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State of the Union 2018: Analysis
Trump pairs unifying tone with partisan agenda in mixed-signal address
President Donald Trump delivered his first State of the Union address on Tuesday night, an 80-minute speech that aimed to offer a message of renewed bipartisan cooperation, while straying little from the policy stances that have marked his initial year in office. Throughout the address, Trump frequently bounced between lofty rhetoric meant to bring both parties together and "red meat" lobbed solely at conservative members of his base.
Trump opened his remarks with more unifying language, seeking to appeal to Americans of all stripes. "This is our new American moment," he declared. "There has never been a better time to start living the American Dream...No matter where you've been, or where you've come from, this is your time. If you work hard, if you believe in yourself, if you believe in America, then you can dream anything, you can be anything, and together, we can achieve absolutely anything." Attempting to move past the divisive rhetoric he has often deployed since entering the political stage, Trump extended an olive branch to the entire country, which he described as "one team, one people, and one American people" sharing "the same home, the same heart, the same destiny, and the same great American flag."
"Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people," Trump said.
But the President soon turned to his policy agenda, which was a familiar set of stances that easily translated into applause lines for Republican lawmakers in the room. He spoke about the "incredible progress" and "extraordinary success" his Administration has recorded, pointing to the economy, national security, taxes, the judiciary, and regulations, among other achievements, almost all conservative priorities. Some lines were openly partisan shots, such as Trump's reference to "repeal[ing] the core of disastrous Obamacare" or his explanation of "why we proudly stand for the National Anthem," the latter coming subtly in the midst of a section on patriotism that would have otherwise been well-received. Trump did not unveil many new policies, except for announcing that he had signed an executive order keeping the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay open, a reversal from Barack Obama.
Trump did make direct appeals to Congress for bipartisan work on two main issues: infrastructure and immigration. The President urged lawmakers to pass legislation that "generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment that our country so desperately needs," calling on "both parties to come together to give us safe, fast, reliable, and modern infrastructure that our economy needs and our people deserve."
Then, he made brief references to other policies that could attract Democratic support (paid family leave and prison reform), before turning to immigration. Although Trump was calling for both parties to strike a deal on the issue, he opened his remarks on immigration with a clear overture to his conservative base. "For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities," the President said, immediately linking immigration with crime. "They've allowed millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans. Most tragically, they have caused the loss of many innocent lives."
Trump went on to introduce two of his guests sitting in the First Lady's box during the address, parents of teenage daughters killed by members of the MS-13 gang, who entered the country "as illegal, unaccompanied minors." Only then did he turn to "extending an open hand to work with members of both parties,Democratsand Republicans, to protect our citizens of every background, color, religion, and creed."
The President detailed the immigration framework released by the White House last week, which included a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million "Dreamers," but focused on the three other "pillars" of the plan: border security, ending the diversity visa lottery, and limiting so-called "chain migration." Although he declared that "Americans are dreamers too," Trump barely referenced recipients of the fast-expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, as Democrats had hoped. Many Democratic lawmakers left the room angered by his rhetoric on limiting legal immigration and the crimes committed by illegal immigrants, which they said had only exposed the partisan fault lines on the issue and pushed the two sides farther away from striking a compromise.
Their reaction was evident during the speech itself, a reminder of the divided Congress to whom he was pitching bipartisanship: as Republicans continually lept to their feet to applaud the address, almost every Democrat remained silent and in their seats, making their voices heard only to groan and hiss when Trump referred to "chain migration."
It is unlikely that the speech will produce any substantive progress on either of the potential areas of cooperation that the President trumpeted, as immigration talks remain in a stalemate on Capitol Hill, only inflamed by the release of a White House plan that Trump called a "down-the-middle compromise" but Democrats declared "dead-on-arrival." On infrastructure, the White House has yet to submit legislation to go along with Trump's promised $1.5 trillion investment, leaving lawmakers wondering about the key details, including how it will be paid for.
