WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump called for unity in tackling legislative priorities as he delivered a State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday against the backdrop of deep political division over the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
“We must reject the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution — and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise, and the common good,” he said.
But the president’s address was overshadowed by his decision in December to shut down a quarter of the federal government for 35 days after Democrats refused to give in to his demand for $5.7 billion for a proposed border wall, his signature presidential campaign pledge.
Trump doubled down on the need for the wall in his 83-minute speech, calling the situation at the southern border “an urgent national crisis” and announcing he has sent 3,750 troops to prepare for an onslaught of immigrants traveling north in caravans.
“We have a moral duty to create an immigration system that protects the lives and jobs of our citizens,” Trump said.
The president said his proposed plan includes a “new physical barrier, or wall, to secure the vast areas between our ports of entry.”
“In the past, most of the people in this room voted for a wall, but the proper wall never got built,” Trump said to applause by Republican lawmakers. “I will get it built.”
Democrats have balked at his border wall demand, and noted that the “Trump shutdown” cost $3 billion in economic activity, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Stacey Abrams, a former Georgia state House minority leader, delivered the Democratic response.
Abrams said that just weeks ago she volunteered to distribute meals to furloughed federal workers.
“Making their livelihoods a pawn for political games is a disgrace,” Abrams said.
“The shutdown was a stunt engineered by the president of the United States, one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people, but our values,” she said.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., also took issue with Trump’s demand for a border wall.
“The president was unyielding in his demand for American taxpayers to pay billions to build a wall he promised Mexico would pay for, and he failed to reassure federal workers that their lives wouldn’t be thrown into chaos by another government shutdown,” she said.
Trump’s speech, televised in prime time, was held in the House chamber that was denied him by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. She refused to allow the annual address to take place while 800,000 federal workers were furloughed, or forced to work without pay.
Pelosi was sitting behind the president Tuesday night.
Trump and Pelosi settled on Tuesday’s date for the speech only after he agreed to reopen the government without funding for his border wall.
A bipartisan, bicameral conference committee has until Feb. 15 to craft a compromise bill. Pelosi said that legislation will not have money for a wall.
The president has threatened another government shutdown, or declaration of a national emergency to use unspent Pentagon funds to build the wall.
That has prompted concern from not only Democrats, but also Republicans who say the precedent of a president circumventing Congress would be immediately met with legal challenges over the constitutional duties of appropriating funds by the legislative branch.
Array of invited guests
Despite the entreaty of unity, Trump and Democrats engaged in a messaging battle with guests invited to attend the speech.
Trump invited surviving family members of a Reno couple who were allegedly slain by an undocumented immigrant in January. The White House said the slaying of Gerald and Sharon David “has devastated both their community and three generations of their family.”
Daughter Debra, granddaughter Heather, and great-granddaughter Madison were guests of the White House.
“Not one more American life should be lost because our nation failed to control its very dangerous border,” Trump said.
Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., invited North Las Vegas Pastor Jose Pagan, 62, who works with the immigrant community and who said he is offended by president’s rhetoric about people of great character who “want to contribute to this country.”
Pagan told the Review-Journal that immigrant members of his congregation are afraid of the government, and the charged rhetoric about undocumented immigrants instills fear in those who work hard and try to provide for their families.
“They are not rapists and drug dealers,” Pagan said.
Horsford said it’s difficult to believe Trump is committed to unity when the administration “refuses to unite hundreds of children separated from their families” at the border.
Other Nevada congressional members also brought guests to showcase Democratic priorities and opposition to Trump policies.
Three-time cancer survivor Tanya Flanagan, 48, of North Las Vegas, a guest of Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., said attempts by the White House to roll back the Affordable Care Act would eliminate health insurance coverage for those with preexisting conditions and would “be devastating for me.”
Cortez Masto invited Dr. Michael Moradshahi, a psychologist with the Indian Health System in Reno who said mental health care for Nevadans suffered during the government shutdown, and caused him personal financial pain.
Sgt. Isaac Saldivar, 33, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, was invited by Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev. Saldivar was a victim of a for-profit college that closed when he was three classes from graduating, resulting in a loss of two years of GI Bill benefits.
And in perhaps the most poignant gesture of all, Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., left a seat vacant in the gallery in memory of the 58 people who died when a lone gunman on Oct. 1, 2017 carried out a mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip — the worst attack in U.S. history.
“This empty seat recognizes the deadly consequences of inaction,” said Titus, who charged the Trump administration and GOP lawmakers of blocking gun control measures.
Trump touts accomplishments
With polls showing his public approval ratings the lowest since his election, Trump hammered home on accomplishments that include federal regulation rollbacks favored by small businesses and the unemployment rate that has dropped to just 4 percent.
He touted his tax cut package, applauded by Republicans but panned by Democrats as one that disproportionately helped wealthy Americans and corporations and was followed by an increase in the national debt.
He also highlighted criminal justice reform, legislation passed with bipartisan support in the House and Senate.
The president also signaled a willingness to work with Democrats to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, favored by lawmakers in both parties seeking capital improvement projects in home states.
Rosen said the need for improvements and projects at airports, on highways and providing rural broadband is great in Nevada.
The senator, who has opposed Trump on health care and other issues, was amiable to bipartisan work on an infrastructure package. “You agree where you can and you fight where you must.”
Trump again spoke about bipartisan efforts to lower prescription drug prices, an issue that was part of the Democrats’ messaging in the midterm elections.
But the president warned against “ridiculous partisan investigations” that would derail “peace and legislation.”
“It just doesn’t work that way,” said Trump, whose administration and campaign are subject to numerous ongoing investigations into alleged ethical lapses and possible collusion with Russians during the 2016 election.
On foreign affairs, Trump defended his decision to withdraw the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, and touted his opening of the American Embassy to Israel in Jerusalem.
Trump also announced he has scheduled another summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Feb. 27-28 in Vietnam. Trump claimed that without his efforts, “we would be in a major war with North Korea.”
The president has declared that U.S. military intervention is possible in Venezuela, and he said “we stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom.”
Trump also defended his announced troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan.
“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” Trump said.
Democratic women wear white
President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday was the first time he spoke to Congress since the midterm election when a record number of women and minorities became part of the Democratic caucus that took control of the House.
Many Democratic women wore white to the speech to honor the suffrage movement that led to ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
Trump acknowledged the century-old amendment that gave women the right to vote, and said “we also have more women serving in the Congress than ever before.”
Staff Writer Gary Martin