WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — President Donald Trump called on Congress to help advance “the agenda of the American people” in his second State of the Union address Tuesday, but partisan tensions simmered underneath a speech that touched on some of the nation’s most volatile political and social challenges.
“There is a new opportunity in American politics if only we have the courage together to seize it,” Trump said.
Declaring the state of the union to be "strong," the president told members of the House and Senate they were meeting at "a moment of unlimited potential" and pressed them to "choose greatness."
He also noted the anniversaries of D-Day and the moon landing, drawing bipartisan applause for surviving veterans in the audience and astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
"In the 20th century, America saved freedom, transformed science, and when you get down to it, there's nothing anywhere in the world that can compete with America. Now, we must step boldly and bravely into the next chapter of this Great American Adventure, and we must create a new standard of living for the 21st century," Trump said. "An amazing quality of life for all of our citizens is within reach."
Speaking from the well of the House of Representatives for the first time since Democrats took control of the chamber in November, Trump urged cooperation on immigration, infrastructure, drug pricing, and other issues. However, even before he entered the House chamber, critics were questioning the sincerity of a call for unity from a president who regularly alleges Democrats support open borders and crime.
"We must reject the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution," Trump said, "and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise, and the common good."
The president ticked off soaring economic statistics, partially crediting Republican tax cuts for making the U.S. "far and away the hottest economy in the world." He also cited his administration's efforts to cut regulations and promote energy exports, claiming the only things that can stop economic progress are wars, politics, and "ridiculous partisan investigations"--a sentiment that garnered cheers from Republicans and silence from Democrats.
"If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn't work that way," Trump said.
Praising bipartisan efforts to pass the First Step Act, Trump segued into the need for both parties to work together to address “an urgent national crisis” at the southern border.
“The Congress has 10 days left to pass a bill that will fund our Government, protect our homeland, and secure our southern border,” he said, warning of a “tremendous onslaught” from Central American migrant caravans.
Trump tied illegal immigration to sexual assault, human trafficking, drugs, gang violence, and murder. He turned attention to three relatives of Gerald and Sharon Bissell, a Nevada couple allegedly killed by an undocumented immigrant last month, and ICE Special Agent Elvin Hernandez, who were among his guests for the speech.
"Tonight, I am asking you to defend our very dangerous southern border out of love and devotion to our fellow citizens and to our country," he told lawmakers. "No issue better illustrates the divide between America's working class and America's political class than illegal immigration. Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards."
Citing a “common sense proposal” he has sent to Congress, Trump called for a combination of humanitarian assistance, law enforcement and “a smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier,” adding that members of both parties backed funding for border barriers in the past. Some Democrats who supported the Secure Fence Act of 2006 have opposed Trump’s efforts to construct longer, taller walls that they say are a waste of money. Pelosi, who voted against the 2006 bill, has called Trump's wall "an immorality."
“Simply put, walls work and walls save lives,” Trump claimed, dubiously attributing a drop in crime in El Paso, Texas to border barriers. “So, let's work together, compromise, and reach a deal that will truly make America safe.”
Female Democrats who offered little reaction to much of Trump's rhetoric stood and cheered at his recognition that there are more women in the workforce and in Congress than ever before.
"Congratulations. That's great," Trump said.
On trade, Trump promoted the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which is still awaiting congressional approval, as a replacement for "the catastrophe known as NAFTA." He also urged lawmakers to pass the United States Reciprocal Trade Act, which would make it easier to impose tariffs on countries that place taxes on American exports.
Rebuilding infrastructure, lowering drug prices, and protecting patients with pre-existing conditions all generated bipartisan support in the chamber, but Republicans and Democrats have often clashed on how to achieve those goals in the past and likely will do so in the future.
"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 will stop it. We will stop it fast," Trump said.
The president also laid out the ambitious goal of eliminating HIV within 10 years.
"Together, we will defeat AIDS in America," he said.
Trump received a standing ovation from Republicans for rebuking Democratic state lawmakers in New York and Virginia over legislation easing restrictions on third-trimester abortions.
