Trump delights Republicans with State of the Union speech
US president attacks ‘partisan investigations’ and Democrats as he appeals for unity
US vice-president Mike Pence and House speaker Nancy Pelosi flank Donald Trump as the US president delivers his State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington. Photograph: Doug Mills/AFP/Getty Images
US president Donald Trump appealed to Congress to end “decades of political stalemate” as he made a call for unity in his annual State of the Union address. But he also returned to many of his most divisive themes, reiterating his call for a southern border wall and lashing out at “partisan investigations”.
The speech, which was interrupted by enthusiastic cheers by Republicans and mostly stony silence from Democrats, was delivered against a background of bitter acrimony between Trump and the Democratically-controlled House of Representatives over his demands for a wall on the border with Mexico.
It was also Trump’s first address to a divided Congress. The visual image of Nancy Pelosi, resplendent in white, looking over the president’s shoulder captured the changed power dynamics in Washington since Democrats decisively won back control of the House of Representatives in November.
Inside the chamber, the press sat just behind the president, with a bird’s eye view of the packed House. Familiar faces peppered the crowd. Four Democratic presidential candidates – senators Corey Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand – watched the president as he delivered his 82-minute speech.
Freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sat with a stern pose throughout, while Bernie Sanders shook his head as the president decried socialism. From the first lady’s gallery, Melania Trump oversaw events, smiling and waving politely on cue.
Trump’s extended family was also present, including his daughters Ivanka and Tiffany, Eric and Don jnr and Ivanka’s husband Jared. The Trumps may have regretted their choice of guests, however, after 11-year-old Joshua Trump from Delaware, who had been picked to attend because he had been bullied over his surname, fell asleep.
Nonetheless, the atmosphere inside the room was electric, as Trump was cheered on by Republicans. If ever there was a doubt that the GOP had come full circle in its embrace of Trump, that was laid to rest on Tuesday night as Republicans leapt to their feet in support of their president, breaking into chants of “USA, USA” at points.
There were some exceptions, however. Recently-elected senator Mitt Romney retained an implacable posture throughout most of the speech, declining to participate in some of the more vocal rabble-rousing of his colleagues.
The most surprising turn of the night was when Trump’s claim that the US had “more women in the workforce than ever before” elicited cheers and high-fives from the female members of Congress on the Democratic side. Dressed all in white, in a nod to the suffragette movement, their presence delivered a powerful rejoinder to the president as they somehow managed to take ownership of Trump’s feminist posturing.
But in terms of the content of the speech, it was more of the same from Trump. He began the speech with a call for bipartisanship: “Millions of our fellow citizens . . . are hoping that we will govern not as two parties but as one nation,” he said. But he soon returned to familiar ground. As expected, Trump doubled down on his call for a border wall and cast immigration as an “urgent national crisis”.
“As we speak, large, organised caravans are on the march to the United States, ” he warned. His point was reinforced by his decision to invite a guest whose parents were killed by an undocumented immigrant last month. “Not one more American life should be lost because our nation failed to control its very dangerous border,” he said.
Given the ongoing negotiations about funding the government which could lead to a shutdown next week, Trump gave little insight into whether he would declare a national emergency in order to secure funding to build his wall, bypassing Congress. But he made clear that his position on the wall had not weakened.
“Where walls go up, illegal crossings go way way down,” he said. “I’ll get it built,” he said to rousing applause from Republicans.
Some of the biggest cheers from the Republican benches greeted Trump’s comments on abortion where he urged Congress to pass legislation restricting late-term abortions, referencing in graphic terms recent changes in legislation in New York state and Virginia.
“All children, born and unborn, are made in the holy image of God,” he said. His comments were a telling reminder of the president’s understanding of the socially conservative values that guarantee his support from many conservative voters.
As Trump made his way out of the chamber, shaking hands with the supreme court justices present, including Brett Kavanaugh, the White House almost immediately turned its attention to his next big speaking event. There was confirmation on Wednesday that Trump will hold a “Make America Great Again” rally next Monday in El Paso, Texas.
Trump may enjoy the pomp and ceremony of the House of Representatives, but the lure of the campaign trail is already calling. All of a sudden, November 2020 does not seem so far away.