Donald Trump reached across the aisle in his first State of the Union address, offering to work with Democrats on infrastructure, criminal justice and drug prices after a divisive first year in office.
But those overtures in Tuesday’s speech fell flat with his opponents, who found little reason to warm to his vision for 2018. His bipartisan proposals were thin — two sentences spent on job training; one on paid family leave. The most substantive stretch of his remarks, an explanation of his immigration policies, was his most divisive.
A remark that “Americans are dreamers, too” — a dig at the undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, whose advocates call “dreamers” — was met with eye-rolling on the Democratic side of the House chamber.
The speech illustrated the political challenge for a president whose low approval ratings are jeopardizing his party’s continued control of Congress in midterm elections less than 11 months from now. While he delivered a speech that was softer in tone and at least ambivalent toward his political opponents, his “new American moment” remained essentially Trump: few policy olive branches for Democrats, proudly nationalist, unabashedly boastful, belligerent toward American adversaries.
Trump has previously called for bipartisanship and unity in major speeches — including during his address a year ago to Congress — only to revert to more divisive language and policies.
The president said that since his inauguration he had sought to “restore the bonds of trust between our citizens and their government” a remark that rang hollow after a year of false claims, insulting tweets at his political opponents and his interventions in the federal investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
For some Democrats, the speech was a reminder that Trump has proved a slippery counter-party in negotiations. They have left meetings at which they believed the president had agreed to at least the outline of an immigration deal, only to have the White House later reject it.
“We need more than talk,” Senator Dianne Feinstein said in a statement. “We need a president who will bring the country together rather than foster further division. We need a president who understands and engages in important issues rather than spending hours on Twitter.”
His remarks Tuesday on immigration appeared to widen the divide.
Trump falsely claimed that a program that awards visas to immigrants from countries with little migration to the U.S., the diversity visa lottery, “randomly hands out green cards without any regard for skill, merit or the safety of our people.” Lottery winners aren’t guaranteed a visa and must pass a screening process.
And he described as a “broken system” the U.S. immigration system’s preference for families of people already in the country, claiming new immigrants “can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives.”
Democrats grumbled and booed. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi motioned with her arms for her caucus to keep it down.
“The president has attacked our families,” Virginia State Delegate Elizabeth Guzman said in Spanish in a Democratic Party response to his speech.
The last substantive section of his speech focused on North Korea, Trump’s most pressing foreign policy challenge. He made an emotional appeal to confront Kim Jong-Un’s regime, citing Otto Warmbier, an American student mortally injured in North Korean captivity, and a defector who escaped the country after suffering a disability that Trump described in gruesome detail.
His recognition of Warmbier’s family and the defector, Ji Seong-ho, who attended the speech, at least drew bipartisan applause. But Senator Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, called his remarks “reckless rhetoric” in line with past comments that “already caused countless diplomatic crises and brought us to the brink of nuclear war.”
Trump tried to balance out some his trademark self-adulation by yielding the spotlight, for a time, to special guests seated in First Lady Melania Trump’s box. They included a blind double-amputee Marine and a life-saving firefighter, and Trump heralded their heroism with remarks that drew applause from both Democrats and Republicans.
He offered few new policies and tried to highlight the most appealing provisions of his agenda.
There were no new details about a plan to rebuild U.S. infrastructure, the sort of broad policy Democrats might latch onto. Trump has proposed investing about $200 billion in taxpayer dollars on new roads, transit and other projects, with the goal of luring more than $1 trillion from states, localities and the private sector.
Democrats say $200 billion is not nearly enough federal investment, and doubt Republican leaders will approve significantly more spending after December’s tax overhaul that’s projected to add more than $1 trillion to the national debt.
The approximately 80-minute speech was also notable for what Trump didn’t mention.
Trump made no reference to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russians, or a House Republican memorandum criticizing FBI counter-intelligence surveillance of Trump campaign officials.
He said in November that overhauling the nation’s welfare programs would be a top priority for 2018 following the tax bill, but was silent on the issue on Tuesday — the clearest sign yet that the White House has abandoned the idea.
Trump said little about Obamacare, the health-care program he spent months trying to repeal in 2017. The tax bill removed the law’s mandate that most Americans carry insurance. And the national debt, approaching $21 trillion and long a Trump obsession while President Barack Obama was in office, received no mention even as the president proposed massive new spending proposals, including a defense build-up and modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.