President Trump faced down the Democrats who impeached him in his annual State of the Union address Tuesday night, declaring on the eve of his acquittal in the Senate that he can’t be deterred from leading a “great American comeback” for the middle class.
“In just three short years, we have shattered the mentality of American decline and we have rejected the downsizing of America’s destiny,” Mr. Trump said. “We are moving forward at a pace that was unimaginable just a short time ago, and we are never going back.”
Striding triumphantly into the House chamber that was the scene of his impeachment seven weeks ago, Mr. Trump mounted the speaker’s rostrum for a dramatic encounter with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who led the failed effort to remove him from office.
The highly anticipated encounter between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Pelosi was chilly, with the president ignoring her handshake offer. Mr. Trump turned away from her after presenting a copy of his speech, and Mrs. Pelosi was left with an awkward expression and an outstretched hand.
The two hadn’t spoken since they traded insults at a testy White House meeting in mid-October and she walked out.
After Mr. Trump finished his speech, Mrs. Pelosi ripped up pages from her copy of the speech deliberately and tossed the pile of shredded paper onto the rostrum.
Mrs. Pelosi also had skipped the traditional announcement that it was her “high honor and distinct pleasure” to introduce the president at the start of his speech.
The San Francisco Democrat sat expressionless or with a bemused smile for most of the president’s remarks, which emphasized America’s economic revival, and said his policies are producing the strongest results for families on the lower end of the income scale.
The speech also featured a string of surprises, with Mr. Trump handing out a medal to his favorite radio host, announcing an opportunity scholarship to Philadelphia fourth-grader Janiyah Davis, and shocking the family of a returning U.S. soldier from his mission in Afghanistan.
The president is riding a string of policy and political victories, including trade deals with China, Mexico and Canada, and the targeted killing of Iranian terrorist Qassem Soleimani.
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He also vowed to expand on his agenda of cutting taxes and reducing regulations that has contributed to a historically low unemployment rate of 3.5%, solid growth and record-breaking stock markets.
“We are building the world’s most prosperous and inclusive society – one where every citizen can join in America’s unparalleled success, and where every community can take part in America’s extraordinary rise,” Mr. Trump said.
The president’s speech focused on five broad areas: improving the standard of living for blue-collar workers, supporting working families, lowering health care costs, tightening immigration and beefing up national security. He emphasized the gains for the middle class under his economic leadership, with wages rising fastest for lower-income groups.
He rattled off statistics that are familiar to supporters at his trademark rallies pointing to “all-time low” unemployment for blacks, for disabled persons and for people without college degrees.
“This is a blue-collar boom,” Mr. Trump said.
Mr. Trump did not outline a plan to reduce gun violence but did ensure supporters he will protect their Second Amendment rights to bear arms. He said he’ll try to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, launch a mission to Mars and has more Supreme Court picks “in the pipeline,” indicating a belief that some justices will retire or die before his time in office is over.
The speech was punctuated by chants of “four more years” on the GOP side of the chamber.
Among the traditional guests of the president and first lady seated in the House gallery was a last-minute surprise: broadcast legend Rush Limbaugh, who revealed this week that he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.
Mr. Trump thanked him for his “tireless decades of tireless devotion to our country” and astonished everyone by awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom on the spot. Mr. Limbaugh looked stunned and wiped his eyes as first lady Melania Trump, dressed in black, wrapped the medal around his neck.
Democrats weren’t impressed by the move, though Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a centrist from Arizona, clapped softly.
Mr. Trump also highlighted the widow and son of Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Hake, who was killed in Baghdad when his combat vehicle was hit by the type of roadside bomb crafted by Soleimani, the Iranian general who’s now dead.
Kelli Hake tearfully acknowledged applause from the gallery alongside 13-year-old Chris.
“Our message to the terrorists is clear: You will never escape American justice. If you attack our citizens, you forfeit your life,” Mr. Trump said.
He raised a previous operation that killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by pointing out Carl and Marsha Mueller, whose daughter Kayla was kidnapped and killed by the militant group in 2013 while serving as a humanitarian worker in Syria.
Amid solemn interludes, Mr. Trump largely delivered on the upbeat tone the White House promised, even as Mr. Trump staves off impeachment with the help of loyal Senate Republicans.
The president never mentioned his impeachment. But he did urge lawmakers to “never forget that the only victories that matter in Washington are victories that deliver for the American people.”
“The people are the heart of our country, their dreams are the soul of our country, and their love is what powers and sustains our country,” Mr. Trump said. “We must always remember that our job is to put America first.”
