Facing a divided Congress emerging from a protracted government shutdown that has sent his approval rating spiraling to fresh lows, U.S. President Donald Trump delivered a State of the Union address that offered few olive branches to his opponents, even as he dug in on his most contentious campaign promises.
Here are some of the key takeaways from Mr. Trump’s address.
IMMIGRATION AND A BORDER WALL
Mr. Trump doubled down on his calls for a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. The president spent nearly 15 minutes of his 90-minute speech reiterating many of his talking points on the dangers of illegal immigration, confirming that he plans to send more troops to the border, and urging Congress to fund a “smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier.”
But he made no mention of his frequent threats to declare a national emergency to finance construction of a border wall, a move that analysts say would almost certainly be immediately challenged in court and that Republicans fear could set a dangerous precedent for future Democratic presidents.
There was also little in Mr. Trump’s speech that signalled concessions on border security to House Democrats, who have refused to authorize any money for new wall construction. The speech offered “an old recipe for the President and one that has failed to produce any compromise so far,” said John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Mr. Trump reiterated his plans to withdraw thousands of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Syria. Those plans have drawn fire from top military leaders who worry they will allow terrorist groups to regain strength in Syria and destabilize peace talks in Afghanistan.
But Mr. Trump expressed optimism about a draft framework for a peace deal that U.S officials reached with Taliban leaders. “We do not know whether we will achieve an agreement, but we do know that after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace,” he said. “And the other side would like to do the same thing.”
The President also announced he will hold his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in Vietnam at the end of the month. Senior intelligence officials have warned that Pyongyang remains committed to developing nuclear missiles, though Mr. Trump instead chose to champion his denuclearization talks with North Korea last year. “If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now in my opinion be in a major war with North Korea,” he said.
He pushed for Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro to step down, attempting to draw links between the Latin American socialist leader and policies espoused by far-left members of the Democratic Party.
“Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” adding that “America will never be a socialist country.”
Confronting a politically divided Congress, Mr. Trump started and ended his speech with a call to “reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution, and embrace the boundless potential of co-operation, compromise and the common good.”
His push for the federal government to end HIV transmissions within the decade, fund research on childhood cancers, and introduce paid family leave “shows at least some willingness to step away from his party” in search of common ground, Brookings’ Mr. Hudak said.
At the same time, Mr. Trump took thinly-veiled shots at special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential collusion between the Trump election campaign and Russia, as well as Democrats’ own push to investigate the president’s finances and foreign relationships. “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.
His calls for unity also contrasted with his hardline stances on issues that Democrats are sure to oppose, such as a border wall. The talk seemed almost structured to “give his base what he thinks it wants to hear while also making him sound less partisan going in and then coming out of this unique speech situation,” said Vanessa Beasley, an expert on U.S. political rhetoric at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
Congress offered a rare showing of bipartisan enthusiasm when Mr. Trump announced that women had filled 58 per cent of jobs created last year. “No one has benefited more from our thriving economy than women,” he said. Many of the Democratic female lawmakers, dressed all in white in honour of the women’s suffrage movement, jumped to their feet and offered each other hugs and high-fives and other members of Congress shouted “USA!”
“You weren’t supposed to do that,” Mr. Trump joked before pointing out the record number of women elected to U.S. Congress last year – the majority of them Democrats mobilized to oppose the president’s agenda.
He offered a handful of policy announcements aimed at garnering support from female lawmakers, including calls for paid family leave. But the goodwill between Mr. Trump and female Democrats proved short-lived after the president asked Congress to pass a ban on late-term abortions.
Mr. Trump made no mention of the recent 35-day federal government shutdown that forced him to postpone his address by a week. But the prospect of a renewed shutdown loomed large over the president’s speech.
Congressional leaders have until Feb. 15 to avert another government shutdown by negotiating a compromise that will address Mr. Trump’s request for billions in new border wall construction. The president used his televised address to urge Congress to pass what he called a “common-sense proposal” on border security that includes humanitarian assistance and investments in border crossings.
But he offered no indication he is actively trying avoid another round of political deadlock. “He was clearly continuing the same kind of rhetoric that put us in a shutdown,” Mr. Hudak said, “signalling that he has no fear about causing another shutdown.”
Democrats chose Stacey Abrams, whose bid to become Georgia’s first African-American governor turned her into a political star, to deliver the party’s response.
Ms. Abrams hit many of the party’s more progressive notes, urging Mr. Trump to tackle gun violence, decrying a White house immigration policy that “chooses to cage children and tear families apart” and spending much of her time focusing on the issue of voter suppression.
But with a presidential election set for next year, high-profile Democrats threatened to overshadow Ms. Abrams with rebuttals of their own.
California Senator Kamala Harris, who is running for president, took to Facebook ahead of Mr. Trump’s speech, declaring “the strength of our union has never been found in the walls we build.” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, potentially weighing whether to run for the Democratic nomination again, also livestreamed a rebuttal on social media that took aim at Mr. Trump’s economic record. The economy “is absolutely not booming for the nearly 80 million workers living paycheque to paycheque,” he said.
The Globe and Mail, February 5, 2019