Washington • Just weeks after the longest government shutdown in American history, and just days before a significant chunk of the federal budget expires again, President Donald Trump stood before Congress and declared the nation is strong and called for a move beyond partisan labels for the good of the country.
“Together, we can break decades of political stalemate. We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future,” Trump said. “The decision is ours to make.”
He pitched some areas where partisan lines are less rigid, including reforming the prison sentencing system, decreasing drug prices and rebuilding crumbling roads and bridges.
But he sprinkled his State of the Union address with rhetoric that spoke more to his base and congressional Republicans than an appeal to Democrats who now hold the House and leverage against Trump’s agenda.
He touted a surging economy, an end to Obamacare's individual mandates and even attacked the growing investigations of himself and his team (though he didn't mention special counsel Robert Mueller or congressional Democrats by name.)
“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States -- and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations,” Trump said. “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way.”
Republicans lobbed high praise on the president while Democrats largely sat on their hands during some of the more partisan parts.
“We are born free, and we will stay free.” Trump said. “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
Rep. Ben McAdams, Utah's lone Democrat in Congress, said Trump's speech at times moved from finding common solutions to rhetoric that undermined that goal.
“There were certainly divisive rhetoric as well as calls for unity,” McAdams said. “And, you know, I think it was the moments where he was divisive, I think that was disappointing. I think we are better than that as a country.” But the Utah freshman said he focused on the positive in Trump’s remarks.
“To choose greatness and choose greatness over gridlock spoke to me,” McAdams said. “You know, I think that’s certainly what I’d like to see – and he laid out a lot of issues where I think there is common ground.”
Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican also in his freshman year, said Trump made an appeal to patriotism and common values.
“He highlighted several critical policy areas where there are opportunities for both parties to work together – including lowering health care costs, reforming trade policies to better protect American workers, and strengthening border security and immigration enforcement,” Romney said. “These are priorities that I share and will work to advance in the Senate.”
Sen. Mike Lee praised Trump's comments about a prison reform bill that was a key legislative achievement for the Utah Republican.
“There should be a common sense solution to the migration crisis on our southern border,” Lee said on Twitter. 'One that involves more beds, more judges, and yes, more wall. There is also much we can do on drug prices.”
In a statement, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, heralded Trump's call for working together but ignored the more partisan comments.
“This is a critical time in our history,” Stewart said. “We must be willing to work together to keep our nation from falling into a pit of anger and mistrust. While great things are happening, we must do more to come together to work on behalf of American people."
Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, too, said the speech reminded him that Congress can work in a bipartisan fashion and has on the opioid crisis and justice reform.
“As we look forward, I’m hopeful that we can do the same thing on critical issues: lowering the cost of health care, taking care of our national security, building our infrastructure and dealing with the difficult issue of immigration,” Curtis said. “I hope as all of us listened tonight, we affirmed our commitment to work across the aisle to accomplish great things for this country.”
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said Trump’s State of the Union speech could help foster a turning point in the political atmosphere.
“In this atmosphere of a very divided Washington, the president has used this opportunity to try and reach out and offer solutions that will hopefully bring us together,” Bishop said. “It appears that while many within the congressional audience were receptive, some remained entrenched. I hope the cooperative attitude of his speech spreads to all.”
But while Trump spoke of unity and comity, he also used the time to defend himself and push for passage of his campaign promises.
The president took a large portion of his speech to press for a physical barrier at the U.S.-Mexican border, offering, in some cases without evidence or in disputed claims, that the wall was needed to stop sex trafficking, gangs and drugs flowing into the country.
“The lawless state of our southern border is a threat to the safety, security, and financial well-being of all Americans,” Trump said. “We have a moral duty to create an immigration system that protects the lives and jobs of our citizens. Tolerance for illegal immigration is not compassionate -- it is cruel.”
Democrats audibly groaned when Trump began talking about a caravan of immigrants heading for the United States and his order to send thousands of more American troops to the border.
“We have a moral duty to create an immigration system that protects the lives and jobs of our citizens,” Trump said, adding, “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.”
Trump’s push for some bipartisan dealing may have been his overarching theme of the speech, but belied the reality in Washington where the gap between Republicans and Democrats was laid bare last month as the president refused — and later acquiesced — to signing a budget that didn’t include billions for a physical border wall. The partial government shutdown lasted 35 days and left 800,000 federal employees furloughed or working without pay.
At one point in negotiations, Trump walked out of a meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Stacey Abrams, a former candidate for Georgia governor, gave the Democratic response to Trump and said Trump's Republican Party has been anti-immigrant, against voting rights and is hampering Americans' access to health care. She said the government shutdown was a “stunt” by Trump to whip up his base.
“America is made stronger by the presence of immigrants, not walls,” Abrams said.
Trump largely kept to the script on his teleprompter, though ad libbed some lines and at least once disregarded the text he was given.
Trump asserted that he alone probably saved the United States from a war with North Korea.
“If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea,” Trump said. He dropped a latter part of that sentence contained in prepared remarks that war could have seen “potentially millions of people killed.”