Some the of more emotional moments of the speech which were received well across the aisle came when the guests joining Melania Trump in the balcony were introduced. Almost every point the President made came with an anecdote tied to one of these guests, many of whom were veterans or involved in other patriotic efforts, putting a human face on his proposals and successes. Towards the end of the speech, as Trump detailed his foreign policy agenda, he pointed to three guests with ties to North Korea: the parents of a American student Otto Warmbier, who was imprisoned in the rogue state, and North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho, who raised his crutches triumphantly as he received a standing ovation. Lawmakers in the audience began chanting "U-S-A" as Trump returned to discussing "the American way," again pivoting away from his more divisive rhetoric of the past to an optimistic and uplifting tone.
After a chaotic year of presidential surprises, Trump remained on-script through the entire 80-minute speech, which was the third-longest State of the Union address in U.S. history. Trump refrained from mentioning some of the more controversial issues that have captivated attention during his tenure in office, including the Russia investigations that dominated news coverage in the week leading up to his address. But, as he has often done in his presidency, Trump soon reverted to form.
As Trump walked down the aisle, shaking hands with (mostly Republican) lawmakers yearning for a presidential handshake or a signature on their "Make America Great Again" hats, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) urged the President to release the controversial memo detailing allegations of surveillance abuses in the FBI's Russia probe. Even as the Justice Department urged against the memo's release and his own White House said it was still under review, Trump was caught on a hot mic signaling that he plans to release it.
"Don't worry, 100%," the President was overheard responding, lurching off-message just minutes after stepping off the dais.
--- Democratic response: Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) delivered the Democratic response to the President's address, speaking before a live audience in Fall River, Massachusetts. Kennedy accused Trump of dividing the country while saying Democrats "fight for both" citizens on the coasts and in the "heartland." At one point, Kennedy spoke in Spanish, addressing "Dreamers" directly as he promised to "fight" for them.
"Bullies may land a punch," Kennedy said in the response. "They might leave a mark. But they have never, not once, in the history of our United States, managed to match the strength and spirit of a people united in defense of their future."
--- Fact check: President Trump did rely on some exaggerations Tuesday night as he pitched his achievements to the American people. Here's a full fact check, via PolitiFact.
--- Polling: Instant polling indicated widespread approval of the address: a CBS News poll found that 75% of viewers approved of the speech, with only 25% disapproving. A CNN poll found that 70% of viewers had a "very" or "somewhat" positive reaction to the speech, compared to 28% who had a negative view.
The Rundown: Distractions abound
Even as President Trump sought to "flip the script" in his State of the Union address, reminders abounded of the numerous distractions that he faces. A roundup of news stories vying for the country's attention:
- The memo: Justice Department officials made a direct appeal to White House chief of staff John Kelly on Monday, pleading that a memo alleging FBI abuses not be released to the public, even as Trump signaled his support for it, the Washington Post reports.
- Palace intrigue: First Lady Melania Trump was "furious with her husband" after being blindsided by reports that porn star Stormy Daniels had been paid to keep quiet about an affair she allegedly had with the President in 2006, the New York Times reports. Daniels appeared on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" after the State of the Union, pointedly denying the denials of the affair that have been released in her name.
- Russia probe: The Justice Department has turned over a "cache of internal correspondence" to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, including documents relating to Attorney General Jeff Sessions' proposed resignation, ABC News reports. Meanwhile, The Guardian reported that the FBI is assessing a second Trump-Russia dossier that independently details some of the same allegations laid out by former British spy Christopher Steele.
- Pruitt: Audio has surfaced of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt blasting President Trump in a February 2016 radio interview. “I believe that Donald Trump in the White House will be more abusive to the Constitution than Barack Obama and that’s saying a lot,” he said, according to the watchdog group Documented. Asked about the interview at a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Pruitt said he did not recall those remarks.
- Approval ratings: Ahead of his first State of the Union, Trump remained historically unpopular; a new Gallup poll was released finding his approval rating at or above 50% in just 12 states. Trump was under 40% approval in a number of states he won in 2016, including Texas, Michigan, and North Carolina.
The President's Schedule
President Donald Trump will not be embarking on a tour promoting his agenda, as some of his predecessors have done following State of the Union addresses. Instead, his entire public schedule takes place in the Oval Office.
At 11:05am, Trump meets with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Defense Secretary James Mattis.
At 2:15pm, the President has a "Tax reform meeting with American workers."
At 3:45pm, he meets with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
Today in Congress
Neither house of Congress is in session today, as Republicans decamp for their annual working retreat.