In the week leading up to President Donald Trump's State of the Union address Tuesday night, he publicly said people were “dying all over the country because of people like” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who he said, should be “ashamed.”
He also called Pelosi clueless, said she was doing a “terrible disservice” to the country, and accused her of “playing games.”
And just hours before his annual address before Congress, Trump attacked the other Democratic leader, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, portraying him as a sore loser in a tweet and reportedly calling him a “nasty son of a bitch” at a lunch meeting with reporters.
But that didn't stop the president from making soaring promises of bipartisanship and unity in a nearly 90-minute speech Tuesday night that was not just jarring in comparison to Trump's usual tone but also in how divorced the optimism was from reality. Pelosi — seemingly nonplussed at times — sat just behind the president as he delivered his speech.
“The agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda,” Trump said in his first address to Congress under a divided government. “It is the agenda of the American people.”
“Victory is not winning for our party,” he went on to say. “Victory is winning for our country.”
The president went from the central focus of his speech, funding for the border wall — a highly divisive issue that lead to the longest government shutdown in history — to more bipartisan issues like infrastructure and prescription drug pricing. With another possible government shutdown looming, Trump continued to dig his heels in when talking about immigration and wall funding minutes after bringing up the need “break decades of political stalemate,” “bridge old divisions,” and “heal old wounds.”
“But we must reject the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution — and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise, and the common good,” Trump said to applause and some smirking from lawmakers in the audience.
Similar to his previous addresses to Congress, Trump stuck to his carefully crafted prepared remarks, which lawmakers from both parties know won’t always match up with the president’s daily remarks or his tone at the negotiating table.
A former White House official acknowledged the short-term tone Trump adopts during such addresses. “It’s one thing to say it from a prompter,” the official told BuzzFeed News, “it’s another to hold true to that line in the coming days with the Breitbarts of the world breathing down his neck.”
The president stopped short of bypassing Congress and declaring a national emergency for border wall funding, as he had teased and Republicans had feared. Calling it an “urgent national crisis,” Trump said lawmakers had a “moral duty to create an immigration system that protects the lives and jobs of our citizens,” as Democrats began to groan and Pelosi raised her hand to try to maintain order among her caucus.
His wall fight has already jeopardized the rest of his agenda — it even delayed the timing of Trump’s address itself when Pelosi told him he couldn’t deliver his speech until the government reopened. The address was eventually delivered a week later with the president, who has previously described the House chamber as “majestic,” declining to take the show on the road in the form of a rally, as some advisers had suggested.
Despite his bipartisan opening, Trump also twice criticized investigations by House Democrats, who have promised to probe everything from Trump’s taxes to his Trump Tower Moscow Project. He also attacked the opposing party for stalling his nominations.
“If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn't work that way,” Trump said.
Tuesday’s State of the Union speech, which is typically used by presidents to share their vision for the country and introduce policy proposals they would like for Congress to take up, did not include much that was new, other than the location and date (Vietnam, at the end of the month) of Trump’s next meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and some emotional — unifying — moments in which Trump introduced the Holocaust survivors he brought as guests.
The president once again called on Congress to pass an infrastructure package without giving any details. Last year, Trump called for a bill that would create “at least” $1.5 trillion in new infrastructure investment — only slightly different from the $1 trillion he asked for in his first joint address before Congress. This year, Trump did not put a number on his proposal.
The president has brought up infrastructure and health care in all of his addresses, but they have seen little movement in Congress — even when both chambers were controlled by the Republican Party.
Trump did for the first time in one of these addresses, however, talk about abortion, saying “all children — born and unborn — are made in the holy image of God.” The president also went after Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, who has been under pressure to resign over a photo in a medical school yearbook that shows two men in a KKK costume and blackface on a page under Northam’s name. The photo surfaced after conservatives expressed outrage over Northam’s comments on a proposed bill in Virginia that would loosen restrictions on abortion.
“And then, we had the case of the governor of Virginia where he basically stated he would execute a baby after birth,” Trump said. “To defend the dignity of every person, I am asking the Congress to pass legislation to prohibit the late-term abortion of children who can feel pain in the mother's womb.”
In a clip that went viral last week, Northam said: “If a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen. The infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that's what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother."
Trump also took the opportunity to tout what his administration’s views as top accomplishments: improving the economy, presiding over low unemployment rates, passing criminal justice reform legislation, strengthening the military, and moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Ahead of his speech, administration officials said the president was involved in putting together the address and seemed aware of the jarring nature of the president’s expected tone.
“Well, the State of the Union,” a senior administration official told reporters, “is unlike other occasions.”