Trump Claims End of ‘American Decline’ While Avoiding Mention of Impeachment in State of the Union
WASHINGTON — President Trump claimed credit for a “great American comeback” in a speech to Congress on Tuesday night, boasting of a robust economy, contrasting his successes with the records of his predecessors and projecting optimism in the face of a monthslong Democratic effort to force him from office.
Mr. Trump, who lamented what he called “American carnage” when he was inaugurated in January 2017, described a different country today, declaring in his third State of the Union address that the nation’s future was once again “blazing bright.”
“In just three short years, we have shattered the mentality of American Decline and we have rejected the downsizing of America’s destiny,” Mr. Trump said in a speech that lasted 78 minutes. “We have totally rejected the downsizing. We are moving forward at a pace that was unimaginable just a short time ago, and we are never, ever going back!”
“The state of our union,” Mr. Trump declared, “is stronger than ever before.”
Welcomed by enthusiastic applause from Republican lawmakers, the president marched confidently into the same historic chamber where he was impeached 49 days earlier. Mr. Trump described the nation as enjoying what he called a “blue-collar boom,” fueled by trade agreements and his success in “restoring our nation’s manufacturing might.”
On the eve of a Senate vote expected to acquit him, Mr. Trump never mentioned the impeachment inquiry that has threatened his presidency and consumed Washington. But his interactions on Tuesday night with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who started the investigation by Democrats that has forever stained his legacy, underscored the deep bitterness between them.
As he arrived at the rostrum, Mr. Trump turned to hand copies of his speech to Ms. Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence. But when Ms. Pelosi offered her hand to shake, the president pointedly turned away without taking it.
Seated just behind the president, Ms. Pelosi grimaced and shook her head several times during his address. Moments after Mr. Trump finished and was basking in applause from Republicans, the speaker ripped up the pages of his speech, holding them high for the cameras to catch her unmistakable statement of scorn.
With the theatrical touches of a showman-turned-president, Mr. Trump surprised the wife of an Army soldier with the soldier’s return home from battle, highlighted the story of a 100-year-old Tuskegee airman and his 13-year-old great-grandson, and — in a remarkable moment — awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh, the combative conservative talk radio host and for decades a villain to the left.
Standing next to Mr. Limbaugh, who recently learned he has advanced lung cancer, Melania Trump, the first lady, draped the medal around his neck as Mr. Trump thanked him for “decades of tireless devotion to our country.”
As the president fights for a second term in an election that will require him to broaden his appeal, he boasted of increasing funding for historically black colleges and singled out several African-Americans in the House chamber for praise, a striking departure for a president who derided African nations as “shithole countries” and repeatedly criticized the city of Baltimore, represented at the time by one of the nation’s leading black politicians, Representative Elijah E. Cummings, who died last year.
At the same time, Mr. Trump used the speech as a clarion call to his most conservative supporters, prompting some Republicans in the chamber to chant, “Four more years.” The president also boasted that he was building “a long, tall and very powerful wall” across the southwestern border and vowed to oppose what he called a “socialist takeover” of the health care system by Democrats in Washington and those running to replace him in the White House.
“To those watching at home tonight, I want you to know: We will never let socialism destroy American health care!” Mr. Trump declared.
Even as he delivered his remarks, it was Democrats who were in disarray, still unable to declare a final winner in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. State officials said they expected to release more results later Tuesday evening in a botched election process that Mr. Trump was quick to mock online.
“The Democrat Caucus is an unmitigated disaster,” the president crowed on Twitter earlier in the day. “Nothing works, just like they ran the Country. Remember the 5 Billion Dollar Obamacare website, that should have cost 2% of that. The only person that can claim a very big victory in Iowa last night is ‘Trump.’”
Mr. Trump was not the first president to face his accusers even as they try to remove him from office. In 1999, President Bill Clinton delivered his State of the Union address to Congress in the middle of his impeachment trial on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from a sexual harassment lawsuit. Mr. Clinton did not mention the Senate trial, then still underway.
Like Mr. Clinton, Mr. Trump did not use the nationally televised address to reprise his daily rants about impeachment, his made on Twitter. Instead, Mr. Trump — who is infamous for his rambling, invective-filled speeches at his rallies — largely stuck to an optimistic, if not always bipartisan, script.
The president did not unveil any major new initiatives, but called on Congress to pass bills to encourage school choice, lower prescription drug prices, provide a small amount of funding for neonatal research, ban late-term abortions and work toward improving the nation’s roads, bridges and tunnels.
As he has done each year, Mr. Trump focused a large part of the speech on immigration. He called on Congress to ban “free government health care for illegal aliens” and to pass legislation allowing the victims of crimes by undocumented immigrants to sue so-called sanctuary cities.
The president described a “gruesome spree of deadly violence” by an undocumented immigrant in California and introduced the brother of one of the victims, Rocky Jones, who was shot eight times.
“Our hearts weep for your loss,” Mr. Trump told the victim’s brother, Jody Jones, “and we will not rest until you have justice.”
