WASHINGTON (CN) – President Donald Trump’s demands for border wall funding created political gridlock on Capitol Hill so severe that the government endured its longest shutdown in U.S. history but on Tuesday night, the president delivered his second State of the Union by urging an end to political stalemates in Washington.
“Together we can break decades of political stalemates. We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future,” Trump said Tuesday night. “The decision is ours to make.”
But some of the “wounds” are newer than others and calls for comity stand in stark contrast to the president’s vow to shut the government down again on Feb. 15 if his demands for border wall funding go unmet.
President Trump’s decision to abruptly reopen the government on Jan. 25 arrived after four weeks of steadily mounting pressure from industries as varied as the Federal Aviation Administration to the Federal Bureau of Investigation Agents Association.
The president’s approval numbers also saw a sharp decline during the shutdown.
Tuesday night’s address also marks just ten days since lawmakers and federal employees officially returned to work and according to the American Federation of Government Employees, issues from the shutdown are still lingering.
Some federal employees have received only part of the back pay they are owed – others, like federal railroad inspectors have not been paid at all. Other payroll processors have failed to make automatic deductions for employees, like court-ordered alimony and child support payments, leaving employees to unravel a maze of bureaucracy with little to no assistance from the government.
“The administration promised a prompt and orderly return to normal as soon as the shutdown was over, but unfortunately the payroll process has been slow and chaotic,” David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees said in a statement Tuesday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ultimately refused to acquiesce to the president’s demands for $5.7 billion in wall funding last month and her looming presence – she sat right over the president’s shoulder during his address – served as a stark reminder: the power dynamic in Washington is shifting.
During his last State of the Union, Republicans held a majority in the House and Senate but stinging defeats in last year’s midterms for the GOP ushered in a wave of Democratic lawmakers who stand largely opposed to the Trump administration’s most hotly-contested policies – in particular, immigration.
But the president did not appear ready to back down on the issue.
“[The goal] is to create an immigration system that is safe, lawful, modern and secure and to pursue a foreign policy that puts Americans interests first. There is a new opportunity in American politics if only we have the courage together to seize it,” Trump said.
Though he proposed implementing a “human wall” to deter illegal crossings on Twitter Tuesday afternoon, the president was mum on the suggestion during his address.
He did not elaborate Tuesday night on how a “human wall” would be enforced but the border will soon be heavily populated by U.S. forces.
The Department of Defense and the Pentagon announced this weekend that it deployed 3,750 additional U.S. forces to the border, bringing troop totals to 4,350 when active U.S. Customs and Border Protection already on the border are included. Troops will remain in the region for at least 90 days.
“Congress has 10 days left to pass a bill that will fund our government, protect our homeland and secure our very dangerous southern border. Now is the time for Congress to show the world that America is committed to ending illegal immigration and putting the ruthless coyotes, cartels and drug dealers and human traffickers out of business,” Trump said Tuesday night, repeating warnings about “large” caravans “on the march to the United States.”
Calling illegal immigration a “moral issue,” the president said his push for tougher immigration restriction stems from an “obligation to the millions of immigrants living here today who followed the rules and respected our laws.”
“Legal immigrants strengthen our society,” Trump said.
Illegal immigrants, at the very least, have strengthened the president’s own brand – more than a dozen illegal immigrants were fired from five of the president’s golf courses since December.
The president also invited a slew of guests to serve as symbols for his administration’s policies. They included Heather and Madison Armstrong and Debra Bissell, the daughter, granddaughter and great granddaughter of a Nevada couple who were murdered in their home last month by an undocumented immigrant.
“Few can understand your pain,” the president said, asking Bissell, Armstrong and others to stand for applause. “I will never forget… not one more life should be lost because the nation failed to control its very dangerous border.”
The president claimed Tuesday that crime across the U.S. was up, and in particular, crimes committed by immigrants.
But a September 2018 study by the Brennan Center for Justice found crime was actually on the decline overall.
