UPDATED: WASHINGTON — President Trump tried to spread a message of unity at points in his State of the Union address, but from inside the House chamber, what was very apparent was discord and division.
Dozens of female Democratic House members wore black to honor victims of sexual harassment and assault. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus wore Kente cloths to protest Trump’s reported reference to African nations as “s—hole” countries. Others wore butterfly buttons to support Dreamers.
Trump’s speech was heavy on his accomplishments during his first year in office, but also had plenty of tough lines about immigration and national security, while emphasizing American exceptionalism.
The scene was certainly one that put Trump in the best possible light, and he relished the pomp and circumstance and tradition. At times, he reached for inspirational lines.
“Over the last year, the world has seen what we always knew: that no people on Earth are so fearless, or daring, or determined as Americans,” Trump said. “If there is a mountain, we climb it. If there’s a frontier, we cross it. If there’s a challenge, we tame it. If there is an opportunity, we seize it.”
But the speech is likely to be remembered for how Trump dealt with some of the more some of the more contentious issues of the next few weeks — particularly the ongoing debate over what to do about Dreamers, the undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. As much as the White House pitched the speech as a unifying one, Trump made a number of polarizing points. He talked of the need for “one American family,” but also spent large portions of his speech evoking one of the themes of his presidential campaign, crime committed by illegal immigrants.
Some key moments:
‘Chain migration.’ Trump talked of his administration’s immigration plan and for a path to citizenship for Dreamers. But few Democrats were having it because of the other part of his proposal, which is to put an end to what he calls “chain migration.” As Trump talked of the current problem with immigration law, in which immigrants are able to bring in “virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives,” there was hissing, and even the word “lies” could be heard from Democrats. Some reporters spotted House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi trying to get her side to quiet down.
Trump talked of his immigration proposals as being a “down the middle” compromise, but that is surely not how Democrats see it. And his call for a merit-based immigration system quickly had some on social media commenting on Trump’s own heritage, a his own grandfather did not speak English and may not have gained entry under such criteria. His line — “Americans are dreamers too” — got a lot of applause from Republicans, but it also was a backhanded criticism of Democrats and their focus on young undocumented immigrants.
Tax reform. This is Trump’s key accomplishment of 2017, and he certainly touted it. In the advance copy of the speech, the text spelled out BIGGEST TAX CUTS AND REFORMS IN AMERICAN HISTORY. Democrats were largely dismissive — although a few did stand when Trump talked of Apple’s plans to invest $350 billion and hire 20,000 workers. “This is our new American moment,” Trump said, again trying to tie the speech together into a common theme. “There has never been a better time to start living the American dream.”
Democrats, though, are likely to push the controversial tax bill’s emphasis on tax cuts for the wealthiest, as well as the massive drop in the corporate rate.
This speech may be Trump’s best chance to sell the tax bill and tie it to an improving economy. He tried not just to talk in superlatives, but to humanize the tax cuts a bit, as when he talked of an employee of Staub Manufacturing who was there, Corey Adams, and what he planned to do with his “tax cut raise.” “And he’s a great welder,” Trump said, to laughs.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), said he found the speech “very strong,” and cited the passages on the economy.
“The president underscored the incredible victories for working men and women that we are seeing: More jobs, higher wages, more opportunity,” he told reporters afterward.
‘National Anthem’: “We proudly stand for our National Anthem,” Trump said, in what was perhaps the surest sign that this speech would also touch on cultural divisions. What went unsaid was the president’s past attacks on NFL players for kneeling during the anthem. Some Democrats stood in the chamber, but many did not, a signal that Trump will continue to try to use displays of patriotism as a wedge issue.
Those Democrats. More than a dozen Democrats boycotted the speech. Those who remained staged their own kinds of protests. Most House members didn’t go near Trump as he entered the chamber, and rushed to the exits the minute it ended.
There were moments of unity, particularly on non-controversial issues like first responders and veterans. More often than not Democrats were not applauding; some were texting. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) looked like he would rather he anywhere but there, and leaned back in his chair, silent through much of it. As Trump talked about the war on “beautiful, clean coal,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) laughed.
Afterward, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) told Variety that the Democrats were displaying, more than anything, “what you saw were people who were frustrated.”
“The president continues to struggle to put two consistent days together,” Swalwell said. “He’s probably proved tonight he knows how to read. Whether he knows how to lead, I think we still haven’t seen that yet.”
He added, “The best thing he could do is invite Democrats and Republicans to the White House [on Wednesday] and say, ‘Let’s roll up our sleeves, and let’s do something about what I talked about last night. If he resorts to tweeting Trump, and goes after the Russia investigation and goes after someone who didn’t praise the speech, we are going to be back to where we were before the speech and it is going to be on Congress to make deals on these important issues in spite of that.”
Pelosi said that Trump “promised unity, but sowed division.”
Ji Sung-Ho. At least in the chamber, the biggest applause was for a man who escaped from North Korea. As Trump referenced him, he waved his crutches, having endured multiple amputations after a train ran over his limbs during his escape. “Sung-Ho’s story is a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom,” Trump said, in a message that focused less on bellicose rhetoric and more on the terror of the current regime of Kim Jong Un. Ji Sung-Ho’s story was the emotional high point of Trump’s speech — and credit for the president for including it.
Paid family leave. With his attack on regulations and government incompetence, Trump’s speech was heavy in themes from the longtime conservative agenda. He got big applause from the Republican side of the aisle when he talked about doing away with the Obamacare mandate. But Trump did talk of a concept that has long been a Democratic talking point: “Let us support working families by supporting paid family leave,” he said. His daughter, Ivanka Trump, has been championing such a program. Speaker Paul Ryan did not cheer like others did. After the speech, Cruz said that when it came to paid leave, he’d have to see the details.
The length. At 80 minutes, this was one of the longer State of the Union addresses, but it was also very much in keeping with other addresses of the past. That is to say, it was like a laundry list of accomplishments and ideas, laden with personal references to the president’s gallery guests. But it was easy to see why Trump would want to relish this moment: As he exited, Republicans rushed to be at his side, particularly Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), and one lawmaker even had Trump sign a copy of one of his books. Just as he was about to leave the chamber, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) asked Trump if he planned to release the “Nunes” memo, and Trump said, “100 percent.” It was perhaps the only talk that delved into the ongoing deep state drama. Once the president was out the door, the TV lights went off in the chamber and, very quickly, it cleared.