Facing a divided Congress for the first time, United States President Donald Trump on Tuesday called on Washington to reject “the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution” in his State of the Union address.
He warned emboldened Democrats that “ridiculous partisan investigations” into his administration and businesses could hamper a surging American economy. Their opposition was on vivid display as Democratic congresswomen in the audience formed a sea of white in a nod to early 20th-century suffragettes.
Trump spoke at a critical moment in his presidency, staring down a two-year stretch that will determine whether he is re-elected or leaves office in defeat. His speech sought to shore up Republican support that had eroded slightly during the recent government shutdown and previewed a fresh defence against Democrats as they ready a round of investigations into every aspect of his administration.
“If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” he declared.
Lawmakers in the cavernous House chamber sat largely silent.
Looming over the president’s address was a fast-approaching Feb 15 deadline to fund the government and avoid another shutdown. Democrats have refused to acquiesce to his demands for a border wall, and Republicans are increasingly unwilling to shut down the government to help him fulfil his signature campaign pledge. Nor does the GOP support the president’s plan to declare a national emergency if Congress won’t fund the wall.
Wary of publicly highlighting those intra-party divisions, Trump made no mention of an emergency declaration in his remarks. He did offer a lengthy defence of his call for a border wall, declaring: “I will build it.” But he delivered no ultimatums about what it would take for him to sign legislation to keep the government open.
“I am asking you to defend our very dangerous southern border out of love and devotion to our fellow citizens and to our country,” he said, painting a dark and foreboding picture of the risks posed to Americans by illegal immigration.
The president ticked through a litany of issues with crossover appeal, including boosting infrastructure, lowering prescription drug costs and combating childhood cancer. But he also appealed to his political base, both with his harsh rhetoric on immigration and a call for Congress to pass legislation to prohibit the “late-term abortion of children”.
Trump devoted much of his speech to foreign policy, another area where Republicans have increasingly distanced themselves from the White House. He announced details of a second meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, outlining a Feb 27-28 summit in Vietnam. The two met last summer in Singapore, though it garnered only a vaguely worded commitment by the North to denuclearise.
As he condemned political turmoil in Venezuela, Trump declared that “America will never be a socialist country”, a remark that may also have been targeted at high-profile Democrats who identify as socialists.
One bright spot for the president has been the economy, which has added jobs for 100 straight months. “The only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations,” he said, in an apparent swipe at the special counsel investigation into ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign, as well as the upcoming congressional investigations.
The diverse Democratic caucus, which includes a bevy of women, sat silently for much of Trump’s speech. But they leapt to their feet when he noted there are “more women in the workforce than ever before”. The increase is due to population growth and not something Trump can credit to any of his policies.
The president also defended his decisions to withdraw US troops from Syria and Afghanistan over the opposition from national security officials and many Republican lawmakers.
“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” he said, adding that the US is working with allies to “destroy the remnants” of the militant Islamic State (IS) group and that he has “accelerated” efforts to reach a settlement in Afghanistan.
IS militants have lost territory since Trump’s surprise announcement in December that he was pulling US forces out, but military officials warn the fighters could regroup within six months to a year of the Americans leaving. Several leading GOP lawmakers have sharply criticised his plans to withdraw from Syria, as well as from Afghanistan.