WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump elicited polarized reactions from members of Congress in opposing parties as he addressed charged, partisan issues like healthcare and immigration during his third State of the Union address Tuesday.
Before starting his speech, Trump rejected a handshake from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, who cleared the way for his impeachment proceedings. Republicans stood and chanted “four more years” as Trump took the podium. Democrats largely sat without clapping.
In his address to a joint session of Congress, Trump sought to take credit for what he saw were all positive improvements since he took office.
“Three years ago, we launched the great American comeback,” Trump said at the beginning of his remarks. “Tonight, I stand before you to share the incredible results.”
“I am thrilled to report to you tonight that our economy is the best it has ever been,” the president told the packed chamber. “Our military is completely rebuilt, with its power being unmatched anywhere in the world — and it is not even close. Our borders are secure. Our families are flourishing. Our values are renewed. Our pride is restored. And for all these reasons, I say to the people of our great country, and to the members of Congress before me: The State of our Union is stronger than ever before!”
The president said his administration is building “the world’s most prosperous and inclusive society — one where every citizen can join in America’s unparalleled success, and where every community can take part in America’s extraordinary rise.”
Unemployment rates for African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans have hit all-time lows under his administration, Trump claimed, and the unemployment rate for women reached its lowest level in decades.
But the address delved deeper into partisan issues at the forefront of political debates today as it progressed. Republicans grew louder in their praise of the president’s achievements as he continued, but Democrats appeared increasingly quiet and frustrated. Some even walked out.
Trump’s congressional critics booed as he promised he “will always protect your Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms” and detailed progress made on building a border wall between the United States and Mexico.
“And as the wall goes up, drug seizures rise and border crossings go down,” Trump said.
Another contentious theme of Trump’s address was healthcare. Democrats urged the president to address the issue leading up to Tuesday night.
“What he could not do even with Republican majorities in Congress, this President is now trying to do in court and with his pen: undermine and repeal the Affordable Care Act,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, said in a press conference Tuesday before the address.
“In contrast, House Democrats have passed eleven bills since last January to protect and expand access to quality, affordable healthcare and to lower prescription drug prices,” Hoyer continued. “I know that Senate Democrats would love to vote on these bills, if only Senator (Mitch) McConnell would allow them to come to the floor.”
Other Maryland lawmakers supported the campaign for Trump to make healthcare a central theme of his address.
“Lower drug costs is something we can all agree on. It’s time for the President to get on board with Democrats’ calls to let Medicare negotiate drug prices,” Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Cockeysville, tweeted before Trump’s speech.
The president promised that the government “will never let socialism destroy American healthcare” after calling out Congress members who support universal healthcare, an obvious swipe at Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.
“There are those who want to take away your healthcare, take away your doctor, and abolish private insurance entirely,” Trump said. “One hundred thirty-two lawmakers in this room have endorsed legislation to impose a socialist takeover of our healthcare system, wiping out the private health insurance plans of 180 million Americans.”
Many Democrats stood, raised three fingers and chanted “HR 3” as Trump discussed healthcare — a reference to the late Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings’ legislation to lower drug prices.
This year’s State of the Union fell in the midst of Trump’s impeachment proceedings. He’s the third U.S. president to face trial before the Senate and the second to deliver a State of the Union address before a final vote on impeachment was held. Bill Clinton’s lawyers started defending their case for acquittal hours before his 1999 speech.
Senators will vote Wednesday whether Trump is removed from office or acquitted on two impeachment articles: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who’s presiding over the Senate proceedings, sat right in front of the podium during Tuesday’s address. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, took notes as Trump spoke, much like the diligent note-taking she’s been doing as a juror in the trial.
Democrat Chris Van Hollen, who Trump called a “no-name senator from Maryland” in response to his appearance on Fox News during the impeachment trial, said the president didn’t discuss legislation like increasing the federal minimum wage and reducing the cost of prescription drugs during his address.
“He spoke in the chamber of the House of Representatives, but failed to recognize the hundreds of important bills they have passed to address the very real challenges faced by the American people,” Van Hollen said in a statement.
Gun violence was another topic Van Hollen cited as missing from Trump’s remarks, which directly impacted the senator’s guest for the address. Van Hollen invited Andrea Chamblee, the widow of the Capital Gazette journalist John McNamara, who was killed in a June 2018 newsroom attack.
Lawmakers often extend invitations to guests related to sectors of society they target in their work. So did Trump. He awarded a scholarship to a fourth-grader from Philadelphia when discussing education and reunited a sergeant deployed to Afghanistan with wife and two children when talking about U.S. military policy.
These guests received largely universal support on the House floor with standing ovations and claps coming from both sides, but some who watched the address said these surprises made the State of the Union more of a spectacle than a presidential address.
Another Trump gesture, having First Lady Melania Trump award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to controversial conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh as he stood in the gallery, drew sharp attacks on social media and network newscasts. (Limbaugh is suffering from advanced lung cancer.)
“It is in my DNA to respect the Office of the President,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, said in a statement Tuesday. “Tonight, the president tested the limits of such a perspective as he turned the State of the Union into a campaign rally, complete with cheers for his harmful immigration policies, attacks on political rivals, repeated shout-outs to conservative pet issues and made-for-TV reveals.”
At the conclusion of the address, Pelosi tore her copy of the speech before the president left the dais — a measure of the visible tension between the two leaders, who had not met or spoken in months.
“The manifesto of mistruths presented in page after page of the address tonight should be a call to action for everyone who expects truth from the president and policies worthy of his office and the American people,” she said in a statement afterward.
By contrast, Republicans attacked Pelosi for what they said was public disrespect toward the president.
GOP lawmakers in the House appeared ecstatic about Trump’s speech. Some could be overheard praising the president as they shook his hand or patted his back, one comparing him to conservative icon Ronald Reagan.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said in a statement after the address that “we know there is much more to do.”
“We need to keep working to strengthen our nation, keep socialism at bay and fight to protect the most vulnerable in our society, starting with the unborn,” said the Republican leader, who is seeking reelection this year. “So I look forward to continuing to work with President Trump on all of this. But today, with three years of major results under our belts, I couldn’t agree more with the president: The state of our union is strong.”