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State Of The Union: 'Tonight, I Ask You To Choose Greatness,' Trump Says

President Trump, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Vice President Pence looking on, delivers the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday night.
Getty Images
President Trump, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Vice President Pence looking on, delivers the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday night.

Updated Wednesday at 1:05 a.m. ET

President Trump used hissecond State of the Union address to call for bipartisanship and unity, even as he remains at an impasse with Congress over immigration in the shadow of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

It was the first time Trump addressed Congress with Democrats controlling the House, though he didn't make an outright nod to the new power balance. The president also didn't mention the 35-day partial government shutdown that preceded — and had initially delayed — his annual address and made only a passing reference to another one that could happen in less than two weeks.

Instead, Trump opened by telling lawmakers he was "ready to work with you to achieve historic breakthroughs for all Americans" and by aiming to "govern not as two parties but as one nation."

"There is a new opportunity in American politics, if only we have the courage to seize it. Victory is not winning for our party. Victory is winning for our country," the president said to a standing ovation from both parties.

Trump called on Congress to "reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution — and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise and the common good."

"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," he continued. "The decision is ours to make. We must choose between greatness or gridlock, results or resistance, vision or vengeance, incredible progress or pointless destruction. Tonight, I ask you to choose greatness."

However, Trump's rhetoric throughout his presidency — and in the hours ahead of his speech — undercuts that message and could make it hard for his remarks to break through. For example, Tuesday morning the president tweeted that his administration has "sent additional military" to the Southern border. "We will build a Human Wall if necessary," Trump also said. "If we had a real Wall, this would be a non-event!" That tweet was soon followed by another that targeted the Senate's top Democrat, Chuck Schumer of New York.

And not long into his remarks, that tone of comity did fade. Trump condemned Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into his 2016 presidential campaign and whether there was any collusion with Russia — which has led to the arrests and convictions of several former aides. Trump, who has frequently called Mueller's investigation a "witch hunt," blamed it for curtailing economic progress.

"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, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., visibly reacted behind him."If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn't work that way! We must be united at home to defeat our adversaries abroad."

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, responded after Trump's speech that the president "seems to believe that because Congress must legislate, we should not investigate. Of course, the Constitution requires us to do both. That is exactly how it works."

Trump's address comes less than two weeks before another funding deadline that could result in another partial government shutdown. The president has been pessimistic about the chances that a bipartisan group of lawmakers engaged in negotiations will find a palatable solution on border security he would sign. As expected, he made immigration — and his continued argument that a Southern border wall of some type is necessary —a central part of his speech, asking Congress "to defend our very dangerous Southern border out of love and devotion to our fellow citizens and to our country."

"We have a moral duty to create an immigration system that protects the lives and jobs of our citizens. This includes our obligation to the millions of immigrants living here today, who followed the rules and respected our laws. Legal immigrants enrich our nation and strengthen our society in countless ways," Trump said. "I want people to come into our country, but they have to come in legally."

Trump said his push for a wall would be a "smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier — not just a simple concrete wall" that would "be deployed in the areas identified by border agents as having the greatest need, and as these agents will tell you, where walls go up, illegal crossings go way down."

Trump has floated declaring a national emergency as a way to build the wall, which was a key campaign promise — albeit with the caveat that Mexico would pay for it — that drew wild praise from his supporters. But even some Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have cautioned that such a declaration would be a risky strategy, drawing likely legal challenges and setting a potentially dangerous precedent for future presidents.

The president didn't reference such a declaration in his speech, but he did insist he would "get it built."

In the Democratic Spanish-language response, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra pushed back forcefully against the possibility of an emergency declaration.

"And the idea of declaring a nonexistent state of emergency on the border, in order to justify robbing funds that belong to the victims of fires, floods, hurricanes, and droughts, to pay for the wall is not only immoral, it is illegal," Becerra said. "We are ready to reject this foolish proposal in court the moment it touches the ground."

The House chamber looked quite different than in past years. Democrats have control of the House for the first time in eight years, with that success coming owing to the record number of women — most of whom wore white Tuesday night in honor of early 20th century suffragists — elected in last year's midterms.

As Trump began to tout his economic success, he noted that "no one has benefited more from our thriving economy than women, who have filled 58 percent of the new jobs created in the last year." The Democratic women began to stand and cheer, egged on by their male colleagues.

"You weren't supposed to do that," Trump quipped with a smile, though he urged them to keep standing for his next remarks: "All Americans can be proud that we have more women in the workforce than ever before — and exactly one century after Congress passed the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, we also have more women serving in Congress than ever before." That prompted even more cheering and chants of "USA!" from the female lawmakers. Ironically, it was, in large part, because of Trump and his policies that many of those Democratic women decided to run for office.

