President Donald Trump used the State of the Union address Tuesday night to make a final push for a wall along the southern U.S. border, just days ahead of what he has warned could be another government shutdown.
“I will get it built,” vowed Trump, promising a “smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier.” But he stopped short of declaring a national emergency to obtain funds to build the wall.
Trump, who made a border wall one of his signature campaign promises, spent much of his speech on dangers at the border with Mexico.
“As we speak, large, organized caravans are on the march to the United States,” Trump said, referring to the group of migrant men, women and children as a “tremendous onslaught.”
Trump made his second State of the Union address with a new backdrop: for the first time a Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi of California, looked over Trump’s shoulder as he spoke in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol.
Democrats took control of the House of Representatives during November midterm elections, creating a divided government between the Democratic controlled House and the Republican Senate and White House that makes it much harder for Trump to implement his policy proposals.
In an apparent acknowledgement of that new political reality, Trump focused much of his speech on calls for unity and bipartisanship. At one point, Trump insisted that lawmakers must “rekindle the bond of love” in Washington.
“I ask the men and women of this Congress: Look at the opportunities before us! Our most thrilling achievements are still ahead. Our most exciting journeys still await.”
But it’s unclear how receptive Democrats will be to such messages from a president who regularly hurls insults and denigrating nicknames at his political opponents on Twitter and who has often seemed more concerned about pleasing his own political base than reaching across the aisle.
Democrats’ reaction to the speech appeared mixed. Pelosi, along with other Democrats, sat with a polite smile, clapping only during selective portions of the speech.
However, when Trump acknowledged that more women are serving in the current Congress than ever before, the entire chamber erupted in chants of “USA.”
Trump slams ‘ridiculous’ investigations
But an awkward moment occurred early on, when Trump implicitly criticized Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
After citing a litany of economic successes, Trump said the only thing that could stop his “economic miracle” are “foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations.”
“If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation – it just doesn’t work that way,” Trump said — a line that resulted in near-silence in the chamber.
The investigation into Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and any links between Moscow and the Trump campaign is reportedly nearing completion.
The probe has already resulted in indictments of or guilty pleas from at least 34 people, including six former Trump advisers and 26 Russian nationals.
Trump has routinely slammed the investigation and other similar probes in Congress as a “witch hunt.”
The recent 35-day partial government shutdown over wall funding was evidence of Trump’s weakened position.
Trump’s approval rating sank steadily during the shutdown, as opinion polls showed more Americans blamed him than Democrats for the impasse that resulted in 800,000 federal workers being furloughed or forced to work without pay.
Trump’s address did not indicate whether he was willing to shut down the government again over the wall debate.
The president has repeatedly warned he may declare a national emergency if Congress doesn’t give him $5.7 billion for a border wall by February 15, when government funding runs out again. The move is opposed by many lawmakers, including in Trump’s Republican Party, most significantly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Congress seems unlikely to give Trump what he wants, if the formal Democratic response to the president’s speech is any indication.
In her rebuttal speech, Stacey Abrams, a former Georgia state lawmaker who is seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party, slammed the shutdown as “a stunt engineered by the president of the United States, one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people, but our values.”
As Trump begins his third year as president, he has presided over a quickly growing economy. The U.S. economy added 2.6 million jobs in 2018, the highest figure since 2015. As of January, the unemployment rate stands at just 4 percent.
“We are considered far and away the hottest economy anywhere in the world — not even close,” Trump said.
But there are several underlying concerns.
The national debt has ballooned to nearly $22 trillion and recently accelerated thanks in large part to Trump’s 2017 tax cuts which largely benefitted corporations and wealthy Americans. The stock market, meanwhile, is down over 3 percent since Trump’s last State of the Union address, due to uncertainty about Trump’s trade policy.
Trump, however, is digging in on trade.
To build on U.S. economic success, Trump will say that “one priority is paramount: reversing decades of calamitous trade policies.”
Trump has promised to massively increase tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods if the two sides cannot reach an agreement by March 1.
The White House is also considering imposing tariffs of up to 25 percent on imports of automobiles and car parts.
“It is unacceptable that Americans pay vastly more than people in other countries for the exact same drugs, often made in the exact same place. This is wrong, unfair, and together we can stop it,” Trump said.
Foreign policy, including Trump’s talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was a heavy focus of the speech.
Trump announced a venue and date for his upcoming second summit with Kim — Feb. 27 and 28 in Vietnam.
“Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one,” Trump said.
The summit could help break a deadlock in U.S.-North Korean talks. Since agreeing last year to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, the two sides have not been able to agree on what that means or how it will be carried out.
Trump also addressed U.S. peace talks with the Taliban.
Last month, U.S. officials announced progress on a framework deal under which the U.S. would withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in exchange for Taliban promises that the country would not be used by terrorists.
Trump has also announced plans to withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, saying Islamic State has largely been defeated there.
“As a candidate for President, I pledged a new approach. Great nations do not fight endless wars,” Trump said — comments that could upset many in Congress.
The Republican-led Senate earlier in the day broke with Trump on Syria and Afghanistan, passing a largely symbolic resolution that opposed a “precipitous withdrawal,” insisting militants in both countries still pose a threat to the U.S.
Trump also reiterated U.S. support for Venezuela’s interim president, Juan Guaido, the head of the opposition-led National Assembly who declared himself interim president last month.
“We stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom,” Trump said.
The Trump administration last month recognized Guaido over current president and longtime U.S. foe Nicolas Maduro. Many other governments have since followed the U.S. lead in recognizing Guaido, saying Maduro should step down because he ruined Venezuela’s economy and came to power in flawed elections.
State of the Union guests
In keeping with tradition, the White House invited several guests who reflect the president’s policy priorities.
Trump’s guest include the family of a couple who were killed by immigrants in the U.S. illegally, a woman who struggled with opioid abuse, and a child named “Joshua Trump” who the White House says was “bullied in school due to his last name.”
The House Democratic Women’s Working Group invited female lawmakers of both parties to wear white at this year’s State of the Union to mark the suffragette movement, which led to a woman’s right to vote in 1920.
That group of women remained seated when Trump proposed legislation to prohibit the “late-term abortion of children who can feel pain in the mother’s womb.”