President Trump opened his State of the Union speech Tuesday night with a plea for unity forged on common ground. By the end of his address, it was clear how little he would give up for it.
Trump said he was “extending an open hand” to opposition Democrats gathered in the chamber. By the end of the speech, it may have felt like the back of one.
The president’s tone and tempo were slowed and moderated by his use of a teleprompter, so he appeared more statesman-like than the raucous Trump seen in campaign events — and expressed in his Twitter feed — except when he adopted his rally habit of applauding for himself as the audience did.
But the prepared text that he stuck to so closely defied any notion that he was prepared to act seriously on his rhetoric about both parties working together. In the words he chose, the guests he invited and the content he emphasized, he offered up little different from the division he has sown in the year he has been president.
He made a lengthy effort to cast immigrants as criminals, emphasizing the deaths of two girls at the hands of MS-13 suspects, their sad parents standing with evident emotion in the balcony. That was misleading: Immigrants are far less apt than native-born Americans to commit crimes, statistics show.
Only later, and in notably impersonal terms, did he mention the young immigrants brought here illegally by their parents, who have been at the center of immigration battles and the recent government shutdown. He said they should be part of an immigration deal — one that would give Trump all of his major demands.
Only then did he add: “And some, I assume, are good people.”
Later in Tuesday night’s speech, attempting to advance his proposal to limit legal immigration, Trump equated other legal immigrants to terrorists and exaggerated the limited ability legal immigrants have to bring their families here.
In doing so, the president ignored the reality that terrorist acts in the United States have mostly been committed by U.S.-born men, not immigrants.
He claimed — as he has before — that the programs he wants to block allowed unvetted entries. They do not. He claimed that “a single immigrant can bring virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives” into the country. They cannot.
Trump has darkly claimed that a suspect in a New York terrorist attack brought in nearly two dozen family members — a contention he has never backed up, but alluded to again Tuesday night.
Those inaccurate statements take on extra weight in a speech as carefully vetted as a State of the Union. Unlike comments Trump might toss off in a campaign rally, these can’t be chalked up to the president speaking off the cuff.
Trump also twice wedged in references to the protests against police violence led by African American football players during the national anthem. The mentions of that racially-fraught topic drew a roar from his supporters in the House chamber, and little from the opposing side.
The fact that so much of the president’s speech was met that way — one side enthusiastic and shouting “USA!” and the other grimacing its way through — underscored both the rampant partisanship afoot in the capital and how foreign the idea of unity actually is. Statements of unity are now made because presidents are supposed to make them, not because they expect it to occur.
Trump’s strength has always been his ability to divide, not to unify. To his ardent backers, he represents something other than the typical politician — a tough, says-what-he-thinks swashbuckler who, even if he can’t make things better for them, will make them worse for those they detest. As he consistently has, he aimed Tuesday to keep those supporters happy even as he modulated his tone in hopes of making other voters calm.
The speech did include elements of conventional politics, as when Trump called for more money for the military and praised his tax plan. He made a glancing reference to protecting the practice of religion — generating a roar of approval from his side — but skipped clear of other social issues like abortion rights.
But there was no conventional ideological mooring to which he attached himself. For Trump, there never has been.
The expectation, early in Trump’s presidency, was that at some point he would tire of having the support only of a minority of the country — about 40% now — and move to the center in a quest to pick up votes. A speech to Congress is a traditional venue for such a turn, but Trump didn’t expend any energy to do so, and it seems apparent he will not.
One part of the speech might have offered an opening for that sort of outreach — Trump’s brief discussion of a plan to generate $1.5 trillion for infrastructure. But he offered no details of what exactly he wanted the plan to be, a matter of high importance when Republicans in Congress have shown themselves reluctant to take up big items without knowing exactly where Trump stands. For all the pre-speech talk of infrastructure as a major priority for the year, Trump skated past it quickly.
He made even a shorter nod to family leave, a subject dear to his daughter Ivanka; he said only that he supports it, but not what he wanted to see. Those proposals conceivably could have attracted voters, but the president did not seem interested in making the sale.
The night begged a question: Even if he wanted to, is it too late for Trump to broaden support beyond his base, to be a more engaged and inclusive president? Tuesday suggested that another casualty of the last year — one related to Trump’s poor popularity ratings — is that he is no longer believable when he veers from the narrow lane of populist division.
“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” he said after a lengthy list of injuries he said the country had suffered under the previous administration.
Five weeks later, in his first address to a joint session of Congress, Trump spoke more deliberately than that and, as he would on Tuesday, vowed to leave “the trivial fights behind us” and unify.
Within a day he was blaming Democrats for having “lost their grip on reality” and calling the Russia election investigation a “total witch hunt!” Before the week was out, he accused President Obama of “wire tapping” him in Trump Tower — an accusation he never backed up and one which energized his portion of the electorate.
“This is McCarthyism!” the president said, raising with no sense of irony the name of another politician who played Americans against one another.
Tuesday’s speech was delivered in the wake of the recent government shutdown and immediately before Washington will convulse again over issues of the budget and spending. In all of those matters, Trump and his fellow Republicans moved ahead without consulting Democrats, emboldening GOP members and irking the opposition.
Most pending matters may follow the same trajectory. But answering the fate of the young immigrants protected under the DACA program may force Trump to decide whether there is any issue over which he is willing to upset his supporters by reaching beyond them.
As Donald Trump’s presidency ends its first year and heads into a second, that is the crux: Can he grow beyond the minority of Americans who support him, if only to increase his odds of success? Or does he even care to?