WASHINGTON — In the Trump era, the State of the Union has become the one night of the year when national politics almost seem normal.
As members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, and the president assemble in the historic House chamber, playing their roles for the cameras, one can almost forget the government recently ground to a halt for a historic 35 days, at a loss of billions of dollars to the economy. Or that the president’s longtime adviser Roger Stone was indicted just last month for seeking stolen e-mails from WikiLeaks during the 2016 election. That came soon after President Trump’s onetime personal attorney, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to several federal crimes.
The State of the Union is a time when Trump takes a step back from Twitter fights and boisterous rallies and plays the part of a traditional president, surrounded by the pomp and circumstance of the House chamber. Part of that tradition has involved soberly calling for unity before the very lawmakers he, on other days, derides as “Lyin’ Ted” or “Cryin’ Chuck.”
“The time for trivial fights is behind us,” Trump said in his first address to Congress. Last year, he called in his speech for a “new American moment,” with everyone working together as one “family.” On Tuesday night, Trump asked for Democrats and Republicans to “break decades of political stalemate” and work together to fix the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, develop new therapies for childhood cancer, and lower prescription drug prices.
“We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future,” Trump said.
He ticked off a list of Congress’ greatest historical hits, including passing civil rights legislation, and challenged this Congress to “dream” bigger. “We must choose whether we are defined by our differences — or whether we dare to transcend them,” he said.
But unity — and normalcy — seem further from reach than ever. Throughout Trump’s speech, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hovered over the president’s left shoulder, a symbol of the new era of divided government the president has so far seemed loath to adapt to.
The first 35 days of this Congress were marked by the longest government shutdown in history, after Trump demanded Democrats deliver him a border wall that he had been unable to extract from a GOP-controlled Congress for two years.
Trump again reiterated his calls for a wall on the border with Mexico in his speech, a move that threatens another shutdown when funding runs out again on Feb 15. Pelosi has said she will not grant wall funding, but would consider other border security measures.
“I will get it built,” Trump vowed, as Republicans stood and applauded. “Walls work, and walls save lives.”
Trump also warned against “ridiculous partisan investigations” and threatened that no legislative compromise will be possible if House Democrats conduct rigorous oversight over the White House. “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” he said.
Video: Trump pushes on immigration
The House Ways and Means Committee holds a hearing on presidential tax returns on Thursday, suggesting “peace and legislation” is a dream that’s dead on arrival.
Throughout the relatively upbeat speech, the president highlighted the positive aspects of his record. He cited unemployment dropping to its lowest in 50 years under his tenure and even roused House Democratic women, all wearing white in honor of the suffrage movement, to stand and cheer when he praised Congress for having the most women members ever.
“Our economy is the envy of the world,” Trump said, adding that America is “winning.”
Trump also announced a second summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un later this month, and bragged that he believed America would be at war right now with North Korea if he had not been elected president, eliciting groans from Democrats in the crowd.
But twin clouds loom over this economic record.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia is expected to end soon, with a report that could be disastrous for Trump. Meanwhile, House Democrats are looking hard into other aspects of the administration, which could turn up new dirt and damage Trump’s chances ahead of the 2020 election.
Nothing spelled out the electoral peril for the president more than the Democrats sitting in the House chamber Tuesday night who are already vying to replace him in 2020. Senators Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand looked on impassively as the president derided Democrats’ views on abortion rights and suggested the party is embracing socialism. Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont mulling his own presidential bid, took notes as he spoke.
Democrats telegraphed their resistance to Trump’s policies with a retinue of guests: Pelosi brought transgender service members, gun control activists, the president of Planned Parenthood, and a host of union leaders. Senator Jeff Merkeley of Oregon brought a mother and daughter seeking asylum who had been separated from each other at the border by the Trump administration.
Despite the softer tone from the president, Democrats shrugged off the president’s calls for unity as hollow.
“It seems every year the president wakes up and discovers the desire for unity on the morning of the State of the Union,” Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said dryly from the Senate floor on Tuesday morning.
“Then the president spends the other 364 days of the year dividing us and sowing a state of disunion.”
Others, too, expressed skepticism about the call to work together. “When Donald Trump talks about compromise, what he really means is capitulation,” Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts said.Liz Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.