WASHINGTON ― Reading off a teleprompter, Donald Trump delivered some 5,300 words of un-Donald Trumpy prose Tuesday night in his third address as president to a joint session of Congress.
“As we begin a new Congress, I stand here ready to work with you to achieve historic breakthroughs for all Americans,” Trump told members of Congress, his Cabinet, the Supreme Court and invited guests gathered in the House chamber for his State of the Union address. “Millions of our fellow citizens are watching us now, gathered in this great chamber, hoping that we will govern not as two parties but as one nation.”
The attempt to sound bipartisan and unifying, though, comes in stark contrast to his recent remarks about Democrats. Trump has called Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) a “clown.” Just last week, Trump claimed in interviews that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi opposed border security and was OK with higher crime rates.
Trump’s calls for bipartisanship also did not prevent him from hitting a pair of his favorite themes.
“If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” he said, referring to ongoing and coming probes into his relationship with Russia and his business dealings. “It just doesn’t work that way.”
Trump then referenced the elephant in the room: the recently ended and possibly returning government shutdown over his demand for a border wall that he originally promised Mexico would pay for.
“As we speak, large, organized caravans are on the march to the United States,” he said, setting up for his argument that U.S. taxpayers should spend many billions of dollars for his wall. “In the past, most of the people in this room voted for a wall ― but the proper wall never got built. I will get it built.”
Trump, as is his custom, spent much of his speech boasting of accomplishments, including taking credit for things regardless of his actual role in them.
He said the strength of the economy and low unemployment was a result of his presidency: “We have launched an unprecedented economic boom ― a boom that has rarely been seen before. There’s been nothing like it.”
In fact, the economic trend lines have been relatively constant since the end of the financial crisis in 2009. Trump similarly claimed credit for the defeat of the self-declared Islamic State terror group, even though the strategy the military has used was developed under his predecessor, Barack Obama. He further took credit for a boom in U.S. energy production, even though that trend began under President George W. Bush and continued under Obama.
In other instances, he made claims that were flat-out false or appeared to be apocryphal, adding to a running total of 4,235 such falsehoods since he took office.
In the lengthy section of the speech devoted to illegal immigration, for example, Trump repeated a claim that kidnapped women and children are being smuggled into the country by “the thousands” to be sold “into prostitution and modern-day slavery.”
Neither the White House nor the Department of Homeland Security has responded to numerous requests to provide details to support Trump’s claims on the matter.
As most presidents before him, Trump promised a number of new proposals: an initiative to eliminate the spread of AIDS, an effort to reduce drug costs and another to fight childhood cancers.
Which, if any, of Trump’s proposals advance at all beyond Tuesday night’s speech is an open question. Trump’s White House has been notoriously poor at following through on his professed initiatives.
Trump promised a $1 trillion “infrastructure” plan to rebuild the nation’s roads and bridges in his 2017 joint address to Congress five weeks after taking office and $1.5 trillion in last year’s State of the Union. No such plan ever materialized, and not a single dollar has been appropriated. (Trump again called for an infrastructure plan Tuesday night, but this time did not propose a dollar value.)
As far as reaching out to Democrats and other political critics, Trump has done that before in prepared remarks as well, only to undo it all within days or even hours with his unscripted remarks and tweets.
In 2017, after declaring that the “time for trivial fights is behind us,” Trump within a few days had attacked Obama, the Democratic leaders in both chambers of Congress, the FBI investigation into his ties to Russia and, inexplicably, the host who replaced him on “The Apprentice” television show.
Last year, after calling on “all of us to set aside our differences,” Trump a day and a half later attacked Democrats for having failed to support the tax cut legislation from months earlier and told audiences to replace them with more Republicans in the coming midterm elections.
Apart from Trump’s inability or unwillingness to stick to a message, Tuesday’s speech will also soon be overshadowed by an actual deadline with real consequences.
A temporary spending bill Trump signed on Jan. 25 expires a week from Friday, making another shutdown of a quarter of the government an imminent possibility. Last time, Senate Republicans ― who had already unanimously agreed to a short-term spending bill before Trump reneged on a commitment to sign it ― stood with Trump. After the resulting 35-day shutdown damaged their polling numbers, though, they may be less likely to go along with a second shutdown.
And looming over the entire situation is Trump’s threat to declare a “national emergency” if Congress doesn’t give him the billions he is demanding for a border wall ― a declaration he believes will permit him to divert money from other programs. But House Democrats have already indicated they are prepared to pass binding legislation disapproving of the declaration, thereby forcing Senate Republicans either to vote for a legally dubious “emergency” to build a wall most Americans oppose or to oppose Trump and anger his base of supporters.