Trump's State of the Union focuses on American strength, opportunity
The state of our union is “strong, because our people are strong,” President Donald Trump announced on Tuesday night.
Delivering his first State of the Union address, Trump told a joint session of Congress that his administration has worked to make America great for “all Americans.” He then urged lawmakers to work together to continue that effort.
“Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve,” he said.
The theme of the speech was “building a safe, strong, and proud America.” It served as both a celebration of the accomplishments of Trump’s first year in office and a preview of what he aims to accomplish in his second with the help of a unified Republican Congress.
“Tonight, I want to talk about what kind of future we are going to have, and what kind of nation we are going to be,” he said. “All of us, together, as one team, one people, and one American family.”
He applauded heroes who saved lives during floods, wildfires, and mass shootings throughout 2017, and he promised that those still suffering in the wake of those disasters that help is coming.
“To everyone still recovering in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, California, and everywhere else -- we are with you, we love you, and we will pull through together,” he said.
Trump touted the economic progress seen on his watch, including a drop in unemployment to 17-year lows and record high numbers in the stock market. In particular, he noted that the unemployment rate for African-Americans and Hispanics is lower than ever, eliciting applause from his fellow Republicans but not members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Critics have noted unemployment numbers were nearing those levels when Trump took office and questioned how much impact his economic policies have had so far.
The president took pride in the economic activity that has already been linked to the tax reform bill passed by Congress in December. Many corporations have announced bonuses, raises, and new investments in the U.S. crediting the massive cut in corporate taxes they just received as allowing them to spend more.
“Since we passed tax cuts, roughly 3 million workers have already gotten tax cut bonuses – many of them thousands of dollars per worker,” Trump said.
Democrats, who unanimously opposed the tax cuts in the House and Senate, remain concerned that their benefits are overwhelmingly weighted toward the wealthy and many of the cuts for individuals and families are currently set to expire in 2025.
“This April will be the last time you ever file under the old broken system,” Trump said, “and millions of Americans will have more take-home pay starting next month.”
Reviving cultural battles he engaged in last year, Trump pointed to a 12-year-old boy in the audience, Preston Sharp, who started a movement that has placed 40,000 flags on the graves of veterans.
“Preston's reverence for those who have served our nation reminds us why we salute our flag, why we put our hands on our hearts for the pledge of allegiance, and why we proudly stand for the National Anthem,” Trump said, a reference to the NFL players he has attacked for protesting racism by refusing to stand for the anthem before games.
Trump put forth proposals on some potentially bipartisan issues, but his administration has so far failed to garner Democratic support for its major legislative efforts and there has not been much cause for optimism that will change before the contentious midterm elections.
As one sign of the intensity of opposition Trump faces, nearly a half-dozen Democrats planned to deliver formal responses to his speech afterward in different venues. A record number of Democrats refused to attend Trump’s address at all.
"What he reads off a teleprompter tells you nothing about what is in this man's head and in his heart," Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., told CNN. He is holding his own “Citizens’ State of the Union” event in his district instead.
Trump has long talked vaguely about a trillion-dollar infrastructure initiative, and he called on Congress Tuesday to send him a bill that generates $1.5 trillion in investment and streamlines the regulatory process.
“We built the Empire State Building in just one year – isn’t it a disgrace that it can now take ten years just to get a permit approved for a simple road?” he asked, demanding that the time for permitting and approval be cut to no more than two years.
Trump also designated the issue as one ripe for bipartisan cooperation, though Democrats have already raised concerns about how the new infrastructure projects would be chosen and funded.
“I am asking both parties to come together to give us the safe, fast, reliable, and modern infrastructure our economy needs and our people deserve,” he said.
The president briefly touched on other issues Democrats may support like workforce development, paid family leave, and prison reforms, but he offered no details.
“We can lift our citizens from welfare to work, from dependence to independence, and from poverty to prosperity,” he said.
Trump delivered his address just over a week before the continuing resolution currently funding the government runs out on Feb. 8. When Democrats agreed to end a brief shutdown last week, they received assurances from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that he intended to take up the fate of young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children by then.
Little progress has been made so far in negotiations over the so-called Dreamers, whose protection from deportation under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program expires in early March. Democrats have sought a clean vote on giving them permanent legal status, but Republicans have demanded concessions on other immigration issues.
“Tonight I am extending an open hand to work with members of both parties, Democrats and Republicans, to protect our citizens, of every background, color, religion, and creed,” Trump said Tuesday.
He pitched his immigration proposal as a fair deal that gives all sides something they want. He is willing to offer a path to citizenship for Dreamers, but only if he gets $25 billion to build a border wall and drastic changes to the legal immigration system that Democrats say are a non-starter.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has derided Trump’s plan as an effort to “Make America White Again.”
Trump, however, insisted his approach—prioritizing skills and merit over family connections and diversity—benefits immigrants as well.
“Struggling communities, especially immigrant communities, will also be helped by immigration policies that focus on the best interests of American workers and American families,” he said.
Though Trump has in the past said he wants to help the Dreamers, he asserted Tuesday that “Americans are Dreamers too” and immigration policies should foremost protect their right to the American Dream.
“The United States is a compassionate nation,” he said. “We are proud that we do more than any other country anywhere in the world to help the needy, the struggling, and the underprivileged all over the world. But as president of the United States, my highest loyalty, my greatest compassion, my constant concern is for America’s children, America’s struggling workers, and America’s forgotten communities.”
Trump turned the spotlight on his invited guests at times, including family members of victims of the MS-13 gang, wounded veterans, and a police officer who adopted a baby from a mother suffering from opioid addiction.
“Tonight, everyone in this chamber is praying for you. Everyone in America is grieving for you,” he told the families of two MS-13 victims, pausing to give them a standing ovation. “I want you to know that 320 million hearts are right now breaking for you. We love you. We cannot imagine the depth of that kind of sorrow, but we can make sure that other families never have to endure this kind of pain.”
Speaking on national security, Trump announced he had just signed an order directing Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to reexamine military detention policies and keep the facilities in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba open.
Citing opposition from dozens of countries in the United Nations General Assembly to his declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Trump said he is asking for legislation “to help ensure American foreign assistance dollars always serve American interests, and only go to America’s friends.”
The president took aim at North Korea, saying his administration is imposing “maximum pressure” on Kim Jong Un’s regime to keep the dictator from being able to threaten the U.S. with nuclear weapons.
“Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation,” he said.
Amid sharp and growing divisions in America over these and other issues, Trump attempted to emphasize common goals that should unite the country.
“We want every American to know the dignity of a hard day’s work; we want every child to be safe in their home at night, and we want every citizen to be proud of this land that we love,” he said.
Missing from the speech was any reference to the ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller of possible ties between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election. Trump has often called the investigation a “hoax” and a “witch hunt,” but the White House maintains he is fully cooperating with the probe.