Amid Notes of Unity, Trump Stands His Ground
President Trump stood by his pledge to build a border wall in a tempered but dissonant State of the Union speech that called for bipartisan cooperation to break Washington gridlock as the only way to achieve “American greatness.”
Striking a far less combative tone than he invokes at his campaign-style rallies, Trump began his remarks to a divided Congress and the nation on a conciliatory note, arguing that voters are hoping that “we will govern not as two parties, but one nation.”
“Together, we can break decades of political stalemate,” he said. “There is a new opportunity in American politics, if only we have the courage together to seize it. Victory is not winning for our party. Victory is winning for our country.”
The president, who is known for his gut punches on Twitter at political foes in both parties, just two weeks ago grounded House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s government plane before her planned travel to Afghanistan in a high-profile tit-for-tat after she disinvited him to deliver the State of the Union address during the government shutdown.
On Tuesday night, however, Trump never directly acknowledged the 35-day shutdown or his acutely personal showdown with Pelosi over border wall funding. Instead, he appeared to disassociate himself from the entire episode, calling on both parties to reject the “politics of revenge, resistance and retribution” and embrace “compromise and the common good.”
The president preferred to tout his administration’s biggest selling point, noting proudly that the country’s unemployment rate is at its lowest level in more than half a century and citing the GOP-passed tax cut as the impetus for the expanded economic prosperity.
Just behind him, Pelosi, the public face of the new and emboldened House Democratic majority, spent most of the address glowering, refusing to stand even when the president described the state of the union as “strong.”
With her disapproving looks alone, Pelosi silently directed an array of dour House Democratic women, also clad in all white -- in a nod to the American suffragist movement -- and sitting together in the packed chamber.
Their stern expressions, however, suddenly transformed to joy when Trump unexpectedly praised their growing numbers in Congress.
“No one has benefited more from our thriving economy than women who have filled 58 percent of the newly created jobs last year,” Trump said, prompting the jubilant women to rise to their feet and point at themselves.
Trump appeared a little shocked by the sudden enthusiasm. “You weren’t supposed to do that,” he said, before ad-libbing, “Don’t sit yet, you’re going to like this: Exactly one century after Congress passed the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, we also have more women serving in Congress than at any time before” – the biggest applause line in his speech that brought Pelosi to her feet.
He went on to praise the bipartisan success of the prison reform bill he signed, the First Step Act, to demonstrate his ability to work with Democrats to grant clemency to former longtime inmates present in the storied House chamber Tuesday night. Alice Marie Johnson and Matthew Charles, two African-Americans jailed decades ago who were recently released under the new law, stood and waved to bipartisan applause.
Trump then performed a sharp pivot, pointing to the legislative victory on prison reform to urge Republicans and Democrats to try to move beyond their differences on immigration, which he called an “urgent national crisis.” Although Democrats were immediately on the defensive -- with California Sen. Kamala Harris, one of her party’s many 2020 presidential candidates, shaking her head and Pelosi grimacing as Trump called on Congress to “show the world that America is committed to ending illegal immigration” – here, too, Trump fine-tuned his stance.
He demonstrated some flexibility on his longstanding insistence on “a wall” on the southern U.S. border, speaking of a “smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier” to help stop illegal crossings. He also mentioned that he has deployed another 3,750 troops to the border to “prepare for the tremendous onslaught” of more caravans of illegal immigrants headed to the U.S. from Central America.
While still vowing to get the wall built if Congress fails to act, he didn’t repeat his threat to declare a national emergency to obtain the funds. Trump also jettisoned previous demands to slash legal immigration and cast his position in populist terms that played into his supporters’ disdain for Washington and its elite political class.
“No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration. Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living behind walls and gates and guards,” Trump said. “Meanwhile, working-class Americans are left to pay the price for mass illegal migration: reduced jobs, lower wages, overburdened schools and hospitals, increased crime and a depleted social safety net.”
He argued that Washington’s decades-long failure to fix the country’s broken immigration system is impacting average Americans – as well as hurting the immigrants themselves -- through drug smuggling, violent crimes, crowded hospitals and the human trafficking of immigrant women and children.
The majority of the speech seemed designed to cross party lines with its recognition of World War II veterans, efforts to defeat AIDS in 10 years while making strides fighting childhood cancer, a push for lowering the cost of prescription drugs, and guaranteed paid-family leave. A few times, Trump delivered lines clearly aimed at rallying supporters and the conservative Republican base. He bashed the opposition party on late-term abortion, the ongoing Russia investigations, and liberal Democrats’ embrace of socialism.
“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States, and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations,” he said. “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way. We must be united at home to defeat our adversaries abroad.”
Trump slammed Democrats as out of the mainstream when it comes to late-term abortions. He said late-term abortion measures in Virginia and New York state were “chilling” and urged Congress to pass a law prohibiting the “the late-term abortion of children who can feel pain in the mother’s womb.”
“Lawmakers in New York cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth,” he said. “These are living, feeling, beautiful babies who will never get the chance to share their love and dreams with the world.”
Trump also used the humanitarian and economic crisis playing out in Venezuela to rebuke a new generation of Democrats -- embodied by newly elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez -- that embraces socialism. The president said he and his administration are proud to support the uprisings against Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro and to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as the interim president of the country.
“We stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom and we condemn the brutality of the Maduro regime, whose socialist policies have turned that nation from being the wealthiest in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair,” he said.
“Here in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” he continued. “We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that American will never be a socialist country.”
Republicans cheered the line while just a few Democrats clapped, a dramatic contrast from just minutes before when Ocasio-Cortez and many other Democratic lawmakers rose to their feet when Trump delivered a line acknowledging that a record number of women are serving in Congress this year.
Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old who made history in November by becoming the youngest woman elected to Congress, quickly fired back, arguing after the speech that Trump lashed out at her and her like-minded peers because he isn’t winning the argument.
“I think he sees himself losing on the issues, he sees himself losing on the wall on the southern border, and he needs to grasp at an attack, and this is his way of doing it,” she told reporters. Other Democrats said Trump’s calls for unity rang hollow considering that he punctuated several points in his speech with attacks on their party.
“Actions speak louder than words,” Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal told RealClearPolitics. “His calls for unity seem hollow in light of his continued demand for a wall and his undermining a woman’s right to health care and choice … and other actions that betray American values.
“His call for an end to the [Russia] investigation is yet another instance of his seeking to distract and obstruct,” he added.
Newly elected Rep. Rashida Tlaib, on the other hand, offered praise for Trump’s decision to highlight some unifying issues, such as ending childhood cancer and honoring the nation’s veterans, which she said “bring our country together.”
Still, the freshman Democrat from Michigan said it’s important that the president’s “actions meet his words.”
“When we have this idea around unifying our communities, especially communities of color – a lot of them are being targeted, like the synagogue; you see anti-Semitism increasing in our country; you see attacks and targeting of LGBTQ neighbors and African-Americans and Muslims. It’s really important that some of [his] actions … match that unification message,” she added in a brief interview with RCP.
Philip Wegmann contributed to this report.