U.S. President Donald Trump waded into his State of the Union address by calling for unity between the Democratic and Republican parties before diving into a call to action to address the “crisis” on the southern U.S. border.
“There is a new opportunity in American politics, if only we have the courage, together, to seize it. Victory is not winning for our party, victory is winning for our country,” the president told the crowd of gathered politicians at the Capitol.
Trump alluded to great moments in American history, including D-Day and the moon landing, and highlighted the attendance of iconic astronaut Buzz Aldrin and three Second World War vets to drive home the message.
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“We must choose greatness over gridlock,” the president declared to the crowd. “Tonight, I ask you to choose greatness.”
The president soon issued a call to action on border security, asking Congress to “defend our very dangerous southern border,” and cited the 350,000 additional troops his administration has sent to the southern border.
Trump’s prime-time address comes at a critical moment in his presidency. He pushed his party into a lengthy government shutdown over border security, only to cave to the Democrats. With another shutdown deadline looming, the president has few options for getting Congress to fund a border wall, and he risks further alienating his party if he tries to circumvent lawmakers by declaring a national emergency instead.
“This is a moral issue,” he said, adding that because of the pressure illegal immigration puts on the American economy, “tolerance for illegal immigration is not compassionate, it is actually very cruel.”
Trump was not expected to issue the emergency declaration in his speech, in part because he’s aware of GOP opposition and wants to avoid being booed in the House chamber.
“Simply put, walls work and walls save lives,” the president declared.
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As expected, the president also praised the economic growth experienced by the United States over the past two years, highlighting the “5.3 million new jobs” and the “600,000 new manufacturing jobs” added to the U.S. economy since his administration took office.
Despite the shutdown, the U.S. economy added a robust 304,000 jobs in January, marking 100 straight months of job growth. That’s the longest such period on record.
He also took a moment to deride the Mueller investigations, which have plagued his administration virtually since he took office in 2017.
“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States, and the only thing that can stop it is foolish wars, politics and ridiculous, partisan investigations,” he told Congress.
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As he delivered his address, however, the president was surrounded by symbols of his emboldened political opposition. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was praised by Democrats for her hard-line negotiating during the shutdown, sat behind the president as he spoke.
Several Democratic women in the audience were wearing white, the colour favoured by early 20th-century suffragettes. Several 2020 presidential hopefuls were also in the audience, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Another Democratic star, Stacey Abrams, will deliver the party’s response to Trump. Abrams narrowly lost her bid in November to become America’s first black female governor, and party leaders are aggressively recruiting her to run for the U.S. Senate from Georgia.
For a time, it was unclear if Trump’s annual address to Congress would happen. He’d been scheduled to speak to lawmakers last week, but Pelosi forced him to postpone while the shutdown persisted.
For Trump, the focus on reaching across the aisle is a tacit admission from the White House that Trump may need a course correction if he is to win re-election. His approval rating stands at just 34 per cent after the shutdown, according to a recent survey conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Beyond border security and the bustling American economy, the president touched on a number of other issues.
Trump also called for a reduction in prescription drug prices, pledged to give US$500 million towards researching new remedies for cancer in children and appealed to Congress to commit to ending the HIV epidemic in the United States within the next decade.
He also pledged to ban late-term abortion, citing the controversial comments made by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who was accused of promoting infanticide by Republican critics after he discussed the issue on a radio show. He also discussed a New York law signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month that permits abortions after 24 weeks if the health or the life of the mother is at risk, or if the fetus is not viable.
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Foreign policy is another area in which Republicans have increasingly been willing to distance themselves from the president. Several leading GOP lawmakers have sharply criticized his plans to withdraw from Syria as well as Afghanistan.
Trump confirmed Tuesday night that his administration plans to go ahead with withdrawing from Syria and added that his government is also working towards a political settlement in Afghanistan.
“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” he told Congress.
He also touched on his administration’s recent withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF) and reaffirmed the United States’ support of Juan Guaido’s presidency in Venezuela.
Confirming reports that had been circulating for the past few weeks, Trump confirmed that his second face-to-face meeting with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un will take place in Vietnam on Feb. 27 and 28.
“If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea,” the president said. “Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one.”
Trump’s guests for the speech included Alice Marie Johnson, a woman whose life sentence for drug offences was commuted by the president, and Joshua Trump, a sixth-grade student from Wilmington, Del., who has been bullied over his last name. They sat with first lady Melania Trump during the address.
–With files from the Associated Press.