He spotlighted Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who pushed “opportunity zones” in the 2017 GOP tax overhaul to boost disadvantaged areas and lift up workers like Tony Rankins, a Cincinnati resident and guest of Mr. Trump who acknowledged cheers from the House gallery.
On foreign policy, Mr. Trump said he is working to wind down the long-running war in Afghanistan and will rebuff “socialist dictators” like strongman Nicolas Maduro, “a tyrant who brutalizes” the Venezuelan people.
Mr. Trump highlighted special guest Juan Guaido, the opposition leader the U.S. and other nations recognize as the rightful leaders of the South American country.
“Mr. President, please take this message back that all Americans are united with the Venezuelan people in their righteous struggle for freedom,” Mr. Trump said. Socialism destroys nations. But always remember, freedom unifies the soul.”
Mr. Trump has gone out of his way to highlight the plight of people in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, hoping to parlay it into a winning election message in key states like Florida and wield it as a cudgel a Democratic Party that’s lurched to the left.
Mr. Trump pitched his brand-new Space Force as a new branch of the military, highlighting 13-year-old Iain Lanphier, an eighth-grader from Arizona who wants to attend the Air Force Academy.
His 100-year-old great-grandfather, Charles McGee, is one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen — the first black fighter pilots — and received extended applause as he saluted from the gallery.
School choice also featured in his address, as he promoted legislation that encourages donations to provide scholarships that families could use at private or religious schools.
“The next step forward in building an inclusive society is making sure that every young American gets a great education and the opportunity to achieve the American Dream,” Mr. Trump said. “No parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school.”
The president called on Congress to help him lower health-care costs, touted his efforts to make health prices more transparent and slammed Democrats for trying to establish a single-payer, government-run health care country.
“We will never let socialism destroy American health care,” Mr. Trump said.
Yet the president also tried to align himself with provisions that were written into Obamacare.
“We will also protect patients with preexisting conditions,” Mr. Trump said, eliciting groans from the Democratic side.
The line is questionable, since Mr. Trump is rooting for a state-driven legal challenge that could upend those protections, and he cheered a House GOP bill in 2017 that would have allowed states to opt out of the protections so long as they set aside a pool of money to deal with high-risk patients.
Mrs. Pelosi tweeted before the speech, “President Trump wants you to think he’s a champion for people with pre-existing conditions. The truth? Right now, he’s asking the courts to strike down protections for the 130 million Americans with pre-existing conditions.”
House Democratic congresswomen donned white again to protest Mr. Trump and his policies that they claim disproportionately impact women on everything from health care and voting rights to his orders on immigration at the Mexican border.
Mr. Trump said he’s following through on his pledge to protect the southern border, where a “long, tall and very powerful” wall is being built.
The president also slammed “sanctuary city” policies in liberal places, saying it allowed dangerous criminals to roam free. He highlighted guest Jody Jones, whose brother Rocky was brutally murdered by an illegal immigrant who was arrested by California authorities but released under sanctuary policies. About one-third of Democrats stood to applaud Mr. Jones.
“The United States of America should be a sanctuary for law-abiding Americans, not criminal aliens,” Mr. Trump said.
The president also said unlike his predecessor, he followed through on pledges to get rid of the North American Free Trade Agreement that’s been panned by both parties since the 1990s.
“Unfair trade is perhaps the single biggest reason that I decided to run for president,” Mr. Trump said.
As Republicans told Mr. Trump he “crushed it” with a “Reaganesque” speech, Democrats said they weren’t impressed, with some dismissing the speech as a Trump campaign rally.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen the chamber so divided,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly, Virginia Democrat. “It was a shameful, destructive and divisive speech.”
“He did nothing to reach out to heal wounds he helped create, he did nothing to try to bridge divisions in the country, in fact he doubled down,” Mr. Connolly said.
While acknowledging the president highlighted a few areas of bipartisan accomplishments such as last year’s criminal-justice reform, Mr. Connolly said it was “window dressing” that misused statistics to distract from his divisive comments “demonizing immigrants.”
He said Mr. Trump’s comments about health care were an election-year appeal to his base.
“This is a campaign theme to try to persuade voters that somehow he’s running against socialists,” he said.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, Louisiana Republican, said it’s time for Mrs. Pelosi “put her political personal vendetta against President Trump on the side and work with him” on issues such as prescription drug prices and infrastructure.”
So far she hasn’t shown an interest in working with him to get those things done,” Mr. Scalise said. “But he showed tonight he’s willing to work with anybody who wants to help you to address the problems of this country.”
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Rep. Veronica Escobar of Texas gave the Democratic responses, in English and Spanish respectively.
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