“To defend the dignity of every person, I am asking the Congress to pass legislation to prohibit the late-term abortion of children who can feel pain in the mother's womb,” he said.
Ending suspense he has built up over several weeks, Trump announced the date and location of his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un: Feb. 27 and 28 in Vietnam. Pushing back on criticism of his previous meeting with the dictator, Trump claimed that if not for him, the U.S. would be at war with North Korea “with potentially millions of people killed.”
In a speech billed as a call for unity, Trump also targeted Democrats who have increasingly backed socialist economic policies.
“Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country,” he stated as Republicans cheered and Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist, did not.
The president also offered a justification for plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan. The initial announcement of the Syria withdrawal raised bipartisan concerns, and the Republican-led Senate passed legislation Tuesday that imposed new sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and urged Trump not to abandon the conflict.
Trump defended peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan as an opportunity to finish an "endless" war and bring at least some troops stationed there home.
"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 when the other side would like to do the same thing," he said. "It’s time."
Guests seated with first lady Melania Trump included Timothy Matson, a SWAT officer wounded during the anti-Semitic attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and Judah Samet, a survivor of the attack who also survived the Holocaust.
"Today is Judah's 81st birthday," President Trump said as the audience broke into a spontaneous rendition of "Happy Birthday."
Returning to the soldiers who fought on D-Day he mentioned at the top of the speech, Trump recalled the blood and tears and courage they sacrificed for the country.
"They did not know if they would survive the hour," he said of the young soldiers who stormed Normandy Beach in 1944, "They did not know if they would grow old. But they knew that America had to prevail. Their cause was this Nation, and generations yet unborn. Why did they do it? They did it for America -- they did it for us."
The address itself served as a reminder of growing tensions in Washington. Originally scheduled for Jan. 29, it was delayed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., until a partial government shutdown over border wall funding was resolved.
President Trump has delivered two previous addresses to a joint session of Congress—the first in early 2017 was not officially a State of the Union—and he has twice appealed for unity and bipartisanship, but he has struggled to maintain that tone afterward.
Tuesday morning did little to inspire hope this time would be different. After Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer criticized Trump on the Senate floor, accusing him of “blatant hypocrisy” for promoting unity, Trump lashed out on Twitter.
“I see Schumer is already criticizing my State of the Union speech, even though he hasn’t seen it yet. 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 tweeted.
According to The New York Times, Trump also insulted Schumer, former Vice President Joe Biden, and several other prominent Democrats at an off-the-record lunch with news anchors.
In an email solicitation for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Tuesday, Pelosi told supporters she wants to raise $200,000 “to make his second State of the Union address completely backfire.”
The optimistic and unifying message represented a marked shift from the president’s recent public rhetoric on immigration and border security. Speeches, interviews, and tweets have been filled with partisan attacks against Democrats, warnings about caravans of immigrants, and graphic depictions of human trafficking.
Hanging over the entire event was Trump’s persistent threat to declare a national emergency to divert money to border wall construction if Congress does not provide the billions of dollars for barriers he demanded by Feb. 15. Although the president teased a possible announcement in recent days, he made no reference to it during the address.
A speech viewed by tens of millions of Americans offered President Trump another chance to convince the public of the need for a border wall and the severity of what his administration says is a security and humanitarian crisis at the border. A recent primetime Oval Office address failed to move opinion on the issue.
The White House invited guests who help highlight several key policy points, including the family of a couple allegedly killed by an undocumented immigrant, victims of anti-Semitic violence, and a boy bullied for having the same last name as the president. One guest singled out was Alice Johnson, a non-violent drug offender who was granted clemency by Trump last year.
“Alice’s story underscores the disparities and unfairness that can exist in criminal sentencing – and the need to remedy this total injustice,” Trump said.
Democrats invited their own guests to reinforce their positions on immigration, gun control, and other issues. Schumer’s guests included Ronan Byrne, an air traffic controller who worked without pay through the 35-day shutdown.
“This shutdown should never have happened in the first place, and it absolutely should not happen again,” Schumer said in a statement.