Will Trump declare an emergency tonight? Only he knows for sure

The White House is playing coy over whether President TrumpDonald John TrumpButtigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses Biden leads among Latino Democrats in Texas, California Kavanaugh hailed by conservative gathering in first public speech since confirmation MORE will declare a national emergency in a prime-time address to the nation Tuesday that would allow construction of a wall on the Mexican border to move forward.

Trump previewed his remarks to a group of broadcast and cable-news anchors over a lunch of Caesar salad and chicken in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, but aides said he did not reveal any plans to take the controversial step of declaring a national emergency.

ADVERTISEMENT

“He is not giving a likelihood. He is not saying yes or no. But he’s made very clear to you and the public last week that he is considering it,” White House counselor Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayConway: Trump reacted 'pretty well' to impeachment hearing because 'there was nothing new' Kellyanne Conway after CNN plays George Conway remarks: 'I'm embarrassed for you' Latest impeachment developments: Republicans huddle ahead of Friday's hearing MORE told reporters after the lunch ended.

Conway, who said she has seen a draft of the speech, suggested Trump instead prefers to use his address to persuade Democrats, who vehemently oppose the wall, to return to the bargaining table to work out a budget deal that includes $5.7 billion in funding for the barrier.

“Why let Congress off the hook yet again?” she said.

The address comes at a pivotal moment for Trump, who is beginning to feel the effects of an 18-day partial government shutdown triggered by his demands for wall funding.

Federal workers will soon miss their first paychecks, and some Republicans in Congress have expressed misgivings about Trump's strategy, fearing the fallout could inflict political damage on their party.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Tuesday showed 51 percent of Americans believe Trump deserves most of the blame for the shutdown, up 4 percentage points from last month.

Roughly one-third say congressional Democrats are to blame and 7 percent blame congressional Republicans.

Democrats have signaled they expect Trump to declare a national emergency to build the wall, either tonight or soon after, because days of negotiations have yet to yield significant progress toward resolving the dispute.

“That could be the exit ramp that would enable him to say, ‘Look, I’m still 100 percent in favor of the wall. We’re going to build it, but we’re just going to use a different method. Therefore, I don’t need Congress, therefore we don’t need the shutdown,’ ” Sen. Angus KingAngus KingOvernight Energy: EPA watchdog slams agency chief after deputy fails to cooperate in probe | Justices wrestle with reach of Clean Water Act | Bipartisan Senate climate caucus grows Bipartisan Senate climate caucus grows by six members Senators fear Syria damage 'irreversible' after Esper, Milley briefing MORE (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats, said Tuesday on NPR.

The declaration would allow Trump to redirect military construction funds from other projects toward building the wall.

Democrats have warned Trump, however, that declaring a national emergency won’t encourage them to restart negotiations and it will likely trigger a legal challenge that could further delay wall construction.

“It is analogous to governments that we have 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,” said House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton Hoyer Hoyer calls GOP efforts to out whistleblower 'despicable' Live coverage: House holds first public impeachment hearing Congress hunts for path out of spending stalemate MORE (D-Md.).

The No. 2 House Democrat called the threat of a national emergency another effort by Trump to scare the public in order to justify his demands for wall funding.

“There is no crisis, there is no invasion, there is no clear and present danger as the president would try to convey to the American people — to scare them and to justify actions otherwise not justified,” he said.

ADVERTISEMENT

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump knocks testimony from 'Never Trumpers' at Louisiana rally Jordan calls Pelosi accusing Trump of bribery 'ridiculous' USMCA deal close, but not 'imminent,' Democrats say MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban Chad Wolf becomes acting DHS secretary Schumer blocks drug pricing measure during Senate fight, seeking larger action MORE (D-N.Y.) will deliver a televised rebuttal of Trump’s speech, in which they would be forced to quickly counter Trump if he declares an emergency.

They also plan to push back against any potentially false arguments for the wall Trump might make to a national audience.

The White House on Tuesday was forced to admit that its claim that 4,000 known or suspected terrorists crossed into the U.S. last year was misleading, since only a dozen entered via the southern border.

“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,” the two Democratic leaders said in a statement.

On the other hand, Trump might stop short of such an announcement and use his speech to accuse Democrats of refusing to address what his administration calls a “crisis” of illegal immigration and drug smuggling on the southern border while presenting himself as the person looking for solutions.

“We expect him to lay out the case why this is a humanitarian and national security crisis that needs to be urgently address. This format will allow him to humanize the issue, so people can see the real human cost the border crisis has,” said a House GOP leadership aide who was briefed on Trump's plans.

Fox News anchor Brett Baier said on air after the lunch with Trump that the White House believes the president is in a position of power in the wall fight because it motivates Republicans and the president's base voters. 

Trump will continue that effort on Thursday during a trip to the border town of McAllen, Texas, ramping up the use of his bully pulpit on the wall in a way some of his supporters wish he would have done weeks ago when the shutdown began.

Still, Trump might be tempted to declare an emergency because it could provide the type of dramatic moment he craves in a fight that motivates his base while providing an off-ramp for Republicans who have grown weary of the shutdown battle.

Vice President Pence, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenChad Wolf becomes acting DHS secretary Senate paves way for Trump's next DHS chief Divided Supreme Court leans toward allowing Trump to end DACA MORE and acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought are huddling with House Republicans at 5:30 p.m. to urge them to stick by the president.

Media figures on the right who have the president’s ear have urged him to declare an emergency.

“I’m guessing he’s going to declare a national emergency,” Fox News host Sean Hannity said Monday during his radio show.

It was pressure from the conservative media that helped persuade Trump to renege on a bipartisan spending deal last month that would have funded the government but did not include wall funding.

While many of the president’s allies would cheer an emergency declaration, it has raised concern among some key Republicans who worry the president might overstep his authority.

“In short, I’m opposed to using defense dollars for non-defense purposes,” said House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryHillicon Valley: Schumer questions Army over use of TikTok | Federal court rules against random searches of travelers' phones | Groups push for election security funds in stopgap bill | Facebook's new payment feature | Disney+ launch hit by glitches Retirements pose threat to cybersecurity expertise in Congress Trump urges allies to not 'be led into the fools trap' of saying Ukraine call 'was not perfect, but is not impeachable' MORE (R-Texas).

Mike Lillis, Rebecca Kheel and Juliegrace Brufke contributed.