Trump Makes His Case for a Border Wall as Shutdown Drags On

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic congressional leaders, issued an immediate televised response to the president, rejecting the idea of a wall as unnecessary.

“President Trump must stop holding the American people hostage, must stop manufacturing a crisis, and must reopen the government,” Mrs. Pelosi said.

Mr. Schumer said Democrats are united with the president on the need for stronger border security, but said: “We sharply disagree with the president about the most effective way to do it.”

Earlier Tuesday, Senate Democrats blocked the chamber from considering bipartisan foreign-policy legislation in a bid to pressure Republicans to end the government shutdown, which was in its 18th day. That move, combined with Mr. Trump’s address, suggested that neither side was prepared to cede ground over wall funding.

Mr. Trump and congressional leadership from both parties are scheduled to meet and discuss the issue Wednesday at the White House, after the president attends a lunch with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Trump’s address was part of a ramped-up effort by the White House this week to sway public opinion in favor of a border wall, a core issue for Mr. Trump’s political base but one that is broadly unpopular. On Thursday, the Republican president is set to travel to the border to highlight the issue in person.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in September, ahead of midterm elections, showed 29% of respondents said they would be more likely to vote for a congressional candidate calling for a wall, while 55% said they would be less likely to do so.

In his address, Mr. Trump didn’t declare a national emergency over border security—a move he publicly contemplated in recent days—in which he would seek to divert funds from elsewhere in the government to fund the wall. Such a declaration would bring swift legal challenges, and it is unclear in that scenario where the funds would come from.

Instead, the speech was aimed at explaining the president’s rationale for why he viewed the U.S.-Mexico border as in a state of crisis.

Mr. Trump has said he wouldn’t sign any bill ending the shutdown that doesn’t allocate money for hundreds of miles of a border wall.

Earlier Tuesday evening, Senate Democrats prevented the chamber from moving to consider a package of bills aimed at boosting security assistance for Israel and other Middle Eastern policy provisions. Republicans hold 53 seats in the Senate, where most bills need 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles.

Some Democrats have said they would block all legislation until the government is reopened, though Mr. Schumer hasn’t gone that far.

“The first business of the Senate should be to reopen the government,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D., Va.), noting that he had co-sponsored one of the bills related to Israel. “As passionate as I have been for the security of the nation of Israel, I’m every bit as passionate about the security of the United States.”

The president’s apparent backing off on declaring an emergency comes after lawmakers in both parties indicated they wouldn’t support such a move. Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday that he opposes using an emergency declaration to build a wall using military funds.

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President Trump and prominent Democrats met Friday to discuss ending the government shutdown, which the president had claimed responsibility to further the cause border security. The talks were described by the president as productive, but the Democrats disagreed. Photo: AP

“In short, I’m opposed to using defense dollars for nondefense purposes,” he said.

Senior White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said in a Fox News interview Monday that the White House Counsel’s Office was exploring the legal implications of declaring a national emergency, but said doing so would “let Congress off the hook.”

In preparation for Tuesday’s speech, White House officials were underscoring the importance of internally fact-checking any numbers and statistics, after the president and his aides have repeatedly mischaracterized immigration-related figures in recent weeks. “It’s really important we get this right,” one senior White House official said.

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The president has made points about problems with drugs and human trafficking at the border publicly in the past week. Last week, he told cabinet members that 300 people in the U.S. die each day from overdoses of heroin, “the vast majority of which comes across through our southern border.” The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the epidemic of daily opioid deaths is 130.

Mr. Trump also has said 20,000 children were smuggled into the U.S. last month. There were 25,000 families apprehended at the border in November, according to the most recent data available from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

During closed-door negotiations on reopening the government, Mrs. Pelosi has disputed some White House aides’ statistics about the border. On Sunday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was challenged on Fox News for saying 4,000 known or suspected terrorists have been apprehended coming into the country.

“Do you know where those 4,000 people come, where they are captured?” Chris Wallace, the host of “Fox News Sunday,” told Ms. Sanders. “Airports … the State Department says there hasn’t been any terrorists found coming across the southern border.” Mr. Wallace was referring to data from the Department of Homeland Security.

Ms. Conway, in the Fox News interview, said that statistic “got unfortunately conflated by a colleague” and acknowledged that the nearly 4,000 terrorists or terror suspects apprehended in fiscal year 2017 hadn’t sought to enter the U.S. through the southern border.

The administration has sought in recent days to blunt the impact of the shutdown, buying time as negotiations with Congress continue. On Monday, the Trump administration said the Internal Revenue Service would pay tax refunds even though the agency is closed, reversing a longstanding policy.

About 420,000 employees deemed essential are working without pay, while another 380,000 federal employees have been placed on unpaid leave. The shutdown became the second-longest on record Monday. By Saturday, if the government hasn’t reopened, the shutdown will become the longest in U.S. history.

—Natalie Andrews and Joe Flint contributed to this article.

The Government Shutdown

Write to Rebecca Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com, Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com and Michael C. Bender at Mike.Bender@wsj.com

Appeared in the January 9, 2019, print edition as ‘Trump Makes Case for Wall.’

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