President Donald Trump, who’s never been shy about hammering his rivals and skewering his opponents, used his first State of the Union speech Tuesday night to call for unity as the nation attacks some of its biggest challenges.
In a nearly 90-minute prime-time speech that saw the president’s Republican allies rise to their feet while Democrats sat stone-faced, Trump reiterated his call for an immigration reform plan that puts a premium on border security even as it provides an eventual path to citizenship for nearly 2 million undocumented immigrants.
“My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans -- to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American Dream. Because Americans are dreamers too,” Trump said.
But rather than arguing the case for an America made stronger by the contributions of immigrants, Trump raised the specter of MS-13 street gangs, which he said had exploited weaknesses in American immigration law to illegally enter the country and kill innocent citizens.
Trump’s guests for his speech included the surviving family members of two Long Island teens who had been murdered by MS-13 gang members, as well as a member of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement whom Trump promised “reinforcements’ in efforts to keep the border secure.
“It’s time to begin moving toward a merit-based immigration system,” encouraging immigration by people “who are skilled and who will love and respect our country,” Trump said.
And if they’re Norwegian, hey, all the better.
Trump’s remarks about immigration evoked only the dangers posed by illegal immigration and by what he said were the risks posed by legal, family-based immigration and a visa Lottery program that brings diverse immigrants to the United States. His scripted remarks echoed those he’d made as a candidate, where he characterized immigrants from Mexico as criminals.
Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, hosted “dreamers,” undocumented immigrants brought to theUnited States as children who have found themselves unwitting pawns in the high-stakes battle of immigration reform.
The contrasting visions for a country that is growing steadily more diverse - and browner - by the day could not have been more stark.
As expected, Trump touted the effects of a tax reform package passed along party lines and sent to his desk late last year.
“Our massive tax cuts provide tremendous relief for the middle class and small businesses,” he said, adding later, “There has never been a better time to start living the American Dream ... This is your time ... . Together, we can achieve absolutely anything.”
Yet it remains to be seen how many Americans will share in Trump’s projected prosperity.
Trump called for the passage of an infrastructure plan that calls for $1.5 trillion in investment, leverage state and local resources and, where appropriate, private investment. Like most matters of policy, Trump did not offer much in the way of concrete detail on how he’d realize this effort, instead offering broad outlines.
He sounded an appropriately bellicose tone on national security and defense issues, talking tough when it came to such foreign regimes as North Korea.
“We know that weakness is the surest path to conflict and unmatched power is the surest mean to our true and great defense,” he said, raising eyebrows in the hall of the House of Representatives and hackles elsewhere in the world.
Trump’s scripted rhetoric and appeal to unity clashed with public statements he’d made on Twitter only days and hours earlier.
On Sunday, for instance, Trump criticized the rapper Jay Z. in a dispute over the African-American unemployment rate. Trump similarly blasted Congressional Democrats, to whom he’d appealed for cooperation, as “only interested in obstruction.”
And without mentioning them by name, Trump appeared to continue his feud with professional football player who took a knee this season, rather than stand for the national anthem.
“Americans love their country and deserve a government that shows them the same love and loyalty in return,” he said.
The president’s rhetoric is unlikely to survive the night. But for a moment, it was tempting to think he actually meant what he said.