President Donald Trump came to the House chamber on Tuesday night pushing a message of unity, but the deep divisions that have ripped this city apart over the last two years were on vivid display throughout the night.
The Democrats in the audience — many of whom wore white, the color of the suffragettes, in protest of Trump — spent much of the speech on their hands, shaking their heads and even groaning aloud. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) was caught sighing and rolling her eyes — and immediately pounced on the moment to raise money for her presidential campaign.
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A newly empowered Nancy Pelosi, now the House speaker, peered over the president’s shoulder for much of the speech, sometimes sitting stoically as Republicans jumped up to applaud. When the president declared, “the state of our union is strong,” Pelosi remained still and shook her head.
Trump and his aides spent the last several days promising a transformative speech in which the president would challenge Congress to set aside its differences and find common ground on issues like rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and lowering prescription drug prices.
In the end, it didn’t seem like anyone’s mind had been changed.
Trump called for bipartisan cooperation — on his terms. And his soaring rhetoric came with few signals that he was willing to compromise his core beliefs. Even as he spoke of reaching across the aisle, the president underscored his demand for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He called for legislation to prohibit late-term abortions. He decried “ridiculous, partisan investigations.”
To be sure, Trump gave a nod to the theme of unity, calling for the rejection of “the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution.”
“Millions of our fellow citizens are watching us now, gathered in this great chamber, hoping that we will govern not as two parties, but as one nation,” Trump said.
But his tone isn’t expected to last for long, given that the pugnacious president spent his first two years in office constantly punching at Democrats and even some in his own party. In the runup to Tuesday night’s speech, Trump accused Pelosi of “hurting the country very badly” and claimed Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is a sore loser.
At times in recent days, he even chafed at the direction of his speech, worrying that it was too bipartisan, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The president certainly wasn’t feeling particularly generous to Democrats during a meeting with television anchors on Tuesday afternoon.
“He talked a lot about 2020 politics,” said a person familiar with the meeting. The person added that Trump told the group, “I hope I haven’t damaged Pocahontas too badly. I want to run against her,” a reference to presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Trump also called former Vice President Joe Biden, another potential presidential candidate, “dumb,” according to the person.
The contrast has created an air of bewilderment — and deep skepticism — as Washington tries to decipher whether a president who just shut down much of the government rather than compromise with Democrats over border security funding is serious about dealing with an opposition party that is, in turn, prepared to wage total war against him.
Trump and his advisers insist a win-win compromise is possible. Pointing to the success of a bipartisan measure to reform the criminal justice system that Trump signed into law late last year, they argue there’s still room to get stuff done in divided Washington.
Yet two years into his presidency, Trump finds himself with few opportunities for a kumbaya moment. Democratic leaders display no intention of giving in to Trump’s demands for a border wall and, with the next presidential election on the horizon, have little incentive to hand him bipartisan policy victories he can tout to the moderate voters he’ll need to win re-election in 2020.
There was a visual divide in the House chamber Tuesday night, with the Republican side a sea of blue and black suits with a few pops of red and green from the GOP women. The Democratic side meanwhile was a vision of white — nearly every female Democratic lawmaker and a few male members wore the color of the suffragettes.
And in Democrats’ State of the Union rebuttal speech Tuesday night, Stacey Abrams, a rising party star who narrowly lost a race for Georgia governor, went after Trump.
“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.
As Trump entered the chamber Tuesday night, everyone stood. But the Democratic freshmen seemed confused about whether they should clap or not — most veteran Democratic lawmakers did not. The Republican side stood for several minutes, clapping, cheering and whistling.
Democrats didn’t truly applaud until Trump mentioned First Lady Melania Trump at the top of his speech.
Later, Democrats did break into a “USA!” chant after Trump referenced the record number of women serving in Congress. The chant, however, originated from the more politically pointed shouts of “on this side,” as the House Democrats high-fived all of the freshmen women.
Despite the promise of a unifying message, Trump’s speech Tuesday was not devoid of sharp, partisan edges.
Trump kept up the pressure on Democrats to pony up money for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. If congressional negotiators can’t come up with a compromise that Trump will accept — something he has called unlikely — the government could partially shut down again later this month, or Trump could declare a national emergency to unilaterally access funds for the project.
He rehashed much of the same evocative and violent rhetoric he has long used to discuss immigration at the southern border.
“Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards. Meanwhile, working class Americans are left to pay the price for mass illegal migration,” Trump said, adding, in a jab at Democrats, “Tolerance for illegal immigration is not compassionate — it is cruel.”
There were even a few audible outbursts from Democrats during the speech.
When Trump proclaimed, “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation — it just doesn’t work that way,” there were a smattering of boos from the Democratic side before they were quickly shushed. And the entire Democratic side groaned when Trump mentioned the migrant caravans “marching” to the U.S. There was even mocking laughter from several members when Trump called the border situation a “moral issue” and safety threat.
Later, Democrats audibly groaned, chuckled and rolled their eyes when Trump proclaimed that the U.S. would be at war with North Korea had he not been elected. One Democrat, Rep. Bill Pascrell of New Jersey, even leaned over and put his heads in his hands.
Trump also took a swipe at the leftward shift of the Democratic party, which has seen socialist-leaning politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) surge in popularity.
“Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination, and control,” he said. “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
Trump largely hewed closely to the words written on the teleprompter in front of him. But he made a few deviations from the speech as written, including at one point adding the words “very dangerous” in front of “southern border.” He also made a confusing impromptu call for immigrants to enter the country legally in “the largest numbers ever,” an about-face from the administration’s crackdown on immigration.
Indeed, any conciliatory words Tuesday night are unlikely to signal an abrupt change in Trump’s combative style. The president’s past two addresses to Congress featured happy talk of bipartisanship, but were soon followed by a return to his scorched-earth rhetoric.
Meanwhile, members of his own party appear increasingly willing to second-guess the president, with Republicans rebuking his foreign policy actions and warning him against declaring a national emergency to build his proposed border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump did not mention the possible national emergency declaration during the speech.
Tuesday marked Trump’s third address to a joint session of Congress (his first speech, delivered in February 2017 soon after he took office, wasn’t technically a State of the Union address). All three were uncharacteristically staid by Trump’s standards — feeling less like a campaign rally and more like a traditional State of the Union speech in structure and tone.
In last year’s speech, for example, Trump traded the bombastic rhetoric of his inaugural address, which bemoaned “American carnage,” and offered instead a more lofty vision, describing the United States as “one team, one people, and one American family.”
Tuesday’s speech, which was titled “Choosing Greatness,” ranged widely, touching on themes that included immigration, his trade showdown with China and health care. The president called for an end to HIV transmissions in the United States by 2030 and took a hardline stance on abortion in the wake of conservative opposition to new abortion measures in New York and Virginia.
Trump, in a briefing with allies at the White House on Monday, went on for about five minutes about Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s recent comments about late-term abortions, according to people familiar with the meeting.
During the speech, Trump also announced that he would meet again with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un from Feb. 27-28 in Vietnam, his second summit with the mercurial leader.
Trump and his top aides had been working on the speech for weeks. White House policy adviser Stephen Miller took the lead on developing the speech in Trump’s voice, with the help of two other White House speechwriters: Vince Haley and Ross Worthington, who were both involved in last year’s address.
The president reviewed drafts in his residence at night and solicited feedback from a wide range of White House advisers and outside allies.
Gabby Orr, Nancy Cook and Ben White contributed to this story.