Trump Takes Victory Lap While Dems Fume

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From the moment President Trump confidently strode through the House chamber on the eve of his Senate impeachment acquittal and after an Iowa caucuses debacle for Democrats, it was clear this State of the Union address would be one for the history books. It did not disappoint. 

The president Tuesday night confronted his House Democratic accusers by never acknowledging that he’d ever been accused at all, let alone compared for weeks to a king and dictator by the impeachment managers. He delivered a self-congratulatory and triumphant address, promising to continue the priorities he credits for leading the “great American comeback,” a revival he casts as the strongest in modern history and one in which “America’s enemies are on the run” and “America’s fortunes are on the rise.” 

“In just three short years, we have shattered the mentality of the American decline and we have rejected the downsizing of America’s destiny,” Trump said in his 78-minute prime-time speech. “We are never going back,” he added defiantly.  

Reflecting the country’s angry partisan divide, hostilities on both sides were palpable. Trump entered the room to Republican members’ chants of “four more years” while Democrats responded with open disgust, often shaking their heads in disagreement or simply glowering. 

When Trump approached Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who initiated the failed effort to remove him from office, the president appeared to snub her offer of a handshake after he presented her a copy of the speech. At the end of the remarks, Pelosi made a show of ripping up the official copy of Trump’s address in an unprecedented fit of public pique. She also had bypassed the traditional announcement that it was her “high honor and distinct pleasure” to introduce the president prior to the speech. 

Pelosi spent the next hour-plus looking down at the papers, or looking pained while the president spoke, rarely coming to her feet on areas of agreement -- the occasional bipartisan displays that usually mark State of the Union addresses. But it was the president’s night to speak directly to the American people and he didn’t waste a moment of it, buoyed by new polls showing his approval rating at 49% — the highest of his presidency. 

Even under the shadow of impeachment, Trump has recently racked up a string of successes including trade deals with China, Mexico and Canada, the latter of which Democrats helped negotiate and supported. 

Trump began his address with a no-holds-barred victory lap on the economy. He argued his business-friendly policies of slashing regulations and “record-setting” tax cuts are helping all Americans benefit from 50-year record low unemployment, higher worker wages (especially for those in lower-income groups) and stronger consumer confidence.

 

Real median household income is at its highest level in history, he said. 

“We are building the world’s most prosperous and inclusive society – one where every citizen can join in America’s unparalleled success and where every community can take part in America’s extraordinary rise,” he added. 

Hitting the “failed economic policies of the previous administration,” Trump recited a litany of economic achievements: the lowest unemployment level in history for African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans, 7 million new jobs, and the lowest African American poverty rate in history. 

Countering Democratic criticism that his policies have benefited the rich and the super-rich the most, he said that the net worth of the bottom half of workers has increased by 47% — three times faster than the increase for the top 1%. 

“This is a blue-collar boom!” he declared. 

The vast majority of Democrats in the chamber, including Pelosi, remained stone-faced throughout, failing to rise even when Trump touted the unemployment rate for women reaching its lowest level in 70 years. Once again, the majority of the House Democratic female lawmakers were dressed in white in a salute to the suffragist movement, but also as a striking visual reminder of their anti-Trump “resistance.” 

Trump’s response was highly choreographed remarks full of touching surprises and heartfelt moments, some clearly designed to get under Democrats’ skin. At one point he announced that his special guest for the speech, conservative radio talk show legend Rush Limbaugh, was receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor bestowed to a civilian, on the spot. The unabashed Trump ally had announced his advanced lung cancer diagnosis the day before.  

Sprinkling the personal stories of everyday Americans throughout the speech, Trump announced a school-choice “opportunity” scholarship for Philadelphia fourth-grader Janiyah Davis and highlighted the tale of Ellie Schneider. Now a healthy 2-year-old who was born at just 21 weeks and six days, she is one of the youngest babies to survive premature birth in the United States. Ellie’s inclusion was an obvious reference to Democrats’ support for late-term abortion. 

“Ellie Schneider was a born fighter,” the president said. “… She reminds us that every child is a miracle of life.” 

Trump also narrated the surprise reunion of U.S. Army Sgt. Townsend Williams, deployed to Afghanistan, with his family, and also recounted the story of Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Hake, who was killed by a roadside bomb while on patrol during his second deployment to Iraq. 

The bomb, Trump said, was provided by Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, an internationally designated terrorist whose targeted killing Trump ordered last month. Hake’s widow and son were on hand to receive the president’s praise for Hake’s service and their family’s sacrifice.  

