Originally published on WHYY.org on February 5, 2019.
Facing a divided Congress for the first time, President Donald Trump on Tuesday called on Washington to reject “the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution.” He warned emboldened Democrats that “ridiculous partisan investigations” into his administration and businesses could hamper a surging American economy.
Trump’s appeals for bipartisanship in his State of the Union address (video below) clashed with the rancorous atmosphere he has helped cultivate in the nation’s capital — as well as the desire of most Democrats to block his agenda during his next two years in office. Their opposition was on vivid display as Democratic congresswomen in the audience formed a sea of white in a nod to early 20th-century suffragettes.
The calls for unity did not resonate with many Democrats, including U.S. Rep Mary Gay Scanlon, who represents a district in Delaware County, Pennsylvania.
Trump spoke at a critical moment in his presidency, staring down a two-year stretch that will determine whether he is re-elected or leaves office in defeat. His speech sought to shore up Republican support that had eroded slightly during the recent government shutdown and previewed a fresh defense against Democrats as they ready a round of investigations into every aspect of his administration.
“If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” he declared. Lawmakers in the cavernous House chamber sat largely silent.
U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, a Democrat representing a district centered in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania responded with this tweet.
Looming over the president’s address was a fast-approaching Feb. 15 deadline to fund the government and avoid another shutdown. Democrats have refused to acquiesce to his demands for a border wall, and Republicans are increasingly unwilling to shut down the government to help him fulfill his signature campaign pledge. Nor does the GOP support the president’s plan to declare a national emergency if Congress won’t fund the wall.
Wary of publicly highlighting those intraparty divisions, Trump made no mention of an emergency declaration in his remarks. He did offer a lengthy defense of his call for a border wall, declaring: “I will build it.” But he delivered no ultimatums about what it would take for him to sign legislation to keep the government open.
“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 said, painting a dark and foreboding picture of the risks posed to Americans by illegal immigration.
Philadelphia U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans questioned Trumps focus on the border.
Throughout his remarks, the 72-year-old Trump harkened back to moments of American greatness, celebrating the moon landing as astronaut Buzz Aldrin looked on from the audience and heralding the liberation of Europe from the Nazis. He led the House chamber in singing happy birthday to a Holocaust survivor sitting with first lady Melania Trump.
The president ticked through a litany of issues with crossover appeal, including boosting infrastructure, lowering prescription drug costs and combating childhood cancer. But he also appealed to his political base, both with his harsh rhetoric on immigration and a call for Congress to pass legislation to prohibit the “late-term abortion of children.”
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, said combating AIDS and childhood cancers are ideal issues for building common ground. “Look, we got a lot done on opioids. We got a lot done on all sorts of legislation that just doesn’t make the headlines, but it’s still important stuff. I suspect the two parties will work together on those sorts of things,” Toomey said.
U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, the lone Republican in Congress from New Jersey, echoed Toomey. He also said a long-stalled infrastructure bill would lots of bipartisan support in New Jersey. Democrats in the Garden State have been pushing the Trump administration to fund new rail tunnels under the Hudson River which were already in rough shape when battered by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
“These are very very old tubes that need to be fixed before we have a catastrophe…like we almost did with Hurricane Sandy,” Smith said.
Trump devoted much of his speech to foreign policy, another area where Republicans have increasingly distanced themselves from the White House. He announced details of a second meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, outlining a Feb. 27-28 summit in Vietnam. The two met last summer in Singapore, though it garnered only a vaguely worded commitment by the North to denuclearize.
As he condemned political turmoil in Venezuela, Trump declared that “America will never be a socialist country” — a remark that may also have been targeted at high-profile Democrats who identify as socialists.
The president was surrounded by symbols of his emboldened political opposition. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was praised by Democrats for her hard-line negotiating during the shutdown, sat behind Trump as he spoke. And several senators running for president were also in the audience, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Another Democratic star, Stacey Abrams, delivered the party’s response to Trump. Abrams narrowly lost her bid in November to become America’s first black female governor, and party leaders are aggressively recruiting her to run for U.S. Senate from Georgia.
Speaking from Atlanta, Abrams calls the shutdown a political stunt that “defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people, but our values.”
Trump’s address amounted to an opening argument for his re-election campaign. Polls show he has work to do, with his approval rating falling to just 34 percent after the shutdown, according to a recent survey conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
One bright spot for the president has been the economy, which has added jobs for 100 straight months.
“The only thing that can stop it,” he said, “are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations” — an apparent swipe at the special counsel investigation into ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign, as well as the upcoming congressional investigations.
The diverse Democratic caucus, which includes a bevy of women, sat silently for much of Trump’s speech. But they leapt to their feet when he noted there are “more women in the workforce than ever before.”
The increase is due to population growth — and not something Trump can credit to any of his policies.
The president also defended his decisions to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan over the opposition from national security officials and many Republican lawmakers.
“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” he said, adding that the U.S. is working with allies to “destroy the remnants” of the Islamic State group and that he has “accelerated” efforts to reach a settlement in Afghanistan.
IS militants have lost territory since Trump’s surprise announcement in December that he was pulling U.S. forces out, but military officials warn the fighters could regroup within six months to a year of the Americans leaving. Several leading GOP lawmakers have sharply criticized his plans to withdraw from Syria, as well as from Afghanistan.
Trump’s guests for the speech included Anna Marie Johnson, a woman whose life sentence for drug offenses was commuted by the president, and Joshua Trump, a sixth-grade student from Wilmington, Delaware, who has been bullied over his last name. They sat with Mrs. Trump during the address.