Trump’s First State of the Union: A Call to Unity, an Immigration Controversy

Trump gestures at State of the Union (Mark Wilson / Getty)
Mark Wilson / Getty

President Donald Trump used his first State of the Union address on Tuesday evening to celebrate the country’s economic progress, to tout his administration’s achievements, and to call the nation to unite.

He also proposed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan — sharing the costs with the private sector — and presented a plan to legalize 1.8 million so-called “Dreamers,” in return for building the border wall and ending chain migration and the visa lottery.

President Trump’s tone was subdued, his tie a liberal blue.

He began by acknowledging service members and first responders who responded to emergencies across the country over the past year, emphasizing national unity. “We will pull together, always.” He even acknowledged the “brave people of California,” referring to the state’s recent wildfires, and welcomed House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) back from his near-fatal gunshot wounds.

Trump continued: “In the aftermath of that terrible shooting, we came together, not as Republicans or Democrats, but as representatives of the people. But it is not enough to come together only in times of tragedy. Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve.”

(Republicans rose to their feet; even Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) applauded; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), wearing black, did not, scowling in silence from her seat.)

After declaring that the state of the Union was “strong” — “because our people are strong” — the president then, as expected, recounted the country’s economic successes on his watch:

Since the election, we have created 2.4 million new jobs, including 200,000 new jobs in manufacturing alone.  After years of wage stagnation, we are finally seeing rising wages.

Unemployment claims have hit a 45-year low.  African-American unemployment stands at the lowest rate ever recorded, and Hispanic American unemployment has also reached the lowest levels in history.

Small business confidence is at an all-time high.  The stock market has smashed one record after another, gaining $8 trillion in value.  That is great news for Americans’ 401k, retirement, pension, and college savings accounts.

And just as I promised the American people from this podium 11 months ago, we enacted the biggest tax cuts and reforms in American history.

Trump focused on two small business owners and one of their employees, seated in the gallery, and spoke about how the tax cut would improve their lives.

He declared: “So to every citizen watching at home tonight — no matter where you have been, or where you come from, this is your time. If you work hard, if you believe in yourself, if you believe in America, then you can dream anything, you can be anything, and together, we can achieve anything.”

And, echoing a turn of phrase that he used repeatedly on the campaign trail, he said: “We all share the same home, the same heart, the same destiny, and the same great American flag.”

Trump touched on other achievements of his administration: the appointment of conservative judges; repairing the Veterans Administration health services; expanding the U.S. energy sector; rolling back federal regulations; and welcoming the opening of new factories.

The president then moved on to the first of his new policy proposals, asking Congress to pass a “right to try” law to make it easier for terminally ill patients to access experimental medicines and therapies without going abroad.

Next, after addressing trade issues — “From now on, we expect trading relationships to be fair and to be reciprocal” — he addressed infrastructure:

I am asking both parties to come together to give us the safe, fast, reliable, and modern infrastructure our economy needs and our people deserve.

Tonight, I am calling on the Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment we need.

Every Federal dollar should be leveraged by partnering with State and local governments and, where appropriate, tapping into private sector investment — to permanently fix the infrastructure deficit.

Any bill must also streamline the permitting and approval process — getting it down to no more than two years, and perhaps even one.

Together, we can reclaim our building heritage.  We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways across our land.  And we will do it with American heart, American hands, and American grit.

Trump then mentioned — briefly — programs he would like to see Congress undertake on behalf of American workers: “As tax cuts create new jobs, let us invest in workforce development and job training. Let us open great vocational schools so our future workers can learn a craft and realize their full potential. And let us support working families by supporting paid family leave.” He did not, however, make specific proposals.

Trump also called for prison reform, a cause that has lately been popular among libertarians on the right as well as liberals on the left.

In perhaps the evening’s most highly-anticipated moment, the president then turned to the subject of immigration. He began by drawing attention to the victims of crimes by illegal aliens, noting “two fathers and two mothers” in the gallery whose teenage daughters, Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens, were murdered by El Salvadoran gangsters.

“We have proposed new legislation that will fix our immigration laws, and support our ICE and Border Patrol Agents, so that this cannot ever happen again,” Trump said.