The president also lauded U.S. economic accomplishments, touting his time in office as a major boon to the economy.
“We have created 5.3 million new jobs and added 600,000 new manufacturing jobs, which almost everyone said was impossible to do, but the fact is, we are just getting started,” Trump said.
The president failed to mention that the growth is the result of expansion that began under former President Barack Obama. Trump also failed to describe increasing wealth disparity which has steadily mounted under his administration.
According to an October 2018 Moody Investors Report, the disparity has widened since the administration moved to slash corporate tax rates.
The president also touched on public health issues Tuesday night and made a bold proclamation: the U.S. could end the spread of HIV/AIDS by 2030.
Under a 10-year strategy, health department officials would zero in on communities most severely impacted by HIV infection but further details of the plan’s were omitted Tuesday.
The goal isn’t impossible to meet but does run contrary to the administration’s existing actions.
For instance, the administration’s push to change Medicare Part D prescription rules allowed insurance companies to stop covering drugs prescribed for HIV treatment.
In a statement Tuesday by Human Rights Watch director of government affairs David Stacy, he said he fears the promise by the president to eradicate HIV/AIDS is empty.
“If this administration wants to combat the spread of HIV, they need to immediately end their efforts to cut Medicaid funding, undermine the Affordable Care Act and license discrimination against the most at-risk communities when they seek healthcare,” Stacy said.
At the time of the president’s speech, the director slot for the Office of National AIDS Policy remains vacant.
Several female Democratic lawmakers, including Speaker Pelosi, donned all white as a nod to the suffrage movement and to serve as a symbol for the preservation of women’s rights.
But women’s health was discussed only within the framework of abortion Tuesday night.
“Lawmakers cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from a mother’s womb,” Trump said.
The legislation the president referred to was a law which recently passed in New York which placed restrictions on abortions. Abortions after 24 weeks, only, are permitted and only if the fetus isn’t viable or if the mother’s own life is in jeopardy.
The president failed to make that distinction.
There was also no talk of climate change or the threat posed by global warming.
Instead, the president touted the top spot the U.S. has gained as the world’s leading crude oil exporter to cheers of “USA, USA” reverberating through the gallery.
That type of victory only comes under certain conditions, however, Trump warned.
“If there is going to be peace in legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way,” Trump said, making a thinly veiled reference to the dozens of investigations his administration now faces by both Special Counsel Robert Mueller and prosecutors in the Southern District of New York.
The State of the Union laid out few details save for one important meeting on the president’s agenda – his appointment with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un.
The president will meet with the dictator on Feb. 27 in Vietnam, he said.
Following the president’s address, Stacey Abrams, who lost her campaign for the Georgia governorship last year, delivered the Democratic response to the State of the Union.
As the first black woman to deliver the formal response, Abrams offered a cutting rebuke of the president’s claims of broad economic growth and social uplift.
“In Georgia and around the country people are striving for a middle class where a salary truly equals economic security,” Abrams said. “But instead, families’ hopes are being crushed by Republican leadership that ignores real life or just doesn’t understand it.”
Recounting her own working-class upbringing, Abrams called out the president directly, saying the shutdown was a “stunt.”
“We may come from different sides of the political aisle, but our joint commitment to the ideals of this nation cannot be negotiable,” Abrams said.
Abrams also called for accountability from political leaders on issues involving race and women’s rights.
“We must hold our own families accountable for racist words and deeds and call racism what it is – wrong,” Abrams said.
The onetime candidate for Georgia’s governorship also mentioned another subject altogether ignored during the president’s address: voter suppression.
“Let’s be clear, voter suppression is real. From making it harder to stay on the rolls, from moving polling places, to objecting lawful ballots, we can no longer ignore these threats to democracy,” Abrams said.
And in her most direct rebuke of the president’s immigration policy, Abrams said: “America is made stronger by the presence of immigrants, not walls.”