‘We must choose whether we are defined by our differences or whether we dare to transcend them…’
(Ben Sellers, Liberty Headlines) With nary a mention of the government shutdown looming in 10 more days, President Donald Trump spent much of his roughly 90-minute State of the Union address seeking common ground and focusing on American “greatness” past, present and future.
“Tonight, I ask you to choose greatness,” he said, riffing on his 2016 “Make America Great Again” campaign theme.
The anniversaries of two landmark American events provided anchor points for the president: the 75th anniversary of America’s D-Day assault launching the liberation of Europe, and the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.
Trump, whose invited guest list featured an array of heroes and survivors—including several Holocaust survivors and three World War II veterans who helped to rescue them—called on the divided Congress to reflect on the momentous events that preceded them in the annals of America.
“Together we represent the most extraordinary nation in all of history,” he said. “What will we do with this moment? How will we be remembered? I ask the men and women of this Congress—look at the opportunities before us.”
In his tone and in several of his agenda items, Trump seemed to deliberately be reaching across the aisle, thus giving the partisan opposition in Congress little room to heckle or jeer.
He even gamely indulged them at times, offering a nod to the record number of women present in the new Congress, many clad in white, who pointedly observed the irony that voter disdain for the president had, in some cases, helped elect them.
“You weren’t supposed to do that. Thank you very much,” he deadpanned in one of the evening’s moments of levity as the Congressional Democrats raised the roof.
Another of the speech’s lighter moments came with the chamber’s singing “Happy Birthday” to 81-year-old Dachau concentration camp survivor Judah Samet.
“They wouldn’t do that for me,” Trump observed.
The president emphasized the major successes of his first two years in the White House—among them one of the most robust and sustained economic booms ever witnessed in U.S. history and a growing energy independence.
He also underscored several promises he had kept where others before him had faltered, such as working with Canada and Mexico on a revamped trade deal to replace NAFTA.
“For years politicians promised [American workers] they would renegotiate for a better deal, but no one ever tried until now,” he said.
Trump outlined a number of policy objectives where compromise already had been achieved, such as criminal justice reform. He introduced guests including recently commuted prisoner Alice Johnson and Matthew Charles, the first person released under the new First Step program.
He also discussed several initiatives that Democrats could readily applaud, such as infrastructure improvements and healthcare reforms (while preserving Obamacare’s protections of pre-existing conditions), and he proposed a new goal to eradicate the HIV virus in America and beyond within 10 years, while also taking on childhood cancer. (Seated next to First Lady Melania Trump was a young brain-cancer survivor, Grace Eline, whom he introduced.)
On some of the more contentious points in the president’s speech—such as border security, abortion, socialism and anti-Semitism—Trump effectively framed his argument in moral terms that brought clear discomfort to the Democrats in the audience who have undermined American norms.
“In the past, most of the people in this room voted for a wall, but the proper wall never got built. I will get it built,” he pledged.
Trump also promised never to abolish ICE and never to allow America to become a socialist country—both directed at the leftist extremists in the room who had made those objectives centerpieces in their recent campaign promises.
Addressing the scourges of drug- and human-trafficking, sexual assault, gang affiliation and other immigration-related crimes, Trump touted the “moral duty” of border enforcement.
“Tolerance for illegal immigration is not compassionate. It is actually very cruel,” he said.
He gave a nod to the “Angel Moms and Dads”—parents of those killed by illegal immigrants—who figured prominently into his previous State of the Union, and he introduced Debra Bissel, who only three weeks ago lost her parents after they were shot to death by an illegal immigrant at their home in Reno, Nevada.
But Trump also recognized the benefits and the necessity of an immigration system that works, deflating Democrats’ past efforts to frame mass migration at the border as a humanitarian crisis.
“Legal immigrants enrich our nation and strengthen our society in countless ways,” he said. “I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.”
Trump deftly used a call for paid parental leave, which drew Democrat applause, to transition into one of the other major points of division—and likely a major battle in the lead-up to 2020—abortion.
Condemning the New York legislature’s passage of a law supporting partial-birth abortion and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam‘s recent comments advocating for post-natal infanticide in some cases, Trump said, “There could be no greater contrast to the beautiful image of a mother holding her infant child than the chilling displays our nation saw in recent days.”
He called on Congress to pursue legislation against late-term abortions, saying “Let us work together to build a culture that cherishes innocent life.”
Trump touched on a number of foreign policy issues, including his withdrawal of troops from Syria and ongoing overtures for peace in both North Korea and Afghanistan, where he has recently engaged Taliban leaders in talks.
“We do not know if we will achieve an agreement,” he said, “but we do know after two decades of war, the time has come to at least try to achieve peace.”
However, Trump reserved particularly harsh criticism for Iran, calling to mind for some, perhaps, George W. Bush’s inclusion of it with Iraq and North Korea in the infamous “Axis of Evil.”
The phrase in Bush’s post-9/11 State of the Union speech in 2002 marked the first sign since the Jimmy Carter administration of a strained relationship with the fundamentalist Islamic republic, now believed to be a major sponsor of Middle Eastern terrorism.
After undoing the Obama administration’s efforts to ease Iranian tensions with a tepid anti-nuclearization deal, and instead implementing what he described as the toughest sanctions the U.S. had ever imposed, Trump said Iran was continuing to do “bad things.”
“We will not avert our eyes from a regime that chants ‘death to America’ and threatens genocide against the Jewish people,” he said.
Trump likewise called for a unified effort in condemning American-based anti-Semitism, as some freshmen Democratic congresswomen have faced criticism for their attacks on Jews in Israel.
He introduced SWAT officer Timothy Matson, an injured hero who helped confront the shooter in the recent massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue.
Calling anti-Semitism a “vile poison,” Trump said, “With one voice we must confront this hatred anywhere and everywhere it occurs.”
In another move that was likely to disarm his domestic political adversaries, Trump also criticized Russia and mentioned his recent withdrawal from the outdated Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
“While we followed the agreement and the rules to the letter, Russia repeatedly violated its terms,” he said.
Trump said the U.S. had no choice but to withdraw. “Perhaps we can negotiate a different agreement, adding China and others, or perhaps we can’t—in which case we will outspend and out-innovate all others by far.”
But early on in his speech, the president emphasized the need for domestic political foes to come together and remain united in order to tackle the threats from abroad.
He pointed specifically at the ongoing investigations against his 2016 campaign and its alleged foreign ties—although little has yet been presented to implicate him, despite the convictions of several former advisers.
“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States, and the only things that can stop it are foolish wars, politics and ridiculous partisan investigations,” Trump said. “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.”
Capping off his speech with a note of optimism, Trump, whose delivery stood out as more eloquent and focused than in other addresses, took a surprisingly poetic turn.
“Our biggest victories are still to come,” he said. “We have not yet begun to dream. We must choose whether we are defined by our differences or whether we dare to transcend them. We must choose whether we will squander our inheritance—or whether we will proudly declare that we are Americans. We do the incredible. We defy the impossible. We conquer the unknown.”