Women of Congress, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. (center), cheer after President Trump acknowledges their increased numbers in Congress, during his State of the Union speech.
J. Scott Applewhite / AP
Women of Congress, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. (center), cheer after President Trump acknowledges their increased numbers in Congress, during his State of the Union speech.

Democrats chose former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who fell short in her bid last year to become the country's first black female governor, to give their response to the president's address. She hit Trump especially hard over the prolonged partial shutdown and its effect on workers.

"Making their livelihoods a pawn for political games is a disgrace," Abrams said about affected federal workers. "The shutdown was a stunt engineered by the president of the United States, one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people — but our values."

On immigration, she acknowledged that there could be a bipartisan path forward, "but this administration chooses to cage children and tear families apart."

"Compassionate treatment at the border is not the same as open borders. President Reagan understood this. President Obama understood this. Americans understand this. And Democrats stand ready to effectively secure our ports and borders," Abrams continued. "But we must all embrace that from agriculture to health care to entrepreneurship, America is made stronger by the presence of immigrants — not walls."

After losing her race — which was marred by allegations of voter suppression — Abrams launched a voting rights group. She talked about that fight and increasing incidents of racism and white supremacy across the country.

"We fought Jim Crow with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, yet we continue to confront racism from our past and in our present — which is why we must hold everyone from the very highest offices to our own families accountable for racist words and deeds — and call racism what it is. Wrong."

In this pool image from video, Stacey Abrams delivers the Democratic Party's response to President Trump's State of the Union address Tuesday from Atlanta.
/ AP
In this pool image from video, Stacey Abrams delivers the Democratic Party's response to President Trump's State of the Union address Tuesday from Atlanta.

Trump did highlight his outreach to African-Americans at various points in his speech, including the bipartisan criminal justice bill that passed last year.

"This legislation reformed sentencing laws that have wrongly and disproportionately harmed the African-American community," Trump said. "The First Step Act gives nonviolent offenders the chance to re-enter society as productive, law-abiding citizens."

Two of the president's guests he recognized in his speech were helped by his administration's efforts around rethinking criminal justice issues, including the First Step Act: Alice Johnson, whose sentence Trump commuted last year after she had been given life in prison for being a first-time nonviolent drug offender, and Matthew Charles, who in his two decades before he was released because of the First Step Act mentored inmates and taught Bible study.

Other parts of Trump's remarks touched on the economy, foreign policy and improving America's infrastructure.

"After 24 months of rapid progress, our economy is the envy of the world, our military is the most powerful on earth, and America is winning each and every day," Trump argued.

Trump delivering his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.
Jim Young / Reuters
Trump delivering his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.

Trump has also pushed for withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria and drawing down the American military presence in Afghanistan — an idea even Republicans in the Senate have rebuffed. But on Tuesday evening he asserted that "as a candidate for president, I pledged a new approach. Great nations do not fight endless wars."

Trump also boasted of his denuclearization efforts with North Korea, claiming that "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."

"Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one. Chairman Kim and I will meet again on Feb. 27 and 28 in Vietnam," he revealed, giving dates for the summit that had been announced last month.

Trump also talked about simmering tensions with Venezuela, after the U.S. recently recognized Juan Guaidó as the country's legitimate president over authoritarian leader Nicolás Maduro.

"We stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom — and we condemn the brutality of the Maduro regime, whose socialist policies have turned that nation from being the wealthiest in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair," Trump said.

He also used that moment in the speech as a segue to a veiled attack on progressives, including self-described Democratic Socialists who were elected to Congress last year.

"Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country," Trump stated. "America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country."

Infrastructure, especially, is an issue where there could be some bipartisan agreement, and Trump toldCongress that "both parties should be able to unite for a great rebuilding of America's crumbling infrastructure." However, past efforts by the administration to highlight such efforts have often been overshadowed by controversy or other news.

Trump ended his nearly 90-minute address on an optimistic note that somewhat belied the difficulties in the coming days, especially as another partial government shutdown possibly looms — and with a message that could quickly be undercut by whatever the president decides to tweet:

"We must choose whether we are defined by our differences — or whether we dare to transcend them. We must choose whether we squander our inheritance — or whether we proudly declare that we are Americans: We do the incredible. We defy the impossible. We conquer the unknown . ... I am asking you to choose greatness. No matter the trials we face, no matter the challenges to come, we must go forward together."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.