One night a year, during the State of the Union address, US 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 Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, “nasty,” described former Vice-President Joe Biden as “dumb,” ripped into Senator John McCain and derided Senator 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 four 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 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 nonstarter. 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 percent 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.