He then declared:

The United States is a compassionate nation.  We are proud that we do more than any other country to help the needy, the struggling, and the underprivileged all over the world.  But as President of the United States, my highest loyalty, my greatest compassion, and my constant concern is for America’s children, America’s struggling workers, and America’s forgotten communities.  I want our youth to grow up to achieve great things.  I want our poor to have their chance to rise.

So tonight, I am extending an open hand to work with members of both parties — Democrats and Republicans — to protect our citizens of every background, color, religion, and creed.  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.

In recent months, my Administration has met extensively with both Democrats and Republicans to craft a bipartisan approach to immigration reform.  Based on these discussions, we presented the Congress with a detailed proposal that should be supported by both parties as a fair compromise — one where nobody gets everything they want, but where our country gets the critical reforms it needs.

Trump then laid out the four pillars of his immigration plan:

  1. “a path to citizenship for 1.8 million illegal immigrants who were brought here by their parents at a young age”
  2. “fully secur[ing] the border … building a wall … [and] end[ing] the dangerous practice of “catch and release”
  3. “end[ing] the visa lottery… [and] moving towards a merit-based immigration system”
  4. “ending chain migration”

The president presented his plan as the shape of a final agreement, not an opening offer: “These four pillars represent a down-the-middle compromise, and one that will create a safe, modern, and lawful immigration system.” He also connected the immigration issue to the opioid crisis, stressing the need to secure the border against drugs.

(Democrats booed his criticism of chain migration: “Under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives.”)

Soon afterward, Trump moved on to foreign policy. He noted the victory over ISIS, and the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — but, curiously, left out the decision to leave the Paris Climate Accords. He also noted that he had just signed an order to keep the terrorist prison at Guantánamo Bay open, reversing his predecessor.

Trump noted “rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy, and our values.” To meet that challenge, Trump said, he would ask Congress “to end the dangerous defense sequester and fully fund our great military.” And to push back against criticism at the United Nations, he asked Congress “to pass legislation to help ensure American foreign-assistance dollars always serve American interests, and only go to America’s friends.”

He also noted that he “did not stay silent” when protests broke out in Iran, and asked Congress “to address the fundamental flaws in the terrible Iran nuclear deal.”

Trump then turned to North Korea, spending a great deal of time attacking the “ominous” nature of its communist regime, and honoring the courage of those who resist it.  He also acknowledged the parents of Otto Warmbier, the American who died last year after being imprisoned there. But he did not ask for specific action from Congress.

In his closing lines, Trump hinted subtly at the controversy over historic monuments that swept the nation last summer: “Atop the dome of this Capitol stands the Statue of Freedom.  She stands tall and dignified among the monuments to our ancestors who fought and lived and died to protect her. Monuments to Washington and Jefferson — to Lincoln and King.”

The greatest monument, he said, was the Capitol itself, which represented the American people. (That line was met with chants of “U-S-A!” from the floor.) “Our task is to respect them, to listen to them, to serve them, to protect them, and to always be worthy of them.”

He concluded:

The people dreamed this country. The people built this country.  And it’s the people who are making America great again.

(Applause)

As long as we are proud of who we are, and what we are fighting for, there is nothing we cannot achieve.

As long as we have confidence in our values, faith in our citizens, and trust in our God, we will not fail.

Our families will thrive.

Our people will prosper.

And our Nation will forever be safe and strong and proud and mighty and free.

There were some major issues that did not find their way into Trump’s address. He barely mentioned health care, beyond celebrating the repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate and talking about veterans’ care. He also omitted any description of how the federal government would pay for all of his proposals while absorbing the shock — at least initially — of lower revenues as a result of his tax cuts. And given the cold stares and petty protests of the Democrats in the chamber, it remains unclear how Trump will put his high-flown, unifying rhetoric into practice.

Regardless, what Trump achieved was a dramatic break with his predecessors in his insistence on the centrality of the American people to all that the government wished to accomplish. At one point, he said: “In America, we know that faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, are the center of the American life.”

When his proposals are passed or discarded, that statement of the fundamental conservative political creed will echo in America’s memory.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named to Forward’s 50 “most influential” Jews in 2017. He is the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.

Note: Most quotes above are from Trump’s remarks as prepared for delivery.

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