Washington: One night a year, during the State of the Union address, President Donald Trump sets aside his affinity for combat to offer up 90 minutes of stand-up comity to a national audience.
“The agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda,” Trump said, opening his speech on a conventionally presidential note Tuesday. “It is the agenda of the American people.” A couple of hours earlier, during a private lunch with network anchors that did not stay private long, Trump called Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, “nasty,” described former Vice President Joe Biden as “dumb,” ripped into Sen. John McCain and derided Sen. Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas.”
The speech itself, embedded with patriotic language and delivered in a reassuring tone, veered between two moods — combative and conciliation — reflecting a president at a crossroads ahead of an uncertain 2019. Here are six takeaways:
HE WON’T BUDGE ON THE WALL
For more than a month, Trump has threatened to invoke a state of emergency along the southern border with Mexico in an attempt to circumvent Congress, which has refused to give him $5.7 billion (DH20.93 billion) for a border wall. But it was not until this week that Senate Republicans made it clear that diverting funding from other projects for a wall, in the name of a national emergency, was a non-starter. For the moment, Trump heeded their wishes. The emergency declaration was not among his demands for increased border security. At the weekly Republican Senate lunch held in the Capitol held a few hours before Trump’s speech, Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the majority whip, was asked about the likelihood of the president’s invoking emergency powers. Thune said he believed the president would avoid a confrontation with his own party because too many Republicans opposed it.
INVESTIGATIONS ARE BOTHERING HIM
Trump began the night by optimistically playing up “a new opportunity in American politics, if only we have the courage to seize it.” And he expressed support for a variety of popular initiatives that enjoy widespread popularity among Democrats, including new funding to eradicate Aids, a campaign to reduce childhood cancers and yet another commitment to try to fix the country’s “crumbling infrastructure.”
Then, about 15 minutes into the address, Trump hit on an issue foremost in his consciousness — the looming threat of congressional investigations into his conduct. First, he offered what amounted to a plea for the new Democratic majority in the House to avoid “ridiculous partisan investigations” and cautioned his enemies not to seek “revenge” against him.
Then came the bluntest of threats to the woman sitting behind him, Speaker Nancy Pelosi: “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way!” he said. “We must be united at home to defeat our adversaries abroad,” he said.
HE DIDN’T FORGET TO TAKE A SWIPE AT DEMOCRATS
Already facing a divided Congress, Trump has been rebuked by members of his own party in recent days over his decision to pull troops from Syria and his demands for a border wall. In response, he invoked two issues that have been used to rally divided conservatives for decades — the fights against abortion and socialism.
“There could be no greater contrast to the beautiful image of a mother holding her infant child than the chilling displays our nation saw in recent days,” he said, referring to efforts by Democrats in New York and Virginia to loosen restrictions on abortions. In recent days, Republicans on Capitol Hill have been circulating talking points urging them to highlight plans by Democrats, including freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, to increase taxes on the wealthy. “Here, in the US, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” Trump said. “America was founded on liberty and independence — and not government coercion, domination and control.”
HE TRUMPED HIS ECONOMIC ACHIEVEMENTS
Trump dedicated several minutes to listing his economic accomplishments on behalf of women as he faced row upon row of seats occupied by Democratic women wearing white, in a visual demonstration of their unprecedented power in a House run by one of their own. “No one has benefited more from our thriving economy than women, who have filled 58 per cent of the newly created jobs last year,” said Trump, who seemed genuinely surprised by the thunderous applause it evoked from women on both sides of the aisle. “You weren’t supposed to do that,” said the president, who went on to praise the record-breaking election of 117 women to Congress in 2018. That, too, garnered a hearty ovation. He has a long way to go, however. Recent polls show that large majorities of women disapprove of his performance.
THE HOUSE WAS IN ORDER
Would they boo? Hiss? Jeer?
With Democrats now in charge of the House and amid a bitter border wall battle that led to the longest government shutdown in the nation’s history, the White House was bracing for a less-than-friendly reception from those gathered in the House. Instead, the 82-minute speech was punctuated by lighthearted moments, including when lawmakers from both parties sang a spontaneous rendition of “Happy Birthday” to Judah Samet, a member of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh who survived a shooting that killed 11 people in October. Trump joked that the lawmakers wouldn’t break into song for him.
SHUTDOWN? WHAT SHUTDOWN?
Trump made no reference to the 35-day government shutdown that rocked the nation’s capital, leaving hundreds of thousands of workers without pay and freezing many government services the first month of the year. It was a notable omission from a president who had once said that he would be proud to own the shutdown — and came just 10 days before the government is set to run out of money again. Trump did note that Congress “has 10 days left to pass a bill that will fund our government, protect our homeland, and secure our southern border.” But he didn’t mention the funding deadline.
BOX: Why women in white stood up to Trump
He didn’t count on the women in white.
