White House

One speech, two Trumps

Despite softer touches, president’s State of the Union still divides

President Donald Trump greets lawmakers as he prepares to deliver his second State of the Union address. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Republican lawmakers stood and roared Tuesday night as President Donald Trump described the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border as a hellscape awash in drugs and violent criminals moving freely into the country. Democrats sat statuesque and silent, displaying no sign that his call for cross-party cooperation resonated inside the House chamber.

Trump stood before Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker Nancy Pelosi and delivered what has become customary for Republican and Democratic presidents alike, saying that the state of the country is “strong” and that the American people hope “we will govern not as two parties but as one nation.”

And while he added some quintessential Trumpian bravado when he implored members of both parties to “choose greatness” over “pointless destruction,” the president’s second State of the Union address revealed a government — like the country for which it ostensibly works — as divided as ever.

He bemoaned “ridiculous partisan investigations” as House Democrats prepare to look into many aspects of his 2016 campaign, business dealings and presidency.

Watch: Optimistic, hypocritical and long: Members react to State of the Union in 3 words

 

“If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” he said after also panning “foolish” overseas conflicts. “It just doesn’t work that way.”

As he spoke, Pelosi rolled her eyes.

The reactions of the two parties in the chamber perhaps couldn’t have been starker than when the president spoke about immigration and his proposed southern border wall.

“No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration,” he said, returning to the populist rhetoric of his 2016 campaign. “Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards.

“Now is the time for the Congress to show the world that America is committed to ending illegal immigration and putting the ruthless coyotes, cartels, drug dealers, and human traffickers out of business,” Trump said.

[Trump’s call for unity likely to ring hollow among Democrats]

Republican members hooted and cheered those and other hard-line immigration lines as they stood to praise their unlikely leader just over two years after he stood outside the Capitol and vowed to end what he called an “American carnage” rooted in illegal immigration, crime, drugs and violent gangs. Some Democrats, however, booed.

Two weeks after the halfway point of his current term, Trump’s overall assessment of the country since his chilly January 2017 inauguration address is less gloomy — except on the intertwined issues he returns to again and again as he looks to keep his conservative base energized: illegal immigration and his proposed southern border wall.

“This is a moral issue. The lawless state of our southern border is a threat to the safety, security, and financial well‑being of all Americans. We have a moral duty to create an immigration system that protects the lives and jobs of our citizens,” President Trump said, echoing 2016 Candidate Trump and likely the version of himself who is expected to seek a second term.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The president’s address, at times, had a Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde feel. That’s because of its contradictory mix of calls for Democrats to support rather than continue resisting his policies and what amounted to the kinds of hard-line immigration rhetoric that have caused them to label his border wall “immoral.”

“The agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda. It is the agenda of the American people,” said the president, wearing a bright red tie and his usual crisp white shirt under a dark suit. “Together, we can break decades of political stalemate. We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future. The decision is ours to make.”

But in its immigration section came a call for the border wall that has left Washington so divided.

“Where walls go up, illegal crossings go way down,” Trump said of areas where walls, barriers or fencing already exist.

Watch: Remember When Donald Trump Wanted Mexico To Pay for the Wall?

Specifically, Trump singled out two issues for bipartisan cooperation.

“Both parties should be able to unite for a great rebuilding of America’s crumbling infrastructure,” he said, a rare line that drew a bipartisan standing ovation. “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 can stop it.”

But he also noted how his administration has moved on its own and alluded to bills it passed solely with GOP votes, seemingly undermining the call for unity.

“Over the last two years, my administration has moved with urgency and historic speed to confront problems neglected by leaders of both parties over many decades,” he said.

But as the president made his latest pitch for the border structure pitch, Democrats drowned him in silence just 10 days before the two sides must reach a border security pact he says must fund the wall or allow a quarter of the federal government to again shut down.

The president attempted to use the economy, which he dubbed “the envy of the world,” as leverage over the Democrats assembled for the annual spectacle. “After 24 months of rapid progress … America is winning each and every day.”

[The state of the union in 8 charts]

His second State of the Union came at a time when “by broad measures the U.S. has performed well,” according to Mark Hamrick, a senior economic analyst at the consumer financial services firm Bankrate.com. The address allowed the president “to paint a vision of legislative priorities for the year ahead in the face of divided government” amid an “unemployment rate [that] has remained at or below 4 percent since February of last year” and sizable wage growth, Hamrick added.

Despite those statistics and Trump’s sunny analysis about the economy’s health, Democratic leaders were shunning both hours before Trump boarded his heavily armed limousine and headed to the Capitol.

“The American people know the truth,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said on the Senate floor. “The American people know the Trump economy is failing the middle class and those struggling to get there. In Trump’s economy, multinational corporation and the already wealthy were given a tax cut, while American workers were left behind.

Schumer went on to charge the Trump administration with “relentless sabotage” of a “failing” health care system and said its number of acting officials and turnover shows it is a government in “chaos.” The New York Democrat labeled Trump’s foreign policy “woefully backward.”

“Allies are alienated and criticized. Our adversaries emboldened and praised,” Schumer said. “Dictators and strongmen are given license by this administration while our NATO allies receive harsh words.”

Trump appeared to have watched his floor speech live, firing off a tweet criticizing Schumer for blasting the speech before it had been delivered. In a sign one speech will do little to heal Washington’s deep wounds, the Senate Democrats’ leader responded in a most Trumpian way: with a tweet of his own, pointing the president to this part of his floor remarks: “Even more empty than his policy promises are President Trump’s calls each year for unity.”

But during the address, the commander in chief painted a much different picture.

[Cracks in GOP support for Trump emerge, but White House claims ‘we’re all good’]

Trump reminded the country he promised a “new approach” to foreign policy as a candidate, adding: “Great nations do not fight endless wars.” Still, he sent a warning to Iran when he vowed to “not avert our eyes from a regime that chants ‘Death to America’ and threatens genocide against the Jewish people.”

Cool reception

Even before he reached the podium in the chamber’s well, Democrats greeted him cooly. Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Pramila Jayapal of Washington, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and others among their ranks, did not applaud as he made his way down the aisle.

Republican lawmakers, especially its interventionist establishment wing, did greet his calls to end American’s “endless” post-9/11 foreign conflicts with discomfort.

But mostly on Tuesday night, Republican members stood by a president whose approval ratings hover around 40 percent against a disapproval rating that often is above 55 percent, and who frustrated much of the country over an unpopular government shutdown over a border wall that multiple surveys show a majority of the country opposes. A recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found 63 percent of Americans say the country is on the wrong track.

That is shaping up to be a problem for congressional Republicans, one analyst said.

“The Republican Party doesn’t have a forward-looking agenda outside of this immigration debate,” said Vanessa Williamson, a Brookings Institution senior fellow. “And having shut down the government over it and not seeing substantial improvement in the public in terms of support for the kind of immigration policies that Trump has called for has left them in a real bind.”

But Republicans inside the chamber seemed pleased. 

When the president declared “our union is strong,” Republicans jumped to their feet and started an “U-S-A” chant. Democrats were spotted rolling their eyes as they remained seated — offering no applause.

Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.