Written by Peter Baker
President Donald Trump delivered a message of bipartisan unity Tuesday night in his first address to Congress in the new era of divided government, but signaled that he will continue to wage war for the hard-line immigration policies that have polarized the capital and the nation.
In a nationally televised speech that toggled between conciliation and confrontation, Trump presented himself as a leader who can work across party lines even as he pressed lawmakers to build a wall along the nation’s southwestern border that leaders of the newly empowered congressional Democrats have adamantly rejected.
“We must reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise and the common good,” the president said. “Together, we can break decades of political stalemate. We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future.”
Any hopes for a newfound spirit of cooperation, however, seemed elusive as the president and Democrats spent the hours before, during and after the address exchanging partisan political fire, making clear that ritualistic calls for across-the-aisle collaboration were unlikely to transform an environment that has turned increasingly toxic.
Republicans jumped to their feet at the president’s calls to curb immigration, limit late-term abortions and ensure that the United States does not turn to socialism, even chanting “USA, USA” a couple times as if at a Trump campaign rally. “That sounds so good,” he exulted.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, sitting behind Trump for the first time, and other Democrats largely sat without applauding and expressed only tepid enthusiasm even for his mention of goals intended to appeal to them, like infrastructure and paid parental leave. Pelosi maintained a polite, even amused smile on her face for much of the speech.
But the evening was filled with political theater as the president introduced World War II veterans, a Holocaust survivor, the Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, a 10-year-old cancer survivor, a police officer shot seven times at last fall’s synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh and the teary-eyed relatives of a couple killed by an immigrant in the U.S. illegally, all sitting with the first lady, Melania Trump.
The change in the power structure in a Capitol long dominated by men was on display as Pelosi and scores of House Democratic women wore white, the color of the suffrage movement, reflecting the fact that 131 women were sworn into the new Congress, the most in U.S. history.
Highlights: Donald Trump’s State of the Union address
When Trump noted this breakthrough, the women leapt to their feet, cheering, dancing and high-fiving each other. “That’s really great,” he said. “Congratulations.”
He made no direct mention of the issues that may yet come to dominate the year, the Russia investigation by the special counsel Robert Mueller or the parallel inquiries that House Democrats intend to conduct into his campaign’s ties with Russia and efforts to impede investigations.
Instead, he alluded to them only in passing, but pointedly. “An economic miracle is taking place in the United States,” he said, “and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations.”
But Trump indicated no retreat from his almost singular pursuit of a border wall, directly taking on Pelosi, who has called it “immoral.” He devoted 15 minutes of the hour and 22-minute speech to immigration with no concession to Democratic priorities like a path to citizenship for immigrants brought into the country illegally as children.
“This is a moral issue,” Trump said as Pelosi sat unmoved behind him. “No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration,” he added. “Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards.”
In the official Democratic response, Stacey Abrams, who lost a close race for governor of Georgia in November, scorned the idea of unity from a president who has practiced the politics of division. “We know bipartisanship could craft a 21st-century immigration plan,” she said, “but this administration chooses to cage children and tear families apart.”
Abrams, who is African-American, challenged Trump’s history of racial provocation, saying, “We must hold everyone from the highest offices to our families accountable for racist words and deeds and call racism what it is — wrong.”
The speech, built on a theme of “choosing greatness,” came at a pivotal moment halfway through the president’s term as he seeks to regain momentum after the midterm election defeat that handed control of the House to Democrats and after his failed effort to use a partial government shutdown to extract money for the wall.
Stung by his retreat on the government shutdown, Trump has hardly been in the mood for collaboration with the other party. As he and his team drafted his address in recent days, he has groused about the text, complaining that it was too gentle on Democrats, according to people briefed on the matter.
The president insisted on sharpening some of the lines in the speech and rebuffed aides, who urged him to congratulate Pelosi on her ascension to the speakership.
During an off-the-record lunch for television anchors Tuesday before the speech, Trump offered scathing assessments of a number of leading Democrats, including some lining up to run against him next year.
