President Trump knocked it out of the park Tuesday evening in his second State of the Union address.
In what was clearly one of the best speeches of his presidency – at a time when he needed to deliver one of the best speeches of his presidency – President Trump spoke to what unites us as Americans, and delivered a stem-winder so well-crafted that it virtually forced his political opponents to cheer for him, lest they look like a cross between Scrooge and the Grinch.
The tone was measured, the pace deliberate. Clocking in at an hour and 21 minutes – a bit longer than last year’s remarks – the speech was interrupted 102 times for applause. While it was easy to see that the President enjoys the rally form of speech more than this more formal speech, he might want to consider a few more formal speeches when he campaigns. Even a CBS poll after the speech showed that 76% of Americans approved of what the President said, and 72% approved of President Trump’s ideas for immigration. His speech clearly resonated not only with Members of Congress but also the American public.
But as with last year’s State of the Union address, it was his use of so-called “Skutniks” – the special guests sitting in the First Lady’s box (named after Lenny Skutnik, the hero of Flight 90, who dove into an icy Potomac River to rescue a survivor of an airplane crash just a few weeks before Ronald Reagan’s 1982 State of the Union address) – that turned the speech from a humdrum snoozer into an extraordinary performance.
In a crucial portion of the speech, Trump challenged the Congress before him to provide funding for construction of a border wall. He began by pointing out the obvious hypocrisy of his opponents: “No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration. Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards. Meanwhile,” he continued, “working class Americans are left to pay the price for mass illegal immigration – reduced jobs, lower wages, overburdened schools and hospitals, increased crime, and a depleted social safety net. Tolerance for illegal immigration is not compassionate – it is cruel.”
But then, to bring home the point about the cost of illegal immigration, the president spoke of how he’s gotten to know “many wonderful Angel Moms, Dads, and families – no one should ever have to suffer the horrible heartache they have endured.”
And then he took it a step further, introducing his audience to an Angel Family: Debra Bissell, one of the four children of Gerald and Sharon David, who lost their lives just a few weeks ago in a murder allegedly committed by an illegal immigrant. Joining Debra in the First Lady’s box were her daughter Heather and granddaughter Madison. It was a powerful moment.
The president then pivoted from survivors of violence by illegal immigrants to the heroes who protect us from as much of that violence as they can – the brave men and women of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency many Democrats now say they want to abolish.
Trump introduced ICE Special Agent Elvin Hernandez, who, Trump said, immigrated to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic when he was a boy, and told his father when he was just eight years old that he wanted to become a Special Agent. As a special agent, he works to stop international sex trafficking, and the President quoted Elvin: “If I can make sure these young girls get their justice, I’ve done my job.” Elvin’s mission statement protecting women from horrific crimes is so powerful even the Congresswomen in white in the room who want to abolish ICE grudgingly had to stand. The president then threw the gauntlet at those Democrats when he asked Hernandez to stand, and then declared, “We will always support the brave men and women of Law Enforcement – and I pledge to you tonight that we will never abolish our heroes from ICE.”
The section of the speech dealing with illegal immigration and the president’s determination to win wall funding from the Congress was so good, in fact, that it made clear why he chose not to do something many critics had expected – he did not use the speech to invoke the National Emergencies Act of 1976.
Rather than unilaterally declare a national emergency and try to bypass Congress to direct the Pentagon to begin construction of a physical barrier – a step that would assuredly be challenged in the courts, and which would likely lead to legislative chaos on Capitol Hill – the president seems quite content to continue coloring inside the lines, working to win over Democrats on this crucial issue.
If it had not been him giving the speech, but some politician other than Donald Trump, the arguments presented would have been strong enough to win him the funding he seeks. But will Democrats, determined to defeat him in 2020, ever allow themselves to place the nation’s needs above their own narrow partisan interests — to reach a deal that enhances border security even as it reduces partisan tension in Washington? Will they choose greatness for America or continue their resistance? Only time will tell.
Jenny Beth Martin is Honorary Chairman of Tea Party Patriots Action.