WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump called for unity Tuesday night in his State of the Union address, though the reactions in Congress showed a Washington as divided as ever.
Here are four takeaways on the speech, the reaction, and what comes next.
“Victory is not winning for our party. Victory is winning for our country,” Trump said early on, drawing bipartisan applause. The president who has proudly described himself as a counterpuncher later called for rejecting "the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution.”
But after years of slashing political attacks, personal insults and demonizing undocumented immigrants and other groups, few Democrats were willing to listen. They said it will take more than one prepared speech for that.
“Bipartisanship isn’t a word on a teleprompter; it’s a continuous approach that aspires to unity," said a statement from Rep. Bill Pascrell (D., N.J.). “After two years of uninterrupted chaos and corruption, I know better than to take at face value anything this man tells us.”
Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) said in a statement, “I am more likely to trust President Trump’s Twitter feed than Trump’s teleprompter.”
The president’s call for togetherness came in his first address to Congress since Democrats took control of the House. He faced a sea of Democratic women wearing all white in tribute to women’s suffrage activists, which created a stark visual manifestation of the backlash Trump has engendered in parts of the country. Many of them were elected in direct response to his presidency.
Behind Trump sat Nancy Pelosi, the new House speaker, who wore a poker face.
Trump did point to one major bipartisan policy deal he helped secure — a criminal sentencing reform he signed last year — but with 2020 campaigns already springing into action, he faces a short window to add further legislative achievements before he stands for reelection.
Despite his speech, there is little goodwill.
“It seems every year the president wakes up and discovers the desire for unity on the morning of the State of the Union. Then the president spends the other 364 days of the year dividing us and sowing a state of disunion,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said on the Senate floor hours before the speech.
Trump fired back on Twitter that Schumer was “just upset that he didn’t win the Senate, after spending a fortune.”
That’s the more typical exchange — and likely a hint that a change in tone is unlikely, no matter the words on one night.
The stark divides have been most recently crystallized by the 35-day shutdown that only recently ended — and that could be restarted if Congress and Trump can’t agree to a government funding deal by Feb. 15.
Trump hinted that if he can’t get the billions of dollars he wants for his promised wall along the southwestern border, he might declare a government emergency to get it done, calling undocumented immigration “an urgent national crisis.” (Though Republicans, including Sen. Pat Toomey, of Pennsylvania, have urged him not to take that step).
“I will get it built,” Trump said. “Walls work, and walls save lives.”
Trump even offered a few rare words of praise for immigrants, saying “legal immigrants enrich our nation and strengthen our society in countless ways.”
He pivoted back, however, to warning of an immigrant caravan, gang members, and blaming “criminal illegal aliens” for murders, pointing to a woman, Debra Bissell, whose parents were killed by an undocumented immigrant.
Democrats applauded Bissell, but groaned through much of the section on immigration, believing Trump has unfairly demonized a large group over a small fraction who commit serious crimes. Republicans who want to get tough at the border heartily applauded.
The issue seems no closer to a resolution.
Many Republicans wish Trump had focused more on the economy during the 2018 midterm elections. He turned his attention there Tuesday night.
“We are considered far and away the hottest economy anywhere in the world. Unemployment has reached the lowest rate in half a century,” Trump said.
Democrats point out that the economic gains began under President Barack Obama, and by some measures were stronger during the end of his tenure. And they argued that his tax bill, which the GOP credits for the economy, steered many benefits to the wealthy.
With Trump’s poll numbers and favorability ratings down, the economic gains may be his strongest path toward reelection. He put them front and center Tuesday night.
But it raised, again, the recurring question: Will he stay on message when he is not giving a scripted speech? Usually, he hasn’t.
While much of the policy was directed toward Republican applause lines — including a call to ban late-term abortions — Trump did nod to a few issues where cooperation with a Democratic House might be possible.
He called for an infrastructure program, an idea Democrats support, but offered just a few lines and no specific plan for an idea that has languished so far. He drew bipartisan cheers by calling for taking steps to reduce the price of prescription drugs, an issue also championed by many of Congress' most liberal members, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ind., Vt.). And he called for a paid leave program for new mothers.
He has mentioned all of those things before. If Trump follows through on any of them, he could deliver on some of his populist promises to struggling Americans and might find some agreement with Democrats.
As with every State of the Union, the test comes when a president has to decide whether to put muscle behind the ideas, or leave them as lines in a speech.
Amid the attempt to present a kinder, gentler Trump, there was a clear warning shot to Democrats.
“If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way!” Trump said. He even suggested that planned inquiries into the president and his administration could undermine the U.S. economy.
His words came as Democrats prepare for hearings looking into Trump’s family separation policy at the border and presidential tax returns and prepare to interview the president’s former fixer, Michael Cohen.
Those events will test how long any calls to cooperation will last.