State of the Union: Trump seeks to inspire nation but old divisions still simmer

'Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground'

Alexandra Wilts
Washington DC
Wednesday 31 January 2018 06:50
Donald Trump at State of the Union: 'Remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people'

President Donald Trump took centre stage in the House chamber to deliver his first State of the Union address – an almost 90-minute speech that swerved between bipartisan rhetoric and expressions of his America First agenda.

The speech came as Mr Trump’s White House continues to be beleaguered by investigations into his campaign’s alleged ties to Russia. Mr Trump, along with several Republican members of Congress, have cast doubt on the credibility of the FBI’s probe into the matter.

“Tonight,” he said, seemingly trying to put those issues aside, “I call on Congress to empower every cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers – and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.”

Mr Trump is said to be in support of releasing a controversial memo that reportedly alleges misconduct by senior Justice Department and FBI officials investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. The President has insisted there was no collusion.

The long Tuesday night address touched on a range of topics, including the economy, immigration, infrastructure and trade. Just as Mr Trump started his address the White House announced he had signed an executive order to reverse Barack Obama’s attempt to close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.

Mr Trump sought to inspire a deeply divided Congress and nation. “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,” the President said to roaring applause from many Republicans while several Democrats sat stone-faced in their seats.

His address came less than two weeks after disagreements over immigration policy led to a government shutdown, and about a week before disputes regarding government spending could result in another closure.

Mr Trump began his address by highlighting American heroism in horrific attacks and natural disasters over the past year.

North Korea defector Ji Seong-ho honoured at State of the Union

He pointed out House majority whip Steve Scalise, calling him the “legend from Louisiana” after he survived a life-threatening shooting at a congressional baseball practice last June.

“In the aftermath of that terrible shooting, we came together not as Republicans or Democrats, but as representatives of the people,” Mr Trump said. “But it is not enough to come together only in times of tragedy.”

The President, who is said to have disparaged immigrants in conversations with lawmakers and his advisers, later said he was “extending an open hand to work with members of both parties, Democrats and Republicans, to protect our citizens, of every background, colour, religion and creed”.

But despite repeated calls for unity, more divisive remarks were never far behind.

Mr Trump said he was willing to work with Democrats to legalise immigrants brought to the US illegally as children – so-called Dreamers – but suggested that US citizens could not be left behind.

“My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans – to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American Dream,” Mr Trump said before referencing immigration policy. “Because Americans are dreamers too.”

Mr Trump’s immigration plan drew immediate condemnation from Democrats in the chamber. Several began to jeer when he said he would “protect the nuclear family by ending chain migration”.

Following the speech, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, a key immigration negotiator, said the President’s comments about Americans being dreamers too were “not helpful” to negotiations, and Mr Trump’s conflation of the issue with a notorious Los Angeles crime gang was “inflammatory”.

Robert Reich, former Labour Secretary under President Bill Clinton, accused Mr Trump of using “fear” to generate a “vicious cycle” of anger and violence.

And the phrase “Americans are dreamers too” was jumped on and repeated by prominent figures of the extreme right. Former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke, who described the speech as “very powerful”, said: “Thank you President Trump. Americans are ‘Dreamers’ too.” Richard Spencer, a white supremacist, tweeted the quote alongside a picture of a white family.

While the President has repeatedly expressed sympathy for the plight of Dreamers, he has still moved to rescind the Obama-era programme that protected them from deportation.

Reiterating his immigration proposal during the State of the Union, he said he would grant about 1.8 million Dreamers legal status, including a path to citizenship – in exchange for increased enforcement, the construction of his long-promised border wall, and a restructuring of legal immigration channels that moves away from reuniting families and gives priority to higher-skilled immigrants.

Democrats used the occasion to send their own message to Mr Trump on the issue, inviting Dreamers who were to lose their protection from deportation to be their guests at the event.

During his speech, Mr Trump also called on Republicans and Democrats to work together on a $1.5 trillion (£1.05 trillion) infrastructure proposal. He provided few specifics – other than to say it should be “leveraged by partnering with state and local governments and, where appropriate, tapping into private sector investment.”

“We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways across our land. And we will do it with American heart, and American hands, and American grit,” Mr Trump said.

The President also highlighted what he says are his accomplishments across the world, touting military victories against Isis.

“One year later, I am proud to report that the coalition to defeat Isis has liberated very close to 100 per cent of the territory just recently held by these killers in Iraq and Syria,” Mr Trump said.

He also had some tough words regarding North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, saying Mr Kim has brutalised his own people and must give up his nuclear programme.

“Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation,” Mr Trump said. “I will not repeat the mistakes of the past administrations that got us into this dangerous position.”

Mr Trump made no mention of the federal probe into whether his campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 presidential election, having repeatedly denied collusion and having called the probe a “witch-hunt.” But he sought to be optimistic in calling it a “new American moment”.

The President only appeared to deviate from his teleprompter on a handful of occasions – and it was on one of those that he appeared to suggest key allies like the UK, France and Germany were “enemies of America”.

The incident, which has the potential to create headaches for American diplomats, came as Mr Trump railed against those countries that voted at the UN against the US’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – a list that includes most of Europe. Mr Trump said he would make sure American money goes to help “friends of America”, before adding, off the cuff, “not enemies of America”.

Otherwise, the speech stuck to Mr Trump’s pre-prepared script, and was welcomed by the public. A CNN/SSRS snap poll said 48 per cent of those surveyed had a “very positive” response to the speech and 22 per cent “somewhat positive.”

In a post-speech rebuttal, Massachusetts Representative Joe Kennedy III, the grandson of Robert F Kennedy, was seeking to undercut Mr Trump’s optimistic tone and remind voters of the personal insults and attacks often levelled by the President.

“Bullies may land a punch,” Mr Kennedy said. “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 defence of their future.”

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