“Last month, at my direction, the military executed a flawless precision strike that killed Soleimani and terminated his evil reign of terror forever,” Trump said. “Our message to the terrorists is clear: You will never escape American justice. If you attack our citizens, you forfeit your life.”  

When it comes to defeating ISIS, Trump said the caliphate is now “100% destroyed” and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is dead. He also revealed that the U.S. Special Forces operation that carried out the killing was named “Task Force 8-14,” honoring the birthday of 26-year-old American Kayla Mueller, who was held for more than 500 days and enslaved by ISIS until she was killed by al-Baghdadi. 

In a powerful rebuke of socialism itself and its “dictators” sure to be repeated on the 2020 campaign trail, Trump denounced Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro as “an illegitimate ruler” and a “tyrant who brutalizes his people.” Predicted his grip on tyranny will be “smashed and broken,” Trump recognized Juan Guaido, whom the U.S. considers Venezuela’s interim leader, as one of his personal guests for the speech. 

“Please take this message back that all Americans are united with the Venezuelan people in their righteous struggle for freedom,” Trump said. “… Socialism destroys nations. But always remember: Freedom unifies the soul.” 

The president also committed to protecting Americans’ freedoms at home in a thinly veiled rebuff to a line Barack Obama delivered in 2008 about “bitter” working-class voters in the Midwest clinging to their guns or religion. Trump vowed to protect the Second Amendment right to bear arms, as well as the religious liberty enshrined in the First Amendment. 

“In America, we don’t punish prayer. We don’t tear down crosses,” he said. “We don’t ban symbols of faith. We don’t muzzle preachers and pastors.” 

Already looking to a second term, Trump a touted a number of ambitious long-term goals such as solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, having more federal court picks “in the pipeline” and launching a mission to Mars with his newly minted Space Force. In promoting the newest branch of the military, he highlighted the story of 13-year-old Iain Lanphier, an eighth-grader who wants to attend the Air Force Academy and ultimately join the Space Force. 

Then Trump pivoted to honoring the boy’s 100-year-old great-grandfather, Charles McGee, one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen, the first black fighter pilots, who looked down from the House gallery to thunderous applause -- this time from both sides of the aisle. 

Along with the feel-good story lines and focus on American heroes, Trump didn’t shy away from the much more divisive issue of immigration reform. Progress, he said, is being made on a “long, tall and very powerful wall,” 500 miles of which he said would be completed by early next year. He also blamed “sanctuary city” policies in liberal areas of the country for allowing dangerous criminals “to prey upon the public” instead over being handed over to ICE to for their “safe removal.” 

Two years ago in California, an illegal immigrant with five prior arrests, including convictions for robbery and assault, was released only to go on a “gruesome spree of deadly violence,” killing 52-year-old Rocky Jones. He then recognized Rocky’s brother, Jody Jones, in the gallery, who wiped tears from his eyes.  

Trump also tried to play down and recast some of the more obvious pitfalls on his path to reelection. He called on Congress to help him lower health care costs, including those of prescription drugs, and blasted the 132 lawmakers in Congress who have endorsed legislation “to impose a socialist takeover of our health care system.” 

“To those watching at home tonight, I want you to know: We will never let socialism destroy American health care,” he said. 

At the same time, Trump worked to align himself with the popular Obamacare provision protecting people with pre-existing conditions. Democrats quickly called the president out on that claim, reminding voters that Trump backs a legal challenge that could undermine those protections and previously supported bills that would do the same. 

Anticipating the move, Pelosi tried to remind voters of Trump’s record on the issue. 

“President Trump wants you to think he’s a champion for the people with pre-existing conditions,” she tweeted before the speech. “The truth? Right now he’s asking the courts to strike down protections for the 130 million Americans with pre-existing conditions.” 

Other Democrats were far less specific in their criticism of the address. Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan simply took Trump’s well-worn line of attack on the media and applied it to president’s remarks. “I just walked out of the #StateOfTheUnion. I’ve had enough. It’s like watching professional wrestling. It’s all fake,” he said. 

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat from Michigan, told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow she too walked out because “we aren’t part of a reality show.” 

Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy fired back, blasting Pelosi and other Democrats for childish antics while failing to deliver on a list of their own accomplishments. “How petty of Pelosi,” he tweeted. “Ripping up a piece of paper doesn’t change the facts that were written on it — Americans are winning, in spite of the do-nothing Democrats.”

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.



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