Befitting what many have called the first reality-TV presidency, President Trump’s State of the Union address was almost pre-empted by existential drama, then saved from cancellation and teased with an implausible plot twist: In the hours leading up to the speech, White House insiders indicated that Trump, the most divisive president in generations, would call for “unity.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer spoke on the Senate floor, predicting that Trump would exaggerate his record as president and that his pledges for unity amounted to little more than trick advertising.
“I see Schumer is already criticizing my State of the Union speech, even though he hasn’t seen it yet,” Trump tweeted. “He’s just upset that he didn’t win the Senate, after spending a fortune, like he thought he would. Too bad we weren’t given more credit for the Senate win by the media!”
Responded Schumer: “Thanks for watching my speech but you must have missed this line: ‘Even more empty than his policy promises are President Trump’s calls each year for unity.’”
Trump began his speech by calling on a divided Congress to govern “not as two parties, but one nation.” He continued: “The agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican agenda, or a Democrat agenda.” (Twitter has reminded the president numerous times that the name of the party is ‘Democratic,’ and ‘Democrat’ is often used as a passive-aggressive slur.)
After numerous political disasters related to his hardline immigration policy — from the Muslim ban, which resulted in a melee at airports and a stay by the courts, to his “zero tolerance” forced separations of migrant children from their parents, to his favored wall on the border with Mexico, which was denied funding by a Republican-majority Congress but resulted in him shutting down the government for nearly a month — Trump advocated “an immigration system that is safe, lawful, modern and secure.”
“There is a new opportunity in American politics, if only we have the courage together to seize it,” the president said, as the camera played across a group of female members of the House, who had dressed in white to reference the female suffragettes of yore.
“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. The decision is ours to make,” said Trump. Weeks after the president single-handedly forced a government shutdown that caused 800,000 federal workers to miss nearly two paychecks, Republicans stood and applauded, while Democrats remained stoic.
“Tonight, I ask you to choose greatness,” Trump said, before going on to make several claims that were immediately disputed by fact-checkers, from saying “We have created 5.3 million new jobs” — the actual number, dating from the beginning of Trump’s term, is 4.9 million — to calling illegal border crossings “an urgent national crisis,” when those crossings have actually been declining for decades.
But the biggest emotional manipulation in the first portion of the speech came when Trump boasted about last month’s strong job numbers, claiming it was an “economic miracle” and “the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations,” which prompted barely veiled side-eye from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — also dressed in white, seated behind the president — and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
The most bipartisan moment of the evening may have been provided when Trump said “we have more women serving in Congress than any time before.” Speaker Pelosi rose to her feet, extending her arms above Trump’s head, and Pence also rose to applaud, along with the white-clad women of Congress, who joined in a previous Trump-specific chant of “USA-USA.”
“That’s great,” said Trump. “Very great. And congratulations. That’s great.”