The title of the president’s speech was “The Great American Comeback,” a more formal slogan that combines the sentiments of “Make America Great Again,” the president’s viral phrase from the 2016 campaign, and the more recent “Keep America Great” mantra that he has used to fire up crowds at rallies.
In his speech, he bragged about significant economic successes, even “though predictions were that this could never be done.” But his boast to have added 12,000 new factories overstated his claim to delivering an economic miracle to white working-class voters in the industrial Midwest.
Employment in construction, manufacturing and mining combined grew more slowly last year than at almost any other point in the current expansion. Manufacturing employment growth slowed to less than 50,000 jobs for the year in 2019, the worst rate of his presidency and the second-worst of the long recovery from recession.
Turning to trade, he said he had succeed in revising the North American Free Trade Agreement, something supported by many Democrats as well as Republicans.
“Many politicians came and went, pledging to change or replace NAFTA, only to do absolutely nothing,” Mr. Trump said, asserting the successes without acknowledging the more nuanced reality. “But unlike so many who came before me, I keep my promises.”
In the official Democratic response to Mr. Trump’s speech, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan challenged the president’s boasts about the economy.
“It doesn’t matter what the president says about the stock market,” Ms. Whitmer said. “What matters is that millions of people struggle to get by or don’t have enough money at the end of the month after paying for transportation, student loans or prescription drugs.”
Many of the female Democratic lawmakers attending the speech were dressed in white, symbolizing the suffragist movement and women’s rights. Several Democratic lawmakers, including Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts, were not in attendance after announcing they were boycotting it.
“I will not use my presence at a state ceremony to normalize Trump’s lawless conduct & subversion of the Constitution,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.
While discussing national security, Mr. Trump celebrated in macabre terms two targeted killings he had ordered in recent months.
He hailed the October raid leading to the death of the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whom Mr. Trump called “a bloodthirsty killer” and whose demise he cast as justice for the murder of Kayla Mueller, a young American humanitarian worker kidnapped in Syria in 2013. Mr. Trump said that Ms. Mueller, whose parents he introduced, was “tortured and enslaved by ISIS” after “more than 500 horrifying days of captivity.”
The president also recalled with relish the Jan. 3 missile strike that killed the Iranian commander Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, a “ruthless butcher” who Mr. Trump said had “orchestrated the deaths of countless men, women and children.”
He cast Mr. Suleimani’s death as another act of patriotic vengeance, recalling the Iranian’s role in supplying bombs believed to have killed hundreds of American soldiers during the Iraq war, and telling the story of an American soldier, Christopher Hake, “who made the ultimate sacrifice for his country” when his Bradley vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb.
And in a brief passage noting his desire to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, Mr. Trump assured that he was “not looking to kill hundreds of thousands of people” in the country, “many of them innocent.”
The president introduced a parade of guests during his speech, including a 13-year-old boy with aspirations to join the Space Force and Charles McGee, his 100-year-old great-grandfather, one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen. Mr. Trump said he promoted Mr. McGee to brigadier general in a ceremony at the White House before the speech.
In addition to Mr. McGee, the president highlighted the story of Tony Rankins, an Army veteran who fought back from drug addiction, and Stephanie Davis, to whom he granted an Opportunity Scholarship for her fourth-grade daughter, Janiyah, to go to the school of her choice. All were African-American.
Mr. Trump also introduced the wife and son of an Army staff sergeant who died in Iraq by a roadside bomb supplied by General Suleimani.
At another point, the president singled out Juan Guaidó, the leader of Venezuela’s opposition movement, who received his most visible show of support yet from Mr. Trump: a seat in the president’s guest box for the State of the Union.
Many White House aides had hoped to have the impeachment trial behind them before Mr. Trump’s speech. But as it turned out, his third State of the Union address was part of a remarkable political collision on the calendar: He delivered the speech a day before the final impeachment vote and a day after Iowans participated in the first voting of the 2020 campaign season.
There is no question that the president will be acquitted on Wednesday by the Republican-controlled Senate, giving him the chance to claim vindication in what he views as an attempted political assassination by his enemies. But he will forever be the third impeached president in American history and only the first to ask voters for re-election after being charged with committing high crimes and misdemeanors.
Set in motion last year by Ms. Pelosi after Democrats took control of the House in 2018, the move to impeachment was directed by House managers during a two-week Senate trial. It was built on damning evidence that the president withheld security aid for Ukraine and a coveted Oval Office meeting as leverage for investigations that could damage the political fortunes of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son, Hunter Biden.
Tuesday was the second day that senators announced their judgments on the president’s behavior, delivering speeches on the Senate floor. Notable among them were the condemnations of Republicans who accepted the truth of the accusations against Mr. Trump even as they said they planned to vote to acquit him.
“The president’s behavior was shameful and wrong,” Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, said Monday night on the Senate floor even as she denounced an unfair, fiercely partisan process and announced, “I cannot vote to convict.”
Reporting was contributed by Peter Baker, Jim Tankersley, Lara Jakes, Michael Crowley and Maggie Haberman.
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