“If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” Trump declared. The presence of Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi on the dais behind him was an acute reminder of the political challenges he faces in the next two years.
Trump’s remarks were an apparent reference to the investigation, led by special counsel Robert Mueller, into Russian meddling in the US election, plus Democrats’ promised oversight investigations into the president’s conduct and personal finances.
In wide-ranging remarks to a joint chamber of Congress on Tuesday night that lasted more than 80 minutes, Trump appealed to two areas of his base supporters by reasserting his vow to build a wall on the southern US border with Mexico, and urging lawmakers to ban late-term abortions.
He also announced that he would hold a second summit with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, in Vietnam on 27 and 28 February. The leaders first met last summer in Singapore.
Trump’s speech came at a critical moment. Halfway into his term, having just suffered serious losses in November’s congressional elections and after prompting the longest government shutdown in US history, Trump had hoped to strike a new tone with his calls on Congress to come together over infrastructure projects and his trade deal with Canada and Mexico.
“Together, we can break decades of political stalemate. We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future,” he said. “The decision is ours to make.”
However, although he avoided any reference to his much-threatened declaration of a national emergency over what he claims to be an immigration crisis on the southern border, Trump again outlined his case for a wall and accused lawmakers of hypocrisy on border security.
During the speech, Trump’s comments careened from dark proclamations about the “lawless state of our southern border” and the “bloodthirsty monsters” who fight for Isis, to sweeter moments, such as praising the optimism of a 10-year-old girl who fought brain cancer, and veterans who helped liberate Europe from Nazism during the second world war.
Trump commanded one of the biggest stages in American politics on Tuesday night but, unlike last year’s address, Capitol Hill was something of a hostile environment.
Pelosi – a formidable adversary who has thwarted his border wall at every turn – sat mostly stone-faced, occasionally scanning the text of his speech. She was joined on the dais by Vice-President Mike Pence, who dutifully applauded the president at each opportunity.
Seated in front of Trump was a record number of female House members, most Democrats and some dressed in white, in homage to the suffragist movement. In the gallery above were two former employees of Trump’s New Jersey golf club, both immigrant women who have gone public about its hiring practices, and the sexual assault survivor who confronted the Republican senator Jeff Flake in an elevator during the fraught confirmation of the conservative supreme court justice Brett Kavanaugh.
In a moment of levity, Democratic congresswomen erupted in cheers and applause when Trump said the thriving economy had helped female employment.
“Exactly one century after the Congress passed the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote,” he said, “we also have more women serving in the Congress than ever before.”
This time the chamber rose to its feet and Democrats and Republicans joined in a bipartisan “U-S-A” chant. Many of the women were elected as part of a backlash to Trump’s presidency.
Members also sang happy birthday to Judah Samet, a Holocaust survivor who also survived an attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 people dead last year and on Tuesday turned 81.
Among the guests seated with the first lady, Melania Trump, were family members of a couple killed in Nevada last month, allegedly by someone who was in the country illegally, and Joshua Trump, a boy who was bullied at school because he shares a last name with the president – though he is no relation.
The public gallery also included, at Democrats’ invitation, undocumented immigrants and temporary residents threatened by the Trump administration’s policies, climate scientists, labor leaders, gun violence victims and federal workers who went without pay for 35 days during the government shutdown and who are worried about a repeat.
During his speech, Trump made the case for his “zero-tolerance” immigration policies, calling it a “moral duty” to address what he has claimed to be a “crisis of illegal immigration” at the US-Mexico border.
“No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration,” he said, in defense of his demand for a wall. “Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards.”
He also touted his stewardship of a strong economy after what he called “decades of calamitous trade policies” and committed to rebuilding America’s “crumbling infrastructure”.
The address was treated as the start of his presidential re-election campaign as several Democrats running to unseat him in 2020 sat in the audience. Among those who have declared were Democratic senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren.
In a strike at Democrats’ liberalizing policy agenda, Trump decried “new calls to adopt socialism in our country”. The reference to socialism elicited a chorus of boos from Republicans.
“America was founded on liberty and independence,” Trump said, “not government coercion, domination, and control.” Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist from Vermont who is also weighing a presidential bid, appeared bemused by the line.
On foreign policy, an area where Trump faces an increasingly adversarial Republican Senate, the president defended his decision to withdraw US troops from Syria and Afghanistan. Just hours prior, the Senate approved a resolution opposing the plan.
He vowed to work with the nation’s allies to “destroy the remnants of Isis” and said his administration ”accelerated” negotiations to reach a political agreement in Afghanistan.
“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” he said.
Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the race for governor in Georgia in an election marred by accusations of voter suppression, became the first African American woman to deliver the Democratic rebuttal to the president’s address.
Speaking from Atlanta, Abrams called voting rights the “next battle for our democracy”.
“Let’s be clear: Voter suppression is real,” Abrams said. “From making it harder to register and stay on the rolls to moving and closing polling places to rejecting lawful ballots, we can no longer ignore these threats to democracy.”
David Smith in Washington contributed to this report
Source: The Guardian