WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump in his first State of the Union address on Tuesday called for unity and common ground, promising to extend “an open hand” to Democrats and Republicans in the name of a “new American moment.”
“I am extending an open hand to work with members of both parties, Democrats and Republicans, to protect our citizens, of every background, color, and creed,” Trump said in a more than hour-long speech delivered before a joint session of Congress.
Trump offered a conciliatory, upbeat prime time address, in a departure from his 140-word tweets often aimed at criticizing political foes and critics. “Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people . . . we were elected to serve,” Trump said,
The president, looking to move his second-year agenda through Congress against the backdrop of a critical midterm election season, called on lawmakers to work with his administration on immigration reform, passing a massive infrastructure plan and keeping the country safe from foreign threats with a demand to “modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal.”
Trump also vowed to keep open the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, reversing an Obama administration pledge to shut down the facility where hundreds of terrorism suspects have been held since the 9/11 terror attacks.
“I just signed an order directing Secretary Mattis . . . to re-examine our military detention policy and to keep open the detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay,” Trump said pointing to Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Midway through his speech, Trump acknowledged the parents of two Long Island teenagers bludgeoned to death in 2016 by alleged MS-13 gang members, using the story of Nisa Mickens, 15, and Kayla Cuevas, 16, to introduce his immigration reform proposals.
Nisa’s parents, Elizabeth Alvarado and Rob Mickens and Kayla’s parents, Evelyn Rodriguez and Freddy Cuevas, were among 15 honorees invited by the White House to sit with First Lady Melania Trump.
With the teary-eyed parents watching, Trump urged Congress to pass what he called “a down the middle compromise” immigration plan which would provide a path to citizenship to 1.8 million so-called Dreamers — young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as minors — in exchange for $20 billion in border wall funding and an overhaul of the country’s diversity-based visa programs.
The proposal comes as lawmakers continue to negotiate an immigration deal aimed at saving the soon to expire Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that provides temporary legal status to thousands of Dreamers.
In another nod to Long Island, Trump recognized Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Celestino Martinez, who the president credited with commanding an operation “to track down gang members on Long Island” that led to several arrests.
Trump also used the speech to build support for his $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan that he hopes to push through Congress this year, telling lawmakers: “I am asking both parties to come together to give us the safe, fast, reliable, and modern infrastructure our economy needs and our people deserve.”
“We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways all across our land, and we will do it with American heart, American hands, and American grit,” Trump said.
The president has floated a plan that calls for $200 billion in federal spending over the next decade, with local governments and public-private partnerships making up the difference. The structure is opposed by Democrats, who argue in part that cash-strapped municipalities may not be able to shoulder the costs of such partnerships.
The speech served as a victory lap for the president who touted his recently passed tax reform plan and a slew of deregulation measures approved by his administration that are favored by business groups
“Since we passed tax cuts, roughly 3 million workers have already gotten tax cut bonuses, many of them thousands of dollars per worker,” Trump said, referring to several corporations including Walmart, Disney and Boeing who have recently announced bonuses for their employees.
Some economic experts have pushed back on the president’s favorable assessment of the tax plan — a report released last week by Moody’s, one of the nation’s largest credit rating agencies, said “much of the tax cut for individuals will go to high earners, who are less likely to spend it on current consumption.”
The president, in speaking about his foreign policy agenda, took aim at North Korea, saying its “reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland.”
“We are waging a campaign of maximum pressure to prevent that from ever happening,” Trump said. “Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation. I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this very dangerous position.”
With Republicans in control of Congress, Trump enjoyed a friendly audience who punctuated his speech with applause and standing ovations, but several Democrats staged symbolic protests. A coalition of women lawmakers wore all-black in solidarity with the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault, and several Democratic lawmakers, including House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, invited Dreamers as their guests to draw attention to the immigration program set to expire in March.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), invited Carmen Yulín Cruz the mayor of San Juan, P.R., who has been critical of the Trump administration’s response to recovery efforts on the hurricane ravaged island.
Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) delivered the Democratic party’s response to Trump’s speech, casting the commander in chief in prepared remarks as a bully presiding over a “fractured country.”
It would be easy to dismiss the past year as chaos. Partisanship. Politics. But it’s far bigger than that,” Kennedy said. “This administration isn’t just targeting the laws that protect us – they are targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection.”
Kennedy added: “Bullies may land a punch. They might leave a mark. But they have never, not once, in the history of our United States, managed to match the strength and spirit of a people united in defense of their future.”