President Donald Trump challenged Americans once again on Tuesday night to view him in a more flattering light, to assume that the partisanship and vitriol that defined his political ascension was a thing of the past and that an era of unity was in store of the future.
But beneath those softened edges in his State of the Union speech was a rigid and harsh political reality. There is no new Donald Trump. There is no era of comity around the corner. And the battles that have defined his administration over the past two years aren’t likely to be solved in the next two, despite a night of oratory dedicated to suggesting otherwise.
“[W]e must reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution — and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise and the common good,” he declared. “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.”
The speech, in short, was just a speech. Though Trump did his best—and took his time, with the address going over an hour and twenty minutes—to hit different notes.
As the president enjoined both parties to work together, many Democrats stood and applauded; at one point Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) motioned to newly-elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) to get to her feet. Later in the speech, no such instruction was needed when Trump boasted of the growing numbers of women in the workforce and in Congress, sparking raucous applause from Democrats, shouts of “USA,” and at least one attempt to raise the roof.
There was a brief, warm moment as the president spoke of the bipartisan progress on criminal justice reform, acknowledging Matthew Charles, the first beneficiary of the recently-enacted First Step Act. And there was some applause as he hit on other bipartisan touchstones, from the need to revitalize American infrastructure to his eagerness to tackle prescription drug prices.
But those policies have been pushed many times before, with limited success. And beyond those moments, there was little in Trump’s speech that could reasonably encourage those hoping for a coming era of bipartisanship. If anything, the signals were there that the same tired battles would continue unabated.
Hours before he went to the Hill, Trump sat down with anchors of the major news networks during which, according to The New York Times, he attacked Democratic lawmakers and mocked the late Senator John McCain (R-AZ) for the poor sales of his late-in-life memoir.
On Friday, senior Trump administration officials had framed the forthcoming State of the Union address as an attempt by Trump to “build new coalitions” and find “new solutions” on policy areas such as drug pricing and infrastructure. But by Tuesday afternoon, even the president’s advisers were finding it difficult to keep up the veneer of a new, gentler presidency. “Tonight, he calls for some bipartisan action,” one senior White House official told The Daily Beast, but “tomorrow, he’s back to the fight.”
During the speech, Trump did not congratulate Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on winning the gavel—an acknowledgement and courtesy that President George W. Bush had notably done when Pelosi first became speaker in 2007. He didn’t even wait for Pelosi to introduce him to the chamber—a protocol of State of the Unions past.
But beyond the style was the substance. The president didn’t hold back on demagoguing immigrants in an attempt to securing funding for a wall along the southern border, immediately conjuring images of invading caravans heading north from Mexico, drawing boos from Democrats who were quickly quieted when Pelosi motioned them to stop from behind the president’s shoulder.
“This is a smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier—not just a simple concrete wall,” Trump said, seemingly reversing a recent tweet declaring a “wall is a wall.”
Even as he spoke, America First Policies, a dark money group closely aligned to the White House, readied a new public relations push to amplify the issue. The group told The Daily Beast that it will soon unveil a ticker on its website devoted to constantly counting up “the estimated number of illegal attempted border crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border since the start of the new year.”
Trump even took the preemptive step toward demonizing congressional oversight of him and his administration, framing such investigations as incompatible with economic growth.
“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States—and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations,” Trump said. “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.”
Trump spoke far more fulsomely about long-concluded conflicts, waxing nostalgic about D-Day, than he did about the multitude of wars the U.S. is currently fighting. He offered no details of how his announced Syria withdrawal will proceed. While he held out hope for a peace accord ending the U.S. war in Afghanistan, he conceded that “we do not know whether we will achieve an agreement.”
But one of the most jarring moments came when Trump announced that he will hold a second summit at the end of the month with Kim Jong Un, and baselessly claimed that had he not been elected, the U.S. would be in “a major war” with Pyongyang.
Congress met that line with stunned silence—save for some audible expressions of disbelief from Democrats.
The president changed directions from there by ending on a moving and heartfelt tale of American soldiers liberating Jews from concentration camps and the spirit they embodied. The chamber seemed moved and applauded as such, even breaking into a happy birthday song for Judah Samet, a Holocaust survivor who lived through the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh and was there as a White House guest.
But bookending his speech with feelgood oratory did little to disguise the politically perilous position that Trump is in. His public approval ratings had fallen after a 35-day shutdown over securing money for his border wall. His ability to move any legislative agenda seems increasingly hopeless, as evidenced by the majority Democratic crowd in front of him. And though he sought to convince lawmakers that he was ready and eager to now deal, few in the crowd held out hope that a gentler, kinder president would emerge on Wednesday.
Asked what would make him more optimistic about Trump’s presidency, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) replied: “if the guy had… a total policy and personality change.”
—with additional reporting by Lachlan Markay, Asawin Suebsaeng, and Spencer Ackerman