President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday was billed as his attempt to unify the country. But Democratic women lawmakers from the House of Representatives, many of them dressed elegantly in white to celebrate 100 years of women having the right to vote, projected a picture of calm displeasure during Trump’s speech that made clear his version of unity was not one they could accept.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful Democrat in the country, sat behind the president on the stage, wearing a white pantsuit. She shook her head or looked on disapprovingly when he challenged Democrats or laid out a dark vision of illegal immigrants assailing America.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a young social media star, looked down or away when Trump delivered comments she viewed as egregious and stared daggers at colleagues who stood and clapped.
Then the president spoke about women in the workforce, and the dynamic changed. Briefly. As he lauded the growing number of women finding jobs in the economy, the women lawmakers in white rose and cheered, apparently for themselves, for filling many of the open jobs in Congress during the congressional elections in November. “You weren’t supposed to do that,” Trump said with a smile, pointing at them and drawing laughter.
Telling them not to sit down yet because there was more good news to come, Trump went on to recognise the record number of women serving in the Capitol. They cheered some more and chanted: “USA, USA!” Republicans joined in.
It was a rare moment during the long speech, which otherwise drew mixed reactions from the audience, divided with Republicans on one side of the chamber and Democrats on the other, in a reflection of the deep partisan chasm that has characterised the country before and after Trump’s 2016 election victory.
FACT CHECK: Trump’s claims in his State of Union address
President Donald Trump laced his State of the Union speech with puffed-up numbers and partial truths Tuesday as he hailed an “economic miracle,” warned of human traffickers flooding across the border and appeared to place Afghanistan in the Middle East instead of where it is, Asia. For her part, Democrat Stacey Abrams reflected a recent and misleading talking point by her party when she slammed the Trump administration for choosing to “cage children” at the border. Here’s a look at some of the statements from State of the Union night:
MIDDLE EAST WARS
TRUMP: “Our brave troops have now been fighting in the Middle East for almost 19 years.”
THE FACTS: Trump exaggerated the length of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan began in October 2001, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The invasion of Iraq was in March 2003. The US has been at war for a bit more than 17 years. Also, he refers to fighting in the Middle East. Iraq is in the Middle East, but Afghanistan is in south and central Asia.
TRUMP, describing progress over the last two years: “Nearly 5 million Americans have been lifted off food stamps.”
THE FACTS: The number of people receiving food stamps actually hasn’t declined that much. Government data show there were 44.2 million people participating in the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program in 2016, before Trump took office. In 2018, there were 40.3 million people participating in SNAP. That’s a decline of 3.9 million, not the 5 million that Trump talked about. The number of people participating in the SNAP program peaked in 2013 and has been going down since that time. Trump’s last budget proposed cutting SNAP by $213 billion over 10 years. The administration also has been pushing to give states more flexibility in implementing the program, including tightening work requirements for recipients.
ABRAMS: “The Republican tax bill rigged the system against working people. Rather than bringing back jobs, plants are closing, layoffs are looming and wages struggle to keep pace with the actual cost of living.
THE FACTS: The economy is doing better in the wake of the Trump administration’s tax cuts than Abrams suggests. The number of people seeking unemployment benefits, a proxy for layoffs, briefly fell to a five-decade low last month. And average hourly pay is running ahead of inflation.
TRUMP: “These (border) agents will tell you where walls go up, illegal crossings go way, way down ... San Diego used to have the most illegal border crossings in our country. In response, a strong security wall was put in place. This powerful barrier almost completely ended illegal crossings ... Simply put, walls work and walls save lives.”
THE FACTS: It’s a lot more complicated than that. Yes, Border Patrol arrests in the San Diego sector plummeted 96 per cent from nearly 630,000 in 1986 to barely 26,000 in 2017, a period during which walls were built. But the crackdown pushed illegal crossings to less-patrolled and more remote Arizona deserts, where thousands died in the heat. Arrests in Tucson in 2000 nearly matched San Diego’s peak. Critics say the “water-balloon effect” — build a wall in one spot and migrants will find an opening elsewhere — undermines Trump’s argument, though proponents say it only demonstrates that walls should be extended. The Government Accountability Office reported in 2017 that the US has not developed metrics that demonstrate how barriers have contributed to border security.
TRUMP: “We recently imposed tariffs on $250 billion of Chinese goods — and now our treasury is receiving billions of dollars.”
THE FACTS: This is misleading. Yes, money from tariffs is going into the federal treasury, but it’s largely coming from US businesses and consumers. It’s not foreign countries that are paying these import taxes by cutting a check to the government.
His reference to money coming into the treasury “now” belies the fact that tariffs go back to the founding of the country. This revenue did not start with his increased tariffs on some goods from China. Tariffs did produce $41.3 billion in tax revenues in the last budget year, according to the Treasury Department. But that is a small fraction of a federal budget that exceeds $4.1 trillion. The tariffs paid by US companies also tend to result in higher prices for consumers, which is what happened for washing machines after the Trump administration imposed import taxes.
