Donald Trump used his first State of the Union address to project an optimistic picture of American progress, attempting to put a bipartisan sheen on his presidency after a divisive first year in office.
Mr Trump told Congress there had “never been a better time to start living the American dream,” touting December’s passage of tax reform and the economic gains reaped since his election.
Speaking in the Capitol, Mr Trump delivered a self-congratulatory speech about the “extraordinary success” of his first year, which he said included the creation of 2.4m jobs in addition to the first major tax reform legislation in more than three decades.
“We have shared in the heights of victory and the pains of hardship. We endured floods and fires and storms,” Mr Trump told members of Congress. “But through it all, we have seen the beauty of America’s soul and the steel in America’s spine.”
Like his speech in Davos last week and his first address to Congress a year ago, Mr Trump struck a conciliatory tone that he has shunned in less formal occasions, including in his Twitter account, and recent campaign-style rallies. The speech played to the sentiments of his base, but included little in the way of new policy, aside from the announcement he would keep open the US detention facility at Guantánamo Bay.
Mr Trump called on Congress to pass legislation that would generate $1.5tn in infrastructure investments. But he provided scant detail about how the government could fund such an effort, given the resistance on Capitol Hill to increasing the deficit.
“Together, we can reclaim our great building heritage,” Mr Trump said. “We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways all across our land. And we will do it with American heart, American hands and American grit.”
While the speech couched his successes as wins for the American people, there were few olive branches to Democrats, who remained stone-faced as their Republican colleagues applauded during the speech, which lasted just over 80 minutes — rivalling Bill Clinton, who became renowned for his lengthy annual addresses.
Brendan Boyle, a Democratic representative from Philadelphia, said there was no sign Mr Trump had opted for a “unity” speech to bridge partisan divisions.
“Last year he was given passing remarks because he was able to read from the teleprompter and not stray from it,” Mr Boyle said. “Tonight, with a slightly higher bar, he didn’t come close to hitting it. In substance it was just more of the same. In style he was surprisingly subdued and flat. Very low energy.”
In addition to his claims of economic success — including his standard refrain about the stock market hitting record highs — Mr Trump reminded Republicans he had put a conservative on the Supreme Court and installed more conservative judges in the federal courts than any president in recent times, a key issue for his base.
Revisiting the economic themes of his presidential campaign, he said he had “ended the war on energy”. He cited the decision by Chrysler to move production from Mexico to Michigan as an example of jobs returning to America because of his policies.
He also repeated his mantra that he had “turned the page on decades of unfair trade deals”. However, he did not mention his lack of progress tackling the trade deficit with China, which will have risen roughly 10 per cent under his watch when the final data are published next week.
As Congress prepares for another bitter debate on immigration reform, he called for a bipartisan deal. He has proposed a plan that would pave the way for 1.8m “Dreamers” — people brought to the US illegally as children by their parents — to become citizens. But it also calls for funding for a wall on the US-Mexico border, which is not popular in Congress, including with Republicans.
In a proposal that is anathema to many Democrats, he urged an end to a visa lottery system. “It is time to begin moving towards a merit-based immigration system — one that admits people who are skilled, who want to work, who will contribute to our society, and who will love and respect our country,” he said.
In calling for more money for security to help tackle gangs trafficking drugs across the border, he played on the language used by Democrats to talk about the children who came to the US illegally, saying: “Americans are dreamers, too”.
On foreign policy, Mr Trump stressed he was “restoring our strength and standing abroad”. He said the US faced rogue regimes, and rivals such as China and Russia, that “challenge our interests, our economy and our values”, in calling on Congress to end Obama-era caps on military spending.
Mr Trump noted the sanctions he had imposed on Cuba and Venezuela, but said “no regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally” than North Korea.
During the evening he introduced a number of guests in the gallery who had been brought to the Capitol to illustrate his policies. They included the parents of an American who died following his captivity in North Korea, and another young man who had defected from the Stalinist regime under difficult circumstances.
Mr Trump said North Korea was pursuing the development of nuclear missiles that “could very soon threaten our homeland,” while stressing that his administration was pursuing a campaign of “maximum pressure” to prevent that from happening.
While the state department leads the global diplomatic effort to persuade North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to abandon his nuclear weapons, the Pentagon has provided the commander-in-chief with a range of military options, including what has been termed a “bloody nose” strategy. Earlier on Tuesday, it emerged that the White House had told Victor Cha, a Korea expert, that it would not send him to Seoul as US ambassador after he expressed concern about this strategy.
Mr Trump’s speech followed a tumultuous first year that saw him dogged by suspicions that his campaign colluded with Russia — an issue that is the subject of an investigation by Robert Mueller, the justice department special prosecutor.
Mr Trump mentioned Russia only once in passing. In contrast, Joe Kennedy, a Massachusetts congressman and grandnephew of President John F Kennedy who delivered the Democratic rebuttal, asserted that Moscow was “knee-deep” in US democracy.
First Lady Melania Trump watched the speech with her husband’s guests — the emotional pillars of his speech. The grieving parents of two girls killed by the MS-13 gang illustrated his commitment to ending immigrant gang violence.
Many Democrats came with Dreamers who risk deportation after Mr Trump ended a programme that protected them. Representative Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat, kept his reserved guest seat empty — in a nod to a Palestinian businessman in his district who was deported on Monday after living for almost four decades in the US.
One year into his presidency, it seemed Washington had rubbed off on Mr Trump, who took a restrained tone, Yet, it also seemed he had rubbed off somewhat on Washington, as Republicans in the chamber erupted with chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A” — a frequent rallying cry during his campaign rallies — as he closed out his speech.
Trump State of the Union 2018: top five quotes
‘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. Because Americans are dreamers, too.’
‘All of us, together, as one team, one people, and one American family, can do anything. We all share the same home, the same heart, the same destiny, and the same great American flag.’
‘For over 30 years, Washington has tried and failed to solve [the immigration] problem. This Congress can be the one that finally makes it happen.’
‘North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland. We are waging a campaign of maximum pressure to prevent that from ever happening.’
‘This Capitol. This living monument. This is the monument to the American people . . . This capital, the city, this nation, belongs entirely to them.’
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi
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