He dismissed former Vice President Joe Biden as “dumb,” called Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York a “nasty son of a bitch” and mocked Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia for “choking like a dog” at a news conference where he tried to explain a racist yearbook photo, according to multiple people in the room.
Democrats did not wait for the address to pan it. “It seems every year the president wakes up and discovers the desire for unity on the morning of the State of the Union, then the president spends the other 364 days of the year dividing us, and sowing a state of disunion,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. He added, “The blatant hypocrisy of this president calling for unity is that he is one of the chief reasons Americans feel so divided now.”
Trump fired back at Schumer via Twitter. “I see Schumer is already criticizing my State of the Union speech, even though he hasn’t seen it yet,” the president wrote. “He’s just upset that he didn’t win the Senate, after spending a fortune, like he thought he would. Too bad we weren’t given more credit for the Senate win by the media!”
Trump arrived at this point in his presidency with the approval of just 37 percent of the public, according to Gallup. In the past four decades, the only times a president headed into a State of the Union address with as little or less support were in 1983 when Ronald Reagan was struggling with a painful recession and in 2007 and 2008 when George W. Bush was trying to turn around the Iraq War.
Trump is the only president in the history of Gallup polling to have never drawn the support of a majority of the public at any point in his first two years in office. But while he is the fourth president in a row to lose at least one house of Congress during a midterm election, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both bounced back to win re-election, and Trump has privately expressed confidence that he will, too.
After presidents suffer setbacks in midterm elections, they often reach out to the victorious opposition with words of conciliation, however artificial or short-lived they may be. In Trump’s case, he opened this period of partisan power sharing with a relentless confrontation over his proposed border wall, resulting in a record-breaking 35-day partial government shutdown.
That impasse nearly cost Trump his opportunity to deliver his State of the Union address, as Pelosi refused to let him come to the House chamber as long as federal agencies were closed and workers unpaid. Trump backed down and accepted a measure reopening the government for three weeks, but negotiations in the interim have made no more progress toward winning money for his wall — and the government could close again Feb. 15.
Given that, Trump’s calls for unity were almost surely destined to fall on deaf ears. Even Republicans have publicly rebuked him lately for his plans to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan, and party leaders have pressed him not to declare a national emergency bypassing Congress to build the wall.
Also invited was Joshua Trump, a sixth-grade student from Wilmington, Delaware, who “has been bullied in school due to his last name,” according to the White House.
Democrats were making points with their guests, as well. Among those they invited were air traffic controllers who went unpaid during the government shutdown, unauthorized immigrants who worked at Trump’s properties and transgender soldiers who will be banned under the president’s new policy.
In addition to Abrams, other Democrats sought to get in on the action. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who is running for president, delivered her own response shortly before the speech, while Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who may also run, delivered his afterward.
In his address, Trump assailed Democrats like Northam for comments in support of easing restrictions on late-term abortions and called for federal legislation cracking down on such procedures, a nod to Trump’s conservative base. He made no mention of the racist medical school yearbook picture that has threatened Northam’s political career, after aides cautioned him about raising that issue.
He also sought to frame the opposition Democrats as too extreme, suggesting that the country was in danger of a socialist takeover. “Here in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” he said, as Republican lawmakers booed. “We are born free and we will stay free. Tonight we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
The president highlighted what he sees as the accomplishments of his first two years in office, including a growing economy, rising energy production, increased military spending, deregulation and tax cuts. He pressed Congress to approve his new trade pact with Canada and Mexico updating the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Trump did not outline the traditional laundry list of new initiatives, the way other presidents have, but he did plan to make a national commitment to end transmission of the virus that causes AIDS, with a goal of stopping its spread in the United States by 2030. He also repeated past calls for bipartisan measures to rebuild “America’s crumbling infrastructure” and to curb the cost of prescription drugs and approve paid parental leave.
The president also talked about his goal of bringing an end to the “endless wars” in places like Syria and Afghanistan, the threat he sees from Iran, and his bid to force President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela to step down. He announced that he will meet for the second time with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, in Vietnam on Feb. 27-28 to seek his nuclear disarmament.