WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump urged Congress to provide funding for a border wall and criticized investigations of him during a State of the Union address that was also punctuated by calls for unity.
Just days after the end of the longest government shutdown in history, Trump managed to draw bipartisan applause during a handful of moments in his roughly 80-minute speech by mentioning the record number of women in Congress and paying tribute to an 81-year-old Holocaust survivor.
But much of the speech was devoted to the very issues that led to the shutdown: Trump’s demand for billions of dollars for a border wall to address what he described as an “urgent national crisis.”
“The lawless state of our southern border is a threat to the safety, security, and financial well-being of all Americans,” Trump told a House chamber filled with lawmakers, members of his Cabinet and four Supreme Court justices. “We have a moral duty to create an immigration system that protects the lives and jobs of our citizens.”
The speech was Trump’s second State of the Union address and third formal speech to Congress. But it was his first time appearing before a joint session of Congress in a new era of divided government in which Democrats now control the House.
Standing in front of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Trump made reference to the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller as well as congressional probes, saying that a thriving economy could be put at risk by “ridiculous partisan investigations.”
During the president’s remarks about border security, most Democrats remained seated and stoned-faced. Many of them sighed when Trump discussed caravans from Central America moving north to the U.S. – a symbol Trump frequently uses to warn of what he says are threats from illegal immigration.
Trump repeated his claims that a wall would sharply reduce the flow of migrants and drugs over the border, although outside experts have questioned many of Trump’s assertions about the effectiveness of a wall.
“It will get built,” Trump said. He described the wall as “a smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier – not just a simple concrete wall.”
Trump insisted that “the lawless state” of the southern border is a threat to the safety, security and financial well-being of all Americans. The U.S. has “a moral duty” to create an immigration system that protects the lives and jobs of American citizens, he said.
Illegal border crossings are, in fact, far lower than they were even a decade ago, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data. Border patrol agents apprehended just under 304,000 people attempting to cross the southwest border in 2017, down from about 859,000 in 2007 and more than a million in 2006.
One of the more dramatic moments in the speech came when Trump mentioned women getting the right to vote a century ago and the fact that currently the United States has “more women serving in the Congress than ever before.”
Democratic women lawmakers stood up and gave high fives to one another. Both sides chanted: “USA, USA!” while one Democrat yelled, “Thank you, Nancy!”
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Politically wounded by the 35-day government shutdown, Trump laid out a vision for the second half of his term even as his domestic agenda risks being swallowed by the looming 2020 election, a growing number of investigations and a chaotic turnover of top officials in his administration.
After two years of working with a Republican-controlled Congress, Trump must contend with a Democratic House majority vehemently opposed to much of his agenda, including his proposal for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
While Trump called at several points in the speech for bipartisan cooperation, its very timing has laid bare the conflicts that have already arisen with newly empowered House Democrats. Pelosi pressed Trump to reschedule the address, originally set for Jan. 29, because of the federal shutdown.
The president initially refused, and then ultimately relented.
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Trump delivered the speech as a bipartisan group of lawmakers works against a Feb. 15 deadline to hammer out a compromise on agency funding or risk another government shutdown.
The president has described that effort as a “waste of time” and has held out the possibility of declaring a national emergency to free up funding for the wall if the congressional panel does not deliver on his demand for the barrier.
If Trump were to declare a border emergency, the move could allow him redirect billions of dollars in military construction projects. But it would also likely trigger a legal battle that could drag on in court for years.