After two years of bitter partisanship and personal attacks on opponents, US President Donald Trump called for unity and cross-party cooperation during Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, a message likely to ring hollow with Democrats determined to block his push for a border wall.
Trump’s prime-time address in Washington, DC, comes at a critical moment in his presidency. He pushed his party into a record-long government shutdown over border security, only to give in to Democrats. With another shutdown deadline looming, the president has few options for getting Congress to fund a wall on the US-Mexico border.
He did not make good on his threats to declare a national emergency, which would allow him to circumvent Congress to obtain the needed funds to build the border wall. Doing so would risk further alienating his party and would certainly throw up immediate legal challenges.
“No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration,” Trump said. “Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards.” He vowed that he would build the wall, which Democrats consider expensive, ineffective and immoral.
In the speech, Trump again sought to sow fear over the thousands of Central Americans who have fled poverty and violence in their countries in recent months, many making their way to the US border to apply for asylum.
He also repeated his claim that “tens and thousands of Americans are killed by lethal drugs that cross our border and flood into our cities, including meth, heroin, cocaine and fentanyl”.
Despite Trump’s comments, recent statistics show that irregular immigration has dropped to a 20-year low and that many drug shipments are likely smuggled through official ports of entry.
He also alleged that countless Americans were killed by “criminal illegal aliens”, although several studies show that both documented and undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than US-born individuals.
Stacey Abrams, an increasingly popular Democrat and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate, will deliver the Democrats’ response to Trump’s speech. Abrams lost a close, highly-contested race to Republican Brian Kemp during the November 2018 midterms.
In excerpts released before Abrams’s remarks, she calls the shutdown a political stunt that “defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people, but our values”.
This year’s State of the Union was delayed by a week due to the shutdown.
Economy trump card
As expected, Trump touted the success of the economy during the speech, pointing to recently released figures on job growth.
Trump criticised attempts by House Democrats to investigate his personal finances and various aspects of his administration, saying they would put US economic growth at risk.
“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.
Prior to the speech, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer criticised Trump over the economy, healthcare and other issues. “The president will say the state of the union is strong, but the American people know the state of the Trump administration is chaos,” he said.
Trump also called attention to his administration’s efforts to rewrite trade deals with China and other nations to make the terms more favourable to the US.
“To build on our incredible economic success, one priority is paramount: reversing decades of calamitous trade policies,” he said.
Next Trump-Kim summit to be held in Vietnam
In a much-anticipated announcement, Trump said he would hold a two-day summit with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on February 27-28 in Vietnam to try to convince him to give up his nuclear weapons programme.
Trump has teased the meeting in recent weeks. The two met last summer in Singapore, though that meeting only led to a vaguely worded commitment by North Korea to denuclearise.
“As part of a bold new diplomacy, we continue our historic push for peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Trump said on Tuesday. “Our hostages have come home, nuclear testing has stopped and there has not been a missile launch in 15 months.”
He also expressed his continued support for Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who last month declared himself interim president. President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela has accused Guaido and his allies of staging a coup. Maduro also says the US and other foreign powers are waging an “economic war” aimed at removing him from power.
Also on the foreign policy front, Trump briefly spoke about his plans to withdraw troops from both Syria and Afghanistan and called out Iran for threats against Israel.
Surrounded by emboldened opposition
As he stood before politicians, 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.
Many House Democratic women wore white, a colour favoured by early 20th-century suffragettes. And several senators running for president were also in the audience, including Senators Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Trump’s address amounted to an opening argument for his reelection 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.
Trump’s guests for the speech included Anna Marie Johnson, a woman whose life sentence for drug offences was commuted by the president, and Joshua Trump, a sixth-grade student from Wilmington, Delaware, who has been bullied over his last name.
Trump also invited Timothy Matson, a police officer who responded to the October 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue shooting; Elvin Hernandez, a special agent with the human trafficking unit of the Department of Homeland Security; and family members of those killed by undocumented individuals in the US.