Washington • President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he would seek to end the nation’s “tremendous divisiveness” even as critics charge that he’s partially driving the divide.
In his first State of the Union address to Congress, Trump announced a new order to keep open the prison at Guantanamo Bay, touted the recently passed tax overhaul, called for rebuilding the nation’s crumbling roads and bridges, and urged America to come together.
“This is our ‘New American Moment,’” Trump declared. “There has never been a better time to start living the American dream.”
After just over a year in office, more Americans disapprove of the president than like him, and congressional infighting sparked a three-day government shutdown a week ago. Investigations are aimed at uncovering whether Trump’s team colluded with Russia to meddle in the 2016 election.
But Trump, using the megaphone of the much-hyped speech, focused on the positives: what his administration has accomplished and what it plans to achieve.
“Tonight, I want to talk about what kind of future we are going to have, and what kind of nation we are going to be,” Trump said. “All of us, together, as one team, one people and one American family.”
The House chamber was anything but a happy family Tuesday, with Republicans and Democrats firmly entrenched on their own sides and the minority party spending most of the time sitting while Republicans cheered.
“President Trump can say he’s for uniting instead of dividing the nation. He’s said it before,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. “But after a year of intensely divisive actions, petty insults and disgraceful race-baiting, those words ring hollow by now.”
Trump milked the moment, though, heralding how some families would save more money under the new tax system, how regulations have been slashed and how trade deals have been reworked.
“We have ended the war on American energy — and we have ended the war on beautiful, clean coal,” Trump said. “We are now an exporter of energy to the world.”
And Trump called on Congress to pass a $1.5 trillion spending bill to prop up roads, water systems, railways and bridges. That effort, he said, would also require making it easier to rebuild America.
America is a nation of builders,” Trump said. “We built the Empire State Building in just one year — isn’t it a disgrace that it can now take 10 years just to get a permit approved for a simple road?”
The president also focused on immigration and “Dreamers,” immigrants who were brought to the United States as children but may soon have no protective status under the fading Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. That can only be restored, though, Trump said, if Congress provides money to secure the southern border with a wall and moves to a merit-based visa system instead of one focused on family relatives.
“Struggling communities, especially immigrant communities, will also be helped by immigration policies that focus on the best interests of American workers and American families,” Trump said.
Trump also said he had signed an executive order to keep open the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where America has held many foreign people accused of terrorism ties. President Barack Obama had ordered the prison closed, but it is still operating.
“Terrorists who do things like place bombs in civilian hospitals are evil,” Trump said. “When possible, we annihilate them. When necessary, we must be able to detain and question them. But we must be clear: Terrorists are not merely criminals. They are unlawful enemy combatants. And when captured overseas, they should be treated like the terrorists they are.”
Sixteen years after the prison opened, 41 detainees remain at Guantanamo. Of the more than 700 who have been held there since 2002, few detainees have been charged with a crime, and fewer still have completed trial in a military court.
The president then revived his “America First” campaign mantra, promising that his “highest loyalty” remains with Americans.
“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,” Trump said. “Because Americans are dreamers, too.”
Rob Porter, who was Sen. Orrin Hatch’s chief of staff and is now the White House staff secretary, was one of the chief authors of the speech. It was Trump’s second address to Congress; the first, which he gave in February, was technically a joint session because presidents don’t give a State of the Union speech in their first year in office.
Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., offering his party’s official response to the address, charged that Trump’s presidency has further divided the country, especially along racial lines.
“It would be easy to dismiss the past year as chaos. Partisanship. Politics,” Kennedy said. “But it’s far bigger than that. This administration isn’t just targeting the laws that protect us — they are targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection.”
Kennedy, speaking from Fall River, Mass., added that pulling the country together is a “difficult task.”
“Many [here] have spent the past year anxious, angry, afraid,” he said. “We all feel the fault lines of a fractured country. We hear the voices of Americans who feel forgotten and forsaken.”
But Kennedy also struck a positive note: that while Trump may not be the unifying figure he says he wants to be, America is resilient.
“Bullies may land a punch. They might leave a mark,” Kennedy said. “But they have never, not once, in the history of our United States, managed to match the strength and spirit of a people united in defense of their future.”