Donald Trump has promised a “new American moment” in a State of the Union address that sought harmony but succeeded only in underlining the deep discord at the heart of the country’s politics.
The US president preened over a growing economy and pledged a return to national greatness with a nostalgic appeal to family, faith, law and order, the military and the national anthem. “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 we were elected to serve,” Trump said.
Yet from his vantage point at the dais in the House of Representatives, the split-screen nation that is America in 2018 was writ large.
To his left, Republicans stood, applauded and sometimes cheered each new pronouncement. To his right, Democrats mostly sat stony-faced, channeling the fury of millions who believe Trump has defiled the American presidency, and on occasion were unable to resist groans, or heckles of protest.
And when the speech ended, Republicans clapped and chanted “USA! USA!” – one even waved a red “Make America great again” cap – while Democrats raced to the exits with thinly disguised contempt. Their reaction told a fundamentally different story from what they were hearing: that of a tumultuous year of White House chaos, stunning examples of sexism and racism, myriad falsehoods and attacks on freedom of the press and an ongoing investigation into Trump’s links with Russia that hangs over his presidency.
It was the 45th president’s first State of the Union address. Instead of the darkness of his inaugural speech, which warned of “American carnage”, Trump boasted of the “extraordinary success” of his first year in office and offered a more optimistic vision. “This is our new American moment,” Trump said. “There has never been a better time to start living the American dream.”
Critics were quick to spot that Trump’s election rival Hillary Clinton had used the phrase “new American moment” in a speech as secretary of state in 2010.
The White House had promised a bipartisan tone, even as Congress is deadlocked over immigration reform and the fate of hundreds of thousands of people whose status is in doubt after they were brought by their parents to the US as children.
Some were in attendance on Tuesday night as Trump used his address to repeat a proposal calculated to appease both Democrats and Republican hardliners, although it may satisfy neither. Trump’s promise of a “down the middle compromise” would grant about 1.8 million Dreamers legal status, including a path to citizenship, in return for intensified law enforcement, the building of a wall on the Mexican border and tighter restrictions on legal immigration.
“It is time to reform these outdated immigration rules, and finally bring our immigration system into the 21st century,” the self-proclaimed master deal-maker said, claiming it would create a safe, modern and lawful immigration system. “For over 30 years, Washington has tried and failed to solve this problem. This Congress can be the one that finally makes it happen.”
Trump spoke of the need to keep the nation safe from terrorism. He announced that he had formally cancelled Barack Obama’s plan to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. “We must be clear,” he said. “Terrorists are not merely criminals. They are unlawful enemy combatants. And when captured overseas, they should be treated like the terrorists they are.”
He added that he expected “in many cases” captured terrorists would be sent to the camp. It was the latest in a long list of attacks on his predecessor’s legacy: Obama signed an order to close the facility in 2009 but was repeatedly frustrated by Congress. It currently holds 41 remaining terrorism suspects and its detention facilities cost more than 0m a year.
Trump also warned of the threat from the “depraved” North Korean regime and, in one of his more disciplined performances, steered clear of throwing barbs at its leader, Kim Jong-un. But he offered little clue to his overall strategy.
“North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland,” Trump said. “Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation. I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this very dangerous position.”
He called for Congress to increase defence spending and added: “We must modernise and rebuild our nuclear arsenal, hopefully never having to use it, but making it so strong and powerful that it will deter any acts of aggression. Perhaps someday in the future there will be a magical moment when the countries of the world will get together to eliminate their nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, we are not there yet.”
The buildup to the address, normally the major set piece in the American political calendar, was overshadowed by partisan bickering over the investigation into the Trump election campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia and whether the president intends to fire special counsel Robert Mueller.
There was also bitter controversy after the House intelligence committee released a classified memo that Republicans allege contains proof of surveillance abuses by the FBI and justice department; Democrats said the move could endanger intelligence sources and be weaponised against Mueller. On Monday night senior justice department officials made a last-ditch plea to the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, about the dangers of releasing the memo, the Washington Post reported.
The president’s family were in attendance, although Melania Trump travelled to the Capitol separately from Trump. The first lady has kept a low profile since reports emerged claiming that her husband had an affair with the pornographic actor Stormy Daniels a decade ago. She entered the chamber without public announcement, wearing an all-white Dior suit – evocative, perhaps, of Hillary Clinton during the election campaign.
Facing a historically low approval rating of around 40% at the end of the first year of his presidency, Trump spoke of “one team, one people, and one American family” and sought to cast himself as the president of all. “Tonight, I am extending an open hand to work with members of both parties – Democrats and Republicans – to protect our citizens of every background, color, religion, and creed,” he said.
There was applause from some Democrats but scepticism from others, as there had been from the moment Trump entered the chamber. As he shook hands and soaked up adulation from Republicans, Democratic senator Kirsten Gillibrand studied her phone and independent senator Bernie Sanders stood with hands folded in front of him. One Democratic congresswoman even remained in her seat reading a newspaper. Most of the Congressional Black Caucus also remained seated while wearing kente cloth sashes, scarves or ties associated with Ghana and the pan-African independence movement – a swipe at Trump’s recently reported “shitholes” insult.
Female Democrats wore black in solidarity with the #MeToo movement as they listened to a commander-in-chief who has been accused of sexual misconduct by 19 women. But Democrats were divided on how to respond to some of Trump’s applause lines, with some standing at times to clap and others remaining defiantly seated. Sometimes members glanced furtively around to see what their colleagues were doing.
When Trump said, “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 anything,” Senator Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate, stood and clapped. Senator Elizabeth Warren offered light applause and Senator Bernie Sanders remained still. When the president declared “African American unemployment stands at the lowest rate ever recorded”, a trend that long predates him, only one member of the black caucus stood to applaud.
Sometimes it became too much. Trump’s statement that, “For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities”, prompted the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Joe Crowley, to shout: “Oh, come on!”
And when the president pledged to end so-called “chain migration”, adding: “Under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives”, there were such loud mutters of dissent that the Democratic House leader, Nancy Pelosi, waved her arms to mute them.
In the official Democratic response to the address, Congressman Joe Kennedy III, speaking from Fall River, Massachusetts, said: “Bullies may land a punch. 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.”
Chuck Schumer, the Democratic minority leader in the Senate, added: “After a long and divisive year, many Americans were yearning for the president to present a unifying vision for the country. Unfortunately, his address tonight stoked the fires of division instead of bringing us closer together.”
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