THE NAFTA DEAL
TRUMP: “Our new US-Mexico-Canada Agreement — or USMCA — will replace NAFTA and deliver for American workers: bringing back our manufacturing jobs, expanding American agriculture, protecting intellectual property, and ensuring that more cars are proudly stamped with the four beautiful words: MADE IN THE USA.”
THE FACTS: It’s unlikely to do all those things, since the new agreement largely preserves the structure and substance of NAFTA. In addition, the deal has not been ratified and its chances in Congress are uncertain. In one new feature, the deal requires that 40 per cent of cars’ contents eventually be made in countries that pay autoworkers at least $16 an hour — that is, in the United States, or Canada, but not in Mexico. It also requires Mexico to pursue an overhaul of labour law to encourage independent unions that will bargain for higher wages and better working conditions for Mexicans. Still, just before the agreement was signed, General Motors announced that it would lay off 14,000 workers and close five plants in the United States and Canada. Philip Levy, senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a trade official in Republican President George W. Bush’s White House, says: “President Trump has seriously overhyped this agreement.”
TRUMP: “Already, as a result of my administration’s efforts, in 2018 drug prices experienced their single largest decline in 46 years.”
THE FACTS: Trump is selectively citing statistics to exaggerate what seems to be a slowdown in prices. A broader look at the data shows that drug prices are still rising, but more moderately. Some independent experts say criticism from Trump and congressional Democrats may be causing pharmaceutical companies to show restraint. The Consumer Price Index for prescription drugs shows a O. 6 per cent reduction in prices in December 2018 when compared with December 2017, the biggest drop in nearly 50 years. The government index tracks a set of medications including brand drugs and generics. However, that same index showed a 1.6 per cent increase when comparing the full 12 months of 2018 with the entire previous year. “The annualised number gives you a better picture,” said economist Paul Hughes-Cromwick of Altarum, a non-profit research organisation. “It could be that something quirky happened in December.”
TRUMP: “Wages are rising at the fastest pace in decades, and growing for blue collar workers, who I promised to fight for, they’re growing faster than anyone else thought possible.”
THE FACTS: This is an unsupported statement because the data on hourly wages for private workers only go back to 2006, not decades. But data on wages for production workers date back to 1939 — and Trump’s claim appears to be unfounded. Average hourly earnings for production and non-supervisory workers are up 3.4 per cent over the past year, according to the Labor Department. Those wage gains were higher as recently as early 2009. And they were averaging roughly 4 per cent before the start of the Great Recession in late 2007. There are other ways to track wage gains — and those don’t work in Trump’s favour, either. Adjusted for inflation, median weekly wages rose just 0.6 per cent in 2018. The gains in weekly wages were 2.1 per cent in 2015.
ABRAMS, in the Democratic response: “We know bipartisanship could craft a 21st century immigration plan but this administration chooses to cage children and tear families apart.”
THE FACTS: The cages that Abrams mentions are actually chain-link fences and the Obama administration used them, too.
Children are held behind them, inside holding Border Patrol facilities, under the Trump administration. As well, Obama’s administration detained large numbers of unaccompanied children inside chain link fences in 2014. Images that circulated online of children in cages during the height of Trump’s family separations controversy were actually from 2014 when Obama was in office. Children are placed in such areas by age and sex for safety reasons and are held for up to 72 hours by the Border Patrol.
TRUMP: “In just over two years since the election, we have launched an unprecedented economic boom — a boom that has rarely been seen before. There’s been nothing like it. ... An economic miracle is taking place in the United States.”
THE FACTS: The president is vastly exaggerating what has been a mild improvement in growth and hiring. The economy is healthy but not nearly one of the best in US history.
The economy expanded at an annual rate of 3.8 per cent last spring and summer, a solid pace. But it was just the fastest in four years. In the late 1990s, growth topped 4 per cent for four straight years, a level it has not yet reached under Trump. And growth even reached 7.2 per cent in 1984.
Almost all independent economists expect slower growth this year as the effect of the Trump administration’s tax cuts fade, trade tensions and slower global growth hold back exports, and higher interest rates make it more expensive to borrow to buy cars and homes.
WOMEN IN WORKFORCE
TRUMP: “All Americans can be proud that we have more women in the workforce than ever before.”
THE FACTS: Of course, there are more women working than ever before. But that’s due to population growth — and not something that Trump can credit to any his policies. The big question is whether a greater percentage of women is working or searching for a job than at any point in history. And on this count, women have enjoyed better times. Women’s labour force participation rate right now is 57.5 per cent, according to the Labor Department. The rate has ticked up recently, but it was higher in 2012 and peaked in 2000 at roughly 60 per cent.
TRUMP: “We have unleashed a revolution in American energy — the United States is now the number one producer of oil and natural gas in the world.”
THE FACTS: True, if “we” means Trump and his recent predecessors. It’s not all to Trump’s credit. The government says the US became the world’s top natural gas producer in 2013, under Barack Obama’s administration. The US now leads the world in oil production, too, under Trump. That’s largely because of a boom in production from shale oil, which also began under Obama.