ANALYSIS | President Donald Trump, slowly but surely, morphed into Candidate Donald Trump Tuesday night during his second State of the Union address. What promises to be a loud and bruising 2020 presidential race is now under way.
His top aides billed the speech as one in which he wanted to set the table for breaking Washington’s era of gridlock and working with Democrats to pass major legislation on immigration, infrastructure and lowering prescription drug prices. But by the time he walked out of the House chamber, the placemats were all set for his 2020 re-election campaign.
The speech amounted to a dare from the president to congressional Democrats: Investigate my 2016 campaign, businesses and presidency and I’ll turn off the legislative spigot.
But before the president methodically pivoted toward the 2020 race, he appeared eager to try setting a trap for the Democrats seated opposite him inside the ornate chamber.
“We must choose between greatness or gridlock, results or resistance, vision or vengeance, incredible progress or pointless destruction,” he said. “Tonight, I ask you to choose greatness.”
He held up as examples the moon-walking former astronaut Buzz Aldrin – who snapped a salute to the commander in chief from his balcony seat – and several World War II veterans who were, in Trump’s words, among the “15,000 young American men [who] jumped from the sky, and 60,000 more stormed in from the sea, to save our civilization from tyranny.”
In short, Trump challenged Democrats to work together to address America’s most-pressing issues like those astronauts who walked on the moon and the U.S. troopers who stopped the Axis Powers’ march in the 1940s.
But for all of Trump’s rhetorical flourishes in calling for greater bipartisan cooperation, there were an equal amount of moments he morphed back into the “America first” candidate who espoused populist and hardline rhetoric at campaign stop after campaign stop during the 2016 campaign — and since at numerous rallies.
“If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” Trump said to audible groans from Democratic members. “It just doesn’t work that way,” he said, a nod to the oversight Democrats say they will conduct of the executive branch.
The president also made clear he is poised to use House Democrats’ new breed and their views on matters like Medicare-for-all and other progressive views against them on the 2020 campaign trail. And while he did not name her, Trump appeared to take a shot at New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America organization.
“Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country,” Trump said as the freshman lawmaker known colloquially as “AOC” sat not that far away and smiled.
But as he did with the 2018 midterms, the president wants illegal immigration to be the basis of his re-election campaign. After extending rhetorical olive branches to Democrats on other issues, 2016 Donald Trump could have delivered what was a return to his hardline remarks about migrants and the impact they have on the United States.
With just 10 days — as he spoke — left to strike a border security spending deal to avert another partial government shutdown, Trump pivoted hard to the right, where his conservative base resides and relishes his tough immigration talk.
“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,” he said as Democrats rolled their eyes.
“This is a moral issue,” Trump added. “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.”
Further evidence that the president wanted to use his second State of the Union address to set the stage for his 2020 bid for a second term came Wednesday morning when his campaign organization announced his first campaign rally in months. On Monday night, he will speak to supporters in El Paso, Texas.
The Lone Star State is home to former Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who gave GOP Sen. Ted Cruz a serious challenge in November and became something of a Democratic darling. He is mulling a presidential run, giving Trump an early target in his fight to hold the White House.
But top Democrats saw something else Tuesday night: a presidential besieged by investigations and his own missteps.
“It was a threat. It was an all out threat,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California told reporters Wednesday of Trump’s warning that probes of him or his administration would nix any legislative reaching across the aisle.
“It was stunning to hear a president plead with Congress to set aside its constitutional duty to conduct vigorous oversight,” Senate Intelligence Committee member Ron Wyden of Oregon said Tuesday night. “I walked out tonight reflecting on the sacred American principle that no one is above the law. The state of the union is clear: Donald Trump is steering America in the wrong direction.”
Another predicted that, for all of Trump’s talk about bipartisan legislative work, he likely will again stumble soon rather than cutting a deal with Democrats.
“He can’t help himself. He’s in a hole. He had a great opportunity in that speech to dig himself out of a hole,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., MSNBC Wednesday morning.
Schumer reiterated he thinks the two chambers can strike a deal and avoid a government shutdown if Trump stays out of the negotiations, but said “I don’t know” if that will end up being the case.
“This president can’t help himself out of his hole,” Schumer said, “and that’s a real problem here.”
Kellie Mejdrich and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.