertising revenue. The network also reportedly refused to air a speech by President George W. Bush in 2001. The big four networks estimated they lost roughly $30 million from airing Obama's first three national addresses.

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