By Khushbu Shah
Thanks to the longest-ever partial government shutdown in U.S. history, President Donald J. Trump delivered his second State of the Union address to members of Congress a week later than expected. Earlier this month, the President told reporters the speech would focus on the theme of bipartisanship, even as the threat of another shutdown deadline looms, and just weeks after one that left more than 800,000 federal employees without pay for more than 30 days after Congress refused to support funding Trump’s $5 billion wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
He stuck to the theme of unity Tuesday night, despite the reception he faced from a sea of Congressional Democrats in the room. “The agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican Agenda or a Democrat Agenda. It is the agenda of the American People,” he insisted.
At some points, his agenda was successful — for example, he received applause from both sides of the aisle when discussing criminal justice reform, and the commutation of Alice Johnson’s sentence after a visit from Kim Kardashian West to the White House last year. Johnson had served more than 20 years of a life sentence after being convicted on charges of conspiracy to possess cocaine and attempted possession of cocaine.
"In June, I commuted Alice's sentence,” Trump said. “When I saw Alice's beautiful family greet her at the prison gates, hugging and kissing and crying and laughing, I knew I did the right thing.”
Alice Johnson attends President Trump's second State of the Union address.
And another announcement he made to the room earned additional praise from all in attendance. “We also have more women serving in the Congress than ever before," he said, as a sea of women from the House cheered one other before the chamber broke out into a chant of “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” What Trump didn’t mention, though, is most of the elected women are Democrats — 89 in all. According to Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post, the “[n]umber of Republican women serving in the House dropped after the 2018 election, from 23 to 13."
In most other instances, he visibly failed to inspire any goodwill from the Democrats. While he discussed the importance of rejecting “the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution and [embracing] the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise and the common good,” a CNN camera panned over to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who remained stoic in her seat, her mouth set in a grim line. It wasn’t the only moment where Trump would stumble, either.
“In just over two years since the election, we have launched an unprecedented economic boom — a boom that has rarely been seen before,” he said in a show of support for the common man. “We have created 5.3 million new jobs and importantly added 600,000 new manufacturing jobs — something which almost everyone said was impossible to do, but the fact is, we are just getting started. Wages are rising at the fastest pace in decades, and growing for blue collar workers, who I promised to fight for, faster than anyone else. Nearly 5 million Americans have been lifted off food stamps.”
Except the Trump Administration’s proposed amendment to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) plan would take away food stamp benefits from more than 750,000 people. And 450,000 manufacturing jobs have been added, not 600,000, according to a fact check from NBC News.
He followed this statement shortly after by declaring, “The state of our union is strong.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn’t clap.
Unsurprisingly, it was even worse when he started to discuss the impetus for the shutdown and his failed proposal for billions to fund his border wall.
“As we speak, large, organized caravans are on the march to the United States,” he said. “We have just heard that Mexican cities, in order to remove the illegal immigrants from their communities, are getting trucks and buses to bring them up to our country in areas where there is little border protection. I have ordered another 3,750 troops to our Southern Border to prepare for the tremendous onslaught. This is a moral issue. The lawless state of our Southern Border is a threat to the safety, security and financial well-being of all Americans.”
Senator Kamala Harris shook her head. Pelosi motioned for the Democrats to quiet down as murmur rose through their side of the chamber.
Vice President Mike Pence, President Donald Trump, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at Trump's second State of the Union address.
Trump has repeatedly brought up what he has called the “border crisis,” referring to it as a “national emergency,” which he referenced again in his description of the caravans. Though he claimed most people in the room supported him in building a wall, a recently-released Gallup poll revealed most Americans oppose its construction.
The end of his remarks zigzagged across themes, with unpredictable transitions between NAFTA, healthcare, paid parental leave, and late-term abortions before finally resting on North Korea, Venezuela, and ISIS. Near the end of the address, the President announced a meeting in Vietnam with Kim Jong Un at the end of February to a smattering of stilted, confused clapping from the Republican side of the room.
“If I had not been elected president of the United States,” he said, “we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea.”
In the end, before the stream-of-consciousness State of the Union concluded, there was one more unifying moment: A handful of people sang “Happy Birthday” for the 81-year-old Holocaust survivor Judah Samet.
President Trump — the same man who declared in the aftermath of 2017's "Unite the Right" white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that there were "fine people on both sides" — punctuated the celebration with a remark everyone in the room could agree with: "They wouldn